From the moment you enter the Broadway Theatre, your senses are bombarded with the sounds, look, and feel of a dance club of the disco era, and you are totally immersed in the glitz and glam of its excess. Whether you’re standing on the main floor of the now seatless orchestra section or sitting in the mezzanine, you are surrounded by the music, lights, projections, and players, and become an active participant in the phenomenal new musical Here Lies Love by David Byrne (concept, music, and lyrics) and Fatboy Slim (music), with additional music by Tom Gandey and José Luis Pardo. Now in its open-ended Broadway premiere following its 2013 Off-Broadway debut at The Public Theater (adapted from the eponymous concept album of 2010), it’s a groundbreaking one-of-a-kind experience that has become even more timely in our current political climate.
The mostly sung-through musical, opening and interspersed throughout with direct-address instructions to the active audience from the DJ (the conceit here is the predominant use of a pre-recorded soundtrack with live vocals performed by the cast, to reference the popularity of karaoke in the Filipino club culture, with Roberto del Rosario holding the first patent for the karaoke machine in 1975), traces the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos (b. 1929), from her modest childhood in Tacloban, to her life of luxury as First Lady of the Philippines beginning in 1965, to the non-violent deposal of the brutal and corrupt Marcos regime (absconding with an illegally gained fortune of an estimated $13 billion) by the People Power Revolution in 1986.
Along with the critical biographical and historical content (as noted in the program, the title of the well-researched and thoroughly engaging interactive show is derived from her actual words that she wished to have inscribed on her tombstone, recorded in the 2003 film documentary Imelda by Ramona Diaz, just as the lyrics of the songs are taken from speeches and interviews with Marcos and the other figures) comes a momentous observation of the lure of the self-indulgent lifestyle of the rich, famous, and powerful, how their supporters and followers are seduced and used by them to enable it, how easy it becomes to abuse it, and how difficult it is to get them to leave. Sound familiar? It all reminds us to heed the warning inherent in the show and not to allow history to repeat itself. (Since Here Lives Love was written, Bongbong Marcus, the only son of Ferdinand and Imelda, convicted of tax fraud and misrepresentation of his education, assumed the presidency of the Philippines in 2022, with 81% of the vote – the largest majority since his father’s 88%).
Developed and directed with full-out vibrancy by Alex Timbers, the sensational show features the first all-Filipino cast to perform on Broadway, and the entire company of twenty-three triple threats delivers the characters and events, emotions and absurd humor, songs (an eclectic mix of disco, pop, folk, and ballads) and moves (perfectly matched choreography by Annie-B Parson that also includes a line dance and more for the audience), with across-the-board excellence.
Starring Arielle Jacobs as Imelda Marcos and Jose Llana as her husband Ferdinand Marcos, the clearly presented chronological narrative exposes details of their relationship, including their quick eleven-day courtship and marriage, his recorded affair with Hollywood starlet Dovie Beams (played by Julia Abueva), her extravagant spending and partying (most notably at NYC’s Studio 54, with Andy Warhol, George Hamilton, and other top celebrities of the day), and the growing protests against their controversial rule, which led to his declaration of martial law and shift to dictatorship from 1972-86, her increasing command with his declining health, their peaceful overthrow, and their exile to the US (under the aegis of their friend Ronald Reagan, who appears as a masked figure with an over-sized head in the mezzanine), as they circulate around the house, on the stage and central platform, and embody the personalities and actions, blind ambition and behavior and of the real-life characters. (For those not familiar with their timeline, it’s provided on a digital screen in the lobby and in the printed program).
They are joined in standout performances by Conrad Ricamora as Ninoy Aquino, their most committed and vocal political opponent (and Imelda’s early boyfriend, who jilted her for being “too tall”); Moses Villarama as the effulgent DJ, who never fails to excite or to elicit the spirited engagement of the audience; Melody Butiu as Imelda’s childhood housekeeper and caretaker, whom she later wanted to silence; and Tony-winner Lea Salonga (in a special guest engagement through Saturday, August 19) as Aquino’s grieving mother Aurora, who sings the powerfully expressive eulogy “Just Ask the Flowers” at his funeral. Rounding out the terrific company are Jasmine Forsberg, Reanne Acasio, Jaygee Macapugay, Renée Albulario, Aaron Alcaraz, Carol Angeli, Nathan Angelo, Kristina Doucette, Roy Flores, Timothy Matthew Flores, Sarah Kay, Jeigh Madjus, Aaron “AJ” Mercado, Geena Quintos, Shea Renne, and Angelo Soriano, all bringing their multiple talents and high energy to the dynamic and didactic show.
Also contributing immeasurably to the unique experience of Here Lies Love is the transporting immersive design, with a set by David Korins that required a complete transformation of the theater space to a club, with a large dance floor devoid of seats, a central platform that moves with the scenes (and requires the audience to move along with it, as directed by ushers with neon glo-sticks), a rotating and mirrored disco ball above, and movable steps to the aisles, balconies, and performance spaces in the mezzanine, where the actors appear and involve everyone around them.
The setting is enhanced with non-stop abstract, historical, and live-feed projections by Peter Nigrini on screens around the house, colorful flashing disco lighting by Justin Townsend, which shifts to stark white spotlights and blackouts that evoke the moods of the narrative, and a soundscape by M.L. Dogg & Cody Spencer in accord with the dramatic and sometimes violent action. Costumes by Clint Ramos, hair and wigs by Craig Franklin Miller, and make-up by Suki Tsujimoto recreate the authentic look and stylings of the figures and the decades, with Aquino in white, Marcos in black, and Imelda in the dazzling array of expensive designer clothes in which she indulged (her collection of 3,000 pairs of shoes is not specifically mentioned here, but is subtly alluded to in an early scene, when she says she often went shoeless in her childhood for lack of money).
Here Lies Love offers a captivating look at a major figure in world history, fully enveloping us in her story and in the ambiance of her life and times. Just as we are swept away with the multi-sensory spectacle and become complicit in its over-the-top fun, fervor, and excess, we are shocked by the seductive reality of power, wealth, and ego gone wild, and the need to control it, for the greater good of all of us.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.
Local producer Don Michael H. Mendoza goes Broadway with ‘Here Lies Love’
Signing on as a co-producer of the ‘disco pop’ musical fulfills the LA TI DO co-founder’s dream in a very personal way (feature by Nicole Hertvik, June 19, 2023).