Here Lies Love may have just opened on Broadway this summer, but star Conrad Ricamora has been part of the show for over a decade.
The 90-minute disco-pop musical written by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim and directed by Alex Timbers (Moulin Rouge) tells the life story of Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos. Reprising his role from the show’s 2012 Williamstown Theatre Festival premiere and acclaimed 2013 off-Broadway run at The Public, Ricamora plays Ninoy Aquino. From young flame to political rival, Aquino was a crucial part of the fall of the Marcos dictatorship.
To tell this story, the Broadway Theatre has been transformed into Club Millennium—an immersive venue that allows audience members to be front and center with the actors. Audiences in the floor section can dance throughout the show along with the cast members, all while the stage moves around the space. Seated sections in the gallery and club lounge still include getting on your feet and dancing along with everyone, making for the most unique night out on Broadway this fall.
Ricamora—also known for the film Fire Island and television shows How to Get Away with Murder and The Resident—chatted with me about portraying a real-life icon, the musical’s journey to Broadway, interacting with the audience while performing, and much more.
ALEX KELLEHER-NAGORKSI: You were in the show’s original off-Broadway production. How has both the show and your relationship to your character evolved in the decade that you’ve been away from it?
CONRAD RICAMORA: I think we had a 200 to 300-person capacity at The Public. Now it’s about 1000 people. It’s off the bat just bigger in that aspect. There’s a lot more energy in the room when you’re doing the show. I also feel like the quality of everything is sharper, like the video projections. I don’t know exactly how all the technology works, but from when we started 10 years ago to now, it’s just gotten better, which also means that aspect of the storytelling has improved.
As for revisiting Ninoy again 10 years later? I got married this year, so playing a character that gives up his entire family for something that he believes in is a sacrifice I understand a little bit more. Having my own little family and committing to them has given me a deeper understanding of what he gave up. Those are the main personal and professional ways that it’s changed for me.
Here Lies Love is the first ever Broadway show to have an all-Filipino cast. Why do you think it’s taken so long for a show like this to be mounted?
Like most things in our world, theater has been historically controlled by straight white men. Everyone else is just starting to get a little bit more autonomy, power, and the ability to use their voices more. The distribution of power is widening, and that includes all races, gender identities, etc. I feel like that’s the number one reason why it’s happening now and why it’s so important for it to happen. When it’s just one group of people holding all the power, they dictate who gets seen and whose stories get told, and that has excluded so many people historically. It’s nice to see it reversing now.
As a performer, how is your creative process different when you’re playing a fictional character versus a real person?
I always like to start with what’s written. But with a fictional person, you don’t have real life footage to see how they walked, hear how they talked, and all that. There’s so much literature that Ninoy wrote himself, including a book that I keep in my dressing room. It’s the one he wrote when he was in prison for seven years. A lot of people say there’s so much pressure playing a real person who actually walked the earth, but I have actually found it easier because you have so many more resources available to find your way in. The hardest challenge was marrying a pop-rock musical sensibility to a political figure and synthesizing those two things.
Have you ever gotten to meet or speak with anyone in the Aquino family? How did that impact your approach to the role?
His nephew came to see the show a few weeks ago, and when we were at The Public, I met his daughter. I am hesitant to ask anybody that is just living their life unless they offer it up. So far, none of his relatives have reached out to be like, “Hey, here’s some information.” I very much like to respect people’s privacy and I don’t want to pry. But his nephew actually offered to get coffee in the next couple of weeks to talk about his memories of Ninoy. I’m assuming that could be used as a resource for my approach. But honestly there’s so much of Ninoy that exists on video and in his own writings, so I haven’t felt like there’ve been gaps in what I’ve needed to find my approach to him.
One of the things that makes the show so unique is how immersive it is and how involved the audience gets to be. For example, at one point, you are in the seated section of the theater leading audience members getting up on their feet to dance. What are some of the most memorable interactions you’ve had with audience members in these intimate scenarios?
My favorite story is from The Public. The fire alarm kept going off and we had to leave the theater in the middle of the show. We then came back and started the show back up where we ended. I had to jump back up on a platform from the middle of the audience so that I could start restart, and Tyra Banks was there. I slipped when I was trying to get back up, and she went to push my butt to help me up. Then she realized that everybody around recognized who she was and was looking at her, and she was like “I’m just trying to help!” That was my favorite story.
I would say the most meaningful interactions though are when we see people who were actually there during the overthrow of the Marcos government. They hold up the Laban sign, which is the People Power Revolution sign. Seeing them hold it up during the show, and then meeting them afterwards and hearing their stories about how they were there has been so powerful and meaningful.
While I had of course heard of Imelda Marcos before, I don’t recall any history classes ever teaching me about the atrocities and corruptions she and her husband were responsible for. I’m so grateful to this show because I learned so much from it. Why do you think this story isn’t more widely taught and known in the U.S.?
I think it’s tough for the United States because they were complicit in a way. They knew that the Marcoses were committing heinous human rights abuses, but because they were letting us keep air force bases there—which is a huge deal for that area, strategically, being so close to China and Japan and the entire continent of Asia—they kind of overlooked these things and turned a blind eye. During the show, there’s a U.S. government helicopter that helps Imelda and Ferdinand out of the Philippines. The U.S. government kind of saved them. I think that’s a part of the reason why it’s not talked about or taught, because our country was complicit, which is hard to take as an American. But you can’t deny the truth of the matter. We have to acknowledge the truth in order to move forward.
Here Lies Love remains incredibly topical today, and even ends with a discussion about how democracies around the world are still under siege and in grave danger. What do you hope audiences take away from both the show and the legacy of Ninoy Aquino?
I hope that people get informed about what their representatives in government are actually doing for all of us, instead of being like, “This guy is a reality show contestant that I think is funny or cool or what not.” I really want my politicians to be very boring. I want them enacting policies that benefit the greater public that invest in all of us. It’s so hard when we attach value to celebrity and attach value to people that we idolize and treat as icons, especially when they are politicians. They’re supposed to be doing things that are in service of us. When people follow someone because they just blindly idolize them, then they’re able to steal behind our backs. That’s happened in our own recent political history similarly to how it did with Imelda. I hope that people hold our elected officials accountable. It blows my mind the number of people that still follow and idolize really problematic people.
Though the show deals with very serious subject matter, its catchy music, eye-popping choreography, and stunning staging combine to create an experience for audience members that’s just as educational as it is fun. Why do you think the show is able to strike that balance so well?
It’s a combination of things! It’s the lighting, the projections, and how the stage itself is a dynamic living and moving thing within the audience. I think that creates interest in an audience right when they walk in, just to see how all these pieces are coming together. We’re also implicating the audience to become a part of the story when we’re campaigning as these political figures directly to them. When you’re dancing with Ninoy or Imelda, the show really gets in your bones and your skin because you become a part of it. That’s what I love so much about it.
Afterwards, I think there’s a huge hangover from the show because you’ve been essentially dancing with a dictator and somebody who’s treated an entire country horribly. I like that it’s challenging and uncomfortable for people in that way. So many times, audiences come to just sit back, be entertained and kind of switch off their brains a little bit. Listen, every night when I go home to bed, I watch The Golden Girls, so I’m not saying that type of entertainment doesn’t have value. But I feel like we’ve lost a lot, especially on Broadway, where it has become a little bit Disney-fied. It is just so much about the spectacle. So to be a part of a show that is challenging people to use both their bodies and their minds throughout is something I’m really proud to be a part of.
Another thing that makes Here Lies Love so unforgettable is its disco-tinged score. What has it been like singing this style of pop music 8 times a week versus some of the more traditional musical theater you’ve sang in the past, like The King and I or Little Shop of Horrors? And how do you keep your voice protected?
Honestly, whenever I’ve had dialogue that has been very emphatic and I’ve had to yell, that’s always the hardest stuff to keep track of. It’s the letting go into Ninoy’s speeches where he’s really getting impassioned about the things he’s talking about. The singing, to me, always feels healthy. It’s interesting because as a performer, I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare, but I’ve also done a lot of musicals. One of the things I love about doing a straight play without singing is that when you’re in it, you warm up your voice, but then you can kind of let go. You don’t have to worry about pitch and hitting a note. You can let go into the feeling and into your objective and getting lost in the passion of the moment. Whereas in a musical where you’re speaking passionately but then also singing a song that requires you to hit certain notes, there’s a different way of managing your speaking and your performance. You have to find ways to still let go and be in the moment, but you also have to save your voice so that you can sing all of the things that you’re required to sing. That is a challenge that can sometimes feel very exhausting. For me, it’s not one or the other. I got into theater because I loved storytelling and acting and then musical theater came later. But I really liked the conflict and drama first. Managing those two things and then finding a way for them to both exist without standing on stage and thinking too technically about where you’re placing everything continues to be a journey that will probably be there forever.
While a cast recording of the off-Broadway production exists, do you anticipate that there will be an original Broadway cast recording for Here Lies Love? The world needs to hear Arielle Jacobs’ extraordinary voice!
I’m right there with you! I am hoping as well, but I unfortunately don’t know!
I’ve seen many takes comparing Here Lies Love to Evita in that it’s a show that focuses on the wife of a prominent political leader. But unlike Evita, Here Lies Love makes no attempts in glamorizing its central character. I see this show as much more of a cautionary tale about the abuse of power. What are your thoughts on these comparisons and why do you think this more nuanced and honest depiction of this historical figure is the most effective way of telling this story?
This is where it shows that I didn’t get into musical theater until my early 20s because I grew up on air force bases. I’ve never seen Evita so I can’t speak to that. But I am playing the revolutionary leader who helped fight to overthrow Imelda’s government. If we were glamorizing her, then my character wouldn’t exist! We’re telling it like it happened. It’s definitely shown as a cautionary tale because horrific human rights abuses happened and people died—namely, my character. Whenever I hear that anybody thinks that we’re glamorizing the Marcoses, I just want to be like, “Hi, here’s who I play and here’s what I do every night.” I sometimes get frustrated because I have heard that before, and I definitely don’t think we’re glamorizing her at all.
You mentioned previously that you got married this year. Congratulations! How did you celebrate this momentous occasion and how has married life been treating you so far?
Thank you! We are both naturally introverts, so we were happy to go to City Hall and then have brunch with our parents. Then I went to tech for the show. Then the entire cast came over afterwards to have pizza and hang out and watch the video of our vows and stuff. It was a lot of fun. One of my now favorite crazy New York stories is that as we were exiting City Hall, there was Billy Crudup and Naomi Watts waiting to go in to get married next. Now if I ever need to remember my anniversary, I can just look up Billy Crudup and Naomi Watts’.
Get tickets to Here Lies Love, now playing at the Broadway Theatre in New York, NY.
PHOTOS | Billy Bustamante, Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman