Here Lies Love

Eight drumbeats thud out, a martial pulse that sounds suspiciously like the famous opening bass line to a Talking Heads classic. Two lovers march towards each other through the crowd, and the audience wonders—“They’re not covering ‘Psycho Killer,’ are they? They wouldn't dare!” And then the lovers kiss, the room explodes in disco, and “Psycho Killer” is a distant memory.

Until that moment, I was wondering if David Byrne was the only reason anyone had come to Here Lies Love, the former Talking Head’s new musical, which plays at the Public Theater through June 2. In the last decade, Byrne has dabbled in conceptual art, producing work like 2008’s Playing the Building, a pleasant-enough art installation in southern Manhattan that probably did not deserve the attention drawn by its creator’s name. In his eagerness to cross genres, Byrne is like a much more talented, much less irritating James Franco. Conceptual art is best left to the professionals, but rock is Byrne's beat, and Here Lies Love is a sparkling reminder of why he became a downtown icon in the first place. His name may get them in the door, but the music will make them stay.

That disco explosion is the last time anyone in the audience thinks about Talking Heads. In fact, it’s one of the last times they have a moment to think at all. As directed by Alex Timbers, the audience spends Here Lies Love in constant motion: walking around the ever-shifting stage, singing along, and—in one painful moment—being forced to line dance.

many actors on stage
Ruthie Ann Miles, seated center, and Jose Llana, above, in “Here Lies Love” at the Public Theater.
Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

It is a virtuosic display of control from a director who did quite well with his last foray into historical theater, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Timbers is in complete command, ensuring that no matter how much he moves his crowd, they always either know precisely where to look, or have so many wonderful things to see that it’s impossible for the eyes to choose. Many theatergoers consider audience participation something closer to audience humiliation, but Here Lies Love avoids those pitfalls. Everyone is in this together and, line dancing aside, everyone is having fun.

And my, is this show fun. Probably more fun than it’s meant to be. The story of Imelda Marcos (Ruthie Lee Miles), widow of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is one of oppression, corruption, and extravagance. Ferdinand’s reign lasted three decades, including nearly ten years of savage martial law, and Imelda was the regime’s smiling face. But in Here Lies Love, which is told largely from her point of view, we see autocracy’s glitzy side.

Although Timbers, in a New York Times interview, described the show as an “unequivocal condemnation” of the Marcos dictatorship, the horrors of tyranny are lightly touched on. The song “Order 1081,” named for the proclamation which instituted martial law, attacks the hypocrisies of the Marcos government with elegant sarcasm. Such generalities are the best way to tell Imelda’s life story, but it would take grisly specifics to understand what dictatorship means. The solemn “Order 1081” cannot stand up to the giddy disco beat that accompanies Imelda's diplomatic jetsetting and late nights at Studio 54. If there is an angel and a devil on the shoulders of this production, the devil has all the best numbers.

Let the angels tell their story in the history books. If you’re making musical theater, it’s the devil you want on your side. Social commentary dies on stage, and a play whose only aim is to remind us that dictatorship is bad would probably not be worth watching. In Here Lies Love, Byrne and Timbers—with electric choreography from Annie-B Parson and music by Fatboy Slim—give something more than a history lesson. They make us understand how easy it is to be captivated by a demagogue.

When the DJ at Here Lies Love says sing, you sing. When he says dance, you dance. And when he says march? Well, a reluctant audience member follows orders, lest he embarrass himself in front of the crowd. This is the mentality of the mob. This is the charismatic power of dictatorship. When Ferdinand and Imelda kiss, and the room explodes into a party, Byrne hasn't just made his heroine fall in love with a future tyrant. He's made the crowd fall for him too.

(Of course, it doesn't hurt that Ferdinand, played with an easy smile by Jose Llana, is half hunk, half matinee idol. I’d vote for that guy.)

The Marcos’s wedded bliss does not last long. Ferdinand cares as much for marital fidelity as he does for civil rights, and Imelda responds to his flagrant womanizing by devoting herself to ostentatious public service. This means parties, travel, and the construction of the massive cultural center that became (along with the unmentioned shoe collection) one of the physical symbols of the regime’s excesses. Imelda wants to be Evita, but as the decades wear on, she becomes Rasputin.

In Here Lies Love, Byrne and Timbers give something more than a history lesson. They make us understand how easy it is to be captivated by a demagogue.

Providing counterpoint is the story of Ninoy Aquino (Conrad Ricamora), opposition activist and, incredibly, Imelda's first boyfriend. His demonstrations, imprisonment, and eventual martyrdom don't really affect the dictator’s wife. If she’s numb, blame the bright yellow pills she slips herself every few scenes—a clumsy depiction of painkiller addiction more suited to a Lifetime Original. If Imelda is removed from all this conflict—political and emotional—it’s because, as written, the character is hollow.

This is Imelda Marcos from the outside in, and not very far in. That’s a good thing. Dramatizing key turning points in a famous person’s life does not actually lead to a better understanding of them—see: 42—and this is one of the biopic traps that Byrne avoids. (Writing a toe-tapping number about the shoe collection would have been another.) Though he has clearly done extensive research, he uses it lightly. This play does not know who Imelda Marcos is when she’s alone, and to pretend it does would have been a mistake. For a dictator’s wife, the superficial is what matters.

Here Lies Love has drawn inevitable comparisons to Evita, but it has more in common with Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, a gauzy bauble of a movie which was not quite as shallow as it seemed. Here Lies Love is better than Marie Antoinette. It has none of that film’s art house pretension, and it also has lots more dancing. By the end of its tightly packed ninety minutes, we don't know Imelda Marcos, but we know how it feels to be hypnotized by her.

Timbers and Byrne are responsible enough not to let us leave the theater under Imelda’s spell. After a last blistering lament, delivered as she and her husband flee on helicopter from the impending democratic revolution, the lights go up, and Miles breaks character to tell us that the next song is based on firsthand accounts of the uprising. A few of the cast emerge to sing “God Draws Straight,” a street-level story of the day democracy came to the Philippines. This gentle acoustic number has as much power as everything that came before it, its simplicity refreshing after ninety minutes of thumping, intoxicating rhythm. Finally, Timbers lets the audience rest. Tyranny is ended; the sickness has broken; the fever dream is gone. But what a dream it was.

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