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Another interview from the Les Mis dream team!  Devin Ilaw sang “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” for his college auditions years ago and is now making his dreams come true as Marius.   His credits are vast and pretty amazing.  Most recently seen as Billy Bigelow in Baayork Lee’s all-Asian NYC concert of Carousel at Playwrights Horizons.  He has also been in Miss Saigon (Thuy), M. Butterfly (Song Liling), Pete Mills’ The Rockae (Dionysus,),Wanda’s World (Jake), The King and I (Lun Tha), and much more.

A classically trained pianist, Devin music directed the off-Broadway productions of Imelda (Pan Asian Rep) and Silver Bullet Trailer (The Ohio Theatre), as well as numerous concerts and cabarets at The Laurie Beechman, The Triad, The Duplex, Don’t Tell Mama’s, and Toshi’s Living Room.  Devin owns DCI Vocal Studio in NYC and is the co-founder of GET U. IN, a college coaching company.  And finally, he’s a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University.  Yay!

That’s quite a resume.  But hey, Devin is quite the guy.  He’s wonderful and people can’t help but sit up and notice.  I certainly couldn’t when I saw him in the touring production of the 25th Anniversary Les Miserable.  He was sublime and I’m so glad I had a chance to email him.  Enjoy!

Congrats on your very emotional, stunning role as Marius in the 25th Anniversary production of Les Mis!!!!  My first question: where can I buy your cd!?!?!?!  You have an amazing voice with so much color and tone and range!  You’ve got to be releasing one soon, right?  Right???

Haha, you are very very sweet thank you so much. Nope… no plans to make a CD anytime soon. I’ve never really given it much thought, but who knows?  My brother Brandon is a brilliant composer, musician, and singer, so maybe we’ll collaborate on an album in the future. You’re definitely planting the seed in my head… so if I make one, you’ll be the first to know!

I’ve got to ask, Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.  It’s always such a showstopper.  And Marius is so beloved as a character.  What makes him and his song so popular?  Why do you think it resonates so much with the audience?  The Pgh opening night cast went crazy after you were done!

I think there are a lot of things about Marius that we can all identify with. For one, people go about their daily lives, perhaps focused on one thing like school or work… and then BAM! You meet the man/woman of your dreams and your world is forever changed. We all know what that’s like; all of us remember those teenage years! We all can relate to how strange yet wonderful that love-at-first-sight feels when you’re young. As for “Empty Chairs”… if you’re like me, then you have a posse of friends who are your life force and your support through thick and thin. I am so blessed to have the most amazing friends who I can trust and tell everything to, and who I know will be there for me no matter what, where, or when. Imagine losing every single one of those friends. It’s terrifying. THAT is why “Empty Chairs” resonates within all of us. We all understand loss and we all grieve at one point or another in our lives. I’m glad the Pittsburgh audiences were able to go on that emotional journey with me, it’s an important part of the Les Mis story, no matter how painful, that must be told and shared.

Talk to me a bit about forming Marius.  Did you read source material, watch other interpretations?  Or did it come from the script, your director, and gut instinct?

I feel like there is a lot of Marius in the stage production that is left out in the story-telling, especially in Act I. As frustrating that can be on the surface, it can be very rewarding as an artist to work on, explore, and CREATE in the role… filling in the holes. Firstly, when in doubt, I refer back to the book. As I read sections and passages over and over again, I often find new discoveries in Victor Hugo’s phrasing and language, which I then try to interpolate into my performance. In addition to that, I grew up watching and listening to Les Mis live on stage, in concert, and on soundtracks, so those performances will forever be etched in my memory. In fact, as a teen when I saw the show on Broadway, I saw Peter Lockyer, our Valjean, as Marius and even got his autograph and took a picture with him after the show! Yeah, he wasn’t bad… haha! On top of that, I’ve done Les Mis twice before this years ago (I was in the ensemble both times) so I myself have worked with other actors in the role. I don’t think there’s a problem with being influenced by other interpretations, as long as you understand how to make the role your own and not a carbon copy of anyone else. When it comes to the actual stage production TEXT and the MUSIC, I try to stay true to what’s on the page. There’s a reason that a composer and lyricist write things a certain way, and sometimes if you just LISTEN to the orchestra and the other musical lines around you, the musical phrasing and cohesiveness will inform you on how to respond and deliver a line; you’ll find your rightful place in the musical jigsaw puzzle. As far as directors go, have such a supportive team behind us watching the show and giving us notes to make sure our performances remain as real, present, and honest as possible. So I would say forming and PERforming Marius are a combination of all of these things.

You’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of Les Mis?  What are your theories and thoughts on why this has been such a lasting show?  I mean, it’s a bit of a downer, to say the least!

Yes, there are a lot of sad moments in our show. But I think our production does a really wonderful job of bringing out the themes of REDEMPTION and HOPE that arise from tragedy. Offstage in real life, I’d like to think that I am constantly trying to be a better person, and I hope that our audience members feel the same way about themselves. That is what makes this show universal. We see the struggles Valjean as a changed man goes through to be a better person, and we see him succeed as a father and a human being… we want that growth towards the light for ourselves. We identify.

You’re a CMU grad!!!  That’s awesome!  Congrats!  I heard that you were kept pretty busy while you were in Pittsburgh.  🙂  What are some things you did, and how was it being back?

Yes, I graduated from The School of Drama in 2007 with a BFA in Acting and Music Theatre. Since graduating, I have come back twice before, once for a classmate’s wedding and the second time to play Thuy in MISS SAIGON at PCLO. I love coming back to Pittsburgh and hitting up some of my favorite old haunts, like Pamela’s! One day, I taught a song performance masterclass at CAPA HS for juniors and seniors with my castmate Jason Ostrowski, and that was just so fun. I also had the opportunity to spend an afternoon back at CMU speaking with the current senior class of actors and musical theatre students about life in NYC, the acting business, agents, touring… and it was really great because it reminded me of where I came from, how much I love my alma mater, and how I look forward to the future of my own career. My journey has been a fun and awesome one thusfar, I can’t wait to see where it takes me next. Being back was awesome, to say the least.

Touring with this production has led you to many a’different city in many a’different states!  So considering all the places you’ve been, what would you say is uniquely “Pittsburgh”?

Ah, yes… THE BURGH! Well, because I went to college here, I will always have a special place in my heart for Shadyside. I’m a foodie and there are so many tastes and flavors that make Pittsburgh special and unique to me. Harris’ Big Gay Al’s Strawberry Chipotle Wings, Pamela’s Chocolate Chip and Banana Hotcakes, The Elbow Room’s Lazy Lizards, anything from Girasole or Coffee Tree Roasters, plus a special shoutout to Lulu’s (on Craig St by CMU) Singapore Rice Noodles,  and how could I forget those margaritas and burritos at Mad Mex or the buffalo chicken pizza at Fuel and Fuddle?! This time around, I had some great meals at Meat and Potatoes downtown and Franktuary in Lawrenceville. And of course, something that is uniquely Pittsburgh is the word “yinz”! I still use it sometimes! Oh my goodness, I’m so hungry now after answering that question.

Alright, let’s switch gears a moment: You have acted in several all-Asian casts during your (very impressive) career.  So first, can you talk about your career as an Asian-American?  What sort of unique things have you run up against, if any?  Or do you think it’s all a pretty level-playing field?  And second, in the grand scheme of things, how do you feel the arts are impacted by minority groups, and minority groups are impacted by the arts?

Thanks! I’ve been very lucky and blessed throughout my acting career. Let’s hope it continues, haha! To be honest, after college, it took a couple years to break into the Asian entertainment circle. My first few jobs were non-race specific, and it wasn’t until I did Miss Saigon at PCLO and Toronto that I really was noticed and became a part of the Asian-American Broadway community. Casting-wise I definitely have had my own personal struggles professionally over the years. Although I am 100% Filipino (both my parents are immigrants, and I am a first generation Filipino-American), I have gotten feedback in the past from casting that I “don’t look Asian enough” or I’m “too mixed-looking” for certain roles, especially on television. That used to really frustrate me early in my career, but over time I have come to learn that everyone has their own insecurities about their looks and all you can do is look your best and trust your abilities and talents, and if anyone has negative opinions about your background or looks, then screw ‘em.  Be proud of your background and your heritage!

The Filipino Broadway community is a family and we are all here to love, support, and encourage one another. When there is lack of work, we make our own work. I am a part of Broadway Barkada in NYC (“barkada” sort of means “gang” or “posse” in Tagalog, the language of the Philippines) and we are always working on concerts, dance shows, cabarets, and even play and musical readings. Our culture has such a love and appreciation for the Arts, and we are ready to share our unique talents, abilities, and our voices. I also had the honor of playing Billy Bigelow in the National Asian Artists Project’s production of Carousel at Playwrights’ Horizons this past year under the direction of the legendary Baayork Lee, and I can’t wait to see what other wonderful things she and the NAAP will come up with in the future. Unfortunately, I do NOT think that the entertainment business is a level-playing field race-wise AT ALL. But what else can you do but stick to your guns, know what you do, rely on your “barkada” for support and encouragement, and bring yourself to the table? There are more and more of us on Broadway, in regional and touring productions around the US, and on television than ever before, and as a minority on the Barricade, I sincerely hope hopefully the trend of color-blind casting continues.

Les Mis is a universal, timeless story, and the more I think shows like ours embrace multi-racial casting and storytelling, the more these amazing pieces of art will be received and identified with by our audiences. The general makeup of the US right now is a colorful one, and everyone should be represented on stage, on camera, and on-screen. Let’s fill this blank canvas with color!

Love that answer!  You’re a co-founder of GET.U. IN, a college coaching company.  That’s pretty awesome!  Can you talk about the genesis of that, and what you guys are up to now?

Before I started acting, I studied classical piano since the age of seven and through high school. I will never lose those skills. When I started working as an actor after college, cast members and friends would ask me for audition coaching sessions and voice lessons because they liked my approach to singing and knew I could play piano, and before I knew it, I had a full client base in NYC.

I opened my own private singing studio about 4 years ago, and suddenly found myself also coaching many of the young child and teen actors on Broadway (Mary Poppins, Addams Family, Elf, Annie, 13, among others). Well, believe it or not, kids grow up… and eventually start preparing for college. I believe that there are so many outlets for high school kids to get help for SATs and essays and applications, but the help usually stops there… For aspiring performing artists, there are resumes, headshots, monologues, and songs to also prepare. Those high school students need help and coaching too. I didn’t have that help in high school but was lucky enough to be accepted into all my desired universities and programs, including my top choice Carnegie Mellon. Thank God those auditors saw some potential in me (for the record, I sang “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” for all my college auditions)! But not everyone is that lucky. My best friend Nic Cory is a brilliant actor and singer, a fellow CMU alum, and is also a co-author of SO YOU WANT TO BE A SUPERSTAR?. Together, we decided to start a college coaching company geared specifically for actors, musical theatre actors, and performing artists to pick up the slack where other college coaching services leave off. We’ve had great success rate over the past couple years, and are so excited to see our company grow and expand. Check us out at http://www.getuin.com/ !!!

Finally, my last question!  When you coach, what’s the number one thing you find yourself telling your students over and over again?  The best piece of advice you give them?

The best advice ever given to me that I in turn pass on to all my clients and students is: BE YOURSELF. Bring all your unique talents, abilities, “isms”, and flaws to everything you do. Always celebrate how unique and special you are, because those are the qualities that your friends, family, and your audiences will remember and come to love about the characters you create onstage and the human being you are offstage.