Jose Llana is an unstoppable force. He is releasing his debut American solo album Altitude through Yellow Sound Label on May 13. Llana, who is already a best-selling artist in his home county of The Philippines, is showcasing a mix of the songs he has performed on Broadway over his 20 year career and the pop songs that best represent him and the things that mean the most in his life. While Llana is no stranger to performing at The Public Theatre, he is headlining his first solo show at Joe’s Pub to promote Altitude on May 16th.
To wrap up his spectacular month, he is back in his role as the titular character in The King and I until Sunday, May 1, at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.
Llana’s passion extends far beyond his stage career. He is as an active supporter of civil rights; he has spoken up for gay rights, told the story of the Marcos regime through Here Lies Love, and he’s an outspoken supporter for the Clinton campaign.
After all these years on a live stage, what made you want to record an album?
The whole idea came about a year and half ago when I wanted to do a concert for the American Songbook at Lincoln Center. The offer came out of nowhere and I didn’t pursue it at first, I was preparing for the concert. It was a retrospective of all of the music that I have been able to sing in my career, lots of family and friends and colleagues from previous shows attended the concert. It was recorded since it was live streamed and afterward I got connected to Yellow Sound Label. We took the best songs from the concert and put it on the album. It’s really a celebration of the first 20 years of my career; it is very fulfilling and cathartic to revisit the music that shaped me as a performer.
Actually, it was a weird coincidence that March 12, the night of the concert, was the first night of previews for The King and I and we were right across the street from the Beaumont Theatre. It was very full circle; I had no idea that five months later I would step into the role of the king.
Why did you choose to incorporate pop songs?
Beyond being retrospective of the best songs of my career and the amazing people whose music I’ve gotten to sing, Adam Guettel, Rodgers and Hammerstein, David Byrne, who did Here Lies Love. Kim Grigsby, my musical director, and I wanted to make sure that some of the concert reflected my personality. The pop songs on there are what connect me to my friends and family; particularly my partner and my niece and nephew.
Lullabye is on there and that is what I sing to my niece and nephew when I put them to sleep, so it is the personal part of the album.
Do you ever write your own music?
No! My life long best friend is a screenwriter and a novelist in LA, we grew up together and went to high school together, he has been with me through my entire career and I see what he does and… I think it is important to know what your talents are. I think I am a pretty darn good singer and interpreter, but he always encourages me to write. Right now I am happy to sing the song that these great composers have written.
Where did the name Altitude originate from?
It is a reference to lyrics in Adam Guettel’s song, Icarus; specifically it is ‘unlimited altitude’. I wanted a word that inspired kind of energy – the kind of energy that I felt when I was in that play in 1998 at The Public, it wasn’t my first show, but it was very early on. I was 22, working with Adam at The Public, and being a young singer I found my flight. I found young, contemporary musical theatre. I feel so lucky that Adam’s music came so early into my career and when I was so young. I envisioned myself like Icarus, like all actors do. We’re going against everyone’s advice to not fly too close to the sun, to not get burned. But we have something like courage mixed with foolishness, that’s what it means to me to be an actor. I’ve always loved those lyrics.
Tell me about your experience with Here Lies Love– a show about the tyrants who were the reason your family left the Philippines. That had to be somewhat surreal for you to be playing President Marcos?
Oh, completely surreal! My parents were activistas– hot-blooded baby boomers. They came into their own during the Marcos regime, so when I told them they were very apprehensive and skeptical at first. They were afraid that the Marcos’ were going to be celebrated but when I explained the whole story they understood. It brought a special meaning to the piece for me. Other cast members grew up in the U.S. but hadn’t known much of the Marcos regime or martial law. I was raised with lots of knowledge of that time. It became personal for me that it was educational for people who didn’t know about what happened during martial law. Horrible things happened that aren’t included in history books, especially for Filipino-Americans. It is the most personal professional experience, and also that’s where I met Ruthie Ann [Miles] who is on my album and now we are reunited in The King and I.
There has been a lot of buzz the last few weeks about diversity on Broadway. As a POC, what has your experience been with this? How different do you think the theatre world would be now if this conversation had started when you did, 20 years ago?
I came to New York City right when rock and roll musicals started; Tommy was the big musical at the time, and then Rent happened. And with those shows came much more diverse companies. I was lucky enough that my first job after The King and I was On The Town in Central Park with The Public and they cast me non-traditionally as Baby. I was so young- 20 years old – that I didn’t think anything of it, but the press set up interviews about how shocking it was that a Filipino actor was a lead. But since The Public was bold enough to cast me in that role in 1997 it made me think- why shouldn’t they do that? Why shouldn’t people cast outside of the mold? However, I’ve learned in 20 years that isn’t often that way. Realistically, I know shows where, as an actor that looks like me, I won’t be the lead role. Men with same credits as I who are Caucasian will be considered. That is just the reality. Certain shows on Broadway now, where everyone is Caucasian, it actually looks weird when they are. It doesn’t reflect New York society. And if the story doesn’t deal specifically with race, when you choose to make it an all-white cast, you make a statement by omission.
Changing takes shows like Hamilton– and Hamilton is just the loudest example of it. Casting directors and producing companies have to make the bold steps to chip away at it. Audra McDonald was in Carousel and then in 110 In The Shade where she had a white father and two white brothers and we believed it. We believed it because she is Audra McDonald. I love The Robber Bridegroom, which Alex Timbers directed, because they have an actor of color on stage playing the father of a white daughter and no one questions it!
Your Twitter feed is quite political, how do you see the politics of the “outside world” infiltrating into the theatre world?
Its funny, I am political because my parents raised my sister and I to be that way to a fault – they were loud anti-Marcos activists, and got kicked out of the country for it. There is a line from Hamilton that often comes to mind – ‘If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?’ I would rather to be known for strong opinions than never speak up for what I believe in. I have amazing friends like Celia Keenan-Bolger and Audra McDonald, whom I respect for their talent and also because they take stands about civil rights, LGBTQ rights, etc. It makes me wants to applaud their existence even more. If you believe in something lend your voice to it. I live in the public world, if young Filipino kids follow me on Twitter and see that I follow Hillary Clinton & support LGBTQ rights, then maybe they will do the same.
You also talk about the shows you see on Twitter. Was there one in particular that made you text all of your friends and say, ‘Guys, this is a MUST see!’
Oh- Robber Bridegroom– I saw that twice. I am such an Alex Timbers fan. Greg Hildreth is so great!
And Fiddler! Beautiful. I’ve seen it so many times that I thought ‘Okay, what will they do to make this different?’ And… they had Danny [Burstein]! I mean, come on! What they did to bookend the show at the beginning and end was amazing. The choreography was so sexy and beautiful, it was stunning. Jessica Vosk was amazing! Sam Massell– I tweeted about her and she tweeted me back – I was like, ‘I wanna have sex with your voice!’ I’m going to embarrass myself. But really, we’re all theatre geeks at heart.
For someone who has somehow lived under a rock and doesn’t know the wonder of The King and I– what would you say to them to come to the show?
If they want to see a beautiful production with a bunch of people in the creative team who are at the top of their game – from the director, to the costumer, to the lighting – and a great cast, they should come down to Siam and see the show.