“Here Lies Love” is taking its final bow. On Nov. 8, it was announced that the David Byrne and Fat Boy Slim “poperetta” documenting the life and times of convicted former first lady Imelda Marcos is closing on Broadway.
The production team’s move to close the show was reportedly due to low ticket sales and mounting costs. It was also reported that the show’s weekly box office take of $550,000.00 to $600,000.00 was unable to sustain the production cost, which was at $700,000.00 according to The Washington Post.
The musical tells the story of a young Imelda Marcos and how she turned from a struggling provincial beauty queen to the wife of future president-turned-dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. The story also touches on young Imelda and senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino’s romance, as well as the events that led up to the 1986 People Power Revolution and the exile of the Marcoses to Hawaii.
The musical made headlines in both the United States and the Philippines this year for featuring the first ever all-Filipino cast on Broadway. While the writers of the musical are white Americans, Filipinos (both from the Philippines and North America) worked on the musical.
The cast included Arielle Jacobs (of “West Side Story” fame) as Imelda Marcos, Conrad Ricamora as Ninoy Aquino, Jose Llana as Ferdinand Marcos, and Lea Salonga as Ninoy Aquino’s mother, Aurora Aquino.
Other notable Filipinos who also joined the cast and crew include Vina Morales, who debuted on Broadway in the role of Aurora Aquino, and director Bobby Garcia, who consulted and helped cast the production.
While the production induced an atmosphere of excitement among Filipinos, the reaction to the musical was a mixed bag—mostly due to the history behind the story and the effects the Philippines still feels to this day.
A history of mixed reviews
The internet’s initial reaction to the musical was not necessarily positive. Netizens questioned how faithful the show was going to be to historical events and asked, “Why that story?” In response, the show issued statements to the tune of “‘Here Lies Love’ is an Anti-Marcos show. It is a pro-Filipino show, being told in a quintessential American form: the Broadway musical. Two cultures, two histories, continuing a centuries-old complicated dance,” and such.
It garnered more attention due to the public sentiment surrounding the show’s plot, but after the show premiered on July 20 of this year, many of us finally got to see (or read about) what the show is actually about.
Majority of the reviews lauded the production’s groundbreaking set design—with orchestra seats being removed to make way for a dancefloor where audience members get to stand through the 90-minute musical. The Broadway Theater was transformed into a nightclub, leaning into the musical’s disco theme.
The headline of Variety’s review reads, “David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s Musical About Imelda Marcos Sacrifices Substance for Style.” Critic Naveen Kumar discusses the show’s positive points (the set design and the score), while pointing out that the musical’s ending (which illustrated the Marcoses fleeing to Hawaii) “[suggests] that the show is conscious of this geopolitical context — that its mirrorball rave has been a warning all along.”
In a similar vein, the New York Times’ review (held sacred by many theatergoers) reads, “Here Lies Love” bets that glamour can make up for narrative — or, rather, that in a show about the dangers of political demagogy, glamour itself is the narrative.”
Critic Jesse Green continues by saying that it isn’t until the final number where “it acknowledges the moral superiority of its real heroes — the Philippine people — in the only way a musical can: by giving it beautiful voice.”
While the reviews of American writers are valid critiques of the show, I was left wanting a more Filipino voice to react to the musical.
In the American Theater review, Filipino-American-Romanian critic Amanda I. Andrei takes a more historically holistic approach. She wrote, “In the face of its potential for disinformation and historical revisionism, it requires that we lift counter-narratives, especially from voices who were silenced under dictatorship.”
“And despite the potential for distortion, I fervently hope that Here Lies Love’s prominent presence in the American theatre can create an opening for artists who’ve been shut out for too long to claim more agency and dignity, and specifically to tell their own stories of Filipino and Filipino American experience,” she finished.
Another common criticism surrounding the musical is the fact that two white men wrote it. David Byrne and Fat Boy Slim are neither Filipino, nor have they ever lived in the Philippines. The inspiration for the then concept album was brought about by a video of Imelda Marcos dancing with Saudi business magnate and arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi in her New York City townhouse.
Critiques and (potential) remedies
Other reviews also claimed that the show minimized the former first lady’s role in the dictatorship. Instead, portraying her as a victim of her husband’s corrupting influence.
It would be unfair to ask a 90-minute musical to fully outline the historical context it belongs to, which led others to help.
In order to combat this potential misinformation, a public syllabus was released with help of Sulo: The Philippine Studies Initiative at New York University (NYU). It aims to contextualize the story to the broader scheme of history that it belonged to.
“Here Lies Love in Critical Contexts: A Public Syllabus” is a compilation of readings and resources that help contextualize and complicate David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s #HereLiesLove, which was first staged at The Public in 2013 and premiered on Broadway in July 2023. (1/5) pic.twitter.com/DyAiYwhQWn— herelieslovesyllabus (@hll_syllabus) September 13, 2023
Its key points include “Imelda Marcos’s active role in the dictatorship; the US government’s support of the Marcoses and their regime; the transformative role of protests, including protest expressed through film, literature, songs, and the visual arts; and the vibrant people’s movements that brought an end to the dictatorship.”
The syllabus is publicly available and contains helpful information that puts the historical events portrayed in the show into the proper context. It would have been more helpful, though, if the production also assisted in this endeavor to prove that they’re really pro-Filipino.
Parallelisms and mixed emotions
Full disclosure: I have not seen the show. As a lifelong Broadway fan and a Filipino, it was on my to-watch list since the musical premiered off Broadway in 2013. Alas, getting to New York is no easy feat, and neither are the costs that come with it. Instead, I had to satisfy my unending curiosity by reading every piece of news that came out about the show.
My personal feelings towards the show are much like the reviews—a mixed bag.
As a staunch supporter of the theater, the news of an all-Filipino cast made my heart sing. “Finally, some actual representation from actual Filipinos,” I thought. But the subject matter the production is based around sadly rained on my parade.
In such a fraught time filled with political turbulence under a new Marcos presidency, the timing of the show felt uncanny. The Marcos propaganda machine to repair the family’s reputation was well underway well before the new presidency. And while the show stated that they were “anti-Marcos” and “pro-Filipino,” I’m reminded of the fact that to a certain extent, all press is good press.
Behind all the pomp and circumstance of the show, a singular question remains: “Why her story?”
There’s something distinctly Marcosian about how “Here Lies Love” happened. We watched history being made, and our history displayed on the venerable Broadway stage, all the way from over here.
It was a celebration of epic proportions—a purported win for the Filipino community hungry and deserving of recognition, respect, and true representation. But as a Filipino living in the Philippines under a new Marcos presidency, it felt like being transported back in time watching the former first lady traipse around New York City, dancing the night away at Studio 54.
Yes, the plot reflects the plight of the Filipino people under the Marcos dictatorship, yes, it also presents the Filipino people as the victors of history, but to an American audience with no knowledge of our collective suffering, does the brief People Power coda and ouster number really get the point across?
And to allegedly “minimize” the first lady’s role in their conjugal dictatorship felt like the biggest slight of all. She was not a corrupted little lamb, she was complicit in the crimes her husband committed against the Filipino people. At least according to Primitivo Mijares’ “The Conjugal Dictatorship.”
There’s also something deeply unsettling about Filipino performers performing our history that’s written by a white man. So much of our past has already been orchestrated by our colonizers. Let’s not forget that it was former U.S. president Ronald Regan who offered the Marcoses asylum, referring to the dictator as an “old friend and ally.”
That’s a little too on the nose for my taste.
Why, why, why Imelda?
While the lights are going down on “Here Lies Love,” the question of why still permeates the air. It’s one thing to write a musical when the truth surrounding the events of her rise and subsequent demise are set in stone, but it’s another when the “truth” is bathed in questions and historical revisionism.
These days, people are hard at work writing books and attempting to educate people about the Marcos myth. Loyalists to the family are no longer hidden in the shadows and now proudly proclaim their support for the family that has stolen so much from the people.
As much as I am proud of the achievements of the hard working and talented Filipino cast and crew behind “Here Lies Love,” it feels like their achievements have come at a cost to our history and the aftermath of the family’s first go at the highest office in the land.
While the show is not all it’s cracked up to be in the hearts of the Filipinos who are still suffering back at home, it’s still a light that helped our talent sparkle to a wider audience. But to me, true representation it is not.
There are other stories, both from our history and new fresh ones from the minds and hands of Filipinos, that are more worthy of the stage.
In a perfect world, this story can be told the way it was because the truth is uncontested. There are no lies, and the matter of public record is set in stone. But sadly, the truth behind what actually happened during the dictatorship and the events thereafter are still a matter of debate.
So maybe we should keep the mirrorball in the back shed.
At least for now.