broadway shows

Inventing Imelda: A review of ‘Here Lies Love’ on Broadway

Eric Gamalinda

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Inventing Imelda: A review of ‘Here Lies Love’ on Broadway

BOUFFANT. Arielle Jacobs as Imelda Marcos.

Courtesy of 'Here Lies Love'

'The problem remains the subject matter herself, one that poses an artistic dilemma for a musical that is premised on the celebratory nature of disco'

Here Lies Love, the David Byrne/Fatboy Slim disco opera about the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, opened at The Broadway Theater in New York City this summer — a revised, more pointedly political version of the original first staged at the Public Theater in 2013. 

The storyline draws from a number of sources, including Carmen Navarro Pedrosa’s controversial biography, in which we find the musical’s counterpoint narrator, Estrella Cumpas (played here by Melody Butiu).

In a series of interviews in 1984, Pedrosa recounts that Cumpas had asked her for financial help at the time Pedrosa was writing the book, and that Imelda had Cumpas abducted, then offered her a P300 pension and jobs for her children. Cumpas lived in relative comfort for a while, then later contacted Pedrosa again to ask her help to migrate to London, where Pedrosa had been living in exile, but which the author had to decline. That is the sad, humdrum subplot of Cumpas, who in this musical nonetheless serves as a foil to Imelda’s decidedly more thrilling narrative. 

I saw the Public’s performance twice, and each time I randomly asked members of the audience what they had learned from it. The most common answer I got was that, “Marcos was a bad man and he and his wife stole a lot of money.” That was a good start, in my opinion, for people who had very little knowledge of the US-backed Marcos dictatorship, much less Philippine-American history.

It was also concerning, because it left audiences only a shallow, meme-like impression of a more complex and maleficent character. It was no surprise that many reviews and scholarly analyses of the musical were negative, accusing the show’s creators of either glamorizing Imelda Marcos or glossing through one of the worst crimes in human history.

It is to the Broadway production’s credit, then, that much has changed since the 2013 version. Press statements have made it abundantly clear that the musical is anti-Marcos. An insert in the playbill includes a Historical Overview, starting from the Philippine-American War to the People Power Revolution, along with a QR code for more nuanced timelines and sources. 

There are clips from Iginuhit ng Tadhana — the 1965 movie that was allegedly instrumental in propelling Marcos to a second term as president. This propaganda piece bolstered the myth of war hero and political redeemer that Marcos created for himself, a reference that may have been lost to the general American public, but for those in the know, underlines the theme of reinvention and myth-making that is part of the dictator’s playbook. 

The production itself is excellent, with a stellar cast, Byrne’s usual scathing irony and catchy music, and jaw-dropping stage design. The immersive theater puts you in the controlled mayhem of the story as it unfolds, in quickfire speed, 50 of the most tumultuous years in Philippine history.

The problem remains the subject matter herself, one that poses an artistic dilemma for a musical that is premised on the celebratory nature of disco.

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Imelda Marcos projected her lifestyle and conspicuous consumption as aspirational, the embodiment of the dreams of the masses, who, incongruously, her family’s corruption kept downtrodden. Moreover, over the last several years, Imelda and her family have harnessed conventional and social media to recast the dictatorship in better light. Today, history books in the Philippines describe the Marcos era as one of prosperity and progress.

There lies the problem of inventing Imelda. Bryne’s trademark irony punctuates the early scenes of the young “Rose of Tacloban,” who comes off as a social-climbing, gold-digging ingenue. Less than halfway through the show, the narrative pivots to grant Imelda some empathy — after all, how long can an audience, especially a non-Filipino one, endure a story about a totally unsympathetic character?

While we delight in the spectacle of a decidedly pernicious Marcos (Jose Llana), Imelda (Arielle Jacobs) is seen as victim and even savior. Drug-addled and betrayed by her philandering husband, she has an epiphany in Studio 54, where she accepts her fate and decides to love-bomb her blighted nation.

As the people’s Mater Dolorosa, she elicits compassion with her self-pity. But her role as the crucial half of the conjugal dictatorship is never completely extrapolated. Only Ninoy Aquino (Conrad Ricamora) sees through the veneer and points out her excesses, but they seem venial compared to the human rights abuses committed by Marcos, hard data of which are flashed on multiple screens. And of course, when Marcos imprisons Ninoy, it is she who comes seven years later to free and save him. 

One can only offer so much detail on the long and convoluted saga of the rise and fall of the Marcoses. But in a narrative of breakneck speed (90 minutes), Imelda becomes the true heroine: complex, flawed, and brought down by hubris — almost Grecian in her tragedy. During one number, when she sang, “It takes a woman to do a man’s job,” the audience actually exploded in applause.

In the end, as Imelda shrinks from the glare of helicopter lights overhead, you still see her as a victim of circumstance. Her final song, “Why Don’t You Love Me,” is the anguished bellow of a lost soul, unable to comprehend the fate handed to her, when all she wanted was to “spread love.”

During the postscript, when it was announced that Marcos’s son has become the new president, there was a chorus of boos from the audience, followed quickly by an angry Filipina shouting, “He’s my president!” It shows the divisiveness of the Marcoses to this day: for there are still millions of Filipinos who believe in the myth, the lies, and the hype. 

I doubt if that disruptive audience member even bothered to read the background materials. But that little incident sums up the Marcoses’ — Ferdinand and Imelda together — lasting and dangerous legacy, and one that Imelda and her children continue to perpetuate: that generations after them have lost the ability to think for themselves, and have swallowed, wholesale, their fabricated mistruths. –

Eric Gamalinda teaches at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University. A new and expanded edition of his book of poems, ‘Amigo Warfare,’ will be published by Ateneo de Manila University Press later this year.

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