Theater Review – “Here Lies Love” Lies Flat on Broadway
By Christopher Caggiano
The David Byrne-Fatboy Slim musical makes its long-awaited Broadway bow. (Well, long-awaited by some…)
It started at MASS MoCA in 2012. There were rumors of a workshop up in North Adams, Massachusetts, of a new immersive musical by David Byrne, formerly of the Talking Heads, and Fatboy Slim, a British music producer and DJ.
Also intriguing, the musical was apparently about Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines, and — get this — didn’t mention her 3,000 pairs of shoes at all. Like, at all. The workshop run was completely sold out, but word of mouth was rapturous and there was every indication that this show would eventually transfer to New York City.
When the musical, entitled Here Lies Love, premiered at the Public Theater in 2013, critics wrote love letters, praising its lively score and immersive staging. Word quickly spread and the show became a sell-out hit, so much so that it returned to the Public in 2014 for an encore run, which was similarly well received.
I saw the show in 2013. I saw it again in 2014. And last week I saw its premier on Broadway. And I just don’t get it.
My reaction to the show was so out of sync with the critical consensus that I figured I must have missed something the first time. In 2013, I was seated above the action. The show famously features audience members standing and moving about on a dance floor. But there are also actual seats surrounding the dance floor and — now that the show has moved to the Broadway Theater — the theater’s balcony overlooks a completely transformed orchestra section specially designed for this production. I thought that maybe the experience was different for people who were actually participating in the proceedings. So I went back in 2014 and stood among the masses. Same reaction.
I really should have known better. As both a critic and a teacher, I’ve often said that the key to whether a musical truly works is in the text: the words and the music. Production elements can enhance the quality of the show, but the essential quality needs to be there in the first place. A truly great show will work in a church basement with the cast performing at music stands.
But people whose opinions I genuinely respect have raved about Here Lies Love, insisting that the songs are richly realized and admiring the show’s supposedly complex portrait of Philippine’s First Lady, Imelda Marcos. So I’m left to wonder: Are we seeing the same show? I find it gimmicky, shallow, and uninvolving. And loud. Very, very loud. What’s more, the whole “local girl makes good, weds famous man” thing has been done before and better. Here Lies Love is basically Evita Lite.
In truth, I’m not the only person critical of the show, but I’m not exactly on board with these other critics either. Some have raised concerns about the show’s supposed tendency to glorify or at least sympathize with Imelda Marcos. But no one who’s actually seen the show could credibly claim this.
At the start of the musical we are given a sympathetic Imelda, a poor young girl who later rises to fame and power, but Here Lies Love very clearly, almost ham-handedly, points out Imelda’s excesses and cruelty once she climbs to the top and, while her husband is sick, serves as acting president. The show also portrays the harmful effects of the Marcos regime and how bereft Imelda is when everything comes crashing down around her.
Still others have criticized the musical for not being historically accurate. Here’s something else I’ve said many times: Musicals are not documentaries. Creators have no obligation to stick to the facts. Their only obligation is to put together a meaningful and entertaining show.
And it’s here where I find fault with Here Lies Love. It is neither moving nor diverting. I don’t care about the characters, and I don’t really enjoy the journey, no matter how much director Alex Timbers pumps up the proceedings with light shows and disco balls.
Again, it’s all about the text. While the songs do relate the story, they don’t go very deep into the characters. They are mostly flat and expository, albeit with pleasant melodies and a driving disco/techno beat. I’ve long been a fan of David Byrne and applaud his ambitions to expand into musical theater. But overall his lyrics are too indirect and fragmented to be truly effective in a musical. They’re either painfully obvious or maddeningly oblique.
In terms of the obvious, when the Marcos regime implodes, Imelda sings “Why don’t you love me?”, seemingly ad nauseam. As for oblique, at Ninoy Aquino’s funeral, his mother sings a lament and asks mourners why they’ve come. “Just ask the flowers,” they reply. Um…what?
The problem isn’t that the show glorifies the Marcos characters. The problem is those characters are thin to the point of being diaphanous. The only figure with any real heft to him is Ninoy Aquino, but even his songs are detrimentally expository.
The plot leaves too many questions unanswered, particularly with respect to character motivations. How did Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda meet? Why did he marry Imelda? Why does he do a 180 immediately after they marry? Why does he suddenly turn into a cold brute, dictating what she wears and forcing her to take drugs — uppers, downers, weight loss pills, calcium supplements? The same vial of drugs seems to accomplish different things in different scenes, so it’s hard to tell.
What’s more, Timbers relies too much on projections of pictures and text to relate the plot and establish time and place. At one point, we see footage of the real Imelda partying down with celebrities and international leaders. At another point, the projections show the hardships that the Philippine people endured under the Marcos rule. This overreliance on projections to tell the story is tantamount to admitting that the show’s content isn’t fully doing its job.
Also, as for all that supposedly innovative staging, the decision to set the entire show in a dance club, while certainly reflective of Imelda’s party hearty lifestyle, doesn’t quite work when the story moves onto dramatizing the dour aspects of her life and the reign of the Marcos regime.
Admittedly, I’ve never been much of a fan of immersive theater. I remember climbing up and down six flights of stairs at Sleep No More and thinking, “You know, I prefer to have my theater come to me.” Thankfully at Here Lies Love there’s the option of being seated, but even then, the DJ (because of course there’s a DJ) hectors the audience into standing up and dancing. No, thanks.
Thankfully, the cast of Here Lies Love is full of first-rate talent, particularly Conrad Ricamora as Ninoy Aquino and Jose Llana as Ferdinand Marcos. As for Arielle Jacobs, she’s in fine voice but I felt a bit more for Imelda when Ruthie Ann Miles played her at the Public.
There’s been a good deal of talk about how this is the first Broadway musical with an all-Filipino cast. I certainly applaud representation and diversity. But as we saw with KPOP last season, and now Here Lies Love this season, authentic casting may be admirable, but it’s no guarantee that the show itself is any good.
Christopher Caggiano is a freelance writer and editor living in Boston. He has written about theater for a variety of outlets, including TheaterMania.com, American Theatre, and Dramatics magazine. He also taught musical-theater history for 16 years and is working on numerous book projects based on his research.