The extraordinary road to the West End for the Philippines’ Mark Bautista began with singing boy-band covers at shopping malls and a long ride from poverty aboard a cargo ship.
Now, he is performing to sold-out crowds at one of the world’s most prestigious theater venues, cast as former Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos in “Here Lies Love,” a rollicking disco-and-dictators musical.
“It was never in my wildest dreams that I could get a lead role in a Manila musical… and now I have this,” Bautista, 31, told Agence France Presse recently before heading to London to star in the show written by Talking Heads co-founder David Byrne and Norman Cook–a.k.a Fat Boy Slim.
“Here Lies Love” tracks the rise and fall of the Philippines’ former First Lady Imelda Marcos, who partied with Hollywood stars as her husband, Ferdinand, ruled the poor Southeast Asian nation with an iron fist until toppled in a 1986 revolution.
The title refers to the epitaph that the former beauty queen, now 85 and back in power as a member of the House of Representatives, wants on her tombstone.
After a successful run on Broadway with US-based actors of Filipino descent cast in the lead roles, it opened at London’s National Theater recently with Bautista becoming its first Philippines-based main actor.
Hong Kong-born actress Natalie Mendoza plays Imelda Marcos.
Bautista said the six-month contract gave him a shot at emulating a select few Filipinos who had made the grade in international theater.
Lea Salonga blazed the trail 25 years ago as the young bar girl Kim, orphaned by the Vietnam War, in the acclaimed musical “Miss Saigon.”
“This made me realize that I could dream too, perhaps go for Broadway, why not? Maybe I could also audition for foreign films later on, perhaps for Asian characters,” Bautista said.
He went to see the Marcos widow to prepare for his breakout role, while dropping all his more financially rewarding domestic commitments.
“She had an idea about what the musical is all about, but said they [the musical production]did not have her permission,” Bautista said.
“She also has an issue with some portions of the storyline being presented as facts,” he added.
Bautista said Mrs. Marcos cited the controversial portrayal of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr., assassinated by Marcos troops in 1984 and father of Philippine incumbent President Benigno Aquino 3rd, as a love interest of a young Imelda.
But, reflecting the widely held view of the former First Lady as having an insatiable craving for attention, the Filipino actor-singer added that the widow told him she might even go and watch the musical.
“She is happy a musical has been written about her [despite the inaccuracies],” he said.
Originally from Cagayan de Oro City in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao, Bautista quit university and gave up his architectural studies when his sailor father became incapacitated, forcing the son, one of five siblings, to become a breadwinner.
Bautista said he had hoped to go to Japan to sing covers, but the plan fell through, so he ended up as the frontman in bands performing at provincial shopping malls covering the likes of ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys.
But his rich, soothing baritone and boy-band good looks stood above the mass of other similar acts, and he soon got a major breakthrough in 2002 with a runner-up finish at a Manila television singing contest.
Bautista was too poor at the time to afford a plane ticket to Manila for the auditions, so his mother had paid about $11 for a several-days passage on a cargo ship.
“It was slow going because it was not even a passenger vessel,” he said.
Bautista then quickly became a national celebrity, with a chart-topping pop career, a high-profile television job as host of a variety show and two lead roles in Philippine theater, including a production of “Full Monty.”
Nevertheless, he said he had been too timid to audition for a “Miss Saigon” revival in London last year.
But, urged on by Salonga’s mother, Ligaya Imutan, he went for and nailed the Ferdinand Marcos role during a Manila talent search this year that drew more than 100 aspirants.
Staged six days a week with no understudy for him, Bautista said he expected the 90-minute musical — all song and dance without dialogue — would be “physically challenging.”
According to him, he would be taking a pay cut to perform in London.
“But I like the opportunity and the prestige,” he said.
“There are not too many [Filipinos] who can say they have done a musical in London. I am so fortunate and I do not want to waste this opportunity.”