For Filipino audiences, 'Here Lies Love' offers emotional rip currents

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For Filipino audiences, 'Here Lies Love' offers emotional rip currents
The audience during a Filipino community night performance of "Here Lies Love" at the Broadway Theater in New York, June 28, 2023. For members of the audience and the all-Filipino cast, the musical about Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos’ rise to power in the Philippines is a rare chance to commune, and revisit, together, a not-too-distant past. (Justin J. Wee/The New York Times)

by Melena Ryzik

NEW YORK, NY.- The disco balls were spinning, the club music was pulsing, and on the dance floor, several Filipino audience members were near tears.

It was a Saturday night, and at the Broadway Theater, “Here Lies Love,” a David Byrne-Fatboy Slim musical about the rise and fall of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos, the former first couple of the Philippines, was preparing for its Broadway opening July 20. In previews, it has drawn a growing stream of Filipino American theatergoers, reeled in by the chance to see their national — and in some cases, their family — history told onstage, close enough for them to literally touch.

“I’ve never been in a play where I have a personal connection” to the story, said Earl Delfin, a 35-year-old Manhattanite. “I felt represented on a New York stage for the first time.”

He got emotional in the opening scenes, he added. “And of course I danced.”

“Here Lies Love,” which opened to critical raves and sold-out crowds at the Public Theater downtown in 2013, arrives on Broadway after sojourns in London and Seattle, each time expanding its house and fine-tuning its immersive staging. But only now has it added a fully Filipino cast — the first on Broadway, organizers say. Also new are a cadre of Filipino producers, including Tony winner Lea Salonga, Pulitzer-winning writer Jose Antonio Vargas, comedian Jo Koy and Grammy-winning musician H.E.R., along with investors from Manila.

“It only felt responsible, to fully engage with the motherland,” said costume designer and creative consultant Clint Ramos, a native of Cebu, Philippines, who has worked on the show since its inception. He is now also a producer.

“Having cultural capital from the motherland, but also financial capital from the motherland, it feels like the authorship and ownership of the show are holding hands very tightly. And that’s a great feeling,” he said.

The narrative framework of the show has not changed: It still harnesses the gloss of a discotheque — as first lady, Imelda was a denizen of Studio 54 — to reflect the Marcoses’ dizzying rise to power, and the glittery allure of privilege and wealth that led the couple to spend their nation into massive debt, to live lavishly as their constituents suffered.

Arielle Jacobs, a new addition to the cast, plays Imelda, whose journey from naive beauty pageant contestant to sentimental megalomaniac — “Why Don’t You Love Me?” goes a signature song — is the focus of the story. Jose Llana reprises Ferdinand from the Public; his path from charismatic leader to presidential despot is shorter. “If they want to boo Marcos,” Llana said of audiences, “then I think I did my job right.”

There is no book; the action is driven by Byrne’s soaring tunes (with beats by Fatboy Slim) and by the exuberant choreography of Annie-B Parson, Byrne’s frequent collaborator. A DJ (Moses Villarama) acts as an emcee.

Every day, Ramos said, as the creative team worked out the massive lighting rigs and costume transitions, they also asked the question: “Are we looking at history correctly here?”

The challenge — engineered by Byrne, who hoped that the nightlife setting would give audiences a taste of the limitlessness of power — is formidable. “How do you combine joy with tragedy?” director Alex Timbers said in a joint interview with Ramos.

In place of a stage, the Broadway Theater was redesigned to create a dance club. Moving platforms carry the performers, with standing theatergoers surrounding them on the floor; catwalks bring the actors within arms reach for those seated above. The choreography encourages audience members to interact with the cast, hip-swiveling beside them in line dances, and playing the part of the faithful at political rallies — moments of civilian joy and swept-along fellowship that are broadcast on giant screens around the space, alongside darker, real news footage and transcripts.

Elizer Caballero, a fan who came from San Francisco, was practically vibrating with delight as he sang and bopped along to the score. The experience of being surrounded by the actors as they told this native story was almost surreal — he felt like part of the show — “but it’s also very poignant,” he said. “Especially for a Filipino American, it’s best to be on the floor. It adds more depth.”

An untranslated moment when Imelda curses at Ferdinand in Tagalog has gotten a more consistent laugh on Broadway than it ever did downtown, cast members said. (The production has a cultural and community liaison, Giselle Töngi, who plans Filipino community events; even on regular nights, it attracted attendees who had direct dealings with the Marcos and Aquino clans, organizers said.)

Salonga, the first Asian woman to win a Tony (in 1991, for “Miss Saigon”), is stepping in as Aurora Aquino, the mother of Benigno Aquino Jr., Ferdinand’s chief political rival, in a guest spot this summer. It is the first time in her long career she has played a role written as Filipina.

Seeing a production of “Here Lies Love” a few years ago surfaced visceral memories of her childhood in Manila, during the Marcoses’ reign. Performing in it felt overwhelming. “I’m slamming into history,” Salonga said.

Researching the part, she spoke to friends in the Aquino family. (Corazon Aquino, Benigno’s widow, succeeded Marcos as president.) In rehearsals for her number, she thought, “Oh, my gosh, how am I going to keep my emotions from overtaking me as I try to sing the song?” she said in a phone interview. “I had friends texting me, saying, How on earth are you going to keep from crying when you do this?”

For second-generation Filipino Americans, whose families prioritized assimilation, learning the story of their homeland has been a different kind of revelation. “Growing up, the only thing I really knew about Imelda was her shoe collection,” Jacobs said. “Getting in touch with this part of the Filipino culture, and the resilience of the Filipino people — all of that has been an awakening for me.”

“Here Lies Love” is arriving on Broadway in a political and social landscape that has vastly shifted since its premiere in the Obama era. The rapid unraveling of democracy it depicts is close at hand, the world over, Timbers and Ramos noted. Ferdinand’s habit of exaggerating or outright fabricating his successes is part of the autocrat playbook. Even his recorded dalliances with a starlet have a familiar ring. Ferdinand and Imelda’s son, known as Bongbong, is currently president of the Philippines. (After her husband’s death in 1989, Imelda, now 94, returned to politics and served three terms as a congresswoman.)

Developing the project with Byrne, the protean former Talking Head, the creative team took pains not to glamorize Ferdinand, who imposed martial law from 1972-81 and whose regime carried out mass arrests and silenced critics. The assassination of Aquino, at the airport when he returned from exile in the U.S. in 1983, served as a turning point to galvanize opposition against the Marcoses, and is an emotional rip current in “Here Lies Love.”

Conrad Ricamora, who has played the boyish Aquino (known as Ninoy) in three of the four productions, understood his legacy quickly. On Broadway, audiences make the Laban sign — a hand gesture like an inverted L; the word means “fight” — that Ninoy popularized. “If you look at people who do heroic things throughout history, they are only able to do them because they are deeply in touch with their humanity and the humanity of others,” Ricamora said.

The show has still been criticized for putting a couple known for their ruthless corruption in the spotlight, and for minimizing Imelda’s political prowess. (A website aims to contextualize the country’s history.) In a statement, the producers said their new, binational group came together “in a time of necessary and welcome assessment of who tells what stories,” and that having people with lived experiences of this era further imbued the show “with authenticity.”

For the nearly two dozen cast members — eight of whom are making their Broadway debuts — it is a rare chance to commune, and revisit, together, a past that is hardly in the rearview mirror for some of them.

Ramos calls himself “a martial law baby,” raised under Marcos’ most brutal period. He was also there in February 1986, a school kid “on top of a tank,” he said, when the four-day protests known as the People Power Revolution swept the couple out of office, peacefully. “I experienced the whole arc of the regime,” he said. He came to the U.S. in the late ’90s, for grad school.

Llana’s family landed in New York in 1979, when he was 3; his parents were student activists who had fled martial law. “Me being a part of this show for the past 10 years has really been cathartic,” he said, “because it wasn’t something necessarily that my parents talked about.”

When he first heard about the show, he hoped to play Aquino: “I thought nothing would make my parents prouder.” Instead, he was asked to read for Ferdinand. It was, he said, an awkward conversation with his family when he got the part, and he made it known to the creative team that he would walk away if the production flattered a dictator.

Still, he said, as an actor he needs to find the humanity in his characters. “And I think maybe that’s where sometimes people start criticizing us, is that we’re humanizing them. But you have to humanize people if you want to hold them accountable.”

Llana’s castmates call him “kuya,” which means older brother or older male cousin in Tagalog — a term of endearment. For him, even after so many years with the show, the addition of Filipino producers was deeply meaningful. “It made me feel safe,” he said, “knowing that the Filipinos were in charge, that we could just do our jobs” as artists.

Like Salonga, he has played a variety of ethnicities, just about none of them Filipino.

“I feel like I owe all of those ethnicities an apology — like, I’m sorry I got cast,” Salonga said. “But things were very different at the time.”

Putting a complex, layered story such as this on Broadway — staged like a dance party, no less — could serve as inspiration and empowerment, Salonga hoped. “I want to see other communities of color be able to look at ‘Here Lies Love’ and go, ‘We can do that. We have these stories that we are able to tell. We are going to be able to do this.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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