Love on Top: “Here Lies Love”
On the disco-pop dictator musical from David Byrne, Fatboy Slim, and Alex Timbers
Gazing up from the floor towards the heavens, the DJ (Moses Villarma) stands at the top right corner, his arms extended ready to conduct the crowd’s hopefully raucous energy. He points to all the sides of the balcony and the back down at us on the floor, while the entire audience is bathed in neon pink lights and gently thumping beats. He tells us that at Club Millenium, the audience is part of the action, an integral part of the, well, afternoon. The floor tech is also in screaming pink, carrying fuschia batons. And just as the show — or set, you could call it — the DJ, who has done an adequate job of hyping up a matinee crowd, casually says, “Did you know that the United States purchased the Philippines for $20 million?”
There’s a bit of flippancy to the (somewhat rhetorical?) question, left hanging in the air less as a Snapple bottle cap fact and more like if the NBC “the more you know” shooting star turned into a missile of irony and cruelty, its sparkling tail a long, smoky history of colonialism. Does it matter if the preciseness of the DJ’s glibness is lost on the mixed Broadway audience of Here Lies Love, even if some of the context is plastered to the walls just outside the “club” within the theater? Is the DJ’s tone enough to convey the historical weight of such a ridiculous rhetorical query?
If not, it means that Here Lies Love, the musical based on the concept album by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim and directed by Alex Timbers, isn’t really for Broadway, in spite of the representational gains it has made as the first show with an all Filipino cast. For all of its flaws, it’s too smart for the average Broadway audience, with the much mythologized disco ball “belonging” to former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos halved and placed at the center of one of the platforms. Its glistening mirrors blinding with the bright lights of the show’s scenic design by David Korins and Justin Townsend destabilize the experience of the show much like a funhouse mirror, a glittering facade waiting to be broken. But its reflection is not of the Philippines but of America as colonial Dr. Frankenstein, Imelda as her monster.
Here, Byrne has twinned the idea of making a club into a theatre (and, in reality, vice versa, refashioning the Broadway Theater into a club) and Marcos’ love of the discotheque to both use music as an experimentation in character study and the venue itself as a multivalent space that could have an active push and pull with its attendants and its subjects. In Club Millenium, as we watch the rise of Imelda (Arielle Jacobs) from impoverished young woman with a superficial point of view (she believes in love!) to instrument of Senator Ferdinand Marcos (Jose Llana) to political power player putting her country under Martial Law facing claims of corruption, we witness political theater in its most literal form. We cheer, we dance, we whoop. The horror of the events slowly, maybe too slowly, becomes apparent, as the projections around the audience become filled with more terrifying images of poverty, death, transcripts of ill doings, and assassination.
The dance floor is the perfect place to stage the rise and fall of a political icon: dance floors are where politics play out. Of sex, of race, of desire and power. They are both the site of politics and political in their implementation throughout history and society. Jealousies, Machiavellian strategies, and the unified body of the people can all find their ways between the strobes, in the air thick with sweat and dream, between the slither of skin on skin and empty space pulsating with possibility, and in the pounding sound from the speakers.
The images are inescapable. Thus, Here Lies Love ambitiously tries to engage, if not totally implicate, its audience in the creation of a dictator. While people move on the floor from song to song, there’s little reprieve from all the show’s brightness and spectacle at all moments, even as its songs are conveying political corruption and human rights abuses. It’s not so much that these concepts are sanitized so much as they are blended in and bent within both a theatrical and discotheque context. For that, your mileage may vary. But there’s something chilling and disturbing, and maybe a little brilliant, in the way it doesn’t distinguish the connotations of the Marcoses actions within the setup of a dance hall. To some degree, it makes its audience complicit in dancing along to a pageantry of fascism.
If the story of Imelda Marcos is one of how power corrupts absolutely, as the adage goes, then Here Lies Love is about the twinkling allure glitter and music and its ability to distract from evil. Its gambit — to submerge and “immerse” its audience in a propaganda of the surface — is a compelling, if flawed one. Imelda is rendered less as a calculating politician capable of agency, and thus abuse, then as the vapid wife of one who then, out of a desperation for love from her people, goes many steps too far. And, without a book or a production that pushes its audience into the darkness of the Marcos regime, the show risks being as superficial as it thinks its protagonist.
Yet, perhaps it’s not completely accurate to view this as a work of merely Filipino storytelling but as one of the tragedy of colonialism as the ultimate fractured mirror of its occupier. The show commences with “American Troglodyte” and insinuates Imelda’s obsessions with material goods and her country’s status in the eyes of Americans as products OF occupation and colonization. “The most important things are love and beauty,” a young Imelda sings, after a barrage of lyrics lays out an American crafted dream of those very things. Her outfits and attitudes, visits to meet other international leaders become an unhinged remix of American aesthetics (she starts to look like Jackie O) and power brokering. Delusions made possible.
That the show reimagines Imelda as a kind of camp villain is not above reproach, especially given how unwilling this production seems to be in pushing its ideas to their logical limit: truly making its audience face the horrors of the Marcos regime and their wrongdoings beyond the projection work. Camp can be political, but only when it asserts its subversiveness. Joshua Oppenheimer’s striking hybrid documentary film The Act of Killing has the gangsters who perpetrated the mass killings in Indonesia reenact their crimes in the guise of a genre movie, even elevating their self-images into the realm of fantasy, splattered with crimson and pink. While bending the myth of Imelda Marcos around two separate forms — theater and clubbing — is a curious and fascinating objective, it dilutes the totality of her impact. She’s not silly or defanged, and while Arielle Jacobs is very capable at illustrating misbegotten class trauma into voraciousness for power, the production doesn’t articulate that this subject of club theater has the power to turn the lights off and round up the audience in shackles. She’s still too small and a little too ridiculous to solidify its notions that, within the realm of character study, Marcos is the kind of person to wrench the study from anyone’s hands. Instead the show opts for delusion itself to be power.
Frustratingly its greatest failure is the show’s attempt to invert the original framework as the finale: Timbers, Byrne, and Slim’s clunky moves to transform “theater into fascist excercise” into “theater as collectivist activism” with its blinkered, contextless invocation of the People Power Revolution is too devoid of specificity for it to read as anything other than lib-minded crowd pleasing coda. Here Lies Love is in the thrall in how power and resources are narcotic, but it is unsuccessful in how corrupt power is subverted and challenged, leaving the show’s primarily feeling one of disturbed and apocalyptic anxiety instead of imagining a more concrete and thorough consideration of the relationship between citizenship and solidarity in the face of evil deluded into thinking it is love.
Though Here Lies Love obviously invites comparisons to Evita, perhaps its closest relative is Cabaret, a show which has been reincarnated dozens of times as immersive theater experience, particularly after Sam Mendes’ popular reworking in the early 1990s. It’s as if Sally Bowles retained her political ignorance but found a way to weaponize it for her own gain, towering over crowds of people and perhaps history itself. In lieu of Hal Prince’s gargantuan mirror reflecting the audience, Here Lies Love shatters it and places spins shards in front of pulsating neon. “Here Lies Love” is a death note on a gravestone, written in glittery blood. But it also reveals the limits of how you can use immersion into fascist aesthetics as a viable Broadway conceit: between productive alienation of the audience and the need for box office receipts, things are bound to be too hard to see through.
By complicating its gaze, even its geopolitical subjectivity, Here Lies Love has the tricky task of transforming the dance floor into a death match, the discotheque into graveyard, and the theater into the ultimate playground of American exceptionalism as export, a real spectacle of fascism. The show’s aggressive sense of dissonance lingers, its earworms burrowing deeper into the brain, pleasure mixed with fright. The lights might be flashing, sparkling, gleaming, with the music rumbling beneath your feet. But look outside. Life is hardly a discotheque, old chum.
(Def recommend reading my friend Amanda Andrei’s excellent piece for American Theatre on the show’s complicated politics: https://www.americantheatre.org/2023/08/01/the-complicated-triumph-of-here-lies-love/)