By TERRY TANG
Lea Salonga is back on the stage where her Broadway journey first began. But she isn’t playing someone Vietnamese or Chinese or Japanese at the Broadway Theatre.
For the first time in her storied career, the Filipino musical legend is actually playing a Filipino. What’s more, she is surrounded by an all-Filipino cast and she is part of a team of mostly Filipino producers that includes singer H.E.R., comedian Jo Koy and Black Eyed Peas’ Apl.de.Ap.
Even when she was the lead at the same theater in “Miss Saigon” in 1991 and acted her way to a Tony Award, Salonga never imagined a Filipino-dominated production would become reality. She’s topped other all-Asian Broadway casts (`”Flower Drum Song,” “Allegiance” ) but Filipino culture was never the one spotlighted.
“There’s absolutely no ‘effing way that I would have seen this happening. Ever,” Salonga told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this month. “So, for it to be happening while I’m still actually strong enough to be on my feet and be a part of it, I’m just incredibly grateful.”
The anticipation of getting to play a Filipino character for the first time is something shared by the entire company of “Here Lies Love.” The first Broadway show with an all-Filipino ensemble opens July 20, a decade after it played off- Broadway.
But this isn’t some light and airy musical. It chronicles the dictatorship of Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and ‘80s and the pro- democracy People Power Revolution movement. Jose Llana, who was in the original iteration, and Arielle Jacobs play the dictator and first lady Imelda Marcos.
Musicians David Byrne and Fatboy Slim provide the soundtrack. The theater is laid out like a nightclub complete with disco ball. Audiences can choose to join or be in a standing-only area, making them feel a part of the party.
The praise for the groundbreaking representation has nearly been eclipsed by criticism, a lot of it from other Filipinos, arguing that the Marcos regime should not be musical fodder. This comes over a year after Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. was proclaimed president in the Philippines. He has ignored his father’s massive human rights violations.
Salonga has vivid memories of watching news reports with her parents at home in the Philippines as the anti-Marcos People Power Revolution instigated a government overthrow. She also had friends who were out there in the chaos. So she understands why some people may have reservations about the show.
But “Here Lies Love” is more about the sacrifices made by anti-Marcos leaders like Ninoy Aquino (played by “How to Get Away with Murder” star Conrad Ricamora), she argues. August will mark 40 years since Aquino was assassinated at the airport in Manila, creating a flashpoint in the movement.
“It seems to be more of him and how his death sparked this anger and rage in a country and how it led to the People Power Revolution and how that led to the ousting of the Marcoses,” said Salonga, who plays Aquino’s mother, Aurora. “I come away with feeling hopeful when the show comes down. Because I saw in real time what was happening.”
Llana, who was born in Manila but raised in the U.S., is playing the man who drove his family to flee their country. When he told his parents 10 years ago he’d be portraying Marcos off-Broadway, they watched the show without hesitation and liked it enough to make repeat visits. A decade later, they`ll be there for opening night on Broadway.
“They know that I would never be a part of the show that glorified the Marcoses,” Llana said. “Telling the history of the Philippines, sometimes it’s not easy… When history repeats itself is when you don’t talk about it and when you don’t remember the bad things that happened. And that’s really what our show is about.”
In fact, after all these years, Llana’s confidence in the show has only grown.
“There’s less fear of whether it’s going to work,” said Llana, who was Salonga’s love interest in “Flower Drum Song” over 20 years ago. “Now, it’s just about polishing it and really fine-tuning the story and really resting into the new elements, which are our Filipino producers, Clint Ramos and Jose Antonio Vargas.”
Arielle Jacobs, known for lead Broadway roles in “Aladdin” and “In the Heights,” recently unearthed old emails from when she auditioned for the off-Broadway production.
“The feedback my agent was told from the casting director was they loved my audition, it’s not going to work out right now but maybe potentially for future productions,” Jacobs said. “That’s so funny because at the time they didn’t even know when or if it might come to Broadway.”
Being in the show has helped Jacobs not be as “naive about the history.” She has been doing research on her own to try and not make her Imelda one-dimensional. Born in San Francisco, Jacobs said her Filipino mother didn’t really talk about the Marcos era. But, nobody cried more happy tears than her mom when Jacobs landed this role.
Her mother was “just so proud that I’m getting to tell the story and lead this company and play a Filipino and a Filipino story.” Since childhood, Jacobs and her brother, Adam (also a Broadway actor), always got so-called “ethnic” theater parts from Puerto Rican to Middle Eastern because of their half-white, half- Asian makeup.
“It has been a blessing in terms of our career growth. At the same time, we’ve always felt that, because nobody knows we’re Filipino, there’s also this feeling that nobody ever really knows who we are,” Jacobs said.
Working with Salonga has added to the joy for Jacobs and other cast members. Salonga is pretty much considered a first lady of pop culture in the Philippines and a Broadway icon. But in “Here Lies Love,” she is venturing into a whole new world of producer.
Just entering the stage door where she was once the young ingenue and is now a boss has been “magic,” she said.
“How is this happening? And how fortunate am I that I get to see all of this happening in real time,” said Salonga, also known for singing in Disney’s “Aladdin” and “Mulan” films. “Maybe I’ll get behind more shows and put my name behind something else that I really, really believe in, see where my career goes as a Broadway producer.”
The show is adding to several Filipino American entertainment “firsts” that have made a splash in the past year. Koy starred in “Easter Sunday,” the first all- Filipino major studio movie. “Sesame Street” introduced TJ, the first Filipino Muppet. Several Filipino American chefs were recognized last month at the James Beard Awards. All of this happening now seems simultaneously “synergistic and serendipitous,” Salonga said. It’s heartening for a country that has been colonized by Spain, Japan and the U.S.
“It’s like one thing is supporting this other thing and that thing is supporting the first thing, and it’s fantastic,” Salonga said. “It’s like the universe giving us permission to just be who we always knew we were.”