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The Creative Team of ‘Larry The Musical’ Gears Up for the Premiere of a Healing Show Based on Larry Itliong

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Excited. Energized. Grateful.

In January, that is how Billy Bustamante, director of Brava Theater’s upcoming production of Larry The Musical, is feeling, two months prior to opening night. An exploration of the life and legacy of Filipino American farm labor activist Larry Itliong, the original musical is already drawing interest well before previews begin, with opening night nearly sold out, and the last two weeks of its run looking to be the same.

“This is probably the most meaningful project of my career as a Filipino American theater artist,” Bustamante commented, “and there’s been such a galvanizing of not just the theater community, but the Filipino American community in a way that I have never experienced before through a theater project that I’ve been a part of.”

Gayle Romasanta, writer and executive producer of Larry, noted how politically charged this artistic endeavor is, as it aims to break the erasure of Asian American history. Even within the Asian American community, many people have been unaware of Itliong’s story for too long.

“So it’s working on so many levels that we are not only operating creatively, but we’re operating and doing solidarity work around this piece, consistently and pushing for a political voice,” she explained. Romasanta feels the responsibility of spotlighting a story that has implications, both politically and culturally. “So it’s a lot [of] trying not to feel all the pressure, but it is a huge ask; a huge, huge ask that we didn’t know that we were going to tumble into. But here we are.”

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The initial workshop for Larry was streamed on YouTube in October 2021 (and covered on the CAAM blog). Since then, 20 more songs – infusing diverse musical styles and genres – have been written by composers Bryan Pangilinan and Sean Kana, and Romasanta has rewritten the script over 20 times, with rewrites still happening, even as rehearsals continue.

With the story sharpening, Romasanta explained, it’s becoming clear that the story is about more than Itliong’s individual contributions, but also a depiction of a community absent of elders, where a young Itliong rose as a leader.

“So you’re looking at an immigrant migrant farm working community, raising a 15-year-old boy, and all of them are not too much older than him,” she noted. “So they were a community without elders, which is fascinating.”

The concept for Larry spurred from Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, a 2018 children’s picture book written by Romasanta and the late historian, Dr. Dawn Mabalon. The early ideas for the stage scenes are all in there.

“All the scene work in that book was actually imagined as a film,” Romasanta said. “All of that scene work, in order to write it, [was] imagined [as] a scene, like storyboarded scenes. And so [the musical] isn’t an exact mirror of the book. There are things that we actually had to expand. We had to imagine the community and really look at community relationships. But I think it just makes sense just with our backgrounds [as theater artists]. It’s almost like a perfect storm.”

To then bring the story into the form of a musical felt like a natural progression for Romasanta and Pangilinan, both having previous background experience in theater, through spaces such as the San Francisco-based Filipino American theater, Bindlestiff Studio.

The work of adapting a book into a musical show required a lot of funding.

“I also want people to understand that they need to invest in the community, they need to invest in their children,” she later added. “They need to invest in the people around them who are artists because this would never have happened, had our communities and our families never invested in us as artists, as young people. And that’s how it connects. That’s how it totally connects with writing a book standpoint and then putting [it] up [in the] theater.”

Itliong’s story and life are not as widely known as other historical figures in American history (although he was included in the CAAM-funded Asian Americans documentary series). When Romasanta and Pangilinan initially pitched the production to funders, some people didn’t know about him, let alone believe the history.

That’s why it meant a lot to the production team when CAAM provided them a discretionary grant, which funded filming of the second and third workshops, writing of new songs, writing of the script, and Bustamante’s direction in the workshops. Most importantly, Pangilinan believes it lent credibility to the project.

“That means so much to us because then it shows, first of all, we have a champion and advocate in CAAM, but then it also inspires other folks and other funders, other donors to give,” Pangilinan commented. “So that’s huge.”

Don Young, Director of Programming at CAAM, immediately saw the importance of a story like Itliong’s being produced for the stage. “We first heard about Larry The Musical from an online fundraising event they were hosting,” he stated. “We attended and were just mesmerized by the musical numbers, but as importantly, just so inspired by the team and their commitment to both creating great art and building a community foundation for the future. We decided we had to do what we could to be part of this amazing collaboration and support their efforts as best we could.”

Larry has since received grants from other organizations such as the San Francisco Arts Commission, SoMa Pilipinas, the National Endowment for the Arts, and more. They’ve also received support from individuals within the Filipino American community, as well as the wider Asian American community.

Bustamante, who’s from the East Coast, is in awe of the support that Larry has received. “We would be sharing this work in rooms of 20 or 30 people, and now we have a reach of thousands, nationwide, in the Philippines back home, in Canada, worldwide of people who now know our work, now have a window into this story that I know I did not grow up learning about, as an East Coast Filipino. And to me, I think that’s where the big gift has come, that community support of not just what we’re doing, but why we’re doing it has been beautiful to watch.”

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Larry is coming at a time where, in the case of bigger theater institutions like Broadway, Asian American representation is constantly coming and going. On one hand, the musical is premiering only a few months after the closure of Here Lies Love. On the other hand, there are a confirmed number of nine Asian American actors in principal roles in shows this year on the Great White Way. Bustamante, who has worked within the Broadway sphere in the past, sees the phenomenon as the transition from representation, to something more than just visibility.

“I think the world is ready to expect more from the media they consume,” he said. “So they don’t just want to see themselves represented on stage, but they want to see themselves represented on stage with integrity. So for me, the idea of representation with integrity is the new project that we are all a part of. And when we think about how that impacts the peak of the commercial entertainment theatrical system, which is Broadway, I don’t know that wider audiences are ready to spend as much money for stories that they don’t at first glance think are for them.

Larry The Musical can help fill the integrity ingredient in representation,” he later added. “This will be the first time I’ll have been a part of an all-Filipino American theater project where that doesn’t just put Filipino bodies on stage, but puts words and notes and ideas, visual creativity that come from other Filipino Americans that they get to share. That has been a missing piece, that idea of who’s writing the words, who’s writing the notes.”

Although Larry will be playing at the Brava Theater from March 16 until April 14, Pangilinan sees a life for it beyond, even transcending the current theatrical producing system. He hopes to bring the production to not just other stages, but also on other screens.

“As a creative team, we definitely value accessibility by all means and forms of all different ways that folks can access this story,” he said. “Gayle has an amazing vision of reaching a mass audience, especially folks that have not even stepped into a theater before or because they can’t afford watching a show. So I think that’s what’s been great about creating this using video because we now are building that model already to branch out outside of the theater hall and get to folks’ devices and phones and everything, everything all at once.”

Watch a Sneak Peek of Larry the Musical from CAAMFest 2023​



In the meantime, as time ticks away until the premiere, Bustamante hopes that audience members who “have not necessarily seen or recognized their place at the center of their story, find the empowerment to claim that faith and live their lives differently as they walk out of the theater.”

For Pangilinan, he echoes the sentiment of hope in audiences of grasping a sense of hope for stories of their own lives, as well as that of their families, the farm workers, and Itliong. He also hopes it will summon inspiration, motivation, and a call to action; whether it be pursuing the arts, or simply helping with the upcoming elections or volunteering at a non-profit.

He hopes that by addressing generational trauma the show will be addressing, Larry will make way for healing, which for Romasanta, believes to be the core takeaway. “If you’re of Filipino descent, how you’re not going to keep it together by the end of it, how you cannot reconcile in yourself that you’ve been silent, that our history has been violent here. And you have to reconcile that, and you need to heal and you need change,” she said.

Larry the Musical will be playing at the Brava Theater in San Francisco from March 16 to April 14. Get more information and buy tickets at Brava.org.
 
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