David Byrne Presents Here Lies Love — Terminal 5 — 11/25/13


Better Than: (or at least more disco fun than) giving anonymously.

Many of New York City’s older, more charitable party people descended on Terninal 5 last night for a performance presented by David Byrne and the cast of the musical Here Lies Love to raise money for the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. The concert was a scaled down version of the original production of Here Lies Love, a disco-powered operetta which ran to considerable acclaim at the Public Theater this past spring. The actors were able to pull together in just a week in order to put on yesterday’s show. All but the most essential dialogue was removed and the set was the blank stage of Terminal 5, accented by nothing more than the performers’ considerable enthusiasm.

The songs of Here Lies Love were taken from a concept album of the same name by Byrne and Fatboy Slim. The record celebrated the life of Imelda Marcos, the Filipina first lady known for her extravagance–she’s the one who had 3,000 shoes in her closet–and for the power she held over the administration of her husband, Ferdinand Marcos. She’s also still alive, and still eminently newsworthy.

Byrne and Slim (whose real name is Norman Cook) reimagine Imelda as a kind of Filipina Gatsby, a former pageant queen blinded by the glamor of sudden power. As befits two such accomplished musicians, the collection of songs that makes up the soundtrack of Here Lies Love skews deeper than the anodyne wit’n’camp of your standard Broadway crowd-pleaser, with lyrics from Byrne skewering Imelda’s ambition while admiring her pluck and pulsing basslines from Cook that celebrate her joie de vivre.

There is a reason that musical theater tends to cost more than all but the most expensive concerts. Even in its bastardized form, last night’s performance was an impressive display of showmanship. Ruthie Ann Miles, who sang the part of Imelda, sang in the majority of the 24 songs that were performed last night, went through many costume changes, did some convincing acting and just generally impressed the pants off of the dapper crowd rooting her on.

Miles’ fellow performers were also impressive, particularly Melody Butiu, who, singing the part of Estrella, represents the conscience of the show in the form of the poverty that Imelda has left behind. Estrella is a mother figure to Imelda and the pain of the latter’s betrayal was communicated loud and clear by Butiu, even with the unforgiving acoustics of the concert space, which occasionally caused trouble for the production’s two male leads, Jose Llana and Conrad Ricamora. Butiu also got the benefit of some of the best writing. Her showcase, “When She Passed By,” is an aching ballad with deceptively simple lyrics that nail a difficult mix of pride, envy and sadness.

The details of the story may have been difficult for some concertgoers to keep track of, particularly without the benefit of much dialogue. A brief flirtation between Imelda and the musical’s hero, Ninoy Aquino (Ricamora), went by in the blink of an eye and Aquino’s eventual fate was a whirlwind; after missing in action since the early goings–he remerged all of a sudden, became a political prisoner, was released after seven years, and was assassinated, all in fewer than ten minutes.

The speed with which the players ran through the songs was notable throughout. Imelda was married to Ferdinand after about 20 minutes, during which the cast sang a full eight songs. The brisk pace was an asset early on but eventually became a drawback, particularly without the aid of dialogue to endear the audience to the characters. It was difficult, for instance, to feel bad for Imelda when Ferdinand cheated on her. After all, she had only met the man a few minutes beforehand. What did she expect?

But if the emotional impact of the story itself was blunted by the show’s pace, the actual reason for the performance was difficult to forget, and imbued the actors with an unshakable enthusiasm. Much of the cast is Filipino, and it is easy to imagine that, after weeks of helplessness in the face of tragedy, it was hugely cathartic to raise money–we were told near the end of the show that we had raised over $100,000–for their country by doing what they love.

The horror of Typhoon Haiyan was stressed in Byrne’s introduction, during which he emphasized that for the most part “the Filipino people can take care of themselves. They get hit with volcanos, earthquakes and mudslides every year and they can handle that. This is an extraordinary circumstance and so we on the other side of the world reach out.” Byrne also made sure to point out that Here Lies Love is a show “about the resilience of the Filipino people.”

Which, it must be said, was the primary reason for the concert’s success. So often, when we are moved to help a country in crisis, we begin to think of the people in that country as perpetual victims–Niger with it’s starving children, Syria with its flood of refugees. Here Lies Love is a story about a people filled with human characters, whose ambition, heroism and cruelty is wholly familiar. It helps to remind us that those suffering are more than a crush of abstract numbers. They are actual people, just like us, only very much in need of help.

Overheard: Two women arguing about the controversial legacy of Ferdinand Marcos.

Woman 1: “He’s kind of a dictator and stole millions of dollars from the country.”

Woman 2: “Well, they all do that.”

How to Help the Philippines: Millions of people are still dislocated and in desperate need of aid in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. Here are multiple ways that you can give.