The disco balls were spinning, the club music was pulsating, and on the dance floor, several Filipino audience members were close to tears.
It was Saturday night, and at the Broadway Theatre, “Here Lies Love,” the David Byrne-Fatboy Slim musical about the rise and fall of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos, the former first couple of the Philippines, is gearing up for its Broadway opening on July 20. In previews, it drew a growing stream of Filipino American theatergoers, swayed by the chance to see their national — and in some cases, their family — history told on stage, 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 stints in London and Seattle, each time expanding its home and fine-tuning its immersive staging. But only now has it added an all-Filipino cast — a first ever on Broadway, organizers say. Also new is a cast of Filipino producers, including the Tony winner Lea Salongathe Pulitzer-winning writer Jose Antonio Vargasthe comedian Jo Koy and the Grammy-winning musician HER, along with investors from Manila.
“It just felt responsible, to fully engage with the motherland,” said the 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 homeland, but also financial capital from the homeland, you feel that the authorship and ownership of the show is very tightly held. And that’s a great feeling,” he said.
The narrative framework of the show has not changed: It continues to use the glitter of disco – as first lady, Imelda was a resident of Studio 54 – to reflect the dizzying rise of the Marcoses to power, and the brilliant allure of privilege and wealth that. caused the couple to run 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 naïve beauty pageant to sentimental megalomaniac – “Why don’t You Love Me?” goes signature song – is the focus of the story. Jose Llana repeats Ferdinand of 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.”
It is not a book; the action is driven by Byrne’s soaring melodies (with beats by Fatboy Slim) and the exuberant choreography of Annie-B Parson, Byrne’s frequent collaborator. DJ (Moses Villarama) serves as 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 right here?”
The challenge – realized by Byrne, who hoped that the nightlife environment would give audiences a taste of the limitlessness of power – is formidable. “How do you combine joy with tragedy?” said Alex Timbers, the director, in a joint interview with Ramos.
In place of a stage, the Broadway Theater was remodeled to create a dance club. Moving platforms carry the performers, with standing theatergoers surrounding them on the floor; catwalks bring the actors within arm’s reach of those sitting above. The choreography encourages audience members to interact with the cast, hip-swinging alongside them in line dances, and playing the part of the faithful at political rallies – moments of civil joy and sweeping togetherness that are broadcast on giant screens around the space, alongside darker, real ones. news footage and transcripts.
Elizer Caballero, a fan who came from San Francisco, was practically vibrating with joy as he sang and jumped to the score. The experience of being surrounded by the actors as they told this indigenous story was almost surreal — he felt like part of the show — “but it’s also very moving,” 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 got more consistent laughs 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”) steps in as Aurora Aquino, the mother of Benigno Aquino Jr., Ferdinand’s main 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 brought back visceral memories of her childhood in Manila, during the rule of the Marcoses. Performing in it felt overwhelming. “I’m making history,” Salonga said.
While researching the part, she spoke to friends in the Aquinas family. (Corazon C. Aquino, Benigno’s widow, succeeded Marcos as president.) In rehearsals for her number, she thought, “Oh my God, how am I going to keep my emotions from getting over me while I’m trying to sing the song?” she said in a phone interview. “I had friends texting me, saying, How the hell are you not going to cry when you do that?“
For second-generation Filipino Americans whose families prioritized assimilation, learning the history of their homeland was 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 Filipino culture, and the resilience of the Filipino people — all of that was an awakening for me.“
“Here Lies Love” arrives on Broadway in a political and social landscape that has changed greatly since its premiere in the Obama era. Timbers and Ramos noted that the rapid collapse of democracy it represents is close to the entire world. Ferdinand’s habit of exaggerating or outright fabricating his successes is part of the autocratic playbook. Even his recorded flings with a starlet have a familiar ring to them. 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 tried not to glamorize Ferdinand, who imposed martial law from 1972 to 1981, and whose regime made mass arrests and silenced critics. The murder of Aquino, at the airport, when he returned from exile in the United States 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 played the boyish Aquino (known as Ninoy) in three of the four productions, understood his heritage quickly. On Broadway, audiences do the Laban sign – a hand gesture like an inverted L; the word means “battle” – which Ninoy popularized. “If you look at people who do heroic things throughout history, they can only do them because they are deeply in touch with their humanity and the humanity of others,” Ricamora said.
The show continued to be criticized for putting a couple known for their ruthless corruption in the spotlight, and for minimizing Imelda’s political prowess. (website aims to contextualize the country’s history.) In a statement, the producers said that their new, bi-national group came together “at a time of necessary and welcome evaluation 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’s a rare opportunity to commune, and revisit, together, a past that’s barely in the rearview mirror for some of them.
Ramos calls himself a “martial law baby,” raised under the most brutal Marcos period. He was also there in February 1986, a schoolboy “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 United States 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 fled from martial law. “Being a part of this show for the past 10 years has really been cathartic,” he said, “because it wasn’t necessarily something my parents talked about.”
When he first heard about the show, he hoped to play Aquinas: “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 informed the creative team that he would leave if the production flattered a dictator.
However, he said, as an actor he needs to find the humanity in his characters. “And I think that maybe sometimes people start to criticize us, if we humanize them. But you have to humanize people if you want to hold them accountable.”
Llana’s cast members 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 played various ethnicities, almost none of them Filipino.
“I feel like I owe all those ethnic groups an apology — like, I’m sorry I got thrown,” Salonga said. “But things were very different at the time.”
Even putting a complex, layered story like this on Broadway — staged as a dance party, no less — could serve as inspiration and empowerment, she hoped. “I want to see other communities of color be able to look at ‘Here Lies Love’ and say, ‘We can do this. We have these stories that we can tell. We can do this.'”