For Filipino audiences, “Here Lies Love” delivers disturbing emotional undercurrents

Disco balls were spinning, club music was beating, and on the dance floor, many of the Filipino audience were on the verge of tears.

It was a Saturday night and on Broadway “Here Lies Love”, David Byrne’s Fatboy Slim musical about the rise and fall of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos, the former first couple of the Philippines, is preparing to open on Broadway on July 20. Touched by the chance to see the history of their countryman—and, in some cases, their family—tell them on stage, close enough that they can literally touch it.

“I have never been in a play where I have a personal connection” to the story, said Earl Delvin, 35, of Manhattan. “I felt like an actress on the New York stage for the first time.”

He added that he was affected by the opening scenes. “And of course I danced.”

Here Lies Love, which opened to critically acclaimed and sold-out crowds at the Public Theater downtown in 2013, has made it to Broadway after residencies in London and Seattle, each time expanding its home and adjusting its immersive theatre. But only now has it added an all-Filipino cast — its first ever on Broadway, organizers say. Also on board is a new cadre of Filipino producers, including a Tony winner Leah SalongaPulitzer-winning author Jose Antonio Vargascomedian Jo Koy and Grammy-winning musician HER, along with Manila-based investors.

“I just felt a responsibility, to fully interact with the motherland,” said the costume designer and creative consultant. Clint RamosA native of Cebu, Philippines, he 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, the authors and ownership of the show seem so closely intertwined. It feels great,” he said.

The show’s narrative framework remains unchanged: it still parodies the luminosity of disco – as first lady, Imelda was a resident of Studio 54 – to reflect Marcos’ dizzying rise to power, the flamboyant lure of privilege and wealth that led a couple to splurge their homeland into massive debt, and live as lavishly as their constituents suffered.

Ariel Jacobs, a new addition to the cast, plays Imelda, whose journey has been from naive beauty pageant contestant to emotional paranoia – “Why don’t you love me?” Featured song goes – is the focus of the story. Jose Lana Ferdinand copies from the audience; His path from charismatic leader to presidential tyrant is shorter. Llana said of the fans: “If they want to boo Marcus, I think I did my job right.”

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There is no book. The action is propelled by Byrne’s soaring beats (with Fatboy Slim beats) and thanks to the exuberant choreography of Annie-B Parson, Byrne’s frequent collaborator. DJ (Moses Villarama) works as manager.

Every day, Ramos said, as the creative team works on massive lighting fixtures and costume transitions, they also ask the question, “Are we looking at history right here?”

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

Instead of a stage, the Broadway theater was redesigned to create a dance club. Moving platforms carry the performers, flanked by stagegoers standing on the floor; The platform puts the actors within easy reach of those seated above. The choreography encourages audience members to interact with the actors, run alongside them in line dances, play the faithful at political rallies—moments of civic joy and extended fellowship broadcast on giant screens throughout the space, along with darker real news footage and scripts.

Eleazar Caballero, a fan who hails from San Francisco, was practically shaking with glee as he sang and jumped along to the score. He said the experience of being surrounded by the cast telling this original story was almost surreal—it felt like part of the show—”but also very moving”. “Especially for Filipino Americans, it is better to be down to earth. It adds more depth.”

Cast members said that an untranslated moment when he curses Imelda in Ferdinand in Tagalog brought laughter more consistently on Broadway than it ever did in Downtown. (Organizers said the production has a cultural and community coordinator, Giselle Tonji, who plans Filipino community events; even on regular nights, he drew attendees who had direct dealings with the Marcos and Aquino clans.)

Salonga, the first Asian woman to win a Tony Award (in 1991, for “Miss Saigon”) steps in as Aurora Aquino, 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 that she is playing a role she wrote as a Filipina.

A few years ago, she had deep memories of her childhood in Manila, during the Marcos era, when watching a production of “Here Lies Love”. I felt the performance in it. “I’m bumping into history,” Salonga said.

When researching the part, I talked to friends in the Aquino family. (Corazon C. Aquino, Benigno’s widow, succeeded Marcos as president.) At rehearsals for her number, I thought, “Oh my God, how am I going to keep my emotions from getting the better of me trying to sing the song?” she said in a phone interview. “I’ve had friends text me, saying, How on earth are you going to stop crying when you do this?

For second generation Filipino Americans, whose families prioritized assimilation, learning the story 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. “Connecting with this part of Filipino culture, the resilience of the Filipino people — all of it was an awakening for me.

Here Lies Love hits Broadway in a political and social landscape that has changed dramatically since its premiere under Obama. Around the world, Timbers and Ramos note, the rapid collapse of the democracy he envisioned is imminent. Ferdinand’s habit of exaggerating or faking his successes is part of the tyrannical playbook. Even his taped dalliances with the star have a familiar ring. The son of Ferdinand and Imelda, better known as Pong Pong, is currently the President of the Philippines. (After her husband died in 1989, Imelda, now 94, returned to politics and served three terms as a congresswoman.)

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When developing the project with Byrne, the former talking boss, the creative team did its best not to glamorize Ferdinand, who imposed martial law from 1972 to 1981, and whose regime carried out mass arrests and silenced critics. The assassination of Aquino, at the airport when he returned from exile in the United States in 1983, marked a turning point for staging dissent against the Marcos family, and served as an emotional tear in “Here Lies Love.”

Conrad Ricamora, who played the boyish Aquino (known as Ninoy) in three of the four productions, quickly recognized his legacy. On Broadway, the audience makes the Laban sign—a hand gesture like an inverted L; The word means “fight” – which was popularized by Nineveh. “If you look at people who do heroic things throughout history, they can only do them because they are so deeply connected to their own humanity and the humanity of others,” Ricamora said.

The show continues to be criticized for putting a couple known for their ruthless corruption in the spotlight, and for diminishing Imelda’s political prowess. (website It aims to frame the country’s history.) In a statement, the producers said their new bi-national group came together “at a time of necessary and welcome assessment of the storytellers,” and that having people with lived experiences of the era further imbues them. The offer is “authentic”.

For the nearly two dozen cast members—eight of whom are making their Broadway debuts—it’s a rare opportunity to connect, and revisit together, pasts barely in each other’s rearview mirror.

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Ramos calls himself a “martial law kid,” growing up in Marcos’ most brutal period. He was also there in February 1986, he said, a schoolboy “on top of a tank,” when the four-day protests known as the People Power Revolution swept the couple peacefully. “I tried the whole arc of the system,” he said. He came to the United States in the late 1990s for postgraduate studies.

Lana’s family arrived in New York in 1979, when he was three years old. His parents were student activists who had fled martial law. He said, “Being a part of this show for the last 10 years has been really cathartic, because it wasn’t necessarily something my parents talked about.”

When he first heard about the show, he hoped he would play Aquino: “I thought nothing would make my parents prouder.” Instead he was asked to read to Ferdinand. He said it was an awkward conversation with his family when he got the role, and told the creative team that he would leave if the production tempted a dictator.

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

Llana’s classmates 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 the Filipino producers was deeply meaningful. He said, “It made me feel safe, knowing that Filipinos were in charge, and that we could just do our job” as artists.

Like Salonga, he played a variety of ethnicities, almost none of whom were Filipino.

“I feel like I owe all these races an apology — like, I’m sorry I had a chance,” Salonga said. “But things were very different back then.”

Hope that even putting a complex, layered story like this one on Broadway—staged like a dance party, no less—can be inspiring and empowering. “I want to see other communities of color who are able to look at Here Lies Love and go, ‘We can do this. We have these stories that we can tell. We will be able to do that.”

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