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A Labor Leader’s Legacy Is Set in Song With ‘Larry the Musical’

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A man stands in the middle of circle of people seated in folding charges on a stage.
Edward Meneses Cablings (center) leads the cast of 'Larry the Musical' as Larry Itliong. (Joseph Gabriel Ilustrisimo)

In California labor history lessons, the names Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta are well known. Less taught, however, is the name of Larry Itliong, an influential Filipino labor organizer. A new stage production called Larry the Musical: An American Journey, which begins previews on March 16 and opens March 23 at the Brava Theater in San Francisco, hopes to change that.

“You must talk about the Filipino contribution when you talk about the farm labor movement,” says Gayle Romasanta, writer and executive producer of Larry the Musical and co-author of the book Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong with late historian Dawn Mabalon.

Women in casual clothes sit in folder changes in a row.
Cast members in ‘Larry the Musical’ in a scene for the song ‘Train.’ (Joseph Gabriel Ilustrisimo)

Most notably, Romasanta says, you must talk about how Itliong and Filipino farm workers initiated the Delano Grape Strike in 1965, which led to the launch of the United Farm Workers coalition, and brought Filipino workers, led by Itliong, and Mexican farm workers, led by Chavez and Huerta, together. But Romasanta says that activism by Filipino Americans during that time – and decades leading up to the strike – was often overlooked, both then and now.

“There was an anti-Asian sentiment in the media,” Romasanta says of coalition coverage. “It was a global campaign, but you didn’t see us. And in many of the murals today, you don’t see us.”

After publishing Journey for Justice in 2018, Romasanta knew she wanted to bring Itliong’s story to life in other ways. After attending the Bay Area premiere of Allegiance, a musical inspired by the life of Japanese American actor George Takei, she was spurred to action.


“Most of the actors were Filipino, playing Japanese,” Romasanta says. “And we were thinking like, well, when is it our time? When can we actually do Broadway, but put our story in it? Larry Itliong’s story and the Filipino American community’s story.”

One of the Filipino actors in Allegiance was Bryan Pangilinan, a veteran in the Bay Area musical theater scene and a friend of Romasanta. Together, they started writing and composing the musical just before the pandemic hit. Now the show is hitting the stage, with a groundbreaking all-Filipino cast and creative team.

A group photos of many Filipino men and women on a stage.
Cast and creative team members for ‘Larry the Musical’ on stage at the Brava Theater in San Francisco. (Joseph Gabriel Ilustrisimo)

The musical includes songs with titles like “Watsonville & Stockton,” about the violence Filipinos faced in the 1930s at the hands of white mobs, and “Solidarity Forever, Unity Always,” about the challenge of overcoming efforts from white growers to divide and conquer Filipino and Mexican farm workers fighting for workers’ rights.

“I honestly have to pinch myself a lot. Sometimes I can’t believe that we’re doing this,” says Pangilinan, who also executive produced alongside Romasanta. “I’m so excited to have the opportunity to infuse [song elements] that we grew up with and be unapologetically Filipino in the music.”

To co-compose the music, Pangilinan collaborated with another longtime Filipino artist in the Bay Area theater scene, Sean Kana. Kana, who also serves as music director, says audiences can look forward to a lot of musical styles reflecting Filipino culture.

“You’re going to hear pop, you’re going to hear jazz, you’re going to hear folk, you’re going to hear tango,” says Kana. “Which is all reminiscent of Filipino pop music. It’s a big mixtape.”

Hand in hand, the mixtape-style musical delivers a timely message about the fight for equal rights and the hard work of building solidarity to grow a movement for social change.

‘Larry the Musical: An American Journey’ runs from March 15 to April 14 at the Brava Theater (2781 24th St., San Francisco). Find tickets and more information here.

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