Dictatorship in disco: Martial Law baby watches musical on Marcos years

It doesn't sound like the story of a cruel dictatorship, does it?

As a New Yorker, I am embarrassed to admit that I don't watch a lot of Broadway shows (in the way that Manileños don't really go to Luneta), but a friend recommended it by just using one word: disco. My wife and I were sold, and all the more when we learned that the music was by Fatboy Slim and David Byrne (of Talking Heads). We bought our tickets for their re-opening night and actually spent the evening standing (and dancing!) within inches of David Byrne, who was busy taking down notes for the evening. 

You'll read here that the songs are insidiously infectious and "act like cattle prods," as the audience was guided to dance around a miracle stage whose eight or so parts moved around the room, changing the viewers' perspectives and positions throughout the show. It was a pretty amazing spectacle being part of the group that evening. We transformed from audience, to rally attendees, to campaigners, to mourners, and even back up dancers – all in a concept that is so original and unprecedented that it took Byrne ten years to bring it from his vision to the stage. 

It started with the DJ announcing that the party is about to start – Filipino style. "Filipinos invented karaoke!" he screamed, and nobody in the crowd questioned that fact. Even if they didn't know about Filipinos and karaoke, I'm sure they have met at least one of us who has that innate love of song. Even Ellen Degeneres loves her Filipino YouTube discoveries, and the show's cast definitely fulfilled what was expected of them as singing Filipinos. 

Imelda Marcos was one of these songbird entertainers, and the story begins with poor Imelda as a girl crying to her nanny and childhood friend Estrella Cumpas about how she wanted to be rich, promising to sing and dance her way to the top. The story follows Imelda's rise to power along with Ferdinand, to their lavish parties, through their dictatorship, and to their much-awaited fall from grace. 

Close to home

As an immigrant to the US, I've learned that Filipino culture and history were things that were hard for others to appreciate, simply because my country is a place that is so foreign and far away. I've kept mostly quiet about the details of my homeland even in a diverse city like New York. I've learned that only the Americanized parts of the Philippines ever seep into the mainstream or earn the interest of those around me.

While Charice broke into American pop culture, she did it by singing Celine Dion songs. Manny Pacquiao penetrated the American psyche because of his skill in the blood sport of Tyson. To many Americans, Imelda only meant the shoe addiction she shared with millions of women in the US. What a relief that it was never even mentioned in the show.

To my surprise, people moved and grooved when the show took them to my mother's land of Leyte, to my father's land of Ilocos, and to my land of Manila, to the beaches, and to parties with world leaders all over the globe. The crowd was shaken during the Plaza Miranda bombings, and they screamed and were even brought to tears when Ninoy was shot and when he fell from the tarmac.  

Finally, I thought, even with just the 150 or so people in the room, the Philippines is on their mental map. Even through the vehicle of an epic starring an ostentatious dictator's wife, I felt like part of a beautiful people with a story to tell. Delivered in technicolor, with line dance lessons ("Just follow your closest Filipino!" the DJ yells) and countless movements of the dynamic stage, there was never a better delivery of this history lesson to what would have been an otherwise uninterested audience than a tropical bird and paper umbrella-adorned coconut shell cocktail of a musical. 

Of course, not everything can be captured by a dance party in 86 minutes, and at times one would wonder if it could stand without the time and place projected on the screen in between songs. But since Byrne intended it to have no speaking parts, the music and visuals were enough to denote each scene's setting, and the entertainment it provided the audience made them forgive the factual lapses (which I'm sure only the Filipinos noticed). 

Sin of omission

The show has been criticized for trivializing the struggles of Filipinos during the dark years of the Marcos dictatorship. Sometimes it did feel like an insult to be entertained by a show that made light of the regime's tyranny and invalidates (by sin of omission) the tens of thousands of deaths and human rights violations in those twenty years. Some of us even left the show with a bad taste in our mouth.

"I'm conflicted," said my Korean activist friend Eli after the show. "I don't think I'm supposed to like Imelda," she said. I told her it was okay to like her, because she was beautiful and glamorous and the show made her seem so nutty and fun. But what was an even more important lesson to recognize was that it is often in beauty and charm that we are fooled into giving up our liberties. It is in "the beautiful years" that lives are taken and destroyed – behind the glare of the pretty lights.

Like the rest of the audience that night, I exited the theater and sang the show's theme all the way home, part of the herd of mindless cattle maneuvered and choreographed by the groovy musical 'Here Lies Love.' I loved the show but hated myself for it, and yet I kept singing.

Swayed by the music

At that point, the gist of the show hit me. Imelda's character epitomized the common predicament in my homeland, and that of many other countries. Some attractive, light-skinned, and eloquent politician woos the people with sob stories of poverty and hope, with promises that they will be cared for, and that everything will be all right now because someone loves them and cares for them. But as soon as the lights are off and the curtain closes, there is only greed, yachts and overseas bank accounts, lavish parties, luxury cars, and Hermes-toting mistresses who come out of the woodwork whenever corruption is exposed.

The forgotten promises and the fooled-again people are left waiting like abandoned show props, hushed like the scorned yet still dutiful brown-skinned friend Estrella Cumpas. In the show, Estrella was taken into the night to be snuffed and discarded – far away from the glitter, the color, and the disco. I came to watch the musical to be entertained – and I was – but I also saw its biggest metaphor. 

The Marcoses' maneuvers, like those of our remaining politicians', are like a karaoke song we sing over and over. We are excited when the song starts, and we read the lines on the screen each time it goes on. After a hundred times singing the same old tune, surely we must already know the words and know how each story ends. But as a people, just like the audience of this catchy musical, we still keep singing along, making their old, tired words our own.

'Here Lies Love' is showing at the New York City Public Theater for an open-ended run.

Shakira Andrea Sison is a Palanca Award-winning essayist. She currently works in finance and spends her non-working hours singingBroadway tunes in subway trains. She is a veterinarian by education and was managing a retail corporation in Manila before relocating to New York in 2002. Her column appears on Thursdays. Follow her on Twitter:@shakirasison and on Facebook.com/sisonshakira

Shakira Sison

Shakira Andrea Sison is a two-time Palanca-winning essayist. She currently works in finance and spends her non-working hours writing stories in subway trains. She is a veterinarian by education and was managing a retail corporation in Manila before relocating to New York in 2002....