‘Here Lies’ the Marcoses’ negative charisma
Unlike other mostly white reviewers of Here Lies Love, the new Broadway musical that plays into the seduction of the notorious Marcos family of the Philippines, I have a unique perspective.
I was in the Philippines for one of the key moments depicted in the musical, and it definitely impacted my opinion of the show.
First off, we must admit the undeniable negative charisma of the Marcoses. That’s what we all care about, isn’t it?
Would there be any interest in Filipinos at all–by anyone–were it not for the Marcoses’ domination in Filipino and Filipino American history?
When the Marcoses were living in shame, certainly the news ignored them and ignored all the rest of us. But now restored to power, it’s like the world has a way of talking about Filipinos again.
We’re not dead totally. The musical’s title is the epitaph Imelda Marcos imagines on her tombstone, but is it anything but love?
From absolute power through martial law to shameful exile to total rehabilitation and restoration of power, the Marcos narrative arc is noteworthy, especially during the Trump era and the rise of autocracy.
Love them or hate them, the Marcoses are a badass narrative in a badass historical time. They give the bad guys hope.
In fact, the Marcoses may have been an inspiration for Donald Trump. Martial law as a career move? It happened in a Philippine democracy modeled after the U.S. Could it happen in an American democracy controlled by right-wing extremists?
If we’re too busy singing and dancing, it could. Jan. 6 was too close for comfort. It was even called an “insurrection.”
But my preamble is not to say you shouldn’t see Here Lies Love, where Ferdinand, the firebrand from Ilocos, marries Imelda, the tallish beauty queen from the Visayas who becomes his hood ornament.
Then Ferdinand Marcos uses Imelda as he drives his way to power, only to find she is his perfect mate when martial law is declared on Sept. 21, 1972.
It was just a ploy to stymie the spread of the political bogeyman of the time, Communism, although in reality, it blunted all political foes of Marcos, including one Benigno Aquino, a fellow oligarch, one-time suitor of Imelda, and certainly no communist.
The impact of the declaration was immediate. All the institutions of democracy were dissolved–the courts, the Congress. Only one man stood in charge, Marcos, who led the country into the great void. It was 14 years when all civil liberties were curtailed. From a free press and free speech to basic human rights, the statistics of martial law are dark and staggering: nearly 3,300 known extrajudicial killings, 35,000 tortures, 70,000 incarcerations.
And this is stuff worth singing and dancing about?
Well…. That’s why it’s called Here Lies Love and not something like F stands for Ferdinand: The Martial Law Musical.
No one would see that.
The musical is from Imelda’s point of view, and she has a much more sympathetic story arc than her husband. But not by much. Her pill-popping at Studio 54 is highlighted. And she is victimized by the philandering Ferdinand, after being dumped by the hero Ninoy Aquino for being too tall.
But all that is just the Marcos narrative’s whipped cream frosting on a martial law cake that is far from a bon-bon.
Knowing the facts allows you to enjoy the frosting somewhat guilt-free. You get an emotional story, but the subtext remains the emotion in all those statistics that are flashed on the screen: the dead, abused and imprisoned, the ones who don’t get to sing their truth.
But at least you know the numbers are real. And you can read Wikipedia on your phone on the way out the door.
Because there is one truly dominant reason to see this musical, and that’s the immersive theatricality of the experience that is simply breathtaking at times.
I’ve never seen a musical like it. The theater was transformed by ripping out hundreds of orchestra seats to create a disco floor where the audience can join the actors on stage. If you can stand up for 90 minutes straight, these are the tickets to get. It’s worth the experience.
It’s not like you can smell something fishy going on in Malacañang Palace, but you are in Imelda’s disco paradise while it’s all happening. The action comes from the stage, on the disco floor, and in the mezzanine, surrounded by massive video screens. Your head is spinning. You are moved around the stage by ushers in pink suits. Don’t worry, you don’t have to show off your disco moves. You can just be and absorb it all. You definitely will not check your watch wanting it all to end.
The music by David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, and FatBoy Slim is all good. But this is more than a tragic love story of a dictator. It’s also about what the Marcoses did outside the name of love, in the name of greed and power. Pilfering the treasury, stealing from the Filipinos, creating more inequality. It’s the extreme of the one- percent society America has become.
And this is where the musical fails somewhat. It shows the love between the oligarchs but doesn’t really highlight the real victims of martial law represented by all the dark numbers flashed on the screens.
But the theatricality of it all is great. That means the people who really shine aren’t the real Ferdinand or Imelda or Aquino, but the actors, all talented professionals finally getting to play actual Filipinos, the most villainous in history. Notable were Arielle Jacobs as Imelda, Jose Llana as Ferdinand, and Conrad Ricamora as Ninoy Aquino.
Llana, who met with some of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) crowd in attendance, said it was important to tell Marcos’ story even in this version. “This is Broadway,” he said. “It’s got to be entertaining.” Born in Manila, Llana came to the U.S. with his parents to escape martial law. He said if the truth isn’t told, you get what’s happened today, the restoration of the Marcos family due to disinformation efforts in the Philippines.
An audience member asked if this musical with an all-Filipino cast would play well in the Philippines? Llana, who plays the dictator, admitted it wouldn’t be easy.
That leaves this $22-million dollar production in a strange quandary of trying to find a large enough crowd to survive. It’s the white artistic vision of Byrne and Fatboy Slim, using Filipinos’ artistic talents, to tell the country’s dictatorial love story for a mostly white audience, and funded in large measure by well-to-do Filipino American co-producers like comedian Jo Koy and singer H.E.R., among others.
What we get can seem like a lively Classics Illustrated comic book set to rocking music in a great theatrical setting.
It’s a fun time. Just don’t forget the human rights abuses on the way out.
My one moment
So I liked it. But true to the Marcoses, they have once again divided my household.
My father was an Ilocano from Marcos’ home town who loved Marcos. I was an American-born journalist who remained objective.
This time, my hal-Filipina/half-white daughter absolutely refused to see the show. “It’s a dictator’s story,” she said.
As a reviewer, I chose to see it. I told you what I think, and you should decide for yourself. For me, the show’s moral compass never waivers. The facts are presented as plainly as the production is elaborate. The good guys are the good guys, the bad guys are still the bad guys. There is no confusion. Some people will never get exposed to this history. The musical becomes the gateway to understanding monumental political corruption and greed.
And let’s not forget, the U.S. was an enabler to its former colony. The musical could have played a clip of President George H.W. Bush from 1981 toasting Marcos in Manila saying, “We love your adherence to democratic principles.”
This was during martial law.
You can see why Reagan and Bush were burned in effigy by many freedom-loving Filipinos.
What got me in the show was the shocking assassination of Aquino and the procession of his casket through Manila in 1983. I was there covering it for the NBC affiliate in San Francisco and fed NBC and CNN stations around the country.
At the show I attended, as Aquino’s casket was being brought through the crowd, I stood just a few feet from it. It was like I was back in Manila 50 years ago. And everyone around me was no longer just an audience member; we were the Filipino people in the streets, yearning for democracy.
That for me was my transformative moment. What was missing from the musical, came to life through the immersive experience and gave me all I needed to feel from the night.
So I’m glad I went to see the theatrical artistry of the fantastic FIlipino American performers involved. Go to see this show while you can.
Remember, we wouldn’t have a choice under martial law. There would be only one way to think. That’s not the case here.
Thank goodness for that.
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NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Normally Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on www.amok.com
Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes a column for the Inquirer’s North American Bureau.