Extended now through June 18 at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, Here Lies Love is an immersive, 90-minute disco-poperetta chronicling the lives of the infamous Imelda Marcos and the Philippines’ People Power Revolution. The musical collaboration between David Byrne and Fatboy Slim (directed by Alex Timbers) literally transforms the stage of the Bagley Wright into a dance floor where the audience can brush shoulders with the cast, karaoke to the titular song, and participate in Filipino line dances, all under the light of a disco ball.
According to Byrne, the hedonistic beats and seductive spectacle are meant to purposely parallel the spell of ‘glitz and glamor’ that Imelda and her husband cast on the Filipino people. Narrated through songs with literally only five to 10 lines of spoken dialogue, Byrne reduces 30-plus years of a nation’s traumatic political history to a love triangle played out in catchy hooks and a pill addiction sub-plot. Thus, Here Lies Love is ultimately a collection of re-appropriated historic material that musically remakes and recirculates Filipina femininities to commercialize and reconstruct US and Philippine history for marketable, danceable consumption.
In 2010, Nonesuch Records released the Here Lies Love concept album, which originally focused on the life and relationship of Imelda and Estrella Cumpas, the Filipina domestic servant who raised her. In the liner notes of the album, Byrne asks:
Why am I interested in this? Why do a series of songs about Imelda Marcos and Estrella Cumpas?...The story I am interested in is more about asking what drives a powerful person—what makes them tick? How do they make and then remake themselves?
He then categorizes the album as a narrative of self construction. In other words, Imelda is captivating because she was so powerful and also because of her ability to refashion herself. Drawing upon her rags to riches backstory—country girl to beauty queen to first lady—Byrne capitalizes on Imelda’s self-presentation as a spectacle of Filipina femininity.
On the album, the song “Why Don’t You Love Me?” focuses on Imelda and Estrella, illustrating how their familial relationship changed due to their difference in social class. As Imelda became more and more famous, she sought to distance herself from her provincial roots. In the staged production, however, Byrne refashions the song into a plaintive and self-unaware aria sung by Imelda to her less than adoring public.
More refashioning of this complex woman into digestible spectacle happens as Imelda is repeatedly defined by the men in her life: her corrupt husband, Ferdinand Marcos, and her martyred ex-boyfriend, the political activist Ninoy Aquino. The only times we see Imelda in solitary moments of reflection, she is surrounded by a female chorus who feed her pills. Any chance of true character exploration is lost and explained away by drugs.
What the concept album and the staged production fail to realize is that Imelda was a formidable political figure in her own right. She was a crucial and knowing player in her husband’s domestic and foreign policies. She was not a fashionable innocent, formed only by the men in her life, as the play makes her out to be.
The Marcos’s era was characterized by large-scale political oppression, censorship of the press, and the kidnapping, torture, and murder of political opponents. Although many of these crimes have yet to be resolved, today Imelda’s worldwide claim to fame centers on her thousands of shoes, which eventually became a symbol for the Marcos’s unchecked greed and corruption. Though Byrne pointedly omitted any reference to her shoe collection, in trying to deepen the public’s understanding of this political figure, his immersive disco musical does very little to render her as a complex and complicated individual, a political figure who was shaped by a history of American colonization and violence.
As the album moved from concept to staged performance to final product, it proceeded via erasure of imperial and neocolonial violence. In the transformation of Imelda Marcos into a supposedly universal and consumable story about power and those who wield it, Here Lies Love paints a glossy veneer over the Philippines’ national trauma and America’s role in it. No amount of disco can repair that.