In the case of Here Lies Love, big things come in big packages. The new Broadway musical charts the Marcos regime in the Philippines with a blinding spotlight on First Lady Imelda Marcos — butterfly sleeves and all.
But this isn’t your three-hour, sit-in-the-dark Les Miserábles kind of night. Featuring a pop score by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, producers turned to scenic designer David Korins to reimagine the historic Broadway Theatre and reconfigure the space into a shape-shifting nightclub, complete with towering disco balls, live video feed, and dance floor ticketing for those who want to be in the middle of the action.
And while Imelda (played by Arielle Jacobs) receives much of the narrative attention, your eyes will undoubtedly lock on Jose Llana as Ferdinand Marcos. Returning to a role he created at Mass MoCA in 2012 and later reprised in The Public Theater’s critically acclaimed Off-Broadway run, Llana brings the corrupt politician (who ruled the country from December 30, 1965 until he fled the country on February 25, 1986) to life. Martial law, embezzlement, and voter fraud were among Marcos’s political manipulations (sound familiar?), typically executed with an uncanny air of confidence alongside his former beauty queen wife.
A decade in the making
Llana, 47, was born in Manila and is now closer in age to when Marcos first stepped into power. Here Lies Love marks his eighth Broadway show, having made his debut as the young lover Lun Tha in the 1996 revival of The King and I starring Lou Diamond Phillips — a role he would later play in the 2015 Lincoln Center Theater revival and on tour throughout the U.K.
“I’ve done a lot of dime store psychology on myself the past six months,” Llana told INTO during a dressing room conversation before a mid-week performance in late August. “My approach to playing Marcos now is so much more nuanced with what’s happening in the world. When we helped create this piece 10 years ago, it was the Obama administration. Noynoy Aquino was in office in the Philippines — it was a joyous time in the world. And us telling the story in this little downtown theater was like, ‘Look how bad it was.’”
“Now, there’s a weight of responsibility in every way,” Llana said. “So much more is at stake. Russia invading Ukraine — there are so many examples to find inspiration on who this guy is. The inability to let go of his power and what he does to keep it: the lies, the human rights violations. I have to be fully aware that while I’m playing this part, I’m holding a mirror up to what’s happening all over the world right now.”
“The material I’m given in the show is really interesting for me, and I’m allowed to seduce at full throttle,” Llana said. “We call it ‘The Great Seduction.’ We spend nearly an hour seducing each other, then the audience, until we have all the power. Then we turn it on.”
It took a decade of sitting with the material and other performance experiences to reach that level of maturity and understanding. In addition to Here Lies Love’s director Alex Timbers, Llana credits working with Bartlett Sher, who directed the 2015 revival The King and I and cast Llana to replace Ken Watanabe as The King of Siam.
“It was a real turning point for me,” Llana said. “Not only was I graduating from playing the young lover to the King, here I was at Lincoln Center Theater, and the production had just won four Tony Awards. Suddenly I was stepping into the show, and I was so nervous and felt so young.”
“We were having a major rehearsal onstage, and I was trying too hard,” Llana said. “Bart pulled me aside and said, ‘You know what? You got the job. Stop acting like the King. Just be the King.’ And I can’t tell you how much that registered with me — from an acting level and also personally.”
Building a life
Llana was three years old when his parents uprooted their family and left the Philippines during the height of the Marcos regime. (In a twisted turn of fate, Ferdinand and Imelda’s son, Bongbong, was elected as the country’s 17th president on May 25, 2022.) Although Llana’s career has flourished since leaving The Manhattan School of Music for that first Broadway gig, the journey has also included some hard-fought battles and realizations about queer visibility and multicultural representation.
His dressing room at The Broadway Theatre, painted a dark charcoal, features family photos, a sketch of Llana and husband Erik Rose, and other memorabilia from his career and culture. It’s not lost on the actor that the Broadway company is composed entirely of Filipino actors — a watershed moment for the AAPI community and its visibility in the commercial theater.
Despite growing up in a progressive household, Llana said, “Coming out of the closet and deciding to pursue theater came hand in hand. It gave me the confidence to tell my parents, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m going to turn down these engineering scholarships and instead go to music school and pay for it.’ The courage I had after coming out was like a ball of fire. That fearlessness propelled me toward the beginning of my career.”
Llana — at 19 years old, starring in a Broadway show and living on his own in New York City — wasn’t prepared for the litany of questions from reporters about his dating life. “It was tough because it was still not a topic you talked about openly,” he said. “Even if it was assumed that you were gay, there had to be a ‘coming out’ — you couldn’t just casually mention it because then it became the story.”
Llana’s personal life was an open book, but he still was cautious when out and about in New York City’s club scene, concerned about running into industry folks. Nevertheless, he began dating and living his life more fully. In 2002, Llana was cast opposite Lea Salonga (Tony winner for the original production of Miss Saigon and one of Here Lies Love’s producers). That friendship and professional connection led to a potentially career-defining recording contract in the Philippines.
After months of laying down tracks, Llana began promoting the album and was encouraged by the studio to lie about his identity and say that he was too busy to have a girlfriend or wife. “Suddenly, I was back in the closet,” Llana said. “It was really hard, especially after being out for seven years. This was before the widespread use of the Internet — if anybody Googled me, they could have seen that I was out and had a boyfriend in New York, but it was a real awakening for me. I was just incredibly unhappy. I could feel my soul getting crushed every day.”
Llana returned to New York, fatigued but not defeated. In 2008, he returned to the Philippines with then-boyfriend Rose for a family wedding, where they were welcomed with open arms, including by his grandmother Lola. “They danced together all night,” Llana said. “To this day, that was the best part of the wedding.”
Building a career
As Llana continued to embrace his full self personally, maintaining a career as a theater actor was not without its challenges. Fortunately, his versatility proved to be a not-so-secret power.
“When I came to New York, actors were considered either a legit singer or a pop/rock singer, and rarely did they let you do both,” Llana said. “I started in The King and I (Rodgers and Hammerstein), then did a revival of On The Town [originally produced in 1944 and featuring music by Leonard Bernstein]in Central Park. But then I was cast as Angel in Rent. That versatility got me in a lot of doors.”
“I was a lot of casting directors’ favorite wildcard, where they’d have 10 people of one type and me,” Llana said. “I was happily able to be a vocal chameleon. Now, people don’t necessarily classify you in those terms because a lot of today’s composers write in that middle pocket, which is great, and what the future of Broadway should be.”
But Llana has also faced systemic biases, which have been slow to change in the commercial theater.
Among auditions and developmental workshops, Llana said he’s often been on the Broadway shortlist for the best friend or villain. “The leading man is always a beautiful tall white guy,” Llana said. “And historically, you would have a whole white cast, but then diversity slowly happens. Producers are not ready for an Asian American leading man if it’s not an Asian story, regardless of whether it was a contemporary New York City story where there was no race written into the part.”
Opportunities from theater-makers like George C. Wolfe, who directed On the Town (and also directs Colman Domingo in the film Rustin, releasing November 3), and Ben Levit, who cast Llana in the title role of Candide at Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater, have fueled Llana. “It empowered me to keep going after roles,” he said, recognizing the importance of regional theaters for artists and audiences alike. “A lot of fantastic artists, both onstage and off, are able to flex their muscles in a way that you can’t do when it’s New York commercial theater.”
Llana also acknowledged the connection between recognition and opportunity. “People ask me, ‘Why do you care about the Tonys so much?’ Because a Tony nomination, or even more so, a Tony win, outweighs ethnicity. Is it changing? Yes. Is it 100% better? Absolutely not. I’m still not considered for parts like my contemporaries, but I’ve pursued opportunities that have been given.”
“I know my purpose in Here Lies Love. I’m here. I’ve earned it,” he said. “And I don’t just mean as President Ferdinand Marcos, but as Jose Llana.” ♦
Interview was edited for length and clarity.
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