Justin Huertas’ musical all about Fil-Am ‘octopus-wrestling mom’
SEATTLE — Filipino American composer and actor Justin Huertas has created a new pop-rock musical about a Filipino American family whose matriarch is a wrestler of octopi from the Pacific Ocean.
For “The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion,” Huertas takes inspiration from his heritage and upbringing, blending Filipino culture and Seattle history into a “modern myth of love, family, and transformation.”
He gives an overview of the musical’s premise, “Grace competed in and won the World Octopus Wrestling Championships 18 years ago. But she didn’t release her octopus back into the water; she secretly kept it.
“Now, Grace’s daughter is coming of age, falling in love, and exhibiting strange new abilities. Meanwhile, Grace is trying to defend her family from an ocean that holds a grudge against her.”
Filipino American actor Corinna Lapid-Munter will play Grace. Other Fil-Ams in the production include actor Christian Quinto, set designer Lex Marcos and choreographer Alyza DelPan-Monley.
“I wanted to write a musical about a mom who’s also a superhero in her own right,” says Huertas. “It’s just my luck that Corinna Lapid-Munter is a musical theater actress, a mother, and a real-life superhero—she knows karate, drives a motorcycle, and has one of the most incredible singing voices in Seattle.
“She’s also Filipino like me. So in a sense, I get to write about my own mom, my own family and my own cultural experience while I invent new Seattle-based mythology.”
Huertas’s previous musicals include “Lizard Boy” (music, lyrics, book) with Seattle Repertory Theatre and “Howl’s Moving Castle (music, lyrics) with Book-it Repertory Theatre.
The musical will be staged by ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery. Musical arrangements and orchestrations are by Steven Tran. The show is helmed by ArtsWest artistic director Mathew Wright, who commissioned Huertas to create the musical.
“Mat and I have been huge fans of each other for years. For two years in a row, he commissioned me to co-curate an immersive theater experience for ArtsWest’s annual gala. Now that I think about it, that might have been my audition,” says Huertas.
“Our collaboration was so easy and yielded some pretty tremendous art, so he straight-up asked me to pitch him a musical to put in the 2018-19 Season. I sent him two pitches, and he chose the weirder one.”
Huertas wanted to create a “modern myth musical” set in Seattle and infused with its culture.
Inspired by stories he had heard as a child about a giant octopus that lived under the Narrows Bridge in Tacoma, he started researching online.
“I went down a Google rabbit hole that led me to the World Octopus Wrestling Championships. It took reading a few articles to believe it was actually real. I was so surprised I’d never heard of it until that point.”
In octopus wrestling, a diver grapples with a large octopus in shallow water and drags it to the surface. It was very popular in the 1960s and an annual championship was held in Puget Sound.
“I took what I learned of that history and put my own spin on it for this story.”
Huertas believes that fantasy and science fiction are “truly just different lenses to look at the world that’s already around us.”
“I fell in love with superheroes and sci-fi growing up because it gave me a vocabulary to think about myself and the world around.” (Huertas’ first musical “Lizard Boy” also has superhero elements.)
“‘The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion’ has magic and battles, but at its heart, it’s about a mother and daughter and about first love, which are things we all can relate to in one way or another.”
“I’m so excited about the Filipino presence in this production and in this story. The narrative centers on a Filipino family, they speak Tagalog, they eat Spam, Grace constantly asks, ‘Did you eat?’”
“It’s been a joy to bring that aspect of my identity to this musical.”
“The Last World Octopus Wrestling Champion” runs Jun. 20-Jul. 28 at ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. SW, Seattle. Visit Artswest.org.