‘Larry the Musical’ honors Fil-Am labor hero Larry Itliong | Inquirer

‘Larry the Musical’ honors Fil-Am civil rights icon Larry Itliong

The show runs March 16 through April 14 at San Francisco’s Brava Theater
/ 01:07 AM March 14, 2024

“Larry the Musical” flyer

SAN FRANCISCO – “Larry the Musical – the first all-Filipino American theatrical production based on the life of Fil-Am labor leader and civil rights activist Larry Itliong – premieres this week at the Brava Theater Main Stage.

Preview shows run from March 16 to 22, with a sold-out opening night on March 23 and closing on April 14.

“I’m nervous and excited for all the best reasons,” says director Billy Bustamante. “We are creating something incredibly special that will have a huge impact, and I really hope that everyone gets to see it.”

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Bustamante, assistant director and assistant choreographer for Broadway productions “Here Lies Love” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Here We Are,” joins the 100-percent Filipino American creative team headed by writer and executive producer, Gayle Romasanta, and composer and executive producer, Bryan Pangilinan.

Larry Itliong was under the radar for most Filipino Americans. He was a charismatic figure, cigar in mouth, seen in photos alongside Cesar Chavez. Itliong spearheaded the Delano Grape Strike in 1965 with fellow Fil-Am labor leaders Philip Vera Cruz, Benjamin Gines and Pete Velasco. Until recently, he had been relegated to a supporting, if not lesser known, figure in a seminal moment in American labor history.

Overshadowed by the mythic status of fellow labor leader and activist Cesar Chavez, Larry Itliong’s overdue recognition came to pass when Larry Itliong Day was proclaimed in California on Oct. 25, 2015. Then a statewide declaration of Larry Itliong Day happened on Oct. 25, 2019.


But it was not until the 2018 publication of the children’s book “Journey for Justice, The Life of Larry Itliong” by the late historian Dr. Dawn Bohulano Mabalon and Gayle Romasanta that Itliong’s story really came to light.

Romasanta had originally imagined a film version of the book before it became a musical.

"Larry the Musical" team

Clockwise from top left, Gayle Romasanta, Billy Bustamante and Bryan Pangilinan. CONTRIBUTED

“I always imagined it like that and it was brewing in my mind. I was like, well, how is this going to happen?” she says.


Serendipity happened when Romasanta went to see a local production of the Broadway musical “Allegiance,” inspired by the childhood experience of George Takei. The production had a majority of Filipino Americans as cast members, including Bryan Pangilinan in a lead role, “Larry the Musical” cast member Marah Sotelo and producing partner Melvign Badiola.

Romasanta, Pangilinan and Badiola have know each other for many years since working together in theater productions at Bindlestiff Studio. They all met up at a local bar after the show where Romasanta told Pangilinan and Badiola how “Allegiance” was “so powerful.”

They posed the questions, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could write a musical about the Filipino American experience in our history? When is it our turn to tell our story? When can Filipino actors actually play Filipino?”

Romasanta shared the book “Journey for Justice” with Pangilinan. “I saw in the book that every scene or experience that Larry Itliong had gone through, to me, read like a song,” says Pangilinan. “After reading it, I said, ‘let’s do this.’ And that’s how it started. We never expected that it would get as big as it’s gotten, and to have that reach and impact that it has even before we premiered has been amazing.”

Romasanta and Pangilinan began working on “Larry the Musical” at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first batch of songs were Zoom collaborations.

“We started writing the first song together in March 2020, and then you know what happened,” says Pangilinan. “So Gayle and I just started writing songs via Zoom together. Gayle would write lyrics first, then I would put her lyrics to music, and I would sing through some melodies I’ve written, and we would go back and forth.”

Pangilinan describes the music as a “halo halo mix tape” since “it really blends and really highlights all of the musical influences and genres that we grew up with. Everything from OPM, to 90s pop, to Filipino folk dance.” Being able to fuse all these musical genres has “been such a great joy” for him, adds Pangilinan.

He shares that he and Romasanta initially had a different approach when they started writing songs, keeping it in the time period of Itliong’s life from the 1920s to the 1970s.

"Larry the Musical" cast

Eymard Meneses Cabling (left) and Joshua Carandang. CONTRIBUTED

But they decided to “let go of that and gave ourselves permission to just put the music that we love into the musical.” It was then that things started flowing artistically for them.

“We were able to write so many songs because we gave ourselves the freedom and acknowledged that what we love musically is good,” says Pangilinan. “We feel that our Filipino community and even folks who are not Filipino will resonate with it.”

Romasanta adds, “I had to research so much and really write from the heart. Some of those original songs are part of ‘Larry the Musical’ now.”

“Larry the Musical” premiered seven songs in its first public workshop that was streamed online in October 2021.

New songs were then written and performed in its second developmental workshop for the Filipino American Community in Delano in July 2022. On April 1, 2023, the first read-through of the full script and the sing-through of 20 songs happened at Brava Theater.

“It was a long five-year process. Brian and I have been working on this for five straight years,” says Romasanta.

Filipino Americans have been a big part of major American theater productions but rarely play Filipino characters because the roles are few and far between. And even fewer are theater productions about Filipino American stories. When the roles you want to play are scarce and the opportunity to tell your story does not exist, you create it yourself.

“It’s a place for us to truly own our art. In the general mainstream, we’re not given creative lead at all but here is a special place and that we have agency as artists,” says Romasanta. “We’re able to create at a level that we’ve always wanted to and that we’ve been trained for. We deserve to tell our story.”

Bustamante adds, “Being in this room with all Filipino Americans telling this Filipino American story written for, by and about Filipino Americans, I felt this unique synergy that I was able to notice for the first time in my professional life, a sense of belonging that I have never felt before in the theater industry.”

Creating “Larry the Musical” from the ground up has been both a challenge and a blessing with the help of the community.

“Our biggest challenge but also our biggest blessing is that we are doing this by ourselves,” says Bustamante. “A majority of what gets us to the stage has been the contributions of community members from across the country donating anywhere from $5 to $500. In that way, it feels really empowering to have their support.”

There are two “Larry” characters in the musical. The young Larry, played by Joshua Carandang, and elder Larry, played by Eymard Meneses Cabling.

According to Cabling, The two “Larry” characters are an “amalgamation of what you were when you were a boy and when you became a man. It’s kind of a representation of your younger self and your older self, and how the two communicate with each other.”

Playing Larry is Carandang’s first professional lead role and he finds the experience nerve-wracking but also sees it as a privilege.

“The monumentality of it is weighing on me a little bit. This first musical written by a Filipino with an all-Filipino cast, so it’s a very historic moment, and with that comes all the pressure. It’s just such an honor to be here,” says Carandang. “The first cast that I’ve ever been in that’s all-Filipino. The environment that it creates is just something that I can’t put into words. It is such an incredible feeling.”

On the other hand, Cabling, who had played a version of Larry’s character, being a part of the second workshop performance in 2022, shares his approach in playing his role.

“The embodiment of Larry is actually not creating an imitation of who he was but the internal soul of who he is. That is something that I’m challenging myself to carry on in the lines and the scenes, and in the show,” says Cabling. “I want to capture his aura instead of his accent, his charisma, his character and his energy, and his confidence and his bravado.”

Romasanta says, “the reason why we’re here in the United States is because we’re cheap labor. We were cheap labor for the Manong generation, we’re cheap labor in the medical field.” And because of this, Romasanta adds, “we can’t even practice or do what we were meant to do and had training to do” which is “identifying that we have an artistic soul, that we are full human beings.”

The notion that Filipino Americans can be so much more than what “we have been conditioned for generations now, that we are cheap labor” is at the heart of what “Larry the Musical” is about.

“Larry the Musical” hopes to empower us to realize our full potential and to inspire us to make change.

“This (character) is one of the people who helped make America what it is, and this person happened to be Filipino American. That is the guiding principle of what we are trying to do here,” says Bustamante. “To tell Larry’s story as widely as possible, so that more people know that Filipinos helped build this country. Filipinos helped get you the rights of labor that so many of us enjoy and rely on today.”

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TAGS: Fil-Am, Fil-Am empowerment, Larry Itliong, performing arts
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