The theme of David Byrne’s dance-party musical, Here Lies Love, isn’t a new one for him. The show tells the story of Imelda Marcos, the “Rose of Tacloban,” small town beauty queen who became the “Steel Butterfly” as First Lady of the Philippines. Along the way, she suffers the indignities of her husband’s less-than-gentle ministrations in the bedroom, his infidelities, and then his physical decline, leaving her no choice but to assume effective command of the country herself. And her country suffers from the corruption and brutality of her and her husband’s simultaneously iron- and ham-fisted rule.
Her story bears obvious comparisons to that of Eva Perón, and hence the show bears obvious comparison to Webber and Rice’s Evita, but I prefer David Byrne’s version for several reasons.
First of all, I’m a sucker for immersive theater, and this is another one of those get-the-audience-involved jobs. The show takes place in a nightclub, and the audience are the patrons. The various members of the cast strut and dance on catwalks, their feet inches from the crowd’s faces, and sometimes descend to dance with members of the audience (in one number, dressed in masks of various world leaders of the 1970s, from Richard Nixon to Fidel Castro). The “stage” itself is reconfigured several times during the show, the dancing crowd herded by pink jumpsuited minders so as not to get squashed by a rolling platform. (You’d think that choreography would be secondary to logistics in such a circumstance, but personally I found Anne-B Parson’s work to be not just exciting but particularly effective in small details, harmonizing Polynesian dance with disco moves with personal gestures that communicate character and emotion.)
As I usually do, I appreciated the immersion because of the immediacy it brought to the experience. But in this case, it also served a thematic purpose. Imelda Marcos’s appeal as a political figure was always based on her pop-star glamour. Whether the nightclub is intended to be a metaphor for the Philippines under martial law, politics being turned into a dance where the citizens are herded about by minders in black sunglasses and told what steps to do when, or whether it is intended to be window into Imelda Marcos’s mind, how she saw the world and her role in it – either way, it didn’t just bring the audience into the story, but gave us the experience of an idea central to that story.
Second, frankly, I liked the music better. David Byrne and his collaborators (including Fat Boy Slim) are masters of the ironic riff on pop cliches, and the result is a sequence of eminently hummable and danceable tunes that nonetheless bring you up short as you realize what you are really singing about. By contrast, Evita really only has one memorable and singable tune (you know the one).
And while I know many disagree with me, I find Evita way too serious about itself to take seriously – and yet it doesn’t take its story quite seriously enough. Eva Perón, after all, wasn’t just a political idol with “star quality” – she became something akin to a saint, with all the creepy veneration of her physical body that comes with that designation. I didn’t come away from Evita feeling like I had gotten inside that kind of Catholic-inflected mentality. By contrast, Here Lies Love does a marvelous job of bringing home the essential Americanism of Imelda Marcos’s story, and connecting that to the cultural position of the post-colonial Philippines.
It also doesn’t hurt that Webber and Rice had to create resort to a fictional and largely characterless Ché as counterpoint to the Perons, whereas Imelda Marcos actually dated Benigno Aquino (Conrad Ricamora) before marrying Ferdinand Marcos (Jose Llana). It’d be completely unbelievable if it weren’t true.
Finally, Evita is yet another story about the celebrity culture and the price of fame. Eva Perón, per the musical, set out to become a goddess, and, for better or worse, she achieved her goal. And we are to wonder at the sheer spectacle of her achievement. She’s ultimately a cold, unapproachable figure. But David Byrne’s Imelda Marcos is anything but cold, and she ends her story with a song, “Why Don’t You Love Me?” expressing pained incredulity that the people of the Philippines don’t understand that everything she did, she did for love – love of her husband, love of her country, but, more to the point, the deep, deep need simply to have someone to love, and to love her back. I think there’s a huge amount of truth in that – in the aching need at the heart of a certain kind of psychopathologic politics.
And compared to having someone to love, what are freedom and justice, after all?
The whole ensemble deserves kudos, but Ruthie Ann Miles does a truly extraordinary job bringing across Imelda’s self-involvement and her vulnerability.
If I have a complaint about the show, it’s that it ends with the departure of the Marcoses for the United States in 1986. There’s a bitter taste to the nostalgic evocation of the People Power revolution in the Philippines, not only because that was hardly the end of that country’s troubles, but because the promise of the gentle collapse of so many dictatorships as the Cold War wound down – South Korea, Chile, South Africa, Poland, East Germany, Cambodia, etc – began to curdle already with the collapse of Yugoslavia, and yet continues to set up unrealistic expectations for sudden liberalization, most recently with the Arab Spring.
But more to the point, that wasn’t the end of the Imelda Marcos story – not by a long shot. She returned home in 1991, after her husband’s death, and ran twice for the Presidency – unsuccessfully – and twice for Congress – successfully – where she is still serving at the age of 84. I don’t know if she’s seen David Byrne’s show, but she’s heard about it – and according to reports she’s flattered.
And that feels like the hook for an entirely new project.
Here Lies Love plays at the Public Theater in New York through July 28th, but the producers are actively looking for a new space where it could run for a good long time.