Monica Cuenco: Breakthrough star

Here is a story perfect for the celluloid: orphaned at eight, sold puto cheese and siopao on the street to survive, joined a national reality singing contest—ABS-CBN’s talent search, “Star Power: Sharon’s Search for the Next Female Pop Superstar” and placed second-runner up to Angeline Quinto, then came home to Cebu and sang her way to fend for herself.

At 20, Monica Sacay Cuenco’s inspiring story continues, and now she is set to sing these lines with such resonance in the  iconic lead role of Dorina Pineda: “Unti-unting mararating… kalangitan at bituin… “ in the staging of “Bituing Walang Ningning The Musical,” set to open in June at the Resorts World Manila.

A shy girl who grew up in the bucolic bliss of Ormoc, this Cebuana charmer shines when she does what she loves doing: singing. Give her a microphone and a stage, and she’ll transport you to a place she only knows too well, where no harsh realities of an impoverished childhood and a hard life can harm her, again.

Perhaps it’s this quintessential quality that made her bag the role of Dorina against a hundred girls shortlisted from the nationwide auditions.

Monica’s voice is sweet and sad, the timbre textured, the pitch perfect, the tone distinct and not derivative of other singers before her—and her pain—authentic and awe-inspiring.

Edd Buenaviaje

Special Thanks:
Chiqui Cartagena-Lastierre

monica cuenco


What did you have to go through to get the role of Dorina?
I underwent a screening, which took a whole day. I had been through a lot of  auditions and contests and that time “Bituing Walang Ningning” was the required audition piece that you would overhear over a hundred times from the hundred other hopefuls. Funny kaayo kay pag audition namo, everybody was humming and practicing it the whole day while I was listening to gospel songs  to keep me calm. Ingon ana gyud ko before ko mosalpak on stage or before an audition. I would prefer to listen to Christian songs to keep me calm. Makapawala sa kulba.

Walk us through the selection process. How did you find out that you got the role?
Actually, tulo gyud mi nga nakuha for the Dorina Pineda role and I was somehow guol because I thought I was the alternate. Pero when the screening was over, Boss Vic (del Rosario) approached me and said: “Yung dalawa will be your understudy. Ikaw ang magiging Dorina Pineda.“ So there, I broke down because pila gud ko ka years nag-struggle, and finally I got it. I cried because I know all the maneuverings and politics in theater and showbiz in Manila pero wala ko nawad-an og paglaum here in Cebu because open kaayo ang Cebu … silang Ate Chiqui (Lastierre) to help me. So, even if wala man gani ko’y career in Manila at least diri happy ko kay ma-share lang gihapon nako akong talent.

I was just so happy kay can you imagine from Sharon (Cuneta) to Sarah (Geronimo) and now ako nga wala pa man gani ko’y pangalan. So, mao to right after sa audition, workshop dayon. Pagka ugma, there were workshops for acting and singing. Then, preparation for promotion.

When will the musical open?
Gala night will be on June 17 at the Resorts World in Manila.

Why do you think they chose you?
I think nakita nila nga fit kaayo nako ang role because I am not different from Dorina Pineda. Dorina is a sampaguita vendor and I was a puto cheese vendor! Dorina strived hard for her dreams, ako naman as well. She is palaban. Palaban man sab ko pero there are times nga mahumok lang gyud ko most especially when it comes to family matters gyud.

Speaking about family …
I am an orphan. My dad died when I was four years old and my mom passed away in 2004. I was eight years old then.

Monica Cuenco

So, who looked after you?
When my mom passed away, gi-adopt ko sa akong auntie and nibalhin ko sa Ormoc and by 2013 I decided nga moari ko og Cebu because ganahan ko mokuyog sa akoang sister since almost 11 years mi wala nagkuyog. Lisod kaayo since wala ko’y family. I was self-financed pero proud lang gihapon ko sa akoang self because even if ako ra, naka-survive lang gihapon ko. Back then, other people would even say nga: ”Kuyawa nimo uy. If that happened to me for sure makuyapan siguro ko.” That’s because daghan ko og struggles nga naagian. Maybe it’s because strong lang gyud ko og faith sa Ginoo because bisag unsa akoang buhaton, it’s always God first.

How’s it working with professional theater artists in Manila?
Now that I am working with them, there’s just no room for mistakes kay usahay gani maguol gyud ko because first-timer baya ko sa theater and makita gyud nako nila nga they are very professional. So ako sab I have to somehow level up kay mauwaw ta, knowing nga daghan baya gyud ang nag-apas ani nga role and they might observe nga I am not suited for this, which I don’t want to happen. So, yeah, I have to work hard.

Your “Star Power” contemporaries Angeline Quinto, Kayla Rivera and Akiko Solon were given their break after the show. Did you feel left out?
There was a time nga medyo na-discourage ko, there were times nga na-question nako si God kay kahibaw baya sya what I have been through and how dedicated I am to my work. Halos dili na gani ko matulog, mura gani og mo-kwenta ko. Pero maka-ingon gyud ko nga ang realization that gipakita ni God nga what will happen if ako ang naa sa ilang pagkabutang? Maybe that time wala gihatag ni Lord nako because He knows that I was not that strong to face challenges, kanang mga intriga. Pero I am happy for them at the same time wala man ko nawad-an og pag-asa because back then I still had my gigs here in Cebu. Even in my conversations with Boss Vic (del Rosario), makaingon gyud siya nga maayo ra gyud nga wala ka nakadaug adto because if I won, dili daw ko mailaha. Blessed sab kaayo ko nga ni-trust gyud sila sa akong capabilities.

Let’s talk about singing. What was the most difficult one you’ve sung?
“Through the Rain” by Mariah Carey, kay more on diaphragm man gud na sya and the breathing as well. As in every word from that song mag apas ka pirmi sa hangin. Mao gyud na akong gikahadlokan when I joined Star Power because mao na ang gipili ni (vocal coach) Ms. Kitchie Molina nako. As in nihilak gyud ko and niingon ko na “Ms. Kitchie pwede po ba ibang song na lang po ang aking kantahin?” Pero niingon gyud siya nako nga makaya ra nako. As in, nihilak gyud ko before ko ni-perform but good nga nakaya nako.

Have you already seen the movie?
I saw the 1985 movie. Wala pa man ko matawo when the film came out. But I saw it in 2007 and makaingon gyud ko nga daghan kaayo ko nga makuhang lesson.

What’s the most challenging part of the musical for you?
Maybe it’s the scene between me and Mark Bautista because I can’t seem to have a good interaction with him. It’s awkward. They say nga naa gyud daw mi chemistry but it’s the eye-to-eye contact. Mura ko og dili makatan-aw sa iyaha face to face but I am working on it. And of course, playing Dorina as a whole because ang uban man gud taas kaayo og expectation kay it’s an iconic role. But I think kaya ra gyud nako siya because I’m not too far from Dorina because similar mi og life story.

Are you ready for that iconic confrontation scene between Dorina and Lavinia?
Andam na kaayo! Actually, Cris Villonco (who’s playing Lavinia) and I have been practicing it. You have to watch it because there’s a new twist to that scene.

What are the other projects lined up for you?
I will be recording songs. Excited ko because I will be working with songwriters who did the JaDine (James Reid and Nadine Lustre) songs, as well as other composers.

Did  bagging this project change you?
Wala ko ka-feel og anything different because I always tell myself that kung unsa ko before, I should remain the same. Until now mag-jeep ko or mag taxi, even sa Manila. Although now pakuyugan na gyud pero kung ako lang, mag MRT ko para tipid.

Monica Cuenco
So, how about your studies?
I stopped a long time ago because self-financed man ko and it’s really hard to continue my studies while working and dili baya permanent akoang mga gigs and projects. Pero given the chance to continue my studies in Manila, I would because lahi ra gyud nang naa kay diploma nga magunitan.

Name an artist that you’d like to work with?
I would love to share the stage with Miss Lea Salonga. Before, siya ra gyud akoang inspiration. I met her during Star Power days and naghilak gyud ko. Wala ko kasabot sa akoang gibati. As in, gikataw-an ko sa akong mga kauban sa Star Power.

Who is your dream leading man?
Pwede si Justin Bieber? Hahaha! Pero sa local, Coco Martin and Jericho Rosales. And if pwede, a rom-com. I think it will suit me because of my personality… despite sa situation I still  have a happy disposition.

What is that one song that speaks of you?
“Pangarap na Bituin.” Because it’s the song of my life.

TAGS: Cebuana, musical, theater
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