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?
Let’s get it straight – I enjoyed Here Lies Love immensely. It was one of my most memorable evenings at the theater in recent memory. Set in a disco, with the audience as clubbers, herded from one part of the room to another by minders/ushers/Imelda’s bodyguards in pink jumpsuits while the performers belt out the numbers all around the room on flexible platform stages impressively designed by David Korins, it’s an experience even the most jaded theater patron has probably never had. At one point, the audience jawdroppingly switches places with the performers, going up onstage while the actors stay on the dance floor. Timbers is a directorial genius – he not just masterfully orchestrates all this audience movement and set changes, but also flawlessly throws into the heady intricate mix Peter Nigrini’s meticulously curated video projections, Justin Townsend’s evocative lighting design, capturing both the sweaty grime of third-world Manila and the dazzling chic of first-world Studio 54, and Obie winner Annie-B Parson’s idiosyncratic choreography, a sexy mélange of hip hop, zumba, Fosse craftsmanship, Tony Marino disco moves, and Filipino folkdancing. Wow!
But Timbers’ direction could have been all flash and no substance if Byrne’s music is not as much of an achievement. Here Lies Love is a sung-through musical with no book scenes; news reports, speeches, and yes that notorious sex recording (which was the evidence of Marcos’ infidelity with a B-movie American starlet, Dovie Beams) serve as bridge between songs. So the songs need to clearly tell the story of Imelda’s humble origins as a provincial beauty queen to political wife to one of the most powerful and power-hungry women in the world. And they do. But they’re also catchy, hummable, memorable, thrillingly spanning genres from pure disco (the pulsating title number “Here Lies Love”) to modified hip-hop (the prologue “American Troglodyte” about the pervasive influence of America and its culture on the Philippines) to haunting emo-rock (“Order 1081” which paints the country’s reaction to Marcos’ declaration of Martial Law) to the fabulous Broadway-meets-Beyonce diva numbers (“Star and Slave” a new song not in the concept album which sets forth Imelda’s delusional view of how the Filipinos love her because she’s beautifully, glamorously in service to them, gawd). Byrne’s music is so dazzlingly infectious that you can see the hard-working, platform-jumping, mostly Filipino cast enjoying themselves immensely, with the three leads giving exciting, extremely well-sung performances: Jose Llana’s Ferdinand is sexy and menacing; Conrad Ricamora’s Ninoy Aquino is Boy Band- idealistic; and, most especially, Ruthie Ann Miles’ Imelda is layered: melancholy and delusional, clinging yet determined. If I have qualms about Byrne’s work it’s that the songs paint Imelda in a much more sympathetic light than I can ever see her in, or anyone who lived through her capricious, steely-eyed, vainglorious ways, for that matter.
On one hand, I was shamelessly dancing to “Please Don’t”, Byrne’s song about Imelda’s roving world ambassadorship for the Philippines and one of the best songs in the score, even mimicking her loopy flicking wrist moves as shown in her real-life videos projected around the audience; on the other, I was shamefully thinking why am I feeling pleasure and enjoyment in all of this? Shouldn’t I be feeling repulsion, anger, frustration instead- that I could never see this show as a regular theatergoer because I’m a Filipino who was living in the Philippines while all of this transpired? That I know my and my family’s lives then, and my countrymen’s lives, was as far from slick line dances and musical theater belting as lives under authoritarian regimes possibly can? I know part of it is time, which eases the pain, if not totally heals the wound. It’s been 27 years since the People Power revolution that deposed the Marcoses and temporarily sent them to exile in Hawaii. Imelda has been back in the Philippines for more than two decades and is an elected Congressperson serving her second term; her son, Bongbong, is a senator. An exhibit of her seized jewelry is in the works. If the Philippines has not forgotten, it certainly looks like it has forgiven, so why would I, a Filipino who hasn’t called the Philippines home in close to twenty years do otherwise? But maybe part of it is an underlying trait of the Filipinos that Byrne has uncannily tapped in his artistry – his Imelda wants to focus on beauty not grime, on love not violence, on reinvention not historical accounting, on moving on not on being held back. I can never, and should never, distill the complex Filipino experience in a blogpost, but Byrne has struck a nerve: is his reality-denying Imelda an apt metaphor for the fraught Filipino response to the Marcos legacy and history? And if it is, why? In that sense, Here Lies Love becomes essential, reflective viewing for Filipinos everywhere, as tumultuous as the experience can be.
Here Lies Love is on its third extension at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York, New York, until June 30. Read Ben Brantley’s rave review in the New York Times. The show has gotten some of the best reviews (all ecstatic) in the 2012-2013 New York theater season, both Broadway and off-Broadway.
Tags: Public Theater