“It’s the longest road I’ve ever walked on a show,” says Jose Llana, who reprises his role as former President Ferdinand Marcos, whose dictatorship ruled the country from 1986 to 1986. “I think the timing is exactly what it needs to be; we’re telling this story in a world where Marcos is back in power.”
The world has indeed changed. As Rana points out, “Love Is Here” debuted during the Obama administration, when Benigno Aquino III (son of former President Corazon Aquino and political revolutionary Benigno “Nino” Aquino Jr. (who was executed by Ferdinand)) presided over the Philippines. “Telling the story at the time was kind of like, Isn’t the world great now? Wasn’t it so bad before? ,” he said. “We devoted a discussion to the history of the Philippines, discussing how a very popular leader was elected by a landslide and then indulged in abusing and holding power. After the democratic upheaval of the past decade, it felt more meaningful to be reminded of what can happen if the lessons of history are not learned.”
Like power, the greater the visibility, the greater the responsibility. As the production gradually reached a broader Broadway audience, criticisms of its upbeat club anthems glorifying the Marcos regime escalated, especially from Filipinos. While most of the lyrics are taken directly from interviews, statements and speeches by Marcos, Aquino and Imelda’s childhood nanny Estrela Campas, the musical lacks any book that explicitly contextualizes the themes and emotional layers of the songs, meaning viewers must keep their own critical eye on history as they rife with feel-good campaign speeches and uncontrolled, delusional vanity.
“It’s not a superhero movie,” Byrne said. “You don’t want your villain to be completely evil from the start, and in our case, the audience represented the people of the Philippines who had been seduced by the Marcos family before, and little by little, things turned to the dark side.” So the eponymous song sung by a teenage Imelda, named after what she once said she wished to read on a tombstone, is both infectious and sentimental, a far cry from her last, blatantly manipulative song, “Why Don’t You Love Me?”
“Trap,” Rana repeated, “a lot of people know what the Marcos family did and see them as villains. But at the same time, you can’t free yourself from history. On the surface, it sounds like a musical in tribute to the Marcos, so there’s a lot of objection from Filipinos and journalists that I respect, saying it doesn’t look like something they want to see. It’s hard to respond because as an artist you want to say, ‘I don’t want to tell you something, I want you to see it , let the art speak for itself.’” He added that the production team has done extensive outreach in the Filipino community to draw audiences into theaters and hopefully start a conversation.