Dancing With Dictators

Imelda Marcos’s life story is writ large by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim in Broadway’s winning ‘Here Lies Love.’


The guy behind me in mezzanine row E uttered a pithy summary upon exiting: “It’s a happy-go-lucky disco musical about a dictator.” It is, and more. 

There are things to know about Here Lies Love, the engaging, just-opened Broadway show about Imelda Marcos, politician and former First Lady of the Philippines. First, there’s nothing in the show about her infamous shoe collection, which is likely (and embarrassingly) the first association in American minds. Also, save your Google searches: Marcos is still alive. She’s 94, and her son, Bongbong, known as PBBM (President Bongbong Marcos), is the current leader of the Philippines.

Marcos’s life is a seemingly unlikely subject for an original musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, who initially conceived turning her life story into a concept album with guest vocalists Steve Earle, Tori Amos, Cyndi Lauper, and more; the album was released in 2010. Of course, Alexander Hamilton once seemed a not-so-sexy leading man. But then the Founding Father won multiple Tonys, a Grammy, and a Pulitzer. Not coincidentally, both Hamilton and Here Lies Love came out of NYC’s revered Public Theatre, where director Alex Timbers worked up Here Lies Love (the title a potentially apocryphal phrase that Imelda is said to want on her tombstone). The concept album turned into a critically acclaimed stage musical that debuted at the Public in 2013. (A second Here Lies Love album appeared in 2014, featuring the cast from the performance at the Public; one presumes a third, a Broadway cast album, will be forthcoming.)

Through the course of her lively rise to dictator-diva, Marcos, born in 1929 (and played here by Broadway vet Arielle Jacobs), is neither excoriated nor elevated. Rather, her rags-to-extreme-riches drama is played out in a space (the circa 1924 Broadway Theatre), specially remodeled for the show. The orchestra-section seating, around 500 chairs, was ripped out to create a disco dance floor — now sold as standing tickets, aka patrons at “Club Millenium” — featuring a rotating stage with room for the audience to, as the “club” DJ, played Moses Villarama entreats, “Jump! Jump! Jump!”  


While a “disco” may be an odd conceit as a frame for the life story of a dictator, Imelda was no ordinary dictator and — as a denizen of Studio 54 and its excesses — no stranger to disco.


From the poignant shunning of beloved childhood caretaker and confidante Estrella Cumpas (played by Melody Butiu), via songs such as “When She Passed By” — “Did you see me outside? / Did you see me wave? / When you passed in your car / Ah well, that’s okay” — the archetypal story unfolds with both verve and gravitas. From Imelda’s marriage to Ferdinand Marcos, who became president in 1965, to the couple’s 1986 exile to the United States, a surprisingly detailed portrait of the “Iron Butterfly” emerges. The production includes numerous true-life events, including former Philippine senator (and political rival of the Marcoses) Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino’s 1983 assassination, a beauty pageant (won by our anti-heroine), and President Marcos’s declaration of martial law, in 1972, in response to alleged Communist threats. The start of those dark days is detailed in the song “Order 1081,” which begins, “A bomb went off this morning, raining bodies on TV.” That 14-year period of Philippine history, rife with human rights abuses and corruption, might be news to some theater-goers, but not to any of the many Filipinos in attendance. 

As Byrne explained in a press release, “The story I am interested in is about asking what drives a powerful person — what makes them tick? How do they make and then remake themselves? I thought, wouldn’t it be great if — as this piece would be principally composed of clubby dance music — one could experience it in a club setting? Could one bring a ‘story’ and a kind of theater to the disco?”

If one is Byrne, one can, hence the Club Millennium setting. As Here Lies Love began as a concept album without staging, a locale was needed to ground the action. While a “disco” may be an odd conceit as a frame for the life story of a dictator, Imelda was no ordinary dictator and — as a denizen of Studio 54 and its excesses — no stranger to disco. (Actual candid photos from the era are used to good effect on the theater’s screens, as are other historical photos throughout the show.) 

Here Lies Love’s floor tickets offer an immersive and lively SRO song-and-dance party for the show’s 90 intermissionless minutes. A moving platform stage, where the orchestra seats once were, slowly rotates several times during the performance, the audience shuffling en masse with the stage while ushers waving pink aircraft wands guide them. Opting for floor tickets means there’s a chance an attendee might end up with Conrad Ricamora, portraying Ninoy Aquino, throwing an arm around you as he sings “Child of the Philippines.”  


The show’s website offers up a “timeline of colonialism and American imperialistic actions in the Philippines.”


And that’s not to say mezzanine tickets are less festive. Here Lies Love is sonically immersive, no small task for what is now an approximately 1,100-capacity theater. The production uses every level and corner of the massive space, with cast members singing and dancing on small podiums in the mezzanine and a trio of percussionists — shades of Byrne’s own American Utopia — marching down the aisles. More than 220 speakers comprise the bespoke spatial sound system, from L-Acoustics, for the same immersive experience throughout the theater. (If you have Marcos-level bucks, book the private “club lounge,” with its own bar.)

Is America ready for — or rather, interested in — a musical about a Filipina dictator? If this rousing, two-days-before-opening preview is any indication, the answer is a resounding yes. The breadth of the story allows the Byrne/Fatboy Slim songs to touch on musical eras from the 50s to the ’80s, with commensurate costuming. It’s a propulsive show that sets the stage for a Filipino-eye view of the U.S. with its opening number, fast ‘n’ furious ’80s-leaning pop-rocker “American Troglodyte.” The cliches — “Americans are buying that real estate / Americans are wearing those sexy jeans / Americans are driving gigantic cars / Americans living like troglodytes” and the tune itself are fun, if not as catchy as the similarly themed title song of the Green Day musical, “American Idiot.” 

“Child of the Philippines,” sung by the Aquino character — a one-time boyfriend of Imelda’s — is a bouncy number akin to the best song Sugar Ray never wrote. In “The Rose of Tacloban,” sung by Jacobs (before portraying Marcos she performed as Princess Jasmine, in Aladdin), we learn that “Ninoy was my first love / But he said I was too tall.” “Opposite Attraction,” by Ricamora and Jacobs, has a strong Bryne vibe via the song’s staccato rhythms, and expresses Aquino’s take on his relationship with the future Mrs. Marcos, as he sings, “Now I’m taking my shot / And I need to make a difference / Now we’re different as we can be / And politics puts you to sleep.”

Jasmine Forsberg, as Maria Luisa — whose character represents one of Imelda’s cadre of powerful socialite “Blue Ladies” friends — shines in her Broadway debut, the bluesy raw power of her voice perfect for “Men Will Do Anything” as she belts, “What’s the matter with me baby? / Am I not good enough for you? If you prefer that slut — okay I’ll tell you what we’ll do.” “Why Don’t You Love Me” is a passionate dynamic rocker worthy of Hair, while the titular “Here Lies Love,” a lush, made-for-Broadway ballad that tells the tale of a hard-luck life, has an irresistible chorus. 

The current run of the show boasts the powerful Phillipines-born superstar Lea Salonga (until August 13) as Aurora Aquino, the mother of Ninoy. She was the first Asian actress to win a Tony Award, for Miss Saigon, which ran in the same theater as Here Lies Love, and is revered as the singing voice of Disney princesses Jasmine (in Aladdin) and Mulan. Here Lies Love marks another first for Salonga: She was named as a producer of the show in June.

Almost no creative endeavor is without its critics, but Here Lies Love is a wonderfully entertaining and thoughtful production that will educate many non-Filipinos and resonate with Filipino-Americans. The show’s website offers up a “timeline of colonialism and American imperialistic actions in the Philippines,” and if post-performance audience chatter was any indication, those not steeped in or born into that history were eager to learn more. 

One of the production’s biggest laughs is delivered in Tagalog — the loud crowd response indicated that a large part of the audience spoke the language and appreciated Marcos’s dismissive reference to the size of her husband’s manhood. Meanwhile, a reference to the Kennedys in the song “Sugar Time Baby” — “They’re our Jackie and John” — put the Marcoses in perspective for American audience members. 

Here Lies Love doesn’t veer into didactics nor does it pander to the audience or venerate its complicated subject. For the unflattering unvarnished truth versus the lively musical truth, 2019’s The Kingmaker documentary would be instructive. A review in the Guardian notes that the doc sums the regime up concisely, revealing a  “tragic picture of tyranny and corruption” while painting the “waxy, hatchet-faced” first lady as “grotesquely self-pitying, wholly unrepentant.”

But for a version of Marcos’s life you can dance to, Here Lies Love is a winner, its decade-plus of fine-tuning coming to feel-good fruition, following in Hamilton’s groundbreaking and vaunted footsteps. Jose Llana, who plays Ferdinand Marcos, summed up the show’s appeal during an interview on CBS, saying, “We’re a shiny disco ball dance party on the surface, but when you watch the whole show, you get given a lesson in history and a lesson in how to protect democracy.”  ❖ 

Katherine Turman has written for Entertainment Weekly, SpinVariety, and other publications, and is the author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal. She lives in Brooklyn.


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