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Let Filipinos Tell Filipino Stories: A Review Of Broadway's Here Lies Love

Image by Summer Sevilla

"Here Lies Love", the disco musical based on Imelda Marcos, will end its Broadway run on November 26 after just 150 performances. While I was skeptical of the production from the time it was announced, questioning the ramifications of glamorizing the life of the controversial former first lady of the Philippines, I was happy for the opportunity it provided to Filipino creatives who so rarely get a chance to shine. And the show allowed them to do just that; I was blown away by the talents of the cast, who made the lackluster disco pop score truly sing.

But powerhouse vocals and an elaborate setup that transformed the Broadway Theatre into a live disco party, complete with a moving stage and a dance floor, were not enough to sell tickets, and they weren't enough to make up for weak source material. "Here Lies Love" is the brainchild of Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, who collaborated on the show with Fatboy Slim -- Byrne and Slim wrote the music while Byrne contributed the lyrics. The duo initially released the songs as a concept album in 2010, with the stage production premiering off-Broadway in 2013. The Broadway production of "Here Lies Love," which premiered earlier this year, features an all-Filipino cast and was brought to life by Filipino creatives. Yet both Slim and Byrne are white men (Slim is English and Byrne Scottish American), and the artists featured on the concept album were overwhelmingly white, a fact that drew ire from many Filipinos who are understandably frustrated by centuries of our stories being told by non-Filipinos.

David Byrne [Image by Fred von Lohmann CC BY 2.0]

Byrne's approach to Imelda Marcos is a sympathetic one. He portrays her as a poor girl who grows up to marry one of the most powerful men in the Philippines. "Here Lies Love" shows her as deeply flawed but ultimately misguided by her desire for affection; in a 2013 interview with The New York Times, he described her as "a kind of innocent who was corrupted by power." In the show, he was careful not to include one of the most memorable images of the hedonistic excess of the Marcos regime -- Imelda's collection of more than 1,000 pairs of shoes (some estimates put the total as high as 3,000) -- afraid it would turn her into a joke. "I think that, by empathising with her life, where she came from and how she felt, you start to realise there are very universal human feelings, instincts and drives that when they are given free rein can lead to a bit of excess," he told The Age in 2006.

Imelda Marcos

"A bit of excess" is a massive understatement. Imelda's husband, Ferdinand Marcos, was the president of the Philippines from December 30, 1965 to February 25, 1986. For nine of those years, beginning in 1972, the country was under martial law. During this period there were thousands of human rights violations committed by the administration. Amnesty International reports that tens of thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Those who spoke against the administration, or were simply viewed as threats, were frequent targets. While the Broadway production of "Here Lies Love" mentions this, it is only by projecting the estimated number of victims on screens hung around the stage. Byrne's lyrics say nothing of the 3,257 extrajudicial killings, 35,000 documented tortures, 737 disappearances, and 70,000 people imprisoned. "A bit of excess" indeed. "Here Lies Love" offers up a slew of excuses for Imelda's role in her husband's regime. While it does portray her as his right hand and acknowledges the influence she wielded, especially during the years of martial law, a number of rationalizations are used to minimize, if not outright justify, her growing disconnect from the people of the Philippines: her depression over Ferdinand cheating on her, a dependence on drugs, a desperation to be loved. Byrne's version of Imelda is not a masterful strategist who ruled alongside her husband but rather a lonely girl from the provinces who was never able to shake off her humble beginnings. What Byrne overlooks, though, is the complexity of the class system in the Philippines; to a white man who grew up in the U.S., Imelda's lack of money growing up may signal nothing more than poverty, but in reality, she was a well-connected poor relation of a wealthy family whose whirlwind romance with Ferdinand was likely more strategic than "Here Lies Love" displays. When Ferdinand -- then a young politician with presidential aspirations -- first met Imelda, he already had a family with his common-law wife. He left her for Imelda, who, like Ferdinand, came from a political family. Imelda was also well-educated, earning a degree in education from St. Paul’s College in 1952, a time in which most women didn't attend university. Imelda, in short, was well cut out for the position of a politician's wife, hardly the naive country bumpkin Byrne envisions. In interviews, Byrne has expressed a decades-long fascination with Imelda, and this might explain his seeming reluctance to hold her fully accountable for her actions. "I've heard she has an aura, she's incredibly charming and you're kind of mesmerised," he told the BBC in 2014. He has also been quick to remind audiences of Ferdinand and Imelda's triumphs while downplaying their crimes. "They were very, very much loved when they first got elected," he told Seattle Mag in 2017. "This is before martial law was declared. Ferdinand Marcos also made good on a lot of his campaign promises to build schools and hospitals and roads, and all this kind of stuff were the kind of things they promised, which was kind of a rare thing in the Philippines those days. And they were photogenic, so people just really loved them, and they did some good stuff at that point, and later they kind of turned to the dark side."

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos

While the show is a Filipino story presented by a Filipino cast, the Western lens through which it is told is inescapable and that is what ultimately makes the show forgettable. Aside from the cast, "Here Lies Love" simply doesn't feel Filipino. While Byrne throws in a few Filipino phrases -- including a well-timed "putang ina mo" that the Filipinos in the audience met with cheers at the performance I attended -- it is painfully obvious that the Filipinoness of the story is secondary. "Here Lies Love" is a dizzying spectacle of bright lights and non-stop music -- the show is mostly sung through, with very little dialogue, relying on catchy beats to tell a story that doesn't fully come across. The show sheds little insight into Imelda's life or the Marcos regime; Filipino history is simply used as a vehicle for the music when it should have been the other way around. If I had not already known the history of Imelda and the Marcos administration, I would not have learned much from this glitzy reimagining of a tumultuous period in Philippine history.

As someone who is informed of the history, the entire performance felt surreal, lacking the solemnity that such heavy material demands. While one could argue that the upbeat disco music is meant to serve as a sharp contrast to the horrors of that time, it only serves to gloss over painful historical events. "Here Lies Love" is advertised as a dance party and a fun night out. Audiences are invited to dance along, even if they didn't pay for one of the more expensive tickets on the main dance floor that surrounds the stage; at one point, the seated audience is guided through a line dance. The pacing leaves little time to think of the real people who were impacted by the Marcoses; like Imelda, who turned a portion of Malacañang Palace into a discothèque, we are expected to keep partying without a thought for those who suffered. The show ends with the Marcoses being ousted during the People Power Revolution and here we are finally given a moment to reflect and mourn as the cast sings "God Draws Straight," a subdued piece accompanied by guitar that marvels at the peaceful end of a violent regime. The moment doesn't last, though, as the cast makes its bows to the buoyant reprise of its headlining song, "Here Lies Love," while pink streamers explode through the theater. Any emotional buildup is undercut by the cheerful tune. Watching the show, I was reminded of the cloying sweetness of pastillas, a sugary treat with no real substance that melts quickly upon the tongue.

The excitement I felt at seeing Broadway's first all-Filipino cast was for the cast itself, which delivered a stellar performance. While I wasn't impressed by "Here Lies Love," it did prove that the Filipino community has an incredible amount of talent and that our stories deserve to be told. In the future, though, let us be the ones to tell them.


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