Larry Itliong was a Filipino American labor organizer who rose to prominence in 1965, when he led the Delano Grape Strike; where he among other farm workers went on strike to demand wages equal to that of minimum wage. It was a moment that was decades in the making, as he had been organizing agricultural workers since the 1930s.
Despite being a prominent figure in Asian American history, his story is not widely known (although he is featured in the fourth episode of the CAAM co-produced documentary series, Asian Americans). There also have been very few Asian American musicals, and Filipino American ones are even rarer. A musical-in-the-making, Larry: A New Musical, aims to change both of these realities.
Before 2018, lead producer Melvign Badiola had never heard of Itliong. He works as an education director, at the Brava Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District, which was producing a musical by the Mission Academy of Performing Arts youth program about another labor leader, Cesar Chavez. His interest was piqued when he heard that Filipinos were involved in the movement as well.
Later that year, a children’s book called Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, was published by the late historian Dr. Dawn Mabalon and writer Gayle Romasanta.
It blew Badiola away. “I was like, ‘Oh my God! This is great. There needs to be more of this,’” he recalled. “I don’t know. The ancestors [were] telling us, ‘You need to find out about your history, dude.’”
Badiola felt motivated to create a musical about Itliong, both from being exposed to the book and also from being a part of the cast of a Bay Area production of Allegiance in 2018; a musical that explores the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. “It showed us that we can really tell a historical story powerfully through songs and music and can convey the complexities of the time,” he explained, “but also can convey the emotion and just the impact on our community, especially the AAPI community.”
Representation was crucial in Badiola’s decision to pursue this project. While he and composer Bryan Pangilinan, who also was in Allegiance, have played characters across different ethnicities, they’ve never really been able to play characters of Filipino descent. The opportunity to see people like themselves onstage, after the success of other history-focused musicals like Hamilton, he felt he had something audiences would respond to.
“It’s visceral in that way,” Badiola said. “Filipinos love drama. We love to sing and dance. It was like, ‘Why not a musical?’ I think it would be the perfect vehicle for telling Larry’s story. And not just his story, but the Manongs and Manangs that were part of that movement.”
When Pangilinan and Romasanta (who is also the writer for Larry) came aboard, they were immediately on the same page on how significant the production would be. The fact that the three of them have worked and trained together for years prior also prepared them to take it on.
“We’ve all been training and all have been in the arts for such a long time that I feel like we all needed that training to actually get to this point,” Romasanta explained. “It’s so necessary that artists have space, that artists get training, and so when there’s low-income students, and at-risk youth, and things like that, or low-income families when they don’t have access to the arts like that, to music, or to space, or to theater, or anything, you don’t get this. So it’s very, very valuable.”
Romasanta is in contact with the Itliong family and has been hearing wonderful things from them regarding the project. Itliong’s son, Johnny, has been raising awareness about his father for decades. He was in attendance of the virtual premiere of the first workshop for the musical earlier this month.
“I can imagine though that it’s so shocking,” Romasanta said. “It’s shocking because you’re doing this and know this secret, and you know this for so long. And then now you have people from New York, LA, and San Francisco, singing about your father when for so long, there was nothing, there was silence.”
Journey for Justice very much served as a guide for creating the musical. As Pangilinan explained, “When Mel and I first went through and read the book, it literally is perfect for a musical because when I see it, each of the scenes is a song to me. Dawn and Gayle did all of the great work, and it seems like it’s a great outline for a musical. So for me, it’s been a real joy and a gift for me to put those scenes in the book to music.”
“I think it provided us the opportunity to really think about and put ourselves in their shoes,” Badiola added. “I think there were a couple of songs where the way it came about was, ‘Well, let’s just listen to the songs that they were listening to back then.’ Just to get our juices flowing, I told them about [musician] Joe Bataan, and it was one of those things like, ‘Do you think Joe was following Larry? In the mess hall, were they listening to Joe Bataan’s music?’ Those kinds of things that we just… really put us in the moments.”
Despite her death in 2018, Dr. Mabalon has been integral in the making of Larry; not only did she co-author Journey for Justice, but she tracked down interview transcripts of Itliong from the Yale University archives.
“When I’m writing melodies or working on a song, I often feel like these melodies have been flowing through me,” Pangilinan said. “A lot of times, I feel like it’s Dawn speaking to me or speaking through us, and I feel like that’s real. I know it’s real because I feel like from a musical standpoint, all of those influences that she loved we also shared.”
“She had always wanted to open the door,” Romasanta reminisced. “So whenever she did her research, she would say, ‘I feel like I’m conversing with our ancestors.’ She’d always say that about our work because… Being a historian is a rare thing. I can only imagine historians are looking and searching through documents for most of their lives and understanding what really happened. She feels like she knows them intimately.”
Larry is being co-presented by Brava Theater, where unrepresented, marginalized communities have the opportunity to tell stories onstage. Aside from gaining access through Badiola as the education director there, they needed a space that was in a position and mindset to support for encouragement and as a producing partner.
“So many artists don’t get a chance to see this, let alone Filipino American artists, because of childcare or because financially, you can’t keep going,” Romasanta said. “I think with Melvign, he just reaffirmed who we were, that yes, we are artists; yes, we are experts at what we do and that we can do this.”
With the first workshop completed, the creative team aims to do two more in 2022. By next summer’s second workshop, Pangilinan aims to complete eight more songs, while Romasanta and their dramaturg, Kevin Camia, will be working on the full script. By this time next year, they aim to have the full musical written in time for the third workshop. The team currently has an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds.
“We had 20 hours to do what we did that we showed you guys,” Badiola noted. “Just imagine how much more we can do if we had two weeks.
“To tell the truth, I don’t really want to go to another white institution and ask them for money,” he later added. “What I want to do is have our community show up and show them that our stories are worth investing in, and that’s the main reason why we need everyone to show up like they showed up last Saturday to see this, like the way they’re showing up in regards to being hungry in terms of watching it again, or because they missed it and they want to see it.”
Larry is scheduled to have its world premiere at Brava Theater in October 2023. Beyond that, the creative team would love for it to go to public theater, and eventually, Broadway.
“I’ve actually received some feedback from some close friends of mine who are actually connected to Broadway folks,” Pangilinan said. “One of them said, ‘I’m ready to watch this on Broadway. It’s ready.’ Which is kind of insane.”
But before they even engage in the possibility of bringing it to the Great White Way, Badiola hopes to bring it to the Central Valley – specifically Delano – for people who otherwise don’t have easy access to theater. He doesn’t consider it too big of a stretch, seeing that he and the team have been taking an unconventional approach to the production already, and that’s all because they’re not going to wait around for anyone’s permission anymore.
“We’re not going to do it that same way,” he said. “I think that’s worked to our advantage so far. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing and we’re going to make sure that we have the blessing of our community. We’re going to bring it to our community first, let them experience it, and then we’ll take them with us when we go up to New York.”
An encore presentation of Songs from Larry: A New Musical will be streaming Friday, October 22 at 6:30 p.m. PDT on YouTube. It will be made available afterwards for six hours.