Not many Americans know this about Tony winner Lea Salonga, but she grew up during the People Power Revolution in the Philippines, where the populace took to the streets for three days and successfully overthrew the dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. Salonga was 15 then, but she remembers her parents making food at home and packing it into containers. “I remember my dad driving out to send it to whoever he could reach. Just to keep people on the street,” recalls Salonga.
Now Salonga is making her return to Broadway in the David Byrne-Fatboy Slim musical Here Lies Love, about the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, who ruled the Philippines with her husband from 1965 to 1986. In the musical, Salonga plays Aurora, the mother of Ninoy Aquino, whose murder at Marcos’ hand led to the revolution. In the show, Aurora sings a fierce lamentation called, "Just Ask the Flowers," where she sings, "Now I watch the procession / As his body goes by / Half the country is here / But they won't see me cry."
Salonga vividly remembers Aquino's death, the news coverage of it in the Philippines as well as his faces on all the magazines afterwards. As part of her research for the role, Salonga spoke to Aquino’s brother-in-law Ken Kashiwahara. “[Aurora] was the one who had to make the decision to have his body on display,” says Salonga. “So that left such an indelible mark on so many people, and then just sparked an awakening in many folks from home.”
To play such an important figure of recent Filipino history, it’s a task that Salonga describes with a deep intake of breath and a deepening of her voice, “Ohhh! It’s a lot.”
“A lot” is also a great way to describe Here Lies Love, which uses a disco and electro-pop score to tell its story. The stage of the Broadway Theatre has been completely reconfigured: a portion of the audience will get to stand and dance, and interact with the actors, as the show is performed on moving platforms. Another portion of the audience will get to sit and view the action from seats that have been constructed onto the stage, as well as in the mezzanine.
"A lot" is also a way to describe the discourse around the show. When it was announced for Broadway, critics decried the musical, saying it romanticized the figure of Imelda Marcos and trivialized the horrors of her rule. Especially now that the Marcos’ son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., has been elected president of the Philippines—critics have pointed out that the musical can be read as a vindication of the Marcos dictatorship.
Here Lies Love then came under further fire when it was revealed that its performers were going to sing along to tracked audio, instead using live musicians the entire show—leading to accusations that the show was trying to dismantle the musicians' union. After some contentious back-and-forth with the American Federation of Musicians, Here Lies Love now has 12 musicians (including three actor-musicians). The show is currently in previews at the Broadway Theatre and opening night is scheduled for July 20.
Salonga, who is a producer on the show, and its star Arielle Jacobs, who is playing Imelda, have not been immune from the chatter. As they sit in Alchemical Studios, after the photoshoot with Playbill, they try to keep the mood light, but it was clear in the soft way they both spoke that they have both been affected.
“We’re not oblivious to what’s happening out there. And I know that there are a bunch of people who don’t like me at the moment,” Salonga says of the negative reactions to the show from the Filipino community.
Remarks Jacobs, sympathetically, “They’re gonna like you again.”
Salonga smiles, with a hint of sadness, saying, “That’s fine. I’m used to it. It’s OK.”
Here Lies Love first began as a concept album in 2010, as a way for Byrne to musicalize his fascination with Imelda Marcos and the corrosive nature of power. The album featured 22 guest vocalists, including Cyndi Lauper and Florence Welch (both sung the songs belonging to Imelda). It then morphed into a full stage show in 2013, premiering at Off-Broadway's Public Theater—where Ruthie Ann Miles played Imelda and the role propelled her to Broadway stardom. That's where Jacobs first saw the show. Salonga saw it later when Here Lies Love traveled to the National Theatre in London.
For Jacobs and Salonga, the social media comments have not wavered their faith in Here Lies Love—and their pride at being part of the first musical with a cast made up entirely of Filipino actors on Broadway. Besides Salonga, Here Lies Love also boasts a record number of Filipino producers on its team, with Tony winner Clint Ramos and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jose Antonio Vargas as its lead producers, and musician H.E.R., comic Jo Koy, and Salonga herself as producers. Though Here Lies Love is created by non-Filipinos (Tony-winning director Alex Timbers has overseen every iteration of the musical), the cast and the producing team speaks to an ownership of the musical within the Filipino community. It's been controversial within that community, yes, but it's a fallacy to assume that a whole nation of people is a monolith with just one opinion on a subject.
"There has been a lot of commentary that has come out. And I can't exactly say, 'No, you're wrong.' In my head, it's like, 'I absolutely understand, you do have a point, you have every right to be angry, and you have every right to feel the way you're feeling,' " admits Salonga.
But at the same time, there is an important reason why Salonga has joined the producing team and chose to perform in the show July 6 then July 11 through August 13—fitting it in before she has to go to London and perform in the Sondheim revue Old Friends. For Salonga, revisiting a pivotal part of her teenage years through the musical has been surprisingly emotional: "There is an emotional truth to the piece that even in rehearsal, we're finding ourselves, just, affected...There's so much going on emotionally, that I'm finding myself having to choke tears down, because I have to sing the song and I cannot be crying."
Adds Jacobs, "It's not a documentary piece. But it is an opportunity for people to experience a moment of history in a way that will enable conversations and be more impactful than it would be if they were watching a documentary or reading a history book."
To Jacobs, Here Lies Love is an opportunity to reconnect with her roots. Her grandfather was a Filipino scout for the U.S. Army during World War II, during a time when the Philippines was an American colony. Here Lies Love has allowed Jacobs to learn the family history that was rarely spoken about when she was growing up. “I’m always asked, ‘What ethnicity are you?’ ” she says (her father is Jewish and her mother is Filipino). “So being able to step into: This is who I am. And this is where my family’s from…I feel like there is a reckoning there. There is a reclaiming. And there’s a wanting to put roots down in a place where we were uprooted from.”
For both Jacobs and Salonga, who coincidentally have both played Princess Jasmine in Aladdin (Salonga in the Disney film and Jacobs in the Broadway show), Here Lies Love is the first time they are playing Filipinos on stage. It's a big moment for Jacobs especially because this is her first time leading a Broadway musical. Jacobs says her mom cried tears of joy upon hearing the news. Her grandfather, responded stoically with, "the Dictator..." recalls Jacobs, deepening her voice and saying it with a Filipino accent.
Jacobs is aware that playing Imelda comes with its own share of baggage. “She represents a lot of pain for a lot of people,” Jacobs admits. At the same time, Jacobs has been doing her best to shut out the assumptions, and instead focus on Imelda as a character: a woman who rose to power and then was corrupted by it. “They aren’t born with devil horns,” says Jacobs of dictators like Marcos. “They were born as regular human beings…And then they turn into people who make choices that hurt a lot of people.”
The key thing for Jacobs is that villains don't always know that they are villains. They rationalize their behavior as acceptable. And if Jacobs does her job right, the audience will start the show loving her and end it hating her: "And I'm not liking myself at the end of it, either," she exclaims.
And now it's Salonga's turn to be sympathetic, "As actors, we have to do these things, and be OK with all of that. It's the audience that hopefully gets to feel."
Both actors are also adamant in saying that Here Lies Love does not glorify Imelda Marcos. To them, the musical explores how a dictatorship can take hold, how seductive it seems at the outset. Considering the rise of fascism around the world, such as the election of Donald Trump in America, the two actors think Here Lies Love has only become more relevant since it premiered a decade ago Off-Broadway.
“People think it’s nostalgic, it’s gonna be fun, it’s the ’70s into the ’80s,” remarks Salonga before adding, forebodingly, “But they have no idea what’s about to hit them.”
Jacobs then chimes in, “And that’s the point because neither did the people of the Philippines at the time. Or the people who might be voting those people into power today, who think that they’re getting something different than what they end up getting.” The disco ball may be shiny, but it also acts as a mirror to the mostly American audience who will experience the show on Broadway.
For the cast, as they perform in a venue where some audience members will be close enough to physically touch them, the key is to make sure that those watching from the dance floor or from a seated position see aspects of themselves in the performers. The show may be set in the Philippines, but Here Lies Love is a modern-day political parable for everyone. Says Jacobs: "History repeats itself. So this show right now is giving people an opportunity to see a reality, a potential reality that could repeat itself again. And hopefully, it will spark a conversation to help people figure out what their responsibilities to their community are moving forward, as educated people who want to fight for democracy and keep democracy alive."
As a producer on the show, Salonga has been focused on making sure that Here Lives Love is a financial success. She's participated in all of the show's marketing campaign, and is using her star power to bring in the Filipino community—both as audience members and as investors in the show. As someone who was involved in most of the large Asian-led musicals in the past 30 years—such as Miss Saigon, Flower Drum Song, and Allegiance—Salonga knows the importance of making Here Lies Love, with its all-Asian cast, a critical and commercial success.
"How many years ago was it that we had Allegiance? My God, it still breaks my heart that we didn't get to last," says Salonga of the short-lived musical about the Japanese internment camps. The early closure of another musical with an Asian cast, KPOP, is also on her mind. "We don't want what had happened to KPOP to happen to another Asian show, because there are so many stories that are still waiting to be told. And so if we're able to make a success of this, that opens the door for the next story. And the next and the next."
It's a lot of concerns and opinions she's juggling these days. So in the meantime, Salonga is finding comfort in the cast of Here Lies Love, the producing team, and audience members who have been vocal about their love for the show (so much so that when the box office for the show opened, the line wrapped around the block that first day). Here she smiles widely, in relief: "There's a lot of community support coming our way. And it makes me feel, like, OK, we can do our jobs, knowing that there are folks that have our backs."