Disco and dictators: Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos overthrown again, this time on Broadway
The power couple: Arielle Jacobs and Jose LLana as dictators Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos in 'Here Lies Love.' | Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Eva Perón may have long reigned as the “First Lady of Broadway,” but Santa Evita better make way because the Philippines’ Iron Butterfly is storming the stage in Here Lies Love, which opened July 20 at New York’s Broadway Theater.

A creative collaboration between singer-songwriter David Byrne and musician Fatboy Slim, the show portrays the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, wife and co-despot to U.S.-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The couple headed a right-wing regime from 1965 to 1986 that offered the Filipino people little but poverty and repression while rewarding the ruling family with billions in stolen public wealth.

The glitz and glamor of actress Arielle Jacobs’ (Aladdin, Wicked) portrayal of Imelda’s evolution from down-at-heel village girl to dictatorial diva have left some critics confused. Many a writer has expressed discomfort applauding what they worried was a musical love letter to a corrupt and ladder-climbing opportunist. With its praise for the People Power Revolution of 1986, however, and its condemnation of the contemporary revival of authoritarianism around the world—including in the Philippines—Here Lies Love is anything but.

Imelda Marcos arrives at New York’s Arta Theater on Sept. 17, 1966, to attend the performance of a Broadway musical. | Marty Lederhandler

Before digging further into the history and the politics, though, some comments are needed on the innovative staging of this show; it revolutionizes the notion of an immersive theater experience. The arrangement is nothing like your typical auditorium-style set-up. The theater is divided into four segments, with orchestra seats tossed in favor of a standing-room-only arena with mobile platforms stationed among the ticket-buyers. For those who prefer or require the comfort of sitting, rest assured, there are still plenty of seats in the balcony and in a middle tier ringing the level above the dance floor (yes, dance floor).

Designed by David Korins (Hamilton, Beetlejuice, Dear Evan Hansen, and the currently touring Van Gogh exhibit), the configuration leaves a good chunk of attendees playing double roles as both audience members and extras. At one moment, you are cutting a rug to disco beats with the First Lady in Studio 54, while a short time later, you’re marching on the Malacañang Palace demanding the end of the dictatorship.

It’s unlike any other musical experience and required extensive (and expensive) retrofits to the Broadway Theater. Judging by the demand for floor tickets (this reviewer was unable to score one), it was a renovation gamble that paid off.

When it comes to the songs, there are some solid and memorable numbers that many in the audience clearly couldn’t get out of their heads; they already know the show from its original 2013 off-Broadway production at The Public Theater. The song that gives the show its name is taken directly from the words of Imelda herself, who said in a 2003 interview that when she dies, rather than her name being etched on the headstone, it should simply say, “Here Lies Love.” Modest, right? Delivered forcefully by Jacobs, it’s a catchy tune with a sugary chorus that drips with Imelda’s self-trumpeted selflessness: “Is it a sin to love too much? Is it a sin to care? I do it all for you!”

Though the stage architecture, glittering set décor, pop playlist, and a parade of colorful costumes all combine to wow viewers, it’s still the cast of talented actors that carries this revolutionary performance to its climax.

‘Here Lies Love’ required an extensive reconfiguration of the Broadway Theater to accommodate its immersive audience experience. | C.J. Atkins / People’s World

Jacobs shines as Imelda, showing the all-too-human complexity of a woman long seen (correctly) as a villain who brutalized and abused her people. Returning again to the Evita comparison, if Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice might have intended to provoke sympathy for their leading lady, that’s not the case with Here Lies Love.

There’s no denying you will feel some soft-hearted moments for Imelda along the way—when she’s dumped by her first boyfriend (and later political opponent), Ninoy Aquino; when we see her president-husband having her drugged and dressed up like a Filipina Jackie Kennedy to bolster himself in front of the cameras; or when she is embarrassed before the whole nation as Ferdinand’s affair with American actress Dovie Beams is exposed via the release of tapes of secretly-recorded sexual pillow talk.

The song “Slave and Star,” the centerpoint of this act, references the portrait the real Imelda always painted of herself—a servant to her husband and a woman burdened with the need to always look immaculate for her people. Though it might appear to indulge Imelda Marcos’s own propaganda for a moment, taken as a whole, the show never leaves any doubt about how viewers should ultimately judge the dictator’s wife.

Conrad Ricamora gives a charismatic and confrontational performance as Filipino opposition leader Ninoy Aquino. | Boneau/Bryan-Brown

As for the strongman himself, the role of Ferdinand Marcos is reprised by the only actor who’s ever played him in productions of Here Lies Love, Jose Llana (The King and I, Rent, Wonderland). Starting off as a charismatic up-and-coming politician in the late 1950s, a hero of the World War II struggle against Japanese occupation, Llana portrays a dapper and dashing Marcos, wooing the young beauty queen from Tacloban and Filipino voters alike.

The honeymoon is short-lived, though, as the extravagant lifestyle of the ruling family and their excessive spending on public vanity projects rouses opposition. Millions of Filipinos still lived in abject poverty, yet the president and his wife were the very image of modern-day royalty, complete with jewels and crowns.

Calling them out every step of the way is bespectacled Liberal Senator Ninoy Aquino, played with great charisma by Conrad Ricamora (TV’s “How to Die Alone” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” and the films Fire Island, Over the Moon, and more). His berating of the Macros clique earned the real Aquino their scorn, but he never hesitated to continue challenging their corruption. Ricamora shows the same determination and tenacity, convincing the audience of his righteous outrage against the kleptocrats who sit at the pinnacle of power.

By the ’70s, Llana transforms the president into the reclusive and ailing autocrat that the real Marcos became. Just like his historical counterpart, Llana recedes from view for extended periods of the second half of the show. As Ferdinand Marcos suffered from lupus in the latter years of his rule, it was Imelda who stepped in as the substitute dictator, meting out the same brutality her husband was known for.

People Power Revolution: Students and workers demonstrate in Manila, Philippines, Feb. 18, 1986, against the Marcos government and the U.S. government’s support of dictatorship. | Alberto Marquez / AP

Her elevation to the top spot coincided with the final death of Philippine democracy. A bombing in 1970 is blamed on Communists and becomes the perfect Cold War tool to guarantee continued U.S. support for a regime under growing pressure. Two years later, Marcos declared martial law with his infamous Order 1081. Congress is dissolved, and the courts are neutered. On stage, Ricamora is whisked away to prison just as Aquino was for seven years, and the audience is bombarded with statistics about the number of arrested, tortured, and killed.

At this stage of the performance, we arrive at an inflection point. Jacobs transitions from sidekick First Lady into the de facto acting president. The Marcos government (if not Ferdinand Marcos himself) seems more secure than ever, and Imelda immerses herself in the perks that come with her elevated prominence.

Playing opposite Llana and Ricamora, Jacobs exudes the power, privilege, and entitlement that defined the Imelda the world came to know in those years. Videos and photos play on screens around the theater, showing her partying in New York with the world’s pop culture elite and stepping out on the world stage in meetings with Nixon, Kissinger, Brezhnev, Ghaddafi, Castro, and other luminaries. Underneath a spinning disco ball and laser lights down at center stage is Jacobs—oversized sunglasses adorning her face, wine glass in hand, and fur around her shoulders.

The musical then enters its terminal stage, with Imelda partying her way toward her eventual overthrow. Impoverished Filipino workers and suppressed students begin to figure more prominently; troops rough up demonstrators and secret police shuffle critics off to detention. The fatal reality of the late Marcos era becomes ever-present, culminating, as anyone who knows the history will remember, with the assassination of Aquino and the peaceful uprising against the Marcos clan.

Pulling weight behind the three lead actors is an ensemble of thespians who have already made their own marks on the stage—or soon will. Melody Butiu (Doctor Zhivago) is Estrella Cumpas, Imelda’s forgotten and forlorn nanny and childhood friend. Broadway newcomer Timothy Matthew Flores fills a number of supporting roles over the course of the evening, but his spotlight moment comes when he portrays the distraught son of Ninoy Aquino, tearfully biding his father farewell as the latter departs for Manila, facing what he knew was his likely demise.

Another Broadway first-timer, Roy Flores, exudes the energy of partier, protester, and policeman, depending on the scene. He makes a connection with the audience and holds it throughout the night.

Lea Salonga, as Aurora Aquino, mother of the martyred Ninoy. | Boneau/Bryan-Brown

Others in the ensemble to watch in the future include Jaygee Macapugay, Sarah Kay, Nathan Angelo, Jeigh Madjus, and several more.

And of course, it is impossible not to mention another treat for attendees of this Broadway Theater production of Here Lies Love: Lea Salonga (Miss Saigon, Les Misérables, Aladdin, Mulan, and on and on…) picks up the role of Aurora Aquino, mother of the martyred opposition leader. Though she appears late in the evening, Salonga steps into the role of leading lady as Jacobs’ vanquished Imelda and Llana’s doddering Ferdinand flee into the arms of Ronald Reagan. In contrast to Imelda’s egoistic self-promotion, Aurora, in the able hands of Salonga, becomes a true mother to the nation.

Here Lies Love is a fast, action-packed 90-minute thrill ride, but it’s also politically provocative. The overthrow of the Marcos family (at least it must have seemed at the time) was the endgame of over four centuries of subjugation and domination, first by colonial rulers (Spain and then the U.S.) and next by local comprador authoritarian elites. The fact that the entire cast of Here Lies Love is Filipino carries powerful weight, symbolic of a people who rose up to decide their own future.

Rewriting history: Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., left, won last year’s presidential election in the Philippines in part by convincing new generations of voters that his parents’ brutal dictatorship was actually a golden era of prosperity. In the photo at right, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos address the crowds in Manila at the Malacañang Palace, Feb. 25, 1986. Only hours after this photo was taken, the Marcos family was overthrown by a popular uprising and fled to exile in the United States. Marcos, Jr., is pictured at the far right in the photo. | AP photos

For some of the regime’s victims and subjects, Here Lies Love might feel overly light-hearted, too playful, and too fun in its treatment of a dark and deadly period in Philippine history. Those sentiments cannot be dismissed, but the musical should in no way be read as an apologia for the dictatorship or a paean to its deposed queen.

Any who harbor such a notion will be disabused of it by the time the final rallying call is issued by the DJ-cum-emcee of the show, Moses Villarama. He points to the sad fact that a Marcos once again occupies the Malacañang Palace today—Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. Villarama warns of right-wing authoritarianism’s return, and his inspiring lead in the closing number, “God Draws Straight,” reminds the audience that there is still a need for People Power.

If you’re in New York, see this show. You’ll learn a lot, and if you’re like this reviewer, you’ll be inspired to find out more about the unfinished revolution in the Philippines.

Oh, and one last thing. You’ve probably been wondering as you read this review…what about her shoes!? Yes, much of the world remembers Imelda Marcos for the thousands and thousands of shoes discovered in the palace after the Marcos family fled to exile in Hawaii. They became the symbol of the Marcos’ corruption and extravagance.

Here Lies Love doesn’t dwell on the First Lady’s footwear; there’s only a passing mention when Imelda recalls her poor days as a child: “No clothes, no bed, no jewelry; Sometimes I had no shoes.” A youthful longing that morphed into an adult obsession? Perhaps. But with the Imelda Marcos shoe trope so overdone in Western media, it’s probably fine that Byrne and Fatboy Slim chose not to give it much prominence in this production.

Here Lies Love plays at the Broadway Theater in Manhattan.

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C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.