Reimagining political theater: A review of Here Lies Love musical

Contributed photos
Contributed photos

IF YOU love innovative theater and find yourself in the big city, don't miss Here Lies Love at the Broadway Theater, the hit new musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim depicting the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines.

I skimmed several reviews the morning after Opening Night (theater scribes have really tight deadlines in these parts). Consensus remains overwhelmingly positive, despite minor grumblings about the veracity of historical minutiae (those pesky musicals without a book, right?).

The Broadway Theater's ability to adapt its form takes center stage here. The producers have overcome a formidable logistical challenge, one that hindered the show's development since its 2013 premiere at the Public Theater (it had brief runs in London and Seattle Repertory several years ago).

Broadway houses never intended to create a playground for experimental works. Director Alex Timbers, driven by his enterprising vision and David Korins' ambitious scenic design, embarked on a literal deconstruction of a revered establishment -- the proscenium theater.

The desire to celebrate Filipino representation and create a Broadway venue resembling a 70's disco club, with elements of a political convention, was highly contagious. This vision received overwhelming support from friends and celebrities of Filipino heritage, whose financial investment played a crucial role in turning the years-long dream into reality.

Traditional orchestra seats went out the door, giving us a sublime viewing experience. The floor now boasts moving runway platforms, a prominent feature utilized to elicit audience participation, abetted by eight "wranglers" donning neon-pink jumpsuits.

While distinctly farther away, Mezzanine viewers are always within pivotal scenic changes, thanks to Timbers' brazen use of actors on multiple platforms across the house, keeping us accountable to the action below -- as if no one is allowed to be mere spectators from a distance. Don't worry about missing key transitions: the house DJ takes care of that. He might even get you to stand up and dance.

You don’t get to take a break from the assault — until you do, when you need it most. Married to Byrne and Slim’s throbbing rhythms are Peter Nigrini’s black-and-white video images across the theater walls: a combustible sensory overload, no doubt an intentional piece of dramaturgy.

Might this be the overture to a new movement on Broadway? How tethered are we to 19th-Century conventions on the big stage? How long do we keep audiences in the role of “mute voyeurs,” as Robert Brustein once quipped? How do we "break the frame," as Orson Welles espoused, without breaking down the entire house -- and ultimately breaking the bank?

Check it out: Here Lies Love is making it happen.

Ironically, the producers' collective effort recalls the populist sentiment that shaped the Philippines' 21-year political trajectory. It's fitting to witness an organic, "grassroots" movement emerge to create a production that extols the summit of the country's democratic engagement: the People Power Revolution— marked by four days of nonviolent uprising that ousted a tyrant and his family.

Alas, you only have to watch CNN long enough to see a crude reminder and recoil at history repeating itself: Bong Bong Marcos, son of the deceased former tyrant, is now the President of the Philippines.

My "review" lacks the imprimatur of the ordained circle, whose words can make or break a theatrical venture. I'm a theater artist with anecdotal accounts of a Filipino boy who grew up under Martial Law, and now goaded by persistent requests of my Filipino brethren to share my "opinion." I realize their concern extends beyond the artistic merits of the production. The Marcos family remains a sensitive subject, and any discussion about the former First Lady often delves into a rabbit hole of socio-political grievances.

It remains a controversy in my extended family, fueling the interminable love-hate relationship with the United States. I have to be cautious to avoid the perception of taking sides. It's an issue that continues to plague a vast segment of the population; a Broadway musical on Imelda's life story isn’t about to make it easier for some bitter folks back home.

But what about her grand initiatives in the name of love and beauty? The world was well aware of Imelda’s lavish contribution to the arts. She craved the global perception of her ability to deliver aesthetic eminence. She spoke of beauty and culture second to none. She created a hub for various artistic disciplines and funded programs to help artists showcase their work.

But at whose cost? The public has the receipt: a treasury purloined to support Imelda’s expedient consumption. Behind the extravagant productions-- and beneath her specious magnanimity -- lay a sad, insecure little girl from Tacloban, now exiled in delusion.

Some of my friends are Marcos loyalists. Others are troubled about the kind of entertainment that “glorifies” the former beauty queen-turned-world leader while trivializing the suffering of millions. Some even worry that I've jumped to "the other side." Whatever that means.

Despite the Marcoses’ well-documented, opulent lifestyle, Here Lies Love is not the rumored glamorization of their lives. A Broadway musical can be glamorous without celebrating its gyrating villains.

Unlike Vince Tanada's gut-wrenching Filipino musical, Katips — a blunt, all-out condemnation of the Marcoses (depicting their most heinous violation of people's rights) — David Byrne's narrative-in-song takes a different position. It minimizes the graphic depiction of atrocities, allowing Timbers and Korins to craft an equally compelling production of irony and panache. The show employs shades of Brecht, akin to Thornton Wilder's irreverent flair, playfully mocking our sensibilities. At once immersive and alienating, Here Lies Love smashes Broadway's sacred fourth wall as if it didn’t need one in the first place.

Acting is a dynamic and complex art form. On the one hand, it demands that actors delve deeply into a character's humanity. On the other hand, it dregs up parts of the unconscious we're not accustomed to embracing. Humanizing Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos, primarily through a white man's lens, is hard to digest if we're among the aggrieved, unwilling to acknowledge the human being beneath the perpetrator of incomprehensible evil.

Add insult to injury — the audience cheers for every lead actor's entrance (an abiding Filipino habit everyone is now learning), blurring the distinction between a crowd’s celebrity worship and the characters' depraved history.

David Byrne sought to commence Imelda's arc with "a clean slate.” It makes sense for a storyteller-lyricist to portray her as an untainted young girl in a poor provincial town. The fact that she ultimately succumbs to her pathological craving for love certainly serves a narrative purpose, and we are made aware of its tragic consequences.

My good friend George saw the final preview of the show and had this striking remark: "This is not about Imelda." I must say, I agree — to a certain extent. Given the alarming rise of fascism worldwide, it's reasonable to discern the production's timing as a fortunate call for activism.

It is undeniably about Imelda as well. As someone who has always advocated for progressive politics, I can't ignore my conscience and set aside my strong feelings regarding the Marcoses. The memories of Martial Law are still vivid and deeply troubling, and it's only natural that these biases influence my perspective.

I was a reckless teenager who spent my share of nights sleeping in bushes and hiding in idle jeepneys, all out of fear of violating curfew and risking arrest. I recall the harrowing "disappearances" of nearby residents perceived as antagonistic to the Marcos regime. Like many others, I was inundated with secret reports of friends who were brutally tortured and unjustly incarcerated for daring to protest on the streets, at a time when we didn't have a free press.

Theater, as with all art, serves as a prism -- a transformative lens that enables self-awareness and an expansive worldview. A skillfully crafted production, rendered with generous defiance, should leave us with a profound sense of renewal. And here we have a good chance to reimagine what theater for the masses can look like.

So amidst the brilliance of Here Lies Love, I want to zero in on the remarkable storytelling by the brilliant all-Filipino cast. As Imelda, Arielle Jacobs (Aladdin, In the Heights) is a revelation, ablaze with beguiling charm and seductive ambition. Jose Llana (Rent, Flower Drum Song) renders a self-assured Ferdinand Marcos, cloaked in mock Alpha machismo. Conrad Ricamora (The King and I, ABC's How to Get Away with Murder) is an endearing Ninoy Aquino, Imelda's ex-boyfriend-turned-opposition leader. Melody Butiureprises her 2013 role as Estrella Cumpas, Imelda's sympathetic childhood friend.

Without a doubt, Lea Salonga stands as the iconic model of Filipino representation on Broadway. As Aurora Aquino, Ninoy's mother, Salonga delivers her lone musical number ("Just Ask the Flowers") and creates arguably the most cathartic moment of the show—a heartrending funeral procession for Ninoy, culminating in a powerful ritual of mass resistance.

(I’d be remiss in leaving out Annie-B Parson's original and dynamic choreography, along with Clint Ramos' spectacular costumes, crafted with intelligence and style deserving of a Tony -- the sleight-of-hand it took to execute rapid costume changes was nothing short of a phenomenon. Justin Townsend's lighting showcases a sweeping mastery of lurid colors, variably propulsive and evocative, leaving no corner of the house unaccounted for.)

Last and certainly not least, let me give the large and versatile ensemble a blaring and emphatic shoutout. Ang galing ninyo!

Where politics can cross sacred lines and breach civic norms, art serves as the proper balm to mend generational wounds. I don’t think it’s naive to drive it as a vehicle to negotiate our differences. Regardless of political beliefs, I'm genuinely grateful that Here Lies Love, with its multi-sensual cultural impact, is finally here. Its timing couldn't be better, as it strikes a chord with current affairs and offers a poignant reflection on our shared history.

Whether you sit or stand for the show, put on your comfy shoes. You won't be able to resist the infectious rhyme and rhythm of Byrne and Slim's collaboration.


Robert Encila Celdran is a freelance Sun.Star columnist. He is a native Cebuano who lives and teaches Theater Arts in Tucson, Arizona.


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