Imelda’s Sweet Sauce

Here Lies Love

a musical by David Byrne, with music by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, directed by Alex Timbers
Public Theater, New York City, through June 30, 2013
Joan Marcus
Ruthie Ann Miles, center, as Imelda Marcos in Here Lies Love at the Public Theater

Turning the life and times of Imelda Marcos into a piece of musical theater set in a disco is almost too obvious. She was, after all, a disco queen herself, dancing the nights away under mirror balls installed in her various palaces and town houses, with her entourage of louche international socialites and B-movie actors who often looked like George Hamilton, including George Hamilton himself. The problem with the idea is that nothing on stage can ever be quite as zany as the Filipino first lady’s real life.

And yet the musician David Byrne’s imagining of Imelda’s inner landscape mostly works very well. Byrne is a pop polymath, a composer of film music as well as an author. In his latest book, How Music Works, he gives fascinating descriptions of his many collaborations with other musicians, such as Brian Eno, in which they exchange ideas and even record music on their laptops.* The idea to write a disco opera, in collaboration with DJ Fatboy Slim, began in 2005. Byrne writes: “Reading that Imelda had said she wanted the words HERE LIES LOVE inscribed on her tombstone was like being handed the title of the musical on a platter.”

The pop opera, brilliantly staged by Alex Timbers and choreographed by Annie-B Parson, is performed in a made-up disco with constantly shifting stages sliding across the floor. As video clips are flashed onto the walls, in a kind of light show of Imelda’s public life, the mostly middle-aged audience at the Public Theater is coaxed by a raucous DJ and pink-suited ushers into bopping along with the actors. (Most people appeared to be more than willing to wave their arms and whoop and holler. I’m in the minority that tends to resist this kind of festive bullying by becoming stony-faced and rigid.)

Filipinos have a word, palabas, meaning show or farce. Much in the Philippines is palabas, including, alas, much of its politics. The Marcos dictatorship (1965–1986), corrupt, kleptomaniacal, and sometimes brutal, was full of palabas. Power was gilded with show—grandiose speeches, carnivalesque campaigns, huge artistic projects, endless pageantry, and absurdly extravagant parties. Ferdinand Marcos himself was a ruthless operator more than a showman. He went for the power. His wife provided much of the palabas.

The first half of Byrne’s musical, full of kinetic dance numbers, shows Imelda’s rise from her childhood as a poor relation of a wealthy provincial family. Her first step to glory is to become a famous beauty queen. She won several contests in the early 1950s. (In one instance, according to Time, after she lost a Miss Manila contest, she complained so bitterly to the mayor of the town that he gave her the title “the Muse of Manila.”)

In the musical, Imelda, very well sung by the…

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