Thirty-one years after her first role as Shprintze in ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ celebrated thespian Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo is still on top of her game

One would think that with over three decades worth of performing the most sought-after roles in Philippine theater, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo would be more than ready to say “so long, farewell, auf weidersehen, goodbye” to her thespian ways. But no—once a thespian, always a thespian. Lauchengco-Yulo is as busy as ever, this time dishing out suspicious-looking meat pies as the twisted Mrs. Lovett in Repertory Philippines’ production of the darkly delightful Broadway musical, “Sweeney Todd.” Yep, the talented Mrs. Yulo still has plenty of dream roles she wants to play; and she’s even taken to directing, too, with her directorial debut being last year’s production of the epic “West Side Story,” a musical she’s quite familiar with because she’s also played the role of Maria.

“I guess you know I’m old because the musicals have passed me twice already,” Lauchengco-Yulo tells HIPP, laughing. “I’ve gone from ingenue to kontrabida. I’ve done most of the musicals you can think of. Some I’ve done twice—’Sound of Music,’ I did twice. First I was Liesl, then Maria. ‘Into the Woods,’ I did twice. Even ‘Sweeney Todd’—I was Joanna in 1982 and now I’m Lovett!”

A passion-filled vocation
Hailed by critics as one of the country’s most stellar and versatile performers, Lauchengco-Yulo, 46, has clearly mastered her craft. And to have remained consistently on top all this time is just so astounding that one can’t help but ask, how does she keep the fire burning? The answer: Going all out.

“It’s the thrill of performing for a live audience,” she shares. “Basically once that curtain goes up, there’s no turning back. There’s no ‘cut’. And it’s a challenge because when you are given a role, it’s not adjusted to suit you. You have to sing it in its key, work your voice to fit the character, so there’s a lot of work that goes into it, and it’s a craft that I enjoy getting challenged by. I try to do roles that are not always the same, roles that are not me that would really stretch me. I do a lot of research and I start going to voice lessons two to six months before we even start rehearsals. I basically go through the same process every single time.”

Clearly, it is effort that’s well worth every single drop of tear. When she was in the musical “Passion”, Lauchengco-Yulo received the greatest affirmation from a fan: “Passion deals with this woman (the role I played) Fosca, who was very dark and melancholic because of all the tragedies in her life. And throughout the musical, from being a very sickly close-to-dying woman, she transforms herself into a better person because of love. And I actually received a letter, which I still have to this day, about a person on the verge of killing herself because she was so depressed. Until she saw the musical. And it’s changed her life. The fact that it made such an impact and actually saved a life, for me, was something else.”

These days, when she’s not on stage, Lauchengco-Yulo sees to it that her experience is of benefit to the younger generation of Filipino actors. “I’ve conducted a couple of acting workshops for PlayShop in Alabang,” she shares. “I’ve also held master classes in musical theater and a lot of one-on-one coaching. The thing is, I’ve had so much experience behind me that I can pinpoint what you’re doing wrong and help you work on it. Since we don’t have many performing arts schools here in the Philippines, this is one way I get to give back—by guiding the young who are especially passionate about theater.”

Menchu the Mom
Pursuing a theater career and being a hands-on parent can be quite the balancing act. With Lauchengco-Yulo, mom of two full-grown adults—Nicole, 22, and Luis, 18, her children with husband Sel, a businessman—it wasn’t any different. When the kids were younger, she says, “I had to limit it to one major production a year because it usually takes me away for two months of rehearsals plus two months of a run, every day. I didn’t get to see my kids as much. Now that they’re much older, it’s a little easier for me.”

Clearly, this was the right choice because her relationships with her kids couldn’t be any better. “With Nic, we’re like friends,” she speaks fondly of her daughter who’s away for college at the Bryn Mawr University in Philadelphia. “We go out all the time and we’re basically inseparable. She’s very open with me. Actually, both my kids I train that way—it’s a very open relationship. There’s a lot of trust involved.”

The acting genes run in the family, too—Luis is a senior at Brent International and is active in the musicals in his school. Says the doting mom, “he was even nominated for an Aliw award for Best Actor—we framed it. It was for ‘Godspell’, a school production and I was quite proud! My daughter has also done a lot of Shakespeare. She’s very passionate. She’s like my mini-me and looks like me. She was actually with me in ‘Sound of Music.’ When I played Maria, she played Liesl. She got to play the role I played years ago.”

Indeed, for a mother to see her children wanting to emulate her, and how much of an impact she’s created on their lives must be overwhelming. No applause or accolade can top that.

Published in HIPP Magazine, November 2009.
Photography by Anthony Yu.