NEW YORK — Imelda Marcos famously said she wanted the words “Here Lies Love” engraved on her tombstone. Good for her. Her many enemies would argue that the former first lady of the Philippines’ definition of love included corruption, the squelching of personal freedoms, the repression of the free press and at least a tacit role in the rubbing out of the political opposition.
But Broadway musicals are works of art, not journalism, and the new show at the Broadway Theatre is as artful as it is radically inventive. Think Ferdinand Marcos as a philandering Juan Perón and Imelda as a needy, up-from-the-sticks Evita and you won’t be far wrong.
With the 2010 concept album by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim as its formidable musical underpinning, “Here Lies Love” has ripped out the orchestra seats and turned this huge venue into a giant nightclub, albeit with a big crew of voyeurs in the balconies. It’s all a nod to Marcos’ embrace of the Studio 54 scene during the 1970s, not to mention her conversion of the roof of her Manila palace into a high-security discotheque with higher-end footwear.
This show has been around for several years but is only now making it to Broadway, and it has a couple of formidable assets. One is the Byrne-and-Slim soundscape, which is to my mind more beautiful, more exciting and more surprising than any score on Broadway last season, even to those who have listened to the album for years. I hear Byrne’s Scottish folkloric tradition in the melodies, but that actually increases its poignancy, given how it melds with Slim’s beats. I suppose some will argue it’s not an original score but akin to Green Day’s “American Idiot,” but no one will care. The music is gorgeous. Especially in the last half hour.
The second strength is director Alex Timbers’ conceptual staging. It’s hard to mess with these old Broadway palaces and yet Timbers and his design team (the set is by David Korins, projections are by Peter Negrini and lights are by Justin Townsend) have transformed the creaking quotidian auditorium with platforms and runways aplenty. You can sit and observe the show all around you or you can pay to hit the orchestra floor and party with the Marcoses. Whee!
Notably, Timbers gets the performers right up close to you, wherever you sit, arguably in a way Broadway never has done as fully before; his vision is a 360-degree experience in a theater built for staring straight ahead. And this is a truly fabulous piece of visual theater in how it fuses archival images and audio of the real couple, live video feeds, and Annie-B Parson’s choreography.
At no more than 100 minutes long, “Here Lies Love” never overindulges nor does it lose the audience’s attention for a moment. Broadway has not exactly been bursting with stories about the political and cultural history of Southeast Asia; some of those around me were visibly moved and astounded to have such a personal connection to Broadway, which had never shown much interest in a Filipino audience.
The talent on the stage is solid, musically and dramatically. Arielle Jacobs plays Imelda, Jose Llana is Marcos and Conrad Ricamora, the best of the trio, is the late Sen. Ninoy Aquino, the Marcos disrupter who was shot in the head after returning to the Philippines in 1983; the airport where he died is now named in his honor. For the next few weeks, a producer and much-loved star, Lea Salonga, plays the cameo role of Aurora Aquino.
There’s another lesson for Broadway here: Byrne does not take a clear moral position, aside from some mercifully brief moralistic, pandering blather about democracy which feels like it was tacked on at the end of the show to assuage potential critics of amoralism. Barf.
Courage, artists! Audiences can be trusted to draw their own conclusions about Imelda.
Some will see her as a good and decent person bamboozled by her unfaithful husband, a position the show supports. Some will argue that the old global powerhouses like the U.S. carry the real structural blame for what happened. And some will see the show as a problematic Marcos rehab project, especially given that their son now is running the very same country and has a vested interest therein.
And then some will just dance, laugh and ponder the passage of time (Imelda is 96), the perennial global curse of poverty and corruption and the allure of the rich life. You pick your spot and your mind and senses are thoroughly engaged.
That’s Broadway doing its job for democracy and art.
“Here Lies Love” plays at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, New York; herelieslovebroadway.com.