Two weeks ago, as I entered The Public Theater’s LuEsther Hall for David Byrne’s world-premiere musical Here Lies Love to thumping disco beats, a seductively enveloping haze, and the eerie gaze of a sparkling floor-length reproduction of the infamously haughty photo of the entire Marcos family wearing sashes like some godlike royalty (no one wears effing sashes in the Philippines unless you’re the Roman Catholic Cardinal or a beauty queen, jeez), I had to ask myself: “why am I here?”. I have had a complicated reaction (a combination of fascination, horror, and admiration-at-the-chutzpah-of-it-all, not to mention deep-seated ambivalence) to Here Lies Love ever since the concept album came out in 2010. My generation was called “Martial Law babies”, Filipinos who were young children in the Philippines around the time Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, and together with Imelda, began a despicable, brutal, plundering “conjugal dictatorship” aided, abetted, and coddled by the military and the business elite, lasting throughout our childhood and adolescence in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a childhood and adolescence of fear and silence, of both looking over shoulders and looking away. So I was uncomfortable with a play about Imelda, but also inexplicably drawn to it (was it because, despite how repulsive it was, I was finally going to see a Filipino story onstage? Was it because I was just drawn to the potential stratospheric level of outrageousness of a disco musical about a singular diva who, as a writer once said, made Evita Peron, Cleopatra, and Marie Antoinette all look like bag ladies?). And as a passionate theatergoer, I just couldn’t miss a new work by Byrne, staged by Tony-nominated Alex Timbers, which promised to be a wholly original “360-degree” “immersive theater event”. Here Lies Love is indeed original; it is also stunningly exhilarating, train-stopping, sea-parting, hyper-caffeinated, boundlessly creative, a theater piece recommended for voracious art-consumers (if you can get tickets to the sold-out run, buy that plane ticket to New York City now). But as a Filipino who lived through the Marcoses and survived, as well as a conscientious and thoughtful theatergoer, I do have to ask the question – is a musical truly the appropriate art form to portray such a dark period of a people’s history, even if it doesn’t purport to be a realistic biography or docudrama? Are there some subjects that, by their very nature, should not be done in such a joyous, celebratory medium? What’s next, a circus spectacle about Baby Doc Duvalier or a cabaret revue about Slobodan Milosevic?
I never thought a photo of Imelda Marcos would ever grace (sully?) the pages of this blog. I grew up in Manila during the height of the Marcos authoritarian rule in the late 1970s and 1980s, so, like many Filipinos who were subjected to their unique brand of dictatorial, mercurial, and outrageously self-indulgent rule, I’m not a fan, to say the least. But I have always had, again like many Filipinos of my generation, a slight tinge of ambivalence towards Imelda Marcos. With the infamous pairs of shoes, the co-ruler and co-indictee status, the foolishness and delusion, she was infuriating. But one also had to admire her chutzpah and her fervor in flirtatiously but decisively arm-wrestling the world to take the Philippines, a small archipelago in Southeast Asia, seriously, on a level footing, on it’s own terms, and for the most part, to be successful in doing so during her heyday. She was, and continues to be, while now living in Manila, seemingly forgiven by a country that threw her out into exile, larger-than-describable-life, and that’s alluring and fascinating. And for some reason, maybe because of this larger-than-lifeness, not to mention the campiness and the unrepentant divaness, she has definitive gay icon status. So when I heard that David Byrne (he of Talking Heads fame) and Fatboy Slim were releasing a “concept album” of a possible theatrical piece called “Here Lies Love: A song cycle about Imelda Marcos & Estrella Cumpas” containing twenty-two songs devoted to the life of Madame and her erstwhile housekeeper/governess, Estrella, I was so curious I had to run out to my favorite Boystown music store stat! (of course, I knew those gays would have a stash of this CD!). I’m still listening to the music, but I’m already blown away by the caliber of the mostly female artists Byrne has asked to be on the album, such as Tori Amos, Natalie Merchant, Cyndi Lauper, Martha Wainwright (Rufus’s sister). I’ll be writing a more detailed blog post, containing not only my impressions of the album, but also my point of view on Imeldific as a theater subject, in the next week or so. In the meantime, why don’t you guys take a look at this extremely well-written piece on the creation and evolution (five years in the making!) of “Here Lies Love” from the Times of London, which also contains some interesting points about Imelda’s current “weirdly iconic” status in the arts world. Oh, and I guess New York’s Public Theater is supposedly playing a part in developing this theatrical piece. Can someone help me get some jaw reconstruction surgery, please?
For me, the dog days of August seem to be almost interminably crawling by, with an overall hazy, languorous feel to them that makes me all the more want to stay cooped up in my air-conditioned apartment watching the men’s springboard diving at the Beijing Olympics (if cutting-edge NASA technology was used to develop the new aerodynamic Speedo body swimsuit the swimmers are wearing, I wonder what technological marvel could have come up with Alexandre Despatie’s diving trunks? Uhmmm…I’m sure you Halsted queen bees have a multitude of theories running through your, ahh, heads…). There hasn’t been a lot of arts and culture events to go to (or at least any that I am particularly interested in), so I have been catching up a lot on news of what’s coming up.