Few stories have offered more for theatrical razzle-dazzle than that of Imelda Marcos, who like Eva Perón before her rose from humble origins to emerge as one of the most glamorous and controversial figures in the world. A decade ago, the former First Lady of the Philippines, and mother of its current president, became the subject of her own musical: Here Lies Love, featuring a score by pop visionary David Byrne and celebrated DJ and musician Fatboy Slim, premiered at The Public Theater to wide acclaim, and later enjoyed successful runs in Seattle and London.
Now the musical is arriving at the Broadway Theatre, where it’s set to begin previews June 17 and open July 20, in a production developed and helmed by its original director, Alex Timbers, who last worked with Byrne as a production consultant on the concert-inspired, Special Tony Award-winning American Utopia. Timbers’ other recent Broadway credits, exuberant musical adaptations of the films Beetlejuice and Moulin Rouge!—have established him as a sort of master party planner, an artist whom Broadway fans can rely on for bold, exhilarating entertainment that engages them through both plot and design.
For Here Lies Love, that meant adapting the immersive approach that distinguished the show downtown—where audience members could find themselves face-to-face with actors on a giant dance floor, simulating the nightclubs Mrs. Marcos famously frequented—for a more traditional venue. “The goal is that wherever you’re sitting in the theater, it’s going to feel like the staging and the direction are sort of wrapped around you,” says Timbers.
Fans who wish to can buy “floor” tickets, which enable them to stand amid the action in the nightclub-like setting, where dancing is encouraged. There will also be elevated seating alongside the dance floor, with two rows of chairs situated just above the action, and two types of mezzanine seating: front, offering a more traditional theatre seat that’s still close to the action, and rear, which delivers a panoramic view, the closest thing to a conventional Broadway experience.
“David Korins, our set designer” — who worked on Hamilton and teamed with Timbers on Beetlejuice — “likes to say the balcony front row is the new orchestra front row,” Timbers muses. “Really, what we’ve gotten to do is add side galleries that run from the back of the theatre all the way up to the mezzanine. Those are elevated balconies. And there’s a catwalk that runs across the front row of the mezzanine, so there will be actors a foot away from you at times.”
Timbers notes, “There are sections of the show where everybody will be up and dancing, no matter where you’re seated. That’s one of the things that I think is fun and unique about this show: that the audience is cast in the historical events.” Those events include exhilarating victories, as Byrne and Slim’s exuberantly funky music underlines the lust for life—and power—that fueled young Imelda’s rise. Here Lies Love also takes dark turns, as her husband, the late Ferdinand Marcos, establishes the dictatorial rule that included nearly a decade of martial law stretching into the 1980s, and led to the assassination of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino and the People Power Revolution that ended Ferdinand’s reign.
“So you’re at Ferdinand and Imelda’s wedding; you’re at the Aquinos’ opposition rally; you’re at the funeral march after Aquino’s assassination,” says Timbers, who has previously tackled historical subjects in his Broadway breakthrough, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, another collaboration with Byrne. “In some ways it’s complicated, because you’ll be cheering on the results from Ferdinand’s first election, and then moments later, you’ll think, ‘I don’t know how I really feel about that; I support what Aquino’s saying.’ You’re cast in the show in ways that make you sometimes feel complicit, and all that has to do with the seductive music and the seductive practices of a dictator, that cult of personality.”
All of Here Lies Love’s cast members — and a few producers, including Lea Salonga, Jose Antonio Vargas, and Clint Ramos, who is also costume designer — are of Filipino extraction. “We have a couple of actors who were born and raised in the Philippines, and we have some Filipino American performers and Filipino Canadian performers,” Timbers reports. “Another thing is that we’ve done the show four times, and while half the cast is brand-new, others are scattered in from those other productions.” Jose Llana, who plays Ferdinand to Arielle Jacobs’ Imelda, is the son of anti-Marcos demonstrators.
“Leaning into the cultural specificity was part of what led us to an all-Filipino cast, and we’ve had exciting conversations,” Timbers says. “One of the things we see in America now, but it’s really going on all over the world, is this spread of disinformation.” The director notes that current Filipino vice president Sara Duterte — who serves under Bongbong Marcos, Imelda and Ferdinand’s son — “is also the education minister there, and they’re rewriting textbooks right now. You can see the fragility of democracy. So I think telling a story about how we can get swept up by these leaders, how tenuous it all is, is more vital and pertinent now.”
But even while Here Lies Love “is dealing with a really difficult, meaningful history, it’s also a party,” Timbers stresses. “It’s dealing with something incredibly deep and complex, but it leads with the party. It’s joyous. And we’ve had time to reanalyze everything in the show not only through the lens of what’s going on today, but also through the lens of just being better storytellers than we were 10 years ago. So I’m definitely convinced that this is going to be the best production of this show we’ve ever had.”
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