The music of ABBA comes to The 5th Avenue Theatre in a new version of the musical Mamma Mia!, and musical director R.J. Tancioco will be at the helm of this new production about the search of one young woman for her real father. On the Greek isle of Kalokairi, fatherless Sophie prepares for her wedding and yearns for a father to walk her down the aisle – but first, she must discover who that man is.
Tancioco reports that he is excited about many things in this new remake. “This cast is exciting, thrilling to hear, and delicious to watch,” he said.
This pleasure is something that has been with Tancioco since an early age. “I was always surrounded by music throughout all my childhood,” he said. “My mom plays the piano and sings, my dad played guitar and sang.”
But it was Tancioco’s grandmother, Mama Onding, who provided his most solid foundation, with training on the piano. “I started taking lessons when I was eight years old,” he said.
Next, Tancioco started exploring the world of theatre, through a program at the Village Theatre. “I auditioned to be in a show, as an actor, when I was a junior in high school,” he said. “I got in and met a lot of kids, some I still keep in touch with today, who were into theatre as much as I was.”
And then came a pivotal moment. “The following year, the same KIDSTAGE program was looking for a student music director to work on a show,” Tancioco said. “I applied and got it.”
Throughout his youth, he continued to work as an accompanist and arranger. “As I went on to college, I kept playing for rehearsals and orchestra pits, as a keyboardist,” he said, “which led to meeting Steve Tomkins, Artistic Director, who selected me as Music Director for one of their Mainstage shows, Little Shop of Horrors, while I was still a senior in college.”
That was the beginning of an ongoing career in music direction at the Village Theatre and elsewhere around town. “After another show or two under my belt, I was hired on as the Resident Music Director, which provided me a season of work there,” he said. “That got the attention of the 5th Avenue Theatre and they selected me to music direct for them for one of their inaugural local productions, Hair. Today, I still work a lot for Village Theatre as Music Director, KIDSTAGE Instructor, and in general as a musician.”
As an instructor, Tancioco has specific advice for younger musicians who want to work in musical theatre. “My best advice is to try everything in theatre,” he said. “It’s good to know all the jobs and responsibilities that go into creating a show. And a deeper appreciation for the art form can be achieved by exposing yourself to everything in theatre. You will learn far more than you expect and actually make you to be more valuable as an artist for yourself.”
Teaching has been a big part of Tancioco’s work for the mainstage as well. “I was the Music Director for The Odyssey at Seattle Repertory Theatre for their inaugural Public Works program,” he said. “The design of the program is to create a show that integrates equity actors with the community at large to present a professionally designed show.”
This difficult assignment expanded Tancioco’s perspective. “What I found rewarding about it was that I had to renew and restart the way I approached teaching music to people who were just learning how to sing, let alone perform it,” he said. “Through patience and grace, the show was a success and to experience their growth has inspired me to believe that anything can be possible.”
The Seattle Rep production was only one of the many challenges that Tancioco has encountered in the pursuit of music direction. “I think the biggest challenge for me building a career in musical theatre is finding the discipline to feel inspired to work on different types of shows in different positions: music director, associate music director, rehearsal accompanist, musician, etc,” he said. “Some shows provide a lot of ‘artistic soul food,’ some provide a healthy paycheck, some give both at equal levels.”
Tancioco has decided to focus on the positive in every situation. “Since each show is unique, I’ve approached this challenge by remembering to be grateful for what I ‘get to’ do for a living,” he said. “When I remember that, the rest is ‘icing on the cake.’ I have found my bliss.”
But Tancioco still has some unfulfilled dreams. “I would love to music direct a production of Miss Saigon someday,” he said. “It recently closed on Broadway and will tour, so it may be some time before a regional production will be able to do it. And, for a guilty pleasure, a regional and brand new production of Wicked.”
For now, Tancioco’s focus is on Mamma Mia!. “Every show that I work on is unique, and in some way, my favorite when I am working on it,” he said.
The revisions required for this new version have made the rehearsal process more compelling. “I also have enjoyed working with the production team for the show, from creating original designs for the lights, sets, and costumes, to the fresh choreography and depth in storytelling direction in the rehearsal room,” he said. “And how can one not be excited about ABBA music?”
Mamma Mia! runs from February 2 to 25 at the 5th Avenue Theatre.