Imelda Marcos, the former First Lady of the Philippines, was known for two things in America –owning 3,000 pairs of shoes and dancing in discos. “Here Lies Love,” David Byrne’s inspired musical about her, ignores the shoes – the actress playing her wears just one sturdy pair for the entire show, and there is no mention at all of her vast collection of Gucci and Prada and Pierre Cardin – but, as if to compensate, has turned her life story into a night at a disco.
The third-floor LuEsther Hall of the Public Theater has been transformed into a dance club — complete with silver disco ball — for a thrilling production directed by Alex Timbers, best-known for mixing revisionist history, politics, snark and rock in “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Here the snark has been turned off and the rock ramped up — 25 original songs that take us through some 40 years of biography and history. Although not traditional Seventies disco (if that’s not a ridiculous phrase), the music is propulsive enough to make you want to dance. This is a good thing, since the staging not only allows for dancing; it sometimes nearly requires it. There are no seats*, and it’s impossible to stand still; the stages are mobile platforms, frequently moved around, with ensemble members in orange outfits that look like airport baggage handler uniforms herding the audience around them.
“Here Lies Love” began life as a concept album in 2010, conceived by David Byrne (still best-known as the front man of the band Talking Heads) in collaboration with three other songwriters, including Fatboy Slim (aka Norman Cook), with most of the lyrics created out of the real-life characters’ actual words taken from speeches and interviews and public statements. (Not all the songs that were on the CD are in the show, and there are seven new ones. See the song list below.)
Timbers has done a brilliant job in turning the album into an exciting live event, helped immeasurably by Annie-B Parson’s choreography, and all the designers (set, costume, lighting, sound, projection) working literally in concert. Best of all is the 13-member cast. They are not just first-rate. Watching this cool, athletic, talented ensemble feels like an act of startling discovery, like seeing the original cast of “Rent” and being able to say “I was there” when one by one they become stars. This feels true even for the actor portraying Ferdinand Marcos, Jose Llana, who is already a veteran of half a dozen Broadway shows.
For all its many pleasures, “Here Lies Love” is a superficial work of drama, with too few dots connected, little fresh psychological insight and insufficient political context: What politics does exist is fascinating, and chilling, but raises more questions than it addresses. Yet none of this matters much, especially while experiencing the show. The superficial treatment seems apt for a woman who first came to public attention as a teenage beauty queen — “A simple country girl who has a dream” as she sings in the catchy title tune, “Here Lies Love” (which is supposedly what she said she wanted her tombstone to read.)
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Imelda (the pitch-perfect Ruthie Ann Miles) falls in love with Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino (Conrad Ricamora), a rather astonishing fact, since Aquino went on to become the major critic of the Marcos regime. She first sees him (as do we) all dressed in white, in nerdy black glasses, but lithe and magnetic, committed to healing his country. The affair ends (“Ninoy was my first love/ But he said I was too tall/ A rich girl stole the sweetheart/ Of the Rose of Tacloban”)
When Imelda first meets Ferdinand Marcos, a war hero running for Senate (with video monitors catching him glad-handing members of the audience), she runs the full length of the theater immediately into a kiss — good theatrical shorthand for what was in fact a courtship that lasted only 11 days. (“Eleven Days” is one of my favorite tunes in the show.)
Imelda is enamored of her husband, who works his way up to the presidency with her help. A pivotal moment occurs after she visits New York. A colorful number (“Dancing Together/Walk LIke A Woman”) has some of the most fruitful use of verbatim transcripts as lyrics:
Went to the house of Mary Lasker
Saw Matisse’s, Picassos, Renoirs and Gauguin’s
Golf course and flowers, statues and stables
I met a Whitney, Rockefeller and Brown!
And they were dancin, dancing together
Dancin’ so beautifully
While singing, Imelda sheds her demure shift for a glittery disco mini-dress and dances with characters dressed as if for Mardi Gras, or Hell, or Studio 54.
The jet-setting abroad leads to extravagance at home, and Ninoy takes the lead in publicly objecting to her plans for a lavish cultural center while the Filipino people live in shanties. President Marcos clamps down on the growing criticism by killing some of his opponents, declaring martial law, and imprisoning Ninoy for seven years. Imelda springs him from prison, urging him to leave the country for good. But he returns, with tragic results — which directly result in what has come to be called the People Power Revolution that swiftly and non-violently leads to the toppling of the Marcos regime.
Almost all of this is told in song and dance, but there are some riveting scenes: We hear an actual lascivious recording made by the 20-year-old mistress of the President Marcos, then 60, which was made public at the time, causing humiliation for Imelda — and helping us to see her as more than just a self-caricature.
Some will inevitably compare “Here Lies Love” to “Evita,” but the similarities only exist on paper. The music is very different. And Evita Peron lived only to age 33. “Here Lies Love” ends with Imelda’s expulsion in 1986 — which is how David Byrne has explained the absence of the shoes from the show: Her collection was not made public until after her exile, which is outside the timeline of the musical. Unlike Evita, Imelda did not die young. She is still very much alive, and at age 83, having long ago returned to the Philippines, she is an elected member of Congress.
Here Lies Love
At the Public Theater
Concept and lyrics by David Byrne, music by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. Additional music by Tom Gandey and J Pardo
Alex Timbers (Director)
Annie-B Parson (Choreographer)
David Korins (Scenic Design)
Clint Ramos (Costume Design)
Justin Townsend (Lighting Design)
Joshua Dela Cruz
Kelvin Moon Loh
Ruthie Ann Miles
Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission
*A very limited number of seats above the performance area are available.
- American Troglodyte
- Here Lies Love
- Child of the Philippines
- Opposite Attraction
- The Rose of Tacloban
- A Perfect Hand
- Eleven Days
- When She Passed By
- Sugartime Baby (Never So Big)
- War Like a Woman
- Don’t You Agree?/ Pretty Face
- Dancing Together/ Walk Like a Woman
- The Fabulous One (I’m A Risin’)
- Men Will Do Anything
- Your Star & Slave
- Poor Me
- Please Don’t
- Solano Avenue
- Riots & Bombs
- Order 1081
- Seven Years
- Gate 37
- Just Ask The Flowers
- Why Don’t You Love Me
- God Draws Straight
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