A group of Asian people sit in a small space with a string of lights around them.

‘Larry: The Musical’ is a sonic revolution for an Asian future in theater

This Filipino-led production details the life and impact of revolutionary labor leader, Larry Itliong

The cast of "Larry: The Musical."

Rudi Tcruz

Last month at the Brava Theater in San Francisco, I stood alongside Filipino American community organizers, immigrant elders, and many young people with awe-filled eyes in a standing ovation for the cast and team behind Larry: The Musical as they took their bows.

The impact of this moment was palpable: A reimagining of a vital piece of Fil-Am history being told by us, and for us. It was more than just a first—it was a glimpse into the future for Asian Americans in musical theater.

Larry: The Musical, an all-Filipino casted production, shares the life of Filipino American labor leader Larry Itliong, a pivotal yet underrepresented figure in American history. Itliong was a fierce advocate for workers' rights, notably helping lead the Delano Grape Strike—his contributions often being omitted from history—which led to the creation of the United Farm Workers that still runs today.

The musical is based on the book Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong written by the show’s writer and executive producer, Gayle Romasanta, and Dr. Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, a Filipino American historian who dedicated a lot of her work to sharing Itliong’s legacy. The musical also honors Mabalon during the show, as she unfortunately passed away in 2018.

Through musical flashbacks of a younger Itliong falling in love and making the harsh decision to immigrate to the United States, heart-wrenching ballads and cast numbers depicting an older Itliong’s life in protests, police violence, and encountering racism against the Filipino American community, the musical is a force of cultural storytelling like we’ve never seen before, using music to keep our history alive.

An Asian woman stands on a bench in a black top and jeans and a light brown bag, with others sitting around her.

Kylie Abucay plays Yzzy in "Larry: The Musical."

Courtesy of Kylie Abucay

“A lyric that comes to mind from the show is ‘buried in the footnotes,’ which is said by Elder Larry, played by Eymard Cabling,” says Kylie Abucay, who plays Yzzy in the show. “By shining a light on the untold stories of our history, we uplift the community to do so as well in their own approach. By telling Larry’s story through the performing arts, we bring his story to the attention of theater lovers regardless of their background, while simultaneously highlighting people who typically don’t get a chance to shine in a show about them, for them, and by them.”

“I think it paves the way for Filipino American representation everywhere,” adds Romelo Urbi, who plays Perfecto. “While acknowledging the limits of representation in a political sense, there is still so much power in storytelling. Taking up space on stage and showing everyone who we are on our own terms hopefully inspires folks to do the same in any realm of their lives. I also can’t help but think about a little Romelo who would’ve loved to see something like Larry: The Musical. I can’t even imagine what that might’ve done for me in my journey as a young artist considering how much it’s done for me now.”

The inaugural month-long residency of this culturally significant musical had a fitting home in San Francisco given how prominent Itliong’s work was in the Bay Area. Despite the prevalence of Itliong’s work in the community and the large demographic of Filipinos in the area, somehow Itliong’s contributions to American history were left out of even local history.

A group of Asian actors stand on a stage holding their fists and signs up in "Larry: The Musical."

"Larry: The Musical" tells the story of Filipino American labor activist Larry Itliong.

Billy Bustamante

Larry: The Musical is probably one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done as an artist because it hits so close to home,” says Jaron Liclican, who plays Carlos. “It allowed me to understand our past better and the experiences and hardships that came with it as our ancestors started a life in America. It’s more than just a show to put on or a role to play. It’s a service and responsibility to the community.”

Larry: The Musical repurposes musical theater as a way to remind our community of the power we’ve always had and that even in times of political struggle and violence, we were fearless. The show is unique in its point of view with their cultural upkeeping, emulating the practices of storytelling that have traversed generations and crossed oceans. Our people pass on stories to keep our history and spirits alive, and this show uses the arts to do that themselves. “Being a part of this project has truly been eye-opening and rewarding because not only was I able to learn so much about our history, but I feel so honored to be a part of passing the story down to the rest of the community,” Liclican says. “I knew very little of Fil-Am history growing up. It was never in my textbooks. I only started learning about it in college, but even then, they were very brief, overlooked pieces of information.”

“To be fully transparent, it wasn’t even until one of our composers and music director Sean Kana told me about the project back in 2021 that I had heard the name ‘Larry Itliong,’” Abucay adds. “To me, this show really feels like someone took the average American history book and added numerous sticky notes of information on every single page. I knew absolutely nothing about Filipino or Filipino American history growing up, despite being surrounded by people with the same background as me.”

A group of Asian actors stand in a row, in front of a blue-painted bus.

"Larry: The Musical" is an all-Filipino cast.

This kind of representation is refreshing, given the fact that Broadway and musical theater continue to lack Asian voices—not to mention the “yellowface” controversies. We recently had short-lived, and highly criticized, Broadway Asian American representation through KPOP and Here Lies Love, but this show takes a much more intentional approach to representation that I want to be the template for future Asian stories in all industries. The show represents Filipinos with a level of nuance the former shows couldn’t fully convey. The mere presence of our visibility means nothing if the impact of it is counterproductive to our mission, and in this show, it really felt like our nuanced voices and culture were a part of the show’s ensemble, on stage with the cast, looking out at us.

Liclican and Urbi have historically motivated characters that are great examples of how the show embodies this freshly dynamic sentiment. “As my character Carlos, I made sure to shine a light on the young Filipino farm workers and Delano Manongs who were strong, passionate, confident, fashionable, and suave—all of which are traits that, for years, weren’t really associated with Asian men, dating all the way back since the days of the ‘Yellow Peril,’” Liclican says. “We have been overshadowed by stereotypes that essentially painted us as being passive, voiceless, and emasculated. This show was an opportunity to portray them as hot shit and really claim that space for our community.”

“I play a gay Filipino American boxer. While we don’t get to explore too much of Perfecto’s lore, I think that it was really special to have queer representation here,” Urbi says. “Throughout the rehearsal period I had a hard time reckoning with the intentionality of including that part of his identity in this story. But then putting it in front of an audience and hearing folks cheer when it was revealed made me realize how important it was that we are seen. In my head, I’m imagining the young queer Filipino student coming to see the show and being surprised to see themselves represented on stage. In a community that still struggles with homophobia, here we are acknowledging the presence of a queer couple in a time period we might not have considered them to exist in before, acknowledging the intersecting identities, acknowledging the range of what it means to be Filipino American.”

A row of Asian people stand on a stage while an audience stands and applauds.

The cast of "Larry: The Musical" during a performance.

Ken Francis Villa

What Urbi touches on speaks directly to the unmatched power in this show. Because the representation we see in this musical is not just a reminder of our ability as Filipinos to take on a character on a stage, it’s even more importantly a reminder of our ability to be the powerful people we are as Filipinos beyond Broadway. “To me, Larry: The Musical emphasizes that Larry’s story is the community’s story, and is ultimately our story in all its capacities,” Urbi says.

With two Asian-led musicals ripped off of Broadway so far and the memories of the incredible show that was Larry: The Musical being all that I have left of it, I can confidently say that perhaps the future of Asians in musical theater is not just seeing us on stage, but it’s also showing us in a way that defies the monolith, radically uses the artform as a healing practice, and reshifts who we believe we can be in the world as a community. “I honestly felt as if Asian representation in the arts didn’t realistically go past my community boundaries,” Abucay says. “ I am very hopeful that Asian representation in theater will turn a new leaf soon and I’m crossing all my fingers that Larry: The Musical is the start of a new revolution.”

The team behind Larry: The Musical is now hoping to continue this production across the country, with many hoping for a Broadway residency one day. Itliong’s story and the message of this musical is a narrative of resistance and community that deserves to be told to the masses. And as a musical theater fan myself, I know the best shows are the ones that make you feel something special after exiting the theater. Leaving this show feels like you just attended one of Itliong’s infamous community protests, leaving the theater into the world with a little part of Itliong’s spirit with you in whatever you do next.

Published on May 14, 2024

Words by Andre Lawes Menchavez

Andre Lawes Menchavez (he/him) is a Filipinx, Indigenous and queer community organizer who uses journalism as a tool of activism, constantly seeking to lift up marginalized communities through his work. He received his bachelor of arts degree in law, societies and justice at the University of Washington and his master of arts in specialized journalism—with a focus in race and social justice reporting—from the University of Southern California. Find him on Instagram at @itsjustdrey.