In front of the Broadway Theatre at the corner of Broadway and 53rd Street in Manhattan are posters for the venue’s incoming production, “Here Lies Love,” advertising a score by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim and direction by the ground-breaking Tony winner Alex Timbers. The show’s logo is superimposed over a mirror ball, literally reflecting the production’s highly unusual immersive nightclub setting, a semi-ironic counterpoint to a sobering story about the rise and fall of fascistic Filipino power couple Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. The tag line above that disco totem: “The Revolutionary Music Experience.”
It’s a revolution that the union representing Broadway musicians would like to stop in its tracks, at least in its current form. And with the show set to open for previews in less than two weeks, the production and the Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians remain at loggerheads about how “Here Lies Love” will, or should, proceed.
The union is demanding the employment of a 19-piece live orchestra, as mandated by contracts, barring negotiated “special situation” exemptions. Producers want the show to be presented as it has been in other productions for the last 10 years, with actors singing mostly to pre-recorded backing tracks, which they say is not a cost measure but an inherent reflection of the dance-club ethos and karaoke culture of the Phillipines. The 802 said in its initial statement that the union is acting as a “gatekeeper for standards of live performance in theatre, pushing back against the cheapening of our art.” The show’s Filipino producers, meanwhile, are expressing offense to being subject to “gatekeepers” and what they see as “the language of exclusion” in the “offensive” notion that “karaoke, essential in Filipino spirit and how we are as people, is a cheapened way of art.”
Variety spoke with “Here Lies Love’s” Clint Ramos and Jose Antonio Vargas, the two Filipinos among the show’s five producers, who haven’t spoken publicly about the dispute until now, as well as Tino Gagliardi, president of Local 802, who went public at the end of May with a dispute that had been quietly simmering since the production was first announced five months ago.
For either side, it’s being seen as not just any kind of typical hiccup along the path to opening night but the kind of threat where the word “existential” comes up. And although battle lines have been clearly drawn, not everyone will immediately be able to pick a side in the controversy. In both corners are groups that might normally engender a rooting interest from the same onlookers. On one side are musicians who fear their livelihood disappearing on a slippery slope to automation. On the other are creatives from a minority group that has rarely if ever found representation at this level in commercial theater, who contend that what’s being asked disregards the very culture that the show represents.
“This is an artistic enterprise, where the use of the tracks and karaoke and how that’s deployed has artistic merit and value,” says Vargas. “And that’s what’s been missing in this entire conversation, with this idea that we’re greedy producers. We are not career producers; basically, we look at this as a cultural project. This is so deeply tied to our identity as Filipinos that we actually came on and raised money and have been in conversations with the creative team guiding the show in a binational way all along.
“They said, ‘As artists, we are constantly the gatekeeper for the standards of life performance in theater, pushing back against the cheapening of our art.’ To us, that is the coded language of exclusion,” Vargas continues. “Them saying that karaoke is not a valid piece of art reeks of marginialization. This idea that we are somehow cheapening the art with it is just deeply insulting and offensive.”
Adds Ramos, “The form of the show, in the way David (Byrne) conceived of it through karaoke and also through dance track acts, is inherent to the show. And their dismissing a tradition that’s deeply inculcated in our culture is triggering. I know this because I’m from the Philippines and Jose is from the Philippines, where karaoke is embedded in our daily life. We celebrate with karaoke, and we mourn with karaoke. The Marcoses used karaoke as a political tool. And also, I would say that in the larger AAPI diaspora, it is a way for AAPI folks in the United States to actually tether themselves to home.
“This is in the DNA of the show,” he continues. “The dichotomy of recorded music and live music present in our show is absolutely important.” Actors portraying revolutionaries sing and play acoustic instruments at the very end of the show — the first and only time live instrumentation is heard — which is meant to provide a stark contrast to the often fun but synthetic quality of the tracks that otherwise predominate. “It’s actually central to the show’s thesis, which has always been like this ever since it’s been performed. So the moment we announced the transfer, the Broadway League, which represents us, started this conversation with Local 802. We have been in good faith following this process, saying this is why we qualify for ‘special situations’ [as an exemption]. We are following the rules. And then, during Memorial Day weekend, they decided to adjudicate this over media.”
But the 802’s Gagliardi is not buying the other side’s contention that foregoing a live band for tracks is essential to the cultural ethos of “Here Lies Love” and not just about cost-cutting, pure and simple.
“They’re trying to pull some kind of cultural card on this? Are you kidding me?” says Gagliardi. “The cultural crisis that we are dealing with right now is in musical theater, and the fact that they want to come in and do a Broadway show at the Broadway Theatre and use no live musicians at all. These are tracks. This is music that can be produced live. All tracks are recorded live, once. So I don’t understand what their logic is when they say things like that. … I keep hearing karaoke categorized as a genre,” he adds. “Karaoke is not a genre. It’s the Japanese term for ‘empty orchestra.’”
Gagliardi is also not impressed by the argument that “Here Lies Love” was done with tracks in its three previous productions — at the Public in New York in 2013, followed by Seattle Rep and the National Theatre in London. “I look at what David Byrne had done in the past in regard to the other productions of the show that he did, which were small regional theaters off-Broadway that didn’t have the tech or the resources that Broadway has to offer in order to make this something really substantial. … But if this is really what he wanted to do, then Terminal 5, I understand, is looking for people to rent their place. And maybe that’s the more appropriate spot for something like this. Why are you taking up space in a Broadway theater, which is where a particular cultural icon of America lives, which is musical theater?”
These questions won’t be just theoretical for long. The production is moving into the Broadway Theatre for previews that begin June 17, in advance of an official opening night July 20. If the mandated negotiations continue to be at a stalemate and the dispute finally proceeds to arbitration — as both sides have suggested is strongly possible — a judgment would likely arrive well after the show is up and running.
So it’s possible “Here Lies Love” could open in its existing form, and then be compelled to hire and write scores for a large band weeks into its run, if an arbitration board favors the union. Or, if arbiters were to rule in favor of the production, no change of plans would be necessary… but union members and supporters could still bring negative attention to the show, if their wants are thwarted. Any negotiated compromise seems far off, with both sides claiming the philosophical as well as practical high ground.
If the idea is to not have the music sound “live,” Gagliardi says a live band can produce music just as synthetic-sounding as the tracks being used. “The fact of the matter is there are musicals running on Broadway right now that are creating exactly the same kind of musical effect that David Byrne is looking for,” says the union head. “With ‘MJ, the Musical,’ the whole concept behind that uses a live orchestra to recreate the songs of Michael Jackson exactly the way you would’ve remembered it if you were listening on your Walkman with your headphones. And the other one that I would cite as an example is ‘& Juliet.’ So what David Byrne is trying to accomplish is not unusual. This is something we do as professional musicians, and we have the tech on the boards that can absolutely make a way to find whatever nuance that David Byrne wants to add to this.”
Vargas and Ramos find the idea of such an elaborate work-around not only unnecessary but conceptually antithetical, potentially undercutting a contrast that the show sets up between its pre-recorded tracks and the emergence of live, acoustic music at the end, even if that concluding organic catharsis lasts for only a matter of minutes.
“David Byrne and we and the creative team revere live music,” says Ramos. “The idea that we’re not going to use live musicians is something that I want to correct, because there are live actor-musicians on stage. Live music here is actually deployed in a such a powerful way, that it represents freedom, it represents liberation, it represents the highest of human values. Because what you have before this live music moment are the tracks, which represent the artificiality and the sort of false world that the Marcoses had created. David has considered the quality of music that is inherent to the storytelling of this show. These actor-musicians are playing those instruments in a part where they’ve actually as people set themselves free.” Adds Vargas, “We basically pull a rug out from under you … The show has always been a Trojan horse. You’re dancing around with dictators in this disco track music and then by the end when the people’s revolution happens, that’s when it’s a solo guitar…”
Not that he means to disparage the disco tracks as inherently fascistic. “Every Filipino can tell you what their first karaoke song was, from when they were 7 or 8. … That’s why it was brilliant that David went to the Philippines, saw there’s a karaoke machine anywhere, whether it’s a poor family or the Marcoses, and made that a part of the show in respecting and appreciating the culture… As a Filipino, this idea that this is less a piece of art is insulting and reductive.”
Opinions differ, obviously, over whether “Here Lies Love” should qualify for the exemption from 19 musicians that can either be negotiated or, as seems likely here, go to arbitration.
Says Gagliardi, “In 2003, Broadway musicians went on strike; we shut down Broadway for about a week. It was devastating for everybody because the opening proposal from the Broadway League was to eliminate the minimum number of musicians required for the theaters altogether. They wanted zero. At the time, the union that represents Broadway musicians was trying to find an artistic way to accommodate when a show or a producer shows up with a different concept — for example, ‘The Buddy Holly Story.’ How many musicians were in the Buddy Holly band? There were four. So we have a clause in the contract called ‘special situations.’ But that provision was never created to offer an opportunity to hire no musicians. You know, this is zero here. These are tracks, and our contract explicitly prohibits the use of tracks in the place of live musicians. And they’re trying to use the special situation in order to eliminate that altogether. I’m telling you, man, the Broadway community is up in arms over this.”
But Vargas quotes language saying the allowance for a special situation comes down to “(i) the musical concept expressed by the composer and/or orchestrator; (ii) whether the production is of a definable musical genre different from a traditional Broadway musical; (iii) the production concept expressed by the director and/or choreographer” in making a case that “Here Lies Love” meets all the stated criteria for an exemption.
One significant factual dispute is over whether “Here Lies Love” will be eligible for the Tony for best musical in 2024 if it proceeds without an orchestra. The 802 has pointed back to a controversy over the 2000 musical “Contact,” which caused a huge stir at the time by winning the best musical Tony despite having only tracks and no live music or even singing. Union reps say that rules for eligibility were changed as a result of that brouhaha, and believe that “Here Lies Love” will be ineligible for Tonys in musical categories if it continues without a live band. The producers of “Here Lies Love,” for their part, are firm in contending no such Tony rules exist.
Gagliardi says, “What happened with ‘Contact’ — and why it was such an uproar with the Broadway community was that it was a musical that was eligible for the Tony Award that had no musicians. It was all tracks. So the agreement that was reached with the Tony committee was that no musical that uses no musicians can be eligible for a (musical) Tony Award. That’s how that panned out. Basically what happened after that, because they won the Tony, was that the Tony committee was no longer going to consider musicals that don’t hire any musicians at all to be eligible for a Tony Award. Now, how that’s going to pan out with this, I have no idea.”
But “Contact,” an all-dance show, went beyond having no musicians; it didn’t have any songs or any actors doing any singing, either. The result of the controversy at the time was that the Tonys created a new award, best special theatrical event, that would cover shows lacking those traditional elements of theater that wouldn’t normally fall under either play or musical… but it was discontinued after 2009.
Meanwhile, “Here Lies Love” producers strongly dispute that the Tonys ever made a rule that band-less musicals could not compete, and forwarded to Variety a recent copy of the Tonys’ eligibility requirements, which make no mention of criteria for what constitutes an eligible musical. Says show publicist Adrian Bryan-Brown, “Everything we know of the guidelines for Tony Award eligibility, which are publicly available on the Tony Awards website for reference, give confidence that ‘Here Lies Love’ will be determined by the Tony Awards Administration Committee to be eligible as a Broadway musical.”
What comes next in potentially resolving the dispute? A couple of steps: First, a committee is to be formed with members of the Broadway League, the 802 and some mutually agreed-upon neutral parties, to attempt to find a solution that is satisfactory to everyone involved. If a solution or compromise is not found to mollify both sides, then the case will be heard and decided upon by the American Arbitration Association. How long this process could take is anyone’s guess.
Says Gagliardi, “I’m not going to tell an arbitrator how they’re gonna handle this case. What I’m telling you right now is that the Broadway community is up in arms and that’s why we’re doing what we do. None of us really know what’s gonna happen. So hopeful that David Byrne as a musician will recognize why this is so wrong for us culturally. If that doesn’t happen, then there’s a lot of strategies that are going to go into it, and it wouldn’t be really appropriate for me to tell you what we’re going to do as a union. Because why would I give them a heads-up?”
The production is unhappy that, in their view, the union is already applying undue pressure by circulating petitions and statements, and the producers cite instances in which their cast members are being DM-ed or tagged online. Says Vargas, “Can you imagine that so many of our company members are making their Broadway debuts, in a historic all-Filipino cast, and some of the messages they’re getting with people DMing them on social media? We need them to stop that and follow the procedure.”
The show’s meaning to the Filipino community is one that Vargas and Ramos continually state, in relation to but also apart from the current dispute. Ironically, perhaps, the controversy that was headed off when the show was first produced in the 2010s was whether, as a so-called “disco musical,” it would trivialize or even glorify the Marcos regime. With a historic number of Filipinos ultimately involved in the creative and production teams as well as, obviously, the cast, the danger of the show being misunderstood in that regard seemed to have been happily overcome… only for a wholly different controversy to arise.
Ramos says that Filipinos “see this as a watershed moment for our people. Having been part of this team since 2005, I believe this is a show that makes us look at our own identity as it applies to the global population.” Adds Vargas, “One thing to know about Filipinos is, we throw the best parties, and when we throw the parties, everybody’s invited. And that is totally the ethos of this show. But the ethos of this show is also that we’re telling a very specific Filipino story that, by the way, is completely relevant in this era of fascism. How do dictators happen? How does fascism happen? And what can ordinary people do to go up against it? Well, guess what? The Filipino people did it in the ‘80s — here’s proof. So in many ways, this show cannot come at a better time.”
He speaks of its historical significance to the direct participants: “Most of the coverage hasn’t even mentioned the fact that we are putting the first Filipino show on Broadway with an all-Filipino cast. And there’s never been this many Filipinos who are actually producing a Broadway show. Filipinos are the largest Asian group in California, and we are among the largest Asian groups in the country, and yet we’re marginalized within the marginalized. Even other AAPI people sometimes say, ‘Wait, we don’t have to make sure the Filipinos are included, right?’… This whole process actually reeks of that kind of marginalization, with this deeply insulting idea that we are somehow cheapening the art.”
Both sides talk in dramatic terms about the very future of Broadway being at stake from the issues that concern them.
Gagliardi says, “Look, this is a big deal. It’s not rhetoric. This is a cultural crisis for live theater. Musical theater doesn’t exist on the level that it does anywhere else in the fucking world that it does on Broadway. And this is gonna kill it. … Are you familiar with Branson, Missouri? That used to be a thriving live music theatrical center, based on tourism. It doesn’t exist anymore. It’s all tracks. That was the downfall.”
For the show’s producers, a lack of reinvention is the real threat to Broadway.
“I have an organization called Define American. In some ways what’s happening here is Define Broadway,” says Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winner known for his documentaries and books addressing cross-cultural issues prior to becoming a theatrical producer with “What the Constitution Means to Me.” “Like, what is a Broadway musical? Here’s Broadway after the pandemic. How do we attract new audiences? How do we innovate? How do we think outside the box? All you have to do is enter the Broadway Theatre and know that this is not a traditional Broadway show. We ripped out all the orchestra seats and literally changed this venue so it actually is a nightclub. We are innovating, trying to move Broadway forward.”
Vargas mentions that Ramos is “one of the few Filipino Tony Award-winning creatives on Broadway” (as a veteran costume and production designer before moving into a producer role with this show). “In our producing team, there’s five lead producers; we’re two of the five and we’re the two Filipinos. I’m the newest in this industry, and I have to say, if Broadway is to survive post-COVID in a demographically changing America, it must adapt. And that the fact that this show is actually helping lead to try to get us to this new place where we’re talking to new audiences, where we’re trying to expand the form. This show is actually pushing the form and it is inviting new audiences to Broadway. It is giving an option to audiences of what they could potentially like, because the repertoire is not that wide.
“So for them to say that we’re not respecting Broadway and that we are ‘cheapening’ it… People are excited about the show and buying tickets way into the fall. We trust our audiences to decide whether our show has value to them. They don’t need protectors or gatekeepers to infantalize them or prejudge for them what has artistic value.”