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Jose Llana calls himself a “martial-law baby.” It’s not a euphemism. “My sister and I were conceived during martial law in the Philippines,” the actor states matter-of-factly over coffee. Those not familiar with Filipino history are in for an education. Llana is playing Ferdinand Marcos, former president of the Philippines, in Here Lies Love, a new musical from David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. The piece tells the story of Imelda Marcos (played by Ruthie Ann Miles) and her rise to power with her husband. Known as the Filipino “Jackie and John,” they turned a democracy into a dictatorship and embezzled billions. Meanwhile, the People Power Revolution was brewing; the resistance movement would eventually (peacefully) overthrow them.
Sitting at the Public Theater after a day of rehearsals, Llana talks candidly about his parents’ experience under the Marcos regime, which lasted from 1965 to 1986. The Llanas were student activists. At that time, being politically vocal was a liability. “My parents’ friends who were journalists back then, their husbands and wives were murdered, or imprisoned for six or seven years,” the actor explains.
Llana was born in Manila; his family immigrated to the U.S. in 1979, when he was three. “They wanted to give us better opportunities,” he says simply. But the family has gone back frequently. Llana even recorded an album there in 2003, in Tagalog. “I remember visiting as a kid, when martial law was in effect. The government was so corrupt. You didn’t know who to trust.”
Here Lies Love takes this heavy political tale and wraps it up in a disco ball. The musical is set in a nightclub where the actors and audience are on their feet at all times, dancing, while a DJ and 360 degrees’ worth of video projections set the mood. “Taking a Schoolhouse Rock approach is a great way to advocate for the two things I love most: politics and theater,” explains director Alex Timbers. Anyone who saw Timbers’s irreverent 2010 Broadway debut, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, might agree.
For the 2010 Here Lies Love concept album—from which the musical sprang—Imelda was played by several singers, including Florence Welch, Cyndi Lauper and Sharon Jones. But Timbers cautions listeners assuming that a disco score equals a happy musical. There’s no mention—winking or otherwise—of Imelda’s grotesque, 3,000-pair shoe collection, for example. “The piece is a condemnation of this woman and the regime,” Timbers says. “The club music is the sound of the dictatorship. It’s driving and mechanical—the antithesis of something that’s humane."
At the end of the show, when the Marcoses are overthrown, the DJ (played by Kelvin Moon Loh) comes out with an acoustic guitar and sings “God Draws Straight,” one of nine newly written songs. “That’s the sound of the people,” Timbers explains. The show is actually “the story of the people, and the power of the individual over the cult of power.”
It’s partly ironic that in Here Lies Love, Llana, the son of activists, plays the dictator. But the boyish-faced actor with the clear tenor singing voice prefers variety. He can do strapping leads (having starred in Flower Drum Song opposite Lea Salonga), memorable secondary characters (El Gato in Wonderland) and deceptive villains (Guillaume in Martin Guerre). In his current gig, Llana pulls double duty as Ferdinand and a disco clubber.
“The only way to play a villain is to find some compassion for your character,” Llana explains of his process. “When the Marcoses were first elected, they followed through with their campaign promises. But when they discovered that corruption was very easy, the moral compass got thrown out the window.”
In a city where only three percent of roles went to Asian-American actors in the past season, Llana knows he is the rare Asian-American musical-theater lead. “My parents raised me with: ‘They’re going to treat you differently, so you need to be better than everybody,’ ” he says. “I don’t think I have to be better. But I’ve pushed myself to be more versatile.”
One can even say he owes his career to 1979. “If we hadn’t left, I’d be a completely different person,” Llana muses. That alternate universe probably wouldn’t have included Broadway. As such, Here Lies Love is very personal. Out of the entire cast, Llana’s the only one who was born in the Philippines. “It’s a lifetime journey of how do I retain my Filipino-ness,” he says, “and this show is part of my journey.”
Click here for tickets to Here Lies Love.