By FRANK RIZZO
It was an awkward moment for Jose Llana when he told his family that he would be starring in the new stage musical Here Lies Love.
But Llana would not be playing heroic Philippine politician Benigno Aquino Jr., the role he had originally sought.
Instead, Llana would play Ferdinand Marcos, the country’s president who ruled for two decades and imposed martial law from 1972 to 1981. Marcos’ dictatorial reign was the reason Llana’s student-activist parents emigrated in the late ‘70s as their friends began getting arrested and disappearing. Llana was a three-year-old when they arrived in the U.S.
Aquino was a forceful opposition leader until he was assassinated in 1983, a murder which further propelled the People Power Revolution, which led to the removal of Ferdinand and wife Imelda Marcos from power. Here Lies Love tells the story of Imelda Marcos’ rise and subsequent fall amid the heady swirl of politics, money, corruption and America’s involvement in bolstering Marcos’ dark reign.
The musical, which opened on Broadway in July, was conceived by David Byrne with music by Byrne and Fat Boy Slim, and staged by Tony award-winning director Alex Timbers (Moulin Rouge).
“I first told my sister, and said, ‘Hey I’m doing a new musical with a great young director and the guy who was in Talking Heads,’” said Llana. “And, oh yeah, I’m playing Ferdinand.”
When he shared the news with his parents, however, “They weren’t so thrilled,” he said.
But, he added, as long as the storytelling didn’t glamorize the political strongman and his wife—the latter infamous for her extravagant shopping habits—and knowing that it would bring attention to that country’s history and people, they were supportive.
The production itself is a massive and theatrically radical undertaking. The sung-through Here Lies Love is an audience-immersive experience, something the likes of which Broadway has never seen. With the orchestra seats removed, the floor of the Broadway Theatre has been physically transformed into a giant dance club environment, where under a giant disco ball surrounded by projections, 300 audience members stand, dance and move about—guided by “audience wranglers”—as the actors perform at various moving stages. (There are seating options for around 800 on the sides and balcony.)
Annie-B Parson, who staged the cool dance movement in David Byrne’s American Utopia on Broadway is choreographing Here Lies Love. Re-imagining the physical performing space and creating its nightclub design is David Korins (Hamilton).
Here Lies Love began as a multimedia song cycle in Australia and at NYC’s Carnegie Hall in 2007; then as a 2010 concept album; then as a theatrical show at Mass MoCA in the Berkshires in 2012. It was produced off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2013; followed by a hit run at London’s National Theater. In 2014, it returned to The Public and in 2017 it played Seattle Repertory Theater, demonstrating that the show could also play in a revamped proscenium house.
The pandemic put a pause on plans for a Broadway engagement, which would require the expense of physically transferring a traditional theater into a vast and fabulous nightclub.
Llana said during the pandemic he had finally emotionally moved on from years of anticipation for a Broadway production—until last year when he received word that, yes, it was finally going to happen.
But the show would not return as it had been. Other forces which emerged during the pandemic—notably the Black Lives Matter and the We See You, White American Theatre movements—also altered the dynamics of the show.
Llana arrived at our interview at Soho House, a private club in the Meatpacking District. Dressed in casual chic, he was a handsome, sophisticated figure with piercing dark eyes and a disarming smile suggesting he could be all business or charm—or both. This would be the first time he would be talking about the new production and his excitement was evident as he spoke passionately, not just with a sense of promotion but of purpose, for a subject that meant the world to him.
“The world is changing, and we wanted to make sure that the show that we still loved would also change,” said Llana, repeating what he told Timbers. “I wanted them to know that this subject matter is very important to me, and I wanted to be clear that I wouldn’t be part of a project that would present [the Marcos] in any falsely positive way.”
“My parents raised me and my sister with an extreme awareness of why we left,” he said. “There’s a hot-headed activist in me, too. Speaking out is part of my DNA because the reason I’m an American is because my parents came here to escape a regime they felt needed to changed. So I cannot stay silent, and my director and producers know that. From day one there was always an open dialogue, and they always made me feel that they were grateful for my presence.”
Llana said the creative and producing teams have made a committed decision to make sure that this production would feature many Filipinos, Philippine-Americans and people of color involved in the production. Llana, who has been with the show since workshops prior to the Mass MoCA production, says the musical has deepened dramatically and become more politically powerful.
The show features the first all-Filipino cast to perform on Broadway, led by Llana and, as Aquino, Conrad Ricamora (Off-Broadway’s Soft Power, TV’s How to Get Away with Murder). Lea Salonga stars as Aurora Aquino, the slain leader’s mother, for a limited time. (Guest stars from the Philippines will follow.) Arielle Jacobs plays Imelda Marcos, the former First Lady of the Philippines.
The Tony Award-winning Salonga (Miss Saigon) is also one of the Filipino producers, along with writer and immigrant rights advocate Jose Antonio Vargas and costume and set designer Clint Ramos, who created the costumes for the production. There is Flipino representation on the producing and creative teams as well.
Llana, 47, grew up in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C. before going to New York City to study classical voice at the Manhattan School of Music. His life changed dramatically when, as a 19-year-old freshman in college, he landed the featured role of Lun Tha in the 1996 Broadway production of The King & I, which starred Lou Diamond Phillips. (He repeated the role when the tour came to The Bushnell in Hartford.) In 2015, he became King when he succeeded Ken Watanabe in the Lincoln Center revival of the show, which also starred Kelli O’Hara.
His early career highlights included roles in Broadway productions of Rent, Street Corner Symphony, and as the romantic lead in a revised revival of Flower Drum Song in 2002 (which starred Salonga).
With his reputation as a dreamy Broadway singer growing, Llana returned to the Philippines in 2003 to become a recording artist there.
“But I realized that—after being an out gay man—I had to be pushed back into the closet to promote myself as ‘pop star heart throb’ and ‘Lea’s former Broadway leading man.’ It was tough, and I was embarrassed that I did it that way and that I didn’t stand up for myself. I was there for six months or so, but to achieve what I wanted to achieve there I would have to basically move there. I had a theater career here, so I came back to the U.S. with full vengeance, thinking I am not spending one more day in the closet—and I didn’t even have a boyfriend at the time,” he says laughing.
He soon landed the role of Chip in the hit 2005 musical The 25th Annual Putnam, County Spelling Bee, playing a student in the competition and memorably singing “My Unfortunate Erection.”
He and Erik Rose, a real estate executive, have been together since 2008 and married in 2018. “Mentioning my husband in conversation and in interviews, and also that I’ve been out for 30 years, is important to me. The more normal you make it by saying these things out loud, the more powerful it becomes.”
“When I came out of the closet in ’94, for the first six years the words ‘boyfriend’ was never uttered. It was always, ‘That’s Jose’s friend.’ People now have the same issues with the whole non-binary conversations. Just because it’s hard for you to say ‘them’ doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stop trying if it helps make them feel better and that’s how they want to be addressed. I’m reminded of how much we had to deal with the rolling of the eyes when we said, ‘This is my boyfriend’ or ‘This is my husband.’ My parents now just say it, and it isn’t anything extra special for them. It’s just ‘Jose’s husband.’
Sometimes the most powerful and effective activism is to live your life proudly.
A Changing Relevance
With its bold theatricality, its boundary-busting talent, and its portrayal of an historic narrative, Here Lies Love could be seen as Hamilton for the Philippines.
“What I hope for Here Lies Love, not just my Philippine friends but for others too, is that they’ll say, ‘Thank you and I’m going to go home and really dig deep about that history.” (Llana recommends the 2019 documentary about Imelda Marcos, The Kingmaker.)
“Our job is to put on a great show,” he says. “But I also see it as a bit of a Trojan Horse, where on the surface it’s this big shiny bauble, and there’s a lot of fun and great music and beautiful people dancing all around you.”
But then hopefully, he said, “by the time the house lights come up at the end of the show, and you see the dirty floor that you’ve been dancing on and take in the hangover from the Marcos ‘party,’ you understand what can happen when we let leaders run wild without accountability.”
Presenting Here Lies Love now has a new relevancy for the United States and its people, he said. “When the show was created during the Obama administrations, the world and the U.S. were riding a high. Look at what happened since.”
Marcos was a master of re-inventing history and the truth and questioning and attacking journalists, said Llana. “That was his strategy. The similarities now are scary. That’s why it’s so important we’re telling this story now.”