HLL is more than an immersive musical; it is my family’s story too

Arielle Jacobs and Jose Llana portray Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos. Photos: HLL/Facebook

By Tricia J. Capistrano

“You can only have one Filipino friend,” I responded to my Irish American bestie, Nancy, when she asked if she could invite Gigi–a Texas native and Filipino American mom who she met at her son’s high school–when we were making plans to watch the musical “Here Lies Love.”

Nancy, Gretchen (Irish and German American), and I have been friends since our children were toddlers, now they are in their 20s. My cousin Michelle, who lives in Seattle and saw the show in 2017 said she would fly into New York City and join us too.

My daughter and I watched the 2013 version of musical twice when it was performed at the Public Theater in New York City and we loved it. My late uncle, Tony Gatmaitan, was in the opposition during the 1980s and was told that he was on Marcos’s kill list. Tito Tony, Tita Lisa, and my cousins–my best friends–had to flee the Philippines. Michelle’s parents took the whole family in their three-bedroom house in Washington. I was protective about sharing the show. For me, “Here Lies Love” is more than an immersive musical about Philippine history, set in a disco, it was one of the few ways I could share my heritage with the family I had made in New York.

A brief history 

“Did you know that the Philippines was a colony of the United States?” The show’s DJ opens with this little known fact in the U.S. but prevalent if you are born in the Philippines. David Byrne, the unconventional singer and songwriter of the Talking Heads, heard that Imelda Marcos, wife of the Philippines President from 1965 to 1986 loved to disco and that she had partied with the Reagans and many other U.S. politicians. After many trips to different parts of the Philippines, David Byrne wrote the lyrics and together with Fatboy Slim released a concept album in 2010. In 2013, “Here Lies Love” premiered at the Public Theater in New York City.

2013 vs 2023

I was pleasantly surprised to see that aside from the bigger venue which allows the musical to have several mini-stages within the different levels of the theater, most of the musical remains the same. Jose Llana who plays Ferdinand Marcos and Conrad Ricamora (Ninoy Aquino) remain energetic and even look as young as they did when I watched the show almost 10 years ago. Then and this year, when Jose Llana raises his eyebrows when he first sees Arielle Jacobs (Imelda Marcos), I felt that he was also flirting with me! 

Conrad Ricamora is Ninoy Aquino.

Ruthie Ann Miles who originated the role of Imelda Marcos was amazing in the 2013 production. Arielle Jacobs who recently played Jasmine in the Disney production of  “Aladdin” and Nina Rosario in “In the Heights” is able to fill in Miles’s shoes in the 2023 production when dancing and belting out the songs “Dancing Together” and “Men Will Do Anything” but Jacobs lacks Miles’s and Imelda Marcos’s snooty bearing. Maybe Lea Salonga can help her. 

I was also happy to see more historical footage of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos while they were in power. While watching the footage shown during the song “Dancing Together” all around the theater,  Nancy and Gretchen, who like most New Yorkers I know are well read and well versed in politics, were surprised to see that Imelda Marcos met with world leaders like Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro, Libyan President Muammar Al Qaddafi, even then U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. 

In this year’s production, when the song “Seven Years” came on, a conversation between Imelda Marcos and Ninoy Aquino while he was in prison, I couldn’t help but shed tears. I thought about Ninoy and all the other political detainees separated from their families. I also thought about Leila de Lima, former Philippines’ justice secretary and senator who was wrongfully imprisoned by the Duterte government in 2017, who, even if she was acquitted of all charges, continues to be in prison to this day.  

What was not explained in the show is that Ninoy Aquino had a heart attack in prison in 1980 and this was the precursor to his release. Imelda Marcos allowed Ninoy to have surgery in the U.S. and to live with his family in Massachusetts on the condition that he would not return.

And of course what is different is that in from 2010 to 2016, Benigno Aquino Jr., Ninoy’s son, who brought a renewed sense of hope and integrity, became president of the Philippines. In 2023, the Philippines president is Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of Ferdinand and Imelda.

Who tells the story

Many Filipinos attribute the Marcos family’s return to power to social media. The penetration rate of Facebook in the Philippines is 96%. It is well documented that Cambridge Analytica used the Philippines as a testing ground for the 2016 U.S. Elections. 

The Duterte regime and the Marcos family used social media to spread lies. Duterte spread lies about his detractors and the Marcos family used platforms like TikTok to deceive Filipino youth that the Marcos Sr. years were a time of peace and prosperity. 

There is also criticism that Filipinos should not watch the show because it is not really a Filipino production. David Byrne is Scottish American and Fat Boy Slim is English. It is not their story to tell. 

I say that without David Byrne and Fat Boy Slim’s stature it would have been impossible to have this story told in moving platforms, in strobe lights on the global stage. With Bongbong Marcos now in power, it is even more important that this incredible story is shared. 

The end?

At the end of the performance, Nancy and Gretchen joined the long line at the ladies room. I sat on my seat and waited, still teary eyed when Gigi approached Michelle and me. We told Gigi that our uncle was at the airport waiting for Ninoy the day he was assassinated. Gigi shared that she was at home with her uncle while she watched the news on TV. Her mom and dad flew from Texas to Boston to comfort Ninoy’s wife, Cory Aquino. Her dad is Dr. Rolando Solis, Ninoy’s heart surgeon and best friend. 

I am grateful to the show’s creators, producers, and performers that this chapter of Philippine history is being retold. In my  case, a new kinship was made and I was reminded of the bravery of my forebears. I am hoping the show will remind fellow audience members from many different backgrounds to safeguard education and democracy. We are often told to study history so it doesn’t repeat itself. 

© The FilAm 2023

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