Lumpia Shanghai, pork skewers marinated in a classic banana ketchup-based BBQ sauce, and beef sliders dressed with a traditional slaw on ube buns. These were among the dishes that the actress, Melody Butiu, suggested we try at the Lower East Side eatery, Kayle, which specializes in on-the-go Filipino fare. It’s a steamy, humid morning when we meet a few hours before she’s due at the Broadway Theater ahead of a two-show day of the ambitious new musical, Here Lies Love, which opened on July 20.
Butiu plays Estrella Cumpas in the show—written by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim—which tells the story of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, the former president and First Lady of the Philippines whose reign lasted from 1965 to 1986. In her role, Butiu portrays something of a caregiver to Imelda whose storytelling purpose is to show how an earnest and optimistic young woman could turn her back on her past in pursuit of power, wealth and position.
Set against a musical backdrop rooted in the glamour and high-octane energy of disco, Here Lies Love is a first-of-its-kind production and a complete departure from tradition. From the fact that they removed the entire orchestra seating to create a club-like environment where audience members circulate around moving platforms to the DJ spinning pre-show tracks in the mezzanine, this is unlike anything that’s ever happened within the halls of a Broadway theater. But it’s another first that, when discussing the show, Butiu lights up about with emotional gravity: specifically that this is the first all-Filipino cast in Broadway history.
“I really feel the weight of the moment,” Butiu tells Observer. “To look around and see all of these beautiful faces with so many different experiences but knowing that the blood of our ancestors runs through our veins and we’re bringing this part of our history to life. I’m blown away.”
By the time the wet naps arrive on the table, Butiu has explained that food can connect commonalities. For a cast that blends Philippines-born performers and those whose families emigrated to the United States, sharing classic Filipino dishes has helped them bond in the short timeline of rehearsals, tech and preview performances. She tells me that potlucks happen backstage often, and not long ago, Arielle Jacobs, who plays Imelda, hosted the cast at her Long Island City, Queens, home to watch the Fourth of July fireworks.
“There’s a common language—a shorthand—in the things we experienced, like, ‘Oh, my mom did that, too.’ It’s very much a family,” says Butiu.
Butiu’s history with Here Lies Love dates back to 2005, when Byrne was developing a demo recording created ahead of the Adelaide Festival in Australia. In a fortuitous moment, a friend passed along the character breakdown and the actress quickly latched onto the character’s humanity, not to mention the opportunity to play a Filipino role—something her early coaches told her not to expect.
“When I saw the character of Estrella, I was like, ‘Oh I’m supposed to play this role,’” she says. “I immediately had a connection to her love and her loyalty and the maternal role she plays in the show.”
While she didn’t make it to Australia, Butiu brought life to the role of Estrella at the Public Theater in the show’s first full production in 2013. As development continued, Butiu saw the importance of the character evolve to depict the way in which the Filipino experience under the Marcos reign shifted from hopeful to oppressed and the far-from-singular moment of realization.
It’s personal for the actress, who calls Los Angeles home. Her parents moved to the United States while Marcos was in power but rarely talked openly about what they experienced. Still, for Butiu, being able to tell this history as a Filipino-American comes with a weight of responsibility.
“I worked with a choreographer once who talked about how as artists, everything we do is to honor our ancestors and to make them proud that we have come so far because they have sacrificed so much. Every moment that brings us to this point. It’s incredible,” Butiu explains with tears in her eyes.
But not everyone in Filipino communities here and abroad is thrilled with Here Lies Love’s arrival on Broadway. Since its inception, the show has garnered criticism from groups that claim it glamorizes authoritarianism and the widespread human rights violations committed by the Marcos regime. As new dishes arrive at our table, Butiu is more than happy to take on the skeptics.
“If people claim that it is a pro-Marcos show, those are easy for me to dismiss because I know that’s not true,” she says. “It does work to explore why people become tyrants but also how people watch it happen or are complicit or get seduced by a powerful personality, a beautiful face, an idea of what strength and beauty is.”
According to Butiu, care and dedication to accuracy was a central focus for the producers and creative team. Beyond the cast, there is Filipino representation across the various behind-the-scenes operations and a cultural and community liaison, Giselle “G” Töngi, who is responsible for engaging the Filipino community.
“David [Byrne] has created and conceived of such an incredible vehicle for us, but we are also taking ownership of it,” she says. “There’s no white savior written into it—no one has written themselves into it in that way. They want to give us the platform to tell this story and tell it in a deep way.”
If nothing else, Here Lies Love is destined to be one of the most talked about productions on Broadway this season. It was a risky decision to open shortly after the Tony Awards, which typically help to buoy productions with national attention, and the industry itself is facing challenging times with ticket sales still below pre-pandemic numbers. The Public Theater recently announced a 19% reduction in staff. Yet the show, with its visionary staging by Alex Timbers, represents a new proposition for the business of making theater.
“We have to find a way to engage audiences of all backgrounds, all stripes, all ages and not just rely on the old standbys,” says Butiu. “Making those changes might feel like a risk, but my gosh, it feels necessary.”
Here Lies Love is playing at the Broadway Theater. Tickets are available at www.herelieslovebroadway.com.