Imelda's Turn! Former First Lady of the Philippines Gets Her Own Musical in Here Lies Love
By Harry Haun
Alex Timbers, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim give a spotlight to Imelda Marcos — the "only world leader who comes with her own soundtrack"— in the musical Here Lies Love at The Public Theater. Cue the glitter ball!
In the beginning was the concept album — like Evita, only Filipino. The three word phrase that Imelda Marcos wants on her tombstone, Here Lies Love, is also the name engraved on the deluxe double-CD, released on April 6, 2010, chronicling the meteoric rise and subsequent descent into infamy of the former First Lady of the Philippines.
Two years and three days later, it was announced that this unflattering, unforgiving portrayal by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim would be adapted into a fully immersive, 80-minute, 360-degree theatrical experience, helmed by rising and very busy young director Alex Timbers. Here Lies Love is now in previews for a run at The Public through May 19.
"I've been a fan of David's work for a long time — I mean, Talking Heads and beyond — and I had this relationship with Oskar Eustis at The Public through Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," explains Timbers. "While we were developing that show, Oskar brought me together with David and said, 'Do you have any ideas of how we might do this CD in three-dimension[s]?,' so I came in and pitched this project to David, and here we are."
Imelda Marcos' legendary obsession with shoes overshadows her political atrocities — Timbers quips that the show could be subtitled Many, Many Kinky Boots — and this musical is an attempt to balance the books in the public mind. "She did horrible things. It's definitely a condemnation of her, but I wouldn't say that the evening is without a certain level of irreverence or fun as well. It wouldn't be me — it wouldn't be David — if the politics didn't match the entertainment and spectacle value."
Although Timbers was never in the Philippines, Byrne was. "David was interested in the politics of power, and, coming from a musical place, he had to theatricalize that. Henry Kissinger doesn't really sing to him. Imelda Marcos loved to visit Studio 54. She had a disco ball and a dance floor in her living room. She's the only world leader who comes with her own soundtrack. What will surprise people is that the score is all club music. It's not a musical theatre piece. We have love songs, though. We did a Williamstown workshop last year, and the new songs since then are two love songs.
"On a personal level, having worked with lots of musical theatre composers, I must say the thing that's amazing about David is that he wrote this incredible album and then rewrote so much of it for the stage. More and more, he writes for character, for situation. It's really cool. People have this conception that pop composers just come and drop off a score and don't really care what the theatrical needs are, but he's in there every day, and every day the songs get better and better. It's really exciting."
Melody Butiu performs a third character, Imelda's childhood friend Estrella Cumpas, who, says Timbers, "really figured hugely on the album and is still an important character in our show, but our show is a little more weighed toward a political plot.
"Conrad Ricamora is Benigno Aquino Jr., who doesn't appear much on the album but is major to our show since a third of the score is new. He was opposition leader to the Marcoses — and was Imelda's first love. She lost her virginity to him, they broke up, and the Marcoses had him imprisoned. Ultimately, he was assassinated.
"It's Shakespearean if you think about it — the House of Aquino versus the House of Marcos. Aquino dated Imelda, then led this opposition movement and was thrown in prison. Imelda released him to America, but he came back and was killed. Then his widow, Corazon Aquino, ran for president and was elected. Now, Imelda is back to the Philippines — in the House of Representatives — and the Aquinoes and the Marcoses are still two of the Philippines most important political families."
Timbers is an uptown guy and a downtown guy, comfortably straddling worlds, with two Obie Awards and two Tony nominations to prove it. With Here Lies Love he merges both.
"I did a 2006 show called Hell House that turned St. Ann's Warehouse into a 15,000-square-foot, walk-through haunted-house tour. With Here Lies Love, the audience stands for the whole time. There's no dialogue, and the action takes place all around you as you move through a theatrical space. It's as if the show is taking place in a club. It's big-tent musical theatre — with a real left-of-center approach to the story."
You don't have to just stand around either. Dancing is encouraged. "As someone who has directed a lot of drag theatre in the past — and knows what the horrors of audience interaction are — I can promise you that this is one of those things where anybody can't be put in the spotlight or made to feel uncomfortable. It's like if you want to join in, that's great; if you don't, that's fine, too. What I love about this show — it's just like David himself — is that it's a real mix of downtown and uptown."
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