Filipinos break ground, bring controversy to Broadway with reboot of Here Lies Love

A musical that focuses on Imelda Marcos and her late dictator husband Ferdinand Marcos, is about to make its Broadway debut with an all-Filipino cast. Some critics charge that it glosses over the dictator’s regime, the show’s creators say it offers lessons on how to deal with tyranny.

Celebrating an all-Filipino cast, producers say they are not shying away from criticism of the Marcos regime

A group of people are smiling for a camera.
Casting for Here Lies Love, which has an all-Filipino cast, wook producers all over the globe. The show received submissions from Canada, the United States, the Philippines and more than a dozen countries. (Submitted by Here Lies Love)

In a church basement on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the cast of Broadway's Here Lies Love is gathering for the show's first press conference.

But the atmosphere feels more like a big family party than an official engagement. 

That may have a lot to do with the historic nature of the musical's all-Filipino company, a Broadway first. 

The disco-themed musical was conceived by Grammy-winning musicians David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, and written and developed by Alex Timbers. But the story is decidedly Filipino — albeit a controversial interpretation of the country's history.  It centres on the Philippines' infamous first lady Imelda Marcos and her late dictator husband, Ferdinand Marcos, during a pivotal moment in the country's history – their rise and fall from power, ending in the People's Power revolution in 1986. 

Here Lies Love first opened off Broadway in 2013. But not with an all-Filipino cast like this. 

The show will make its Broadway debut this July with Filipino producers at the helm. They include a pair of Filipino Tony winners – Lea Salonga of Miss Saigon fame and theatre and film designer Clint Ramos, who were both instrumental in finding the talent. 

"We're extremely proud. And we also feel like this is the time," said Ramos. "We're in the middle of a Filipino Renaissance not only in the Americas, but all over the world."

A man sitting at a desk is smiling.
Tony Award-winning theatre and film designer Clint Ramos is one of the lead producers for Here Lies Love. The Philippines-born industry veteran was also part of the off-Broadway run of the show. (Marc J. Franklin)

As with all productions, casting is about finding the right people. It wasn't a sure bet that the show would feature an all-Filipino company. 

Salonga recalls the moment they cast the final actor, Filipino-American Moses Villarama, who plays a DJ.

"Oh my God," was Salonga's first reaction. "Then it sank in: The cast of Here Lies Love is fully Filipino." 

Race-based rejections

She said she's still processing the unprecedented moment for Broadway, the epicentre of musical theatre. 

The achievement is an emotional one for Salonga and many of her castmates because of their own struggles for representation and roles in the entertainment industry. 

"It's something that I felt incredibly proud of."

WATCH | Lea Salonga discusses her role as a Filipino actor:

Filipino legend Lea Salonga talks about representation on Broadway

4 months ago
Duration 3:40
Lea Salonga reflects on the struggle for representation during her decades-long career, and why Here Lies Love's all-Filipino cast gives her hope for the future.

More than 30 years ago, Salonga was cast as the leading actress on Broadway's Miss Saigon, playing a Vietnamese girl who falls in love with an American soldier.

That role catapulted her into fame. But even with her Tony win and other accolades, she says she still experienced many rejections. 

"I was in for a rude awakening," she said. "I was told that I couldn't audition for certain shows because of my racial background."

Jose Llana, who plays former Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos in Here Lies Love, feels the same way. He's been in the industry almost as long as Salonga and has a long list of credits on big musicals such as Rent and The King and I.

"You know, the opportunities for Asian Americans, particularly Filipino Americans, are very small," he said. "We're hopefully adding now to the library of Asian roles that Filipinos can play."

A woman smiles in the White House.
Lea Salonga, shown here arriving at the White House for a state dinner with U.S. President Joe Biden and the South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol on April 26, says she was told her racial background prevented her from auditioning for certain Broadway shows. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

For Arielle Jacobs, who plays Imelda Marcos, landing the role struck a personal chord. 

"This is the first time I'm getting to play on my own heritage, so I feel like I don't have to hide. I feel like I don't have to pretend to be somebody that I'm not," she said.

Despite the elation over the historic casting, the show has not been without controversy. Some critics have taken to social media, calling the musical a too-glossy retelling of the Marcos family's criminal and violent past. With a disco ball as its logo, Here Lies Love is staged in a nightclub setting and highlights Imelda Marcos's life as a glamorous, jet-setting socialite. 

When Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was first elected in 1965, the power couple was beloved in their country and around the world. But their nearly two-decade rule put the Philippines under a brutal martial law and ended with the storming of the presidential palace in 1986 and the Marcoses fleeing in exile to the United States. 

Under his rule, tens of thousands were killed, imprisoned and tortured according to Amnesty International.

But the show's producers are not backing away from that controversy. On their Instagram account,  a bold statement: Here Lies Love is an anti-Marcos show. It is a pro-Filipino show, being told in a quintessential American form: the Broadway musical. 

The show is meant to offer lessons on how to deal with tyranny and to raise awareness about how people can be seduced by a charismatic leader, said Byrne.

"The story is more relevant now around the world than it was back then," Byrne said at the event, referring to the show's previous off-Broadway run. "Now it seems like democracy has been threatened around the world, even in this country."

WATCH | David Byrne discusses Here Lies Love:

Here Lies Love creator David Byrne discusses its Broadway debut

4 months ago
Duration 3:45
David Byrne talks about how the show's message will resonate in 2023, now that a Marcos is back in power in the Phillipines, and why the production is more relevant now than ever.

Byrne said he would have never predicted when he created the show that it would re-open, at a time when the Marcos family is back in power. 

Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos's son, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Jr. was elected president last year and their family continues to polarize the Philippines. While the results were not contested, many Filipinos decried his victory, blaming the Marcos camp for whitewashing his family's history. 

Bad timing — or impeccable timing?

"We're showing the party that the Marcoses had for 20 years. But we're also telling a story about how the hangover happened after that party," said Llana. 

Salonga, who is a massive celebrity in the Philippines, is well aware of the gravity of staging a musical about a family that is currently in power. 

"I just think that the timing of this, it's either bad timing, or impeccable timing," she said. "How you interpret it is really a personal decision to make."

On the show's Instagram page, one of the first post clearly explains itself in response to the critics: "History repeats itself. Democracies all over the world are under threat. Here Lies Love offers an innovative template on how to stand up to tyrants."

At the press preview, all talk of controversy and critics seem to be drowned out by the celebration of the groundbreaking cast. 

The hope for the cast is that this production of Here Lies Love is just the beginning.

"I'm most excited about the future projects that are written by Filipinos where they're writing their own stories," said Llana. 

"Hey if we're able to do it for Here Lies Love, we'll be able to do it for another show," said Salonga.

"Here I am playing a real life character from the Philippines in a story set in the Philippines. I don't think the whole magnitude of that has sunk in completely, It'll probably hit me like a ton of bricks on opening night." 

Three people stand and look at the camera.
In Here Lies Love, Jose Llana plays Former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, Arielle Jacobs plays former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos and Conrad Ricamora plays former opposition Leader benigno Aquino. (Harold Julian)


Kris Reyes

Foreign correspondent

Kris Reyes CBC’s correspondent based in New York. She is a multimedia journalist with more than 15 years of experience in broadcast and digital newsrooms in the U.S. and Canada, as a host, producer, anchor and reporter.

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