NEW YORK - The men of the cast and creatives wore barong and the guests were served lechon during the fiesta-like party that followed the April 23 opening night performance of “Here Lies Love,” the world premiere production of the David Byrne - DJ Fatboy Slim off-Broadway disco musical based on the life of Imelda Marcos.
The show, “a 90-minute, 360 degree theatrical experience”, happens within a dance club set-up where the audience stands and moves around, reflecting the former First Lady’s infatuation with parties and disco as a soundtrack to her life story.
Manila-born Broadway actor Jose Llana, a Martial Law baby of activist parents, assumes the role of the infamous dictator and former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in "Here Lies Love."
In this exclusive interview, he shares his thoughts on playing the role, as well as his connection to his Filipino roots.
Q: There are always advantages and disadvantages in portraying a real-life character versus a fictional one. How identical / how different is your portrayal of the late Philippine President from real life based on the research that you have made on his life?
“The challenge in portraying Former President Ferdinand Marcos was definitely combining my research on his history and actions with finding dramatic purpose to the events we depict in the show. We use actual photos of Marcos and some video footage so there was no point in pretending I looked exactly like him. What I wanted to capture was his confidence, his pride and his unquestionable political ambition. It was hard for me to find compassion for a person who caused so much pain for so many Filipinos of so long. But my job was to portray Marcos for who he was -- a charismatic leader whose vanity and thirst for power led him to strip his country of their democracy and personal freedoms.”
Q: If Ferdinand Marcos was alive and you are given a chance to interview him, what will you ask him?
“I'd ask him, ‘Why? Did you think it was in your rights as President to take away the rights of other citizens? Where is the money? Who did you bribe to help you hide it?’”
Q: Not a lot know about the trivia that Ninoy Aquino and Imelda Romualdez dated briefly during their younger years - but apparently, this is mentioned in the musical. Do you think history would have turned out for the better/worse if she had been "Imelda Aquino"?
“That is a loaded question. Who would Imelda have been had she been an Aquino? I don't know. But I think Ferdinand would have found someone else to marry to become First Lady. Would they have been as successful a leading couple as Ferdinand and Imelda? Who knows?”
Q: Did you discover something new about the history and the Marcoses with this musical? Who is your ideal country leader?
“As a Filipino-American who was born in Quezon City but grew up in the States, I credit this musical for giving me the opportunity to research the history of my country in a way I never had in the past. You don't learn much Filipino history in American public school. If anything, I've come to appreciate what my parents went through during Martial Law. The hardships they had to endure as newlyweds in the early 70s and as new parents. I can't imagine the choices they had to make in the midst of such fear and uncertainty.
“My ideal country leader would be someone who could deal directly with the still existing corruption in the government. Someone who can lead the Philippines into an era of transparency and productivity.”
Q: It’s been 13 years since you and your family migrated to the US. If things were better and Martial Law didn't happen in the Philippines, do you think you would have stayed? If you didn't leave, who do you think Jose Llana would be now? Do you ever consider the option of going back permanently?
“Wow, that's a lot of different questions. If Martial Law didn't happen, of course my family would have stayed and I'd be a very different person. Martial Law and the Marcoses drove so many people out of the Philippines. Had I stayed, I might have become an engineer. I'd like to think I might have found my way to performing, too, but who knows? I have thought about going back to Manila again to continue working, but I don't think I could ever go back permanently. So much of life and career are here in the States. It's hard to leave what you grew up with and the theater career you've worked so hard to build over the years.”
Q: How much of you is still Filipino?
“Every ounce. My favorite foods are still Pinoy - adobo, pinakbet, kare kare, lumpia, crispy pata. My music tastes are very Pinoy. My parents made sure to raise my Ate and me to cherish our Filipino heritage. The fact that I still call my sister, Patricia, "Ate" says a lot about how we were raised.”
Q: Lea Salonga, Charice Pempengco, Jessica Sanchez and now, you doing this lead role - Has the level of acceptance for Filipino artists in the US mainstream arena improved in the last decade?
“It's always improving. When Lea and I were the leads of ‘Flower Drum Song’ on Broadway back in 2002, it was a huge deal for Filipino artists. I've played numerous lead roles on Broadway, in ‘Spelling Bee,’ ‘Rent,’ ‘Wonderland.’ But there continues to be Filipinos on Broadway that make us proud every day -- J. Elaine Marcos, Paolo Montalban, Adam Jacobs, Ali Ewoldt, Orville Mendoza. The list goes on and on. I think what's important is that Filipinos back home need to acknowledge that Filipinos in America have been working on and Off-Broadway for years but most never receive the attention that Lea or I get. That needs to change.”
Q: The 2010 concept CD, which is available commercially in Manila CD stores, is the nearest experience that interested Pinoys here can have of the musical. How different are the songs in it from the staged version?
“I think the most important difference between the concept CD and our show is that David Byrne and Alex Timbers decided we needed to continue telling the story beyond what the album does. We explore much further the political triangle between Imelda, Marcos and Aquino and the People Power Revolution of 1986 comes much more into play than on the album. David and Alex wanted to make very clear that our story ends with the Filipino People reclaiming their country which doesn't happen on the album.”
Q: What will viewers expect, based on the publicity promise that the show is a 360-degree theatrical experience?
“Viewers need to come ready to dance and have a good time -- while at the same time being given a dose of Filipino history and charm.”
Q: "Here Lies Love" was written and staged in an American perspective of a chunk of Philippine history. The show's director describes it as an "unequivocal condemnation" of the Marcos regime. How do Americans and how do Filipinos, so far, reacted to the show? Are there significant feedback that you have heard of?
“I've been very conscious of my Filipino friends who have come to show and what they've told me afterwards. The overwhelming emotion is pride. Someone is finally telling our story. And we're telling the story with a predominately Filipino cast. Filipinos have left with tears in their eyes over the ending (The People Power Revolution). I'm very proud of our show and am so excited for my parents and sister to see it. I think it will make them very proud.”
Q: “Here Lies Love’ pertains to the phrase that Imelda wanted inscribed on her tombstone. This early, have you already decided what you would like to be written on your epitaph?
“I'll save the epitaph writing while you're alive to Imelda. I have a lot of living to do and I have no idea what I want on my tombstone for now. But hopefully, it will be something interesting enough for someone to turn into the title of a new and exciting show.”
“Here Lies Love” will run until June 29 at the Public Theater located at 425 Lafayette Street, at Astor Place, East Village; (212) 967-7555, publictheater.org.
Concept and Lyrics: David Byrne
Music: David Byrne and Fatboy Slim
Additional Music: Tom Gandey, J Pardo
Choreographed by Annie-B Parson
Directed By Alex Timbers
Cast: Jose Llana (Ferdinand Marcos), Ruthie Ann Miles (Imelda Marcos), Conrad Ricamora (Ninoy Aquino), Melody Butiu (Estrella Cumpas), Kelvin Moon Loh (D. J.) and Renée Albulario, Natalie Cortez, Debralee Daco, Joshua Dela Cruz, Jeigh Madjus, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Trevor Salter and Janelle Velasquez (Ensemble).