Meet Jhett Tolentino, the only Filipino to win a Grammy

Filipino Grammy and Tony Award winner Jhett Tolentino has made it to Hollywood

Jhett Tolentino is the only Filipino to win both Grammy and Tony Awards. Now, he’s directing his first feature film
/ 11:55 PM November 20, 2023

Filipino Grammy and Tony Award winner Jhett Tolentino has made it to Hollywood

Photo from Jhett Tolentino/Instagram

Jhett Tolentino is the only Filipino to have ever won a Grammy Award. It’s positively shocking enough to know that a Filipino has won a Grammy, but even more shocking is that not a lot of people outside the entertainment industry know who he is.

To be clear, Tolentino is not a singer. He’s not an actor or performer either—even though he’s won several Tony Awards. While most people dream of basking in the limelight as the star of the show, he takes up one of the most powerful positions behind the scenes: the role of the producer.

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Throughout his career, he’s produced 18 shows on Broadway, worked with people like Denzel Washington, Sigourney Weaver, and Jennifer Hudson to name a few. He’s also had a hand in films like “Crazy Rich Asians” and Isabel Sandoval’s “Lingua Franca.”

But all achievements aside, Tolentino comes from sincerely humble beginnings.

An unexpected start

Before the glitz and glam of Broadway and his directorial debut for the Hollywood film “Asian Persuasion,” Tolentino lived a very, very different life.


“Growing up in the slums of Iloilo, art—for us—even now, is only for rich people or people who have money.”

Tolentino grew up in Brgy. Calumpang, “the poorest part of the region.” As the youngest of four siblings, there wasn’t a lot of money to go around. He was told that he had to wait for his older siblings to finish their education before he could get started, but he fought tooth and nail for fully funded scholarships to help him finish both high school and college.

“It’s a big world out there, and I always thought that there’s something bigger than Iloilo growing up,” he said.


“Growing up in the slums of Iloilo, art—for us—even now, is only for rich people or people who have money.”

After finishing an accounting degree, Tolentino immediately got to work at a financing company as an auditor and accountant. As he climbed the corporate ladder, more and more opportunities presented themselves—this time, beyond the Philippines.

His tenure at the local financing firm led him to an opportunity in Hong Kong. He ended up working for two companies, one of which was a finance firm, and the other an American company.

It was the latter of the two companies that gave him the opportunity to work in the United States, where he moved in 2002.

He got his start in the US working for a tech store where he sold TVs and camcorders. After the company was absorbed by Radioshack in the early ’00s, he decided to move to the East Coast in pursuit of a less finance-related path.

“This is America, I can do what I want,” he realized

As luck (and lots of hard work and determination) would have it, he landed a job at a mortgage company in New York and was quickly awarded a promotion—with a matching office on the 55th floor of the Empire State Building.

Sadly, this was not meant to last. In 2008, the world experienced the most difficult financial crisis since the Great Depression. Most of the world’s economies and job markets were severely affected, and it left Tolentino without a job.

Though faced with a more than difficult situation, he made the most out of it.

“This is America, I can do what I want,” he realized

He took a gamble on a job placement agency in Manhattan where they offered him the role of an executive assistant. The position entailed being the go-to person for some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country.

“I mean it’s a job. I have to pay rent. Sure!” he said to himself after hearing the offer.

His first client was The Bernsteins—one of the most elite families in New York.

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“These people were wealthy and owned multiple homes from Easthampton, Palm Springs, and Manhattan—all the expensive zip codes. Then I became a fly on the wall; really getting into what wealthy people do with their lives.”

“But that was my day job,” he explained.

“Since I didn’t have any friends or family—I was a loner—so I went to Broadway shows at night.”

The blogger era

Where Tolentino’s story with show business really begins is in 2008. This Broadway hobby would extend his circle to include fellow musical theater enthusiasts, who he’d share drinks and meals with and “debrief” after the show of the evening.

With a growing circle and a strong opinion about what’s worth watching on Broadway, Tolentino’s friends started bugging him, asking about what shows are worth watching.

“Jhett, you’re too opinionated for words! You would be an asset to the industry. With all the shows you’ve [seen], you should do something about it,” they told him.

“I started a blog, because that was the thing then. I reviewed the shows that I watched and gained some followers—especially with the Jewish community,” Tolentino said.

“All About the Theater by Jhett Tolentino” was the name of his blog—which he started because he grew tired of repeating himself on which shows they should catch or not. The blog was a hit because he didn’t hold back on his opinions. He would critique the show point blank—and not mince any words.

A year after starting the blog, Broadway producers started taking notice. Instead of spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars for shows, the showmakers themselves would invite him to watch, which turned into invitations to events.

“I went to those parties, all dolled up—manual bowtie and all—and met the people I panned in my reviews. And it was not fun,” he remembered.

“Some of them did not have a sense of humor and verbatim said to me what I wrote about them, ‘the mediocre acting’ and all that stuff.”

It was at these events that Tolentino recognized the impact and power of his words.

“I was just trying to save my readers their time and money,” he explained. But sadly, the damage had already been done. Not long after, he shut down his review blog because of these violent reactions.

“I sort of developed a sense of trauma because I was cornered in a nice setting, just like that. And I didn’t want that to happen again.”

The curtains come up on Broadway

The unexpected end of Tolentino’s theater critic career was upsetting—to put it lightly. He had spent his time, hard-earned money, and skill to build up a blog that garnered him a reputation among Broadway’s elites, but to him, it didn’t outweigh the trauma it caused.

It wasn’t until a special woman, his former boss, came up with a solution to help him reenter the world of musical theater—but in a different way. She told him to put his finance degree and love for the theater to use by actually producing shows instead of writing about them.

“You pick the shows, and I’ll write the check,” she told him.

As a person of color in a traditionally white industry, many would assume that Tolentino would face numerous challenges. While it’s true that he did, his mindset on race and his abilities would take him the distance.

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“I never brought [any insecurities] with me. To me, we’re setting the tone. The world will give you what you give out.”

He went to board meetings with the mentality of “they’re here for the same reason as I am.” He said he never entertained inferiority and thought of himself as a minority.

“It’s you who sets the tone on how other people perceive who you are. You decide,” he confidently declared.

With a newfound confidence and the necessary financial backing, Tolentino went on to produce his first-ever Broadway show: the comedy “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” with Sigourney Weaver.

The three-act play is about three middle-aged siblings, two of which live together, and one of their lovers. It debuted on Broadway to rave reviews in 2013, which led to six Tony nominations.

“That one won a Tony [for Best Play] right off the bat.”

The next year treated Tolentino even better. In 2014, two of his shows, “A Raisin in the Sun” and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” were both nominated for two of the biggest awards in their categories, Best Revival of a Play and Best Musical.

Both shows won Tony Awards that evening, with “A Raisin in the Sun” bagging three Tony’s, including Best Revival of a Play, and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” winning four awards, including Best Musical.

“All of my 18 shows, I’ve never had a bad review with The New York Times—or even on the fence ones. As a producer, it’s a badge of honor.”

Tolentino was also a producer on the original off-Broadway run of “Here Lies Love,” though he wasn’t part of the recent transfer to Broadway.

It was only after garnering critical success in one of the most renowned stages in the world that the Philippine press started paying attention.

“[It was like they said] who the hell are you? Where did you come from? We don’t know your story, blah blah…” he recalled.

Beyond the attention from both the American and Philippine press, he’s just glad to proudly wave our flag.

“I’m just happy to represent us behind the scenes because we are represented on stage. There’s a bunch [of us] on Broadway.”

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And turn!

Broadway’s ephemerality is one of its most unique and enticing elements. But for a seasoned producer like Tolentino (having produced 18 shows in seven years), it can take a toll.

“Once you’re closed, you’re done,” he explained.

Licensing and cast albums may live on long after the show closes, but producing a live show performed in front of audiences every night can be time consuming. And unless filmed (which is a rare occurrence for a Broadway production), it only lives on stage.

“For those who trust and value my name, if they know I’m not part of a show, they don’t do it.”

The financials weren’t making much sense to him, either.

“[On Broadway] only 20 percent [of shows] make it to recoupment, and only half will make a profit.”

With costs soaring and audiences still thin as a result of the pandemic, it’s also harder for him to find investors.

“I’m an OPM—‘Other People’s Money’ kind of producer,” he explained.

“For those who trust and value my name, if they know I’m not part of a show, they don’t do it.”

With commercial success firmly in his pocket, Tolentino was looking forward to what to do next. It wasn’t until 2017 when he realized that the Broadway stage wasn’t the only entertainment business he could conquer.

That was the very same year he got the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater album.

The critically acclaimed and commercially successful musical was a defining moment in his career. He got to work with stage and screen heavyweights like Jennifer Hudson and Cynthia Erivo on the cast recording that took home the award—and only took two days.

Working on producing the album, his horizons widened. He understood that he could do more than just produce shows on Broadway.

This was also when he realized that Hollywood was closer than he thought.

Lights, camera… Action!

In 2017, Tolentino got his first taste of Hollywood’s backstage makings.

A friend called him to ask if he was familiar with the book series “Crazy Rich Asians,” which would soon be turned into a movie. His friend wanted his help to cast a Filipino in the film—with a challenge.

The clincher was that he only had 24 hours to find the right people and have them submit their auditions.

“You’re kidding me! Are you saying that someone didn’t make it or accept the offer so you go to me?” he responded to his friend. His friend assured him that this “challenge” was just to see who he could pull on such short notice.

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That evening, he and a few of his friends watched “Hamilton.” The story goes that over dinner, he asked for the help of two friends who were both in and well connected in the Philippine entertainment industry to connect him with Kris Aquino (who he was yet to be acquainted with).

The Queen of All Media swiftly responded to his messages and started blowing his phone up. This came at a fortuitous moment for her, due to desire for more roles.

Tolentino explained the process and in true Kris Aquino fashion, she responded, “Oh my gosh! I don’t do auditions.”

He then quipped that he’ll approach another prominent actress for the role instead.

And of course, she took it back.

After successfully landing Aquino a role in the film and entering a yearlong exclusive contract with her, he realized that he can expand his horizons and represent artists as well—not just produce shows.

In 2018, Tolentino got to work on another landmark film—this time, a little closer to home. He got the script for the 2019 film “Lingua Franca” by Isabel Sandoval. It was a name he was already familiar with since they were introduced in the past.

He saw promise in the film, but Sandoval confessed that they needed commercial money to get it off the ground. And as a producer, getting commercial money was Tolentino’s expertise.

“Six months laters, I got 100 percent of the commercial money for the film.”

Tolentino worked literally day and night during “Lingua Franca’s” production, since he was in the Philippines for the national tour of “M Butterfly” at the time the film was shot at night in the Philippine timezone.

To him, all the hard work and sleepless nights were worth it because the film eventually premiered at 76th Venice Film Festival.

Aside from experience, though, what Tolentino gained from the film was a true friend in the form of Sandoval.

“I would say that she’s my first creative tribe member. She’s like a unicorn and a master in her own right,” he said of the Cebuana filmmaker.

“Asian Persuasion” and his directorial debut

After years in the producer’s seat, Tolentino is now taking on a more active role in filmmaking as a director. To commemorate his 10th anniversary in the entertainment industry, he chose the film “Asian Persuasion” as his directorial debut.

The romantic comedy focuses on a down on his luck, aspiring chef (Dante Basco) who was recently divorced from his high-powered businesswoman wife (KC Concepcion). In an attempt to get him out of an unfavorable divorce agreement (an agreement he didn’t read through or consult with a lawyer), he attempts to set her up with suitors (one of which is played by Paulo Montalban) to get them to fall in love.

The film debuted at the SOHO International Festival, was featured in the San Diego Film Festival, and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Richmond International Film Festival. “Asian Persuasion” is slated to make its Philippine debut on Nov. 27.

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As a person of color working in film, he made the conscious decision to include as many underrepresented groups as possible. He hired 10 Asian women to work as department heads while also including LGBTQIA+ filmmakers in the process.

While gearing up for the film’s press conference should have been a joyous occasion, it was filled with anxiety due to the SAG-AFTRA strike. Their scheduled press conference was set to take place, but the union had not yet granted them the required interim agreement in order for the cast to appear.

Thankfully, the union sent the agreement at 3 a.m. on the day of the press conference, so the cast was allowed to promote the film.

“We gotta go with the union. We support that.”

Looking back and moving forward

There have been ups and downs in Tolentino’s life, but it seems as though the good things have more than made up for the not so great. From someone who had to fight to be educated to winning a Tony award for the first ever Broadway show he’d produced—who would then go on to be the only Filipino to win a Grammy award so far—Tolentino could be resting comfortably on his laurels.

To him, though, there’s still much work to do.

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Being met with success in the US, he wants to do the same for Filipino artists who are in the Philippines. His third career highlight (aside from his hard-won first ever Tony and the Grammy) was when he started to get calls from Filipino actors who wanted him to take them to Hollywood.

“This might be the reason I’m put in this particular spot in my life. To be the conduit to the Filipino actors—and not just any Filipino actors. Filipino actors based in the Philippines,” he reflected.

As of now, he already has a roster of Filipino actors he’s actively working with in order to make their Hollywood debut. The list includes the likes of John Arcilla, Jericho Rosales, and dozens more.

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“I really carry with me the ones in my homeland. And I take that responsibility very seriously.”

Aside from actors, Jhett Tolentino also takes up the role as an inspiration and an aspiration to many Filipino creatives who want to reach for the stars. To him, nurturing your soul as an artist is an important aspect of growing in your creativity.

“You have to give time to the calling inside your soul, because if you don’t, it’s going to catch up with you.”

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TAGS: Broadway, Filipino achievers, Grammy Award, Trending
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