Broadway’s “Here Lies Love” is a dynamite showcase for actor and singer Arielle Jacobs, whose chilling, full-throttle performance has made the immersive musical a must-see. The show is also a raucous dance party and a historic first, featuring an all-Filipino cast.
Still, Jacobs understands why some audience members leave the theater feeling conflicted — a bit fearful, even — by much of what they’ve just witnessed onstage.
“I knew that the telling of this story was going to open wounds for a lot of people,” the California native told HuffPost after the musical opened at New York’s Broadway Theatre last month. “There’s a big weight in taking on a character like this, especially a real-life person who caused a lot of damage and trauma to her people and her country.”
She went on to note: “But this show is not one-note. We are telling a cautionary tale. My hope is that, in opening those wounds, we are making space for healing and conversation, and allowing families and friends to talk about things they didn’t want to address. So I think the experience of the show … isn’t something to avoid. It’s something to encourage.”
Featuring a disco-pop score by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, “Here Lies Love” tells the real-life story of Imelda Marcos (played by Jacobs), who rose from obscurity to become the first lady of the Philippines on the arm of President Ferdinand Marcos (Jose Llana) in 1965.
For a time, the Marcoses are fêted as their country’s answer to U.S. President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. One of their chief critics, however, is Philippine senator Ninoy Aquino (Conrad Ricamora), who had a brief romance with Imelda during their youth and routinely points out how she and her husband’s well-documented overspending starts to drive their nation’s economy into decline.
About seven years after his election, Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law across his nation in an effort to maintain political and economic control. Before long, his regime — described by historians as a “conjugal dictatorship”— was sullied by a grisly record of human rights abuses, much of which was directed at his opponents. In 1986, he and Imelda were overthrown and thrown into exile during the People Power Revolution.
“Here Lies Love” began as a concept album in 2010, and was staged at the Public Theater in New York three years later by Tony-winning director Alex Timbers, who is repeating that duty on Broadway. Jacobs first auditioned for the 2013 production, but the part of Imelda went to actor Ruthie Ann Miles.
Before the Broadway production of “Here Lives Love” was announced earlier this year, Miles had already joined the revival of “Sweeney Todd.” By then, Jacobs felt she’d properly grown into the role. After an audition process that lasted three months, the part was hers by March.
“As a Filipino American artist, I’ve never had an opportunity to play a Filipino before, because there just aren’t stories out there written for us,” she said. “Also, there are a lot of roles like this written for men, especially in Shakespearean plays. But I can’t think of a single role written for a woman that goes this deep and allows her to show this kind of range, from innocence to corruption to leadership.”
As Imelda, Jacobs has no shortage of showstopping moments. Her renditions of the show’s title song and the plaintive anthem “Why Don’t You Love Me?” are standouts, and she undergoes a whopping 19 costume changes over the course of the show’s 90 minutes. Thanks to an innovative set design by David Korins and the use of L-ISA, a state-of-the-art form of spatial sound technology produced by French audio manufacturer L-Acoustics, she’s able to sing and dance her way beyond the Broadway Theatre’s stage and onto its mezzanine and balcony.
Jacobs made her Broadway debut in “In the Heights” 13 years ago, and went on star in “Wicked” and “Aladdin.” Still, “Here Lies Love” marks a major step up for her as a performer in that it’s her first time originating a Broadway role.
The musical also carries deep personal resonance for the actor and singer, who was raised in San Francisco alongside her brother, fellow Broadway performer Adam Jacobs. Her maternal grandfather was a Filipino scout for the U.S. Army during World War II, when the Philippines was an American colony, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1965.
“I’m here because of him,” Jacobs said. “My dream to be on Broadway now allows me to shine a light back there and look back at where we came from.”
Many have described “Here Lies Love” as a theatrical successor to “Evita,” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s similarly divisive 1978 musical based on the life of former Argentine first lady Eva Perón. To be fair, there are number of parallels between Marcos and Perón, at least in terms of how their rags-to-riches ascent and ruthless drive is portrayed in both musicals.
Still, Jacobs finds such comparisons reductive at best.
“I’d say it’s closer to Lady Macbeth than Evita,” she said. And unlike “Evita,” the show ends on a forward-thinking, if foreboding, note that alludes to today’s sociopolitical climate. Not only is Imelda herself still alive at 94, but her son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., was elected president of the Philippines last year.
“People who say we’re glamorizing or trivializing the Marcoses haven’t seen the show,” she added. “Unfortunately, democracy is at risk everywhere right now. One of the things that’s special about our show is that the audience gets to experience what it’s like to have your democracy taken away and then to get it back.”
In addition to Broadway, Jacobs has been at work on another professional venture. This fall, she and her husband, fellow actor J.J. Caruncho, will launch The Sanctivia, a New York-based wellness company focused on mental and physical fitness.
And looking ahead, she’s hoping to follow in the footsteps of other musical performers like Idina Menzel and Lea Salonga — who, incidentally, had a guest engagement in “Here Lies Love” earlier this summer and is one of the musical’s co-producers — by voicing an animated character.
Though Jacobs is committed to “Here Lies Love” for the foreseeable future, she hopes the show’s success will be critical in “opening more doors for more Filipinos to share their stories, and getting more Filipinos onstage and in TV and film and to have roles where we can play ourselves.”
“In telling this story, I feel like I can connect with people, and the storytelling is helping them connect with their own life,” she said. “And I love that.”