“In his tombstone it says ‘Filipino.’ In my tombstone I would like to have inscribed ‘here lies love’. But really, here lies love.” Former Philippines’ First Lady Imelda Marcos states this stoically over the glass casket of her husband, President Ferdinand Marcos in the documentary “Imelda” by Ramona Diaz. Indeed, Imelda’s story from the poverty of growing up in Leyte to becoming a style icon in the West, but a tyrannical despot to her own people in the East is melodrama worthy of both a powerful documentary and being brought to the stage in the immersive disco musical “Here Lies Love.” Featuring music by David Byrne, frontman of the Talking Heads and Fatboy Slim, the show uses the framing of “Club Millennium” to illustrate how opulence and beauty can be used to distract from government oppression. With a run at The Public in 2013 garnering massive praise for its staging and its leads, the show has had several lives in both the theater and even club venues like Terminal 5, where it has blurred the lines of a live musical experience. “Here Lies Love” opens at the Broadway Theatre on July 20 with tickets available here.
As the audience piles into the newly transformed Broadway Theatre as Club Millennium, the traditional grandeur of chandeliers has been replaced by hazy pink neon lighting as booming electronic beats usher the crowd into the house. While the show is a tight 90 minute experience, the creative team behind the show has opted to allow history to speak independent of the events of the night with TV screens giving a historical overview of Filipino-American relations starting in 1898 in the Philippine-American War, through the Marcos regime, all the way to 1986 when they were overthrown by the People Power Revolution. “Here Lies Love” does not aim to be a literal presentation of history, it has all the heightened dramatization of a teleserye with a glitzy veneer that allows you to get lost in the experience.
David Korins, the Tony-nominated set designer noted for his work with director Alex Timbers on technically stunning productions like “Beetlejuice: the Musical” and on historical musicals like “Hamilton” returns to develop “Here Lies Love” into a fully immersive disco spectacle with Timbers. While “immersive” is a descriptor that’s thrown around quite a bit these days, used to describe everything from an overpriced selfie museum, to cocktail parties with waitresses in cheap costumes, Club Millennium is nothing of the sort. What makes the space not like anything else seen on Broadway in a hot minute is Korins’ flexible set design which gives audience members two main options: seated or standing room. Standing room patrons are led to the dance floor by ushers in pink jumpsuits who bring patrons around the rotating platform. By standing on the floor, the audience is able to be part of the action of the show. As the stage transforms with minimal automation, stagehands in jumpsuits and headsets become part of the show. Seated audiences are led to the mezzanine, which may seem like a traditional Broadway arrangement, but various catwalks and walkways are designated to be kept clear as actors perform various songs and full scenes up in the mezzanine. Yet, seated audiences are invited to participate in all of the chants and even the dances led by the DJ (Moses Villarama). Villarama as the DJ opens the show with bombastic disco instrumentals versions of the evening’s songs with an extremely tall order to bring the crowd into the world of glamor and partying while giving historical context at times for what the audience is about to witness.
As the show kicks off into “American Troglodyte” the ensemble breaks into the disco romp lampooning the American obsession with freedom and consumerism in a build-up broken by the show’s title track “Here Lies Love.” Originally, the show was conceived of as a song cycle by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim about the life of Imelda Marcos from the differing viewpoints of Imelda and the view from her maid/friend Estrella. The original album features singers like Florence Welch and Natalie Merchant singing tracks from their perspectives. In the introduction to the character of Imelda (Arielle Jacobs) she is seated on the main stage in front of a projection of her old home on Solano Ave., dressed in a plain gown identical to Estrella Cumpas (Melody Butiu). However, the bit of theatrical staging is immediately shattered as Imelda grabs a wireless microphone and struts towards the center dance floor belting the song’s infectious chorus, as we witness the young woman realizing the power of her voice. While this may come off as farcical in the moment, the documentary “Imelda” that inspired this musical features moments where Imelda’s resplendent singing voice garners the attention of political candidates. Jacobs’ approach to the maligned dictator’s wife is an absolute tour-de-force as the show’s central character. Fundamentally, she understands that her bright mezzo-soprano can play to Imelda’s ability to use her innocent facade to gain attention for herself and eventually, swindle her own people. As her visage hardens, she adorns lavish Filipinana dresses, her dark hair piled high above her head and pulled into a tight bun, Jacobs transforms into the icy political figure that history has come to be familiar with.
Dashing rapidly through the crowd onto the center platform, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino (Conrad Ricamora) takes the stage clad in a signature white suit and glasses, singing that despite his upbringing as a “little prince” being the son of Filipino politician Benigno Aquino Sr., that he is a “child of the Philippines” leading the audience into a pro-union chant of “give our people a break!” Backed by b-boys in suspenders and glasses, choreographer Annie-B Parson, a frequent collaborator of David Byrne is well-versed in modern dance and storytelling through the unified choreography of the ensemble. Ricamora plays the opposition leader with a verve and charisma that makes his messaging for the people truly embody Aquino’s message. The show references Aquino’s romance with Imelda in “Opposite Attraction” seeing the couple break down over Imelda’s political indifference as Aquino falls into the arms of his eventual wife, Cory (Kristina Doucette) waving a massive flag of the Philippines symbolizing Ninoy’s love for supporting the people of his country.
Encouraged by Estrella, Imelda leaves behind Leyte, she moves in with a wealthy aunt after winning the Rose of Tacloban pageant, to the metropolitan city of Manila. Trench coated figures swarm her as World War II hero Ferdinand Marcos (Jose Llana) returns to the city to declare his candidacy for Philippines senate. Projection designer Peter Nigrini’s visual work is on full display in “A Perfect Hand” as a cameraman follows Marcos through the dancefloor audience to recreate the historic press conferences projecting the swarthy senator bidding for president by appealing to his ability to outrun the Japanese from occupied Philippines. As the dictator-to-be, Llana is a handsome and charming embodiment with his romance with Imelda tying into his political ambitions manifesting in a beachside holiday in “Sugartime Baby” where the couple is described as “our Jackie and John” by the President’s press attaché. The imagery of JFK and Jackie O is doubled down as Costume Designer Clint Ramos styles Imelda in a magenta pillbox hat and matching peacoat. Ramos’ costumes and an upbringing in Cebu draw from both inspiration of the time period with various barongs, ternos and especially in the track “Dancing Together” feature a litany of glittery and even grotesque Studio 54 club dweller fashions.
Imelda’s melodrama introduces the audience to her love of the extravagant but also the cracks in her mental state. She is prescribed a cocktail of pills for her “headaches” and we are introduced to her inner monologue known as Maria Luisa (Jasmine Forsberg). Named for an actual member of the socialite group the “blue ladies” that would advocate for the Marcos family, Forsberg plays the grittier, pop voice in Imelda’s head. Maria Luisa often is given the phrases that Imelda cannot speak herself out loud. Having seen Forsberg on the tour of the musical “Six” as Jane Seymour offering a sample of her range in that show’s power ballad, Forsberg’s intensity is on full-display in “Here Lies Love” in the tracks “Men Will Do Anything” where Imelda is thrust into a jealous rage over Ferdinand cheating with B-movie American actress Dovie Beams.
Falling ill, Ferdinand leaves Imelda as the public face of the country in “Star and Slave” where she laments being a star to the poor as someone to look up to yet a slave to the many wealthy politicians and socialites whom she would convince to provide funding for her social projects like the Manila Film Center. The show’s Brechtian approach to political figureheads features the ensemble donning masks of Regan, Gorbachev and Hussein dancing around the theater as Imelda is thrust into the whirlwind centerstage. As the events come to a head, Estrella is frustrated that Imelda has transformed herself and all but forgotten her, while Ninoy is outraged over the Marcos administration’s treatment of the student protestors, beating them over the head with riot clubs. As the seeds of unrest begin to grow during the instrumental “Riots and Bombs,” Ferdinand enacts martial law in the eerily dystopian “Order 1081” dissolving Congress, granting himself direct control of the military and dissidents like Ninoy Aquino are punished with prison as bombings are blamed on the Liberal party, despite the fact that many of them were victims.
One of the biggest casting choices for the production is the role of Aurora Aquino performed by Tony winner and entertainment legend Lea Salonga. One of the most prominent Pinay actresses in both her native country and in the West for her work in “Les Miserables” and Disney voice acting for both “Mulan” and “Aladdin.” Returning to the Broadway Theatre where she made her Tony-winning debut in “Miss Saigon,” this is a full-circle moment for the Filipina icon. As the mother of the assassinated Ninoy Aquino, Salonga consulted many of Aurora’s living relatives to consult on how the slain senator’s death impacted their lives. In her ballad “Just Ask Flowers” Salonga infuses every inch of her soul into this heart-wrenching dedication to not only a lost son, but to let his memory be a spark to ignite true change in the Philippines. Lea Salonga’s limited engagement as Aurora Aquino ends on August 13.
While the Ferdinand Marcos regime and the years of martial law are decades behind the people of the Philippines now, staging “Here Lies Love” on this run begs the question–– “Why here? Why now?” In 2013 when “Here Lies Love” ran at The Public, Benigno Aquino III was president of the Philippines, Barack Obama was in the midst of a second term and relations between the two countries had been relatively stable. As we traverse ten years later, we have lived through the combination of Trump and Duterte presidencies that have both weaponized misinformation campaigns to gain favor in the public eye, and in the Philippines, Bongbong Marcos, Ferdinand and Imelda’s son sits as the current president. Documentarian Ramona Diaz has continued to make important work on behalf of the Filipino people, most recently in her shocking coverage of Maria Ressa, the journalist who was thrown in jail and threatened for exposing the lies and corruption of President Rodrigo Duterte. In “A Thousand Cuts”, Ressa claims: “So why should you care about what happens in the Philippines? They test the tactics of how to manipulate America, in our country. If it works, they port it over to the rest of the world.”
As for the production, what makes this truly successful is the specificity to the way the creative team has approached the show that feels like they have created a sense of urgency. From the all-Filipino cast, to even tossing in dirty Tagalog phrases that get a massive laugh from Pinoy audiences, to partnering with Filipino producers like H.E.R, Jo Koy, and APL.DE.AP that seems unrivaled to shows like “Evita” or “Miss Saigon” which blindly casted Argentinian and Vietnamese stories respectively. Everything feels considered and with the creative team’s ear to the grapevine of what could be controversial about the show and who it can feature is on full display here.
While David Byrne is credited for concept, music, and lyrics, there is no one credited for the book of the show, which is told through song save for some interstitial dialogue and re-creations of historic recordings. In re-working and at times taking verbatim historical quotes from non-native English speakers, there is a certain naivete that Byrne poetically translates into the lyrics of the show’s script. In Fatboy Slim’s approach to the musical compositions of the show, the absolutely memorable tracks are composed of a diaspora like the Philippines itself. Spanish flamenco/folk guitars with Asian instrumentation over disco beats that have their roots in Black American culture. If “Stop Making Sense” and Byrne/Timbers’ previous collaboration on “American Utopia” are anything to go off of, it’s abundantly clear that David Byrne is master at the craft of the live musical experience.
Director Alex Timbers has been a raconteur of stories featuring complex historical figures through song in controversial shows like “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” and in his return to staging the show from the original run at The Public and in adapting “Here Lies Love” has not only reassessed how “Here Lies Love” can work in a Broadway house, but even dramaturgically works in the year 2023. After the frenzied piano pop track “Why Don’t You Love Me?” sees Imelda torn between her inner monologue, her husband and herself as U.S. President Ronald Reagan airlifts the First Lady and her family to America to spare themselves from the ire of the People Power Revolution, the show takes its final drastic turn. Arielle Jacobs delivers the performance of a lifetime in a resplendent white Filipiniana gown beaded with blood red jewels to symbolize her violent regime and villainous white cape tossing around as every muscle of her face is laser-focused on demanding the audience answer why she has lost their love.
For many Filipino-Americans like myself, “Here Lies Love” is a part of unraveling a bigger picture of how we came to America. As my parents and grandparents would come to the United States at various stages of the Marcos regime, assimilation was key to being accepted. The stories of what they left behind in a homeland that was now being plagued by corruption and greed were barely told in oral tradition. As Ninoy Aquino sings the torch song “Gate 37” the senator is knowingly going back to the Philippines after his exile in America for the possibility to run for President. Musically, it references the theme of “Child of the Philippines” signifying a conclusion to Aquino’s story. While the audience that may know that Aquino is essentially marching towards death at Gate 37, where the senator is assassinated by an unknown assailant, there is a line that parallels many Filipinos who are forced to leave the country and loved ones behind in hopes of a better life: “Do you know what it means/That this might be forever/I might be seeing you now/For the very last time.”
The historical context for the show is extremely necessary to understand how people from a third world nation could, to this day, still idolize Imelda as a shining aspirational beacon. As all the glitz, violence and overwhelming disco beats fade away, all that is left a singular musician. The DJ dons an acoustic guitar and drops one last truth bomb, that Imelda’s son Bongbong Marcos is currently sitting as the president of the Philippines and democracy is in danger worldwide. Strumming the ballad, the electronic sounds of the show cease and the DJ sings “God Draws Straight,” as more musicians emerge on stage armed with guitars and drums, the ensemble is no longer dressed in their flashy attire, but in plainclothes. “God Draws Straight” is a continuation of Byrne’s motif of using actual words from history by using quotes from members of the People Power Revolution describing how they feared not only how life would change under the revolution but threats of violence.
A casualty of the show in previews is that it no longer ends with a curtain call reprise of the title track “Here Lies Love” sung by the cast in their plain outfits. Timbers and Byrne made the heartbreaking decision to remove the earworm track as the last bit of music the audience leaves the theater hearing as it undoes the final message of “God Draws Straight”–– that ultimately the power of the people will prevail. If the show ends on the flashy hook of “Here Lies Love” it allows Imelda, and by extension many of our autocrats to have the final word when their stories are told.
At its core “Here Lies Love” is a cautionary tale of how love can become corrupted, but acts as a love letter to the power of the people. It is a non-stop pulsating dance party through Fil-Am history is a feast for the senses that on every rewatch offers another layer of detail through Alex Timbers’ massive staging. While I was initially skeptical of the show after seeing musicals like “Hamilton” try to revise history in a way that glosses over the genuine human rights atrocities committed by its central characters, the show truly has to be experienced to understand how it is pointedly anti-Marcos. “Here Lies Love” offers that the corruption of democracy does not often occur in plain sight, it occurs as we’re distracted, by wealth, beauty, or by a spectacle. Only when the party’s over do we realize what has happened. Our voice is our power and it is our greatest tool to preserve democracy. With a powerful inspiration for political awareness, a sensory delight of immersive theater in Club Millennium and a spectacularly cast ensemble of Filipino actors, “Here Lies Love” is the brightest star on Broadway right now.