By David Byrne (Concept, Music, and Lyrics), Fatboy Slim (Music), and Tom Gandey and José Luis Pardo (Additional Music)
Directed by Alex Timbers; Choreographed by Annie-B Parson
Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway
by Maria Paz Alegre on 7.20.23
Arielle Jacobs and the cast of Here Lies Love.
Photo by Billy Bustamante, Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
BOTTOM LINE: Bring your tissues and your dancing shoes to this unforgettable disco-fever dream of a show.
The palpable excitement filling the air of the Broadway Theatre for Here Lies Love isn’t just from the disco beats blaring from the rousing DJ Moses Villerama. It's because of the absolute joy of witnessing the first ever all-Filipino cast on Broadway! As a Filipina American reviewer, I couldn’t be more thrilled to be on the (literal) dance floor for this historic occasion.
Here Lies Love is the disco-fever dream borne from the bizarre and brilliant mind of David Byrne, paired with the infectious beats of Fatboy Slim. Byrne’s obsession with the flamboyant tyrant Imelda Marcos, the first lady and sometimes acting dictator of the Philippines from 1965-1986, led to a jukebox of songs that eventually became a full-fledged Off Broadway musical hit at the Public Theatre back in 2013. Ten years later, a Broadway transfer manages, somewhat incredibly, to keep the core staging conceit—audience on dance floor—intact. [If financially possible, these floor tickets (which require you to stand) are absolutely worth it, though there are more affordable options with physical seats that will accommodate differently abled audience members. According to the production team there are no bad seats (the action happens on many levels), but it is undeniably fun to be in the center of the action.]
I will admit to some trepidation at the idea of Here Lies Love. The actions of the Marcos family devastated the lives of me and my family members, along with millions of others. This regime is the sole reason that we fled the Philippines, and defines why I am an immigrant. The idea of a musical featuring the despots I fled from does not sit well with me and many others, a feeling of discomfort that is indeed shared by many of the actors and producers, several of whom have gone on record to discuss how their families suffered greatly under the Marcos dictatorship. Indeed, the night I attended, the audience was filled with Filipinos, many of whom traveled great distances to witness this historic production.
In spite of such tricky subject matter, Here Lies Love works. And it works so beautifully. Through the catchy beats of Byrne and Fatboy Slim, the voice of a poor and pitiable young woman emerges, and it feels impossible not to root for her. Traipsing across moving platforms with ease, Arielle Jacobs gives a powerhouse performance as the demure and ambitious Imelda Romualdez, who first flirts with the charismatic young politician Ninoy Aquino (a jaw droppingly talented Conrad Ricamora), who eventually rejects her due to her superficiality. Imelda's heartbreak doesn’t last long though, as she is swept up by another young politician, war hero Ferdinand Marcos (the magnetic Jose Llana).
It was here that the fun began to wane for me. Hearing cheers of “Marcos for President!” felt like a gut punch; I couldn’t bear to keep dancing. Amazingly, this is reflected in the masterful projections behind Marcos by the innovative scenic and projection designers David Korins and Peter Nigrini. At first, Marcos is followed through the crowd by a camera projecting a live black-and-white feed, and ends up standing in front of these same projections of himself, with the camera still on him. This effect—being filmed live, in front of his own image—creates a bizarre reflective and echo-like distortion, mirroring the narcissism of the real-life dictator.
Marcos’ charisma is matched only by his alluring wife Imelda, here clad in bright colors and sparkling material by the sartorial brilliance of costume designer Clint Ramos. Ramos particularly excels with juxtaposing the vibrant Imelda against other women on stage, who often wear drab, shapeless clothes that resemble factory uniforms. Sporting a hot pink Jackie-O pillbox hat knockoff, Imelda blooms from poverty to luxury. In some ways, it would have been wonderful to end the musical there, but that would have been a disservice to what happened in real life, when the fairy tale turned into a horror movie.
Corrupted by power, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos would go on to embezzle billions of dollars from the Filipino people who languished in poverty and starvation, all while the power couple brazenly danced at Studio 54 and hobnobbed with celebrities. Particularly egregious was Imelda’s pet project of a national cultural center, wonderfully portrayed in “The Fabulous One,” which takes the audience to church. The cost ballooned to hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, with the horrifying footnote of how she paved over the bodies of 169 construction workers to make sure her film center opened on schedule.
While shocking, nothing could prepare the country or the world for Order 1081, sang with depth in the eponymous ballad. With this formal declaration of martial law, Ferdinand Marcos would dissolve congress, the Supreme Court, and the free press. The regime would also imprison key political opponent (and Imelda’s first love interest) Ninoy Aquino.
After seven years, Aquino is pardoned by Imelda on the condition of banishment. During the ballad “Gate 47,” Aquino sings farewell to his wife and child before flying back to the Philippines to run against Marcos in the next election. Like many Filipinos in the audience, I knew what was coming next. Ninoy Aquino was executed seconds after landing in the Philippines. During his farewell song, I began to sob uncontrollably. I wasn’t just mourning him, I was mourning my parents, my grandparents, even myself. I was mourning the life in our homeland that was taken from us. I was mourning the me who I would have been.
Broadway and Disney singing legend Lea Salonga breaks the silence after the gunshot, making her cameo as the aggrieved mother of the slain Aquino, bringing the show to its knees in a scene-stealing, show-stopping performance of “Just Ask the Flowers.” Grief turns to outrage, and outrage transforms the audience and country into a powerful uprising and revolution.
Here Lies Love does the herculean feat of having the audience fall in love with a poor, beautiful girl as she blossoms to become one the most important women in the world, only to have them turn on her due to her Antoinette-like hedonism and waste, accompanied by flagrant corruption and brutal tyranny. What’s painful is how eerily this reflects the horrifying truth experienced by millions. As painful as it can be to watch, there is also so much joy in seeing this foreign (to Americans) history that is not only being remembered, but brilliantly immortalized.
(Here Lies Love plays at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, in an open-ended run. The running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 3:30 and 8; and Sundays at 2 and 7. Starting September 5, Tuesdays through Thursdays are at 7. Dance floor tickets require standing, as well as a mandatory bag check. Tickets start at $49 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200. For more information visit herelieslovebroadway.com.)
Here Lies Love is by David Byrne (concept, music, and lyrics), Fatboy Slim (music), and Tom Gandey and José Luis Pardo (additional music), based on the documentary film Imelda by Ramona Diaz. Directed by Alex Timbers. Choreographed by Annie-B Parson. Scenic Design by David Korins. Costume Design by Clint Ramos. Lighting Design by Justin Townsend. Sound Design by ML Dogg & Cody Spencer. Projection Design by Peter Nigrini. Hair Design by Craig Franklin Miller. Make-up Design by Suki Tsujimoto. Fight Director is Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum. Music Director is J. Oconer Navarro. Vocal Arranger is Kimberly Grigsby and Justin Levine. Music Production and Additional Arrangements by Matt Stine and Justin Levine. Associate Director is Andrew Scoville. Associate Choreographer is Elizabeth DeMent. Assistant Director is Billy Bustamante. Assistant Choreographer is Renée Albulario. Cultural Advocate and Facilitator is Sophia Skiles. Production Stage Manager is Gregory T. Livoti.
The cast is Arielle Jacobs, Jose Llana, Conrad Ricamora, Melody Butiu, Moses Villarama, Jasmine Forsberg, Reanne Acasio, Jaygee Macapugay, Julia Abueva, Renée Albulario, Aaron Alcaraz, Carol Angeli, Nathan Angelo, Kristina Doucette, Roy Flores, Timothy Matthew Flores, Sarah Kay, Jeigh Madjus, AJ Mercado, Geena Quintos, Shea Renne, Angelo Soriano, and Lea Salonga.