Here Lies Love on Broadway

Concept, Music, and Lyrics by David Byrne

By: - Aug 22, 2023

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Here Lies Love which opened on Broadway years after a successful off-Broadway run. Yet, I couldn’t forget what the main characters did.

Neither the pre-show nor the opening was promising. The Broadway theater has been totally redone; it is hard to see where the stage once was. All the orchestra seating was removed; now, there are some rows of seats on each side of the theater, plus the mezzanine/balcony remain in place.

You have the option to have seats or to stand in what was the orchestra. Those standing are moved around under the direction of six or more “handlers” dressed and acting like the people who direct a plane on the runway. The performers are on raised platforms most of the time, which are moved about.

This is an immersive show. I do wonder how much it added to the experience and was it necessary.

Getting into our seats on the side –surprisingly comfortable and spacious – required being directed/led through a rabbit warren of hallways, various curtains, etc. We were even on the stage floor before getting to the stairs. Leaving the theater was even more confusing. These side seats appear to be the best in the house. Not only could I see everything on stage, but I also had a view of an entrance for the cast.

Another annoyance – which is apparently made clear on the website when purchasing tickets, is that you must check your handbag or other things before entering. While that makes sense for the people on the stage floor, the explanation that there was not enough room for bags in the seated area made no sense.  I had enough room for a suitcase. Plus, I saw multiple people both on the floor and in seats with bags.

Even the first few minutes of the show were problematic: A screaming DJ encouraging audience members to shout and overly loud music. Throughout the show, the DJ encourages the audience – even those seated – to get up and dance. Those on the floor are treated as part of the crowds at the various campaign events.

BUT….once the show actually began, I was engaged.  While it is just making its Broadway debut, Here Lies Love, with concept, music, and lyrics by David Byrne, music by Fatboy Slim, and additional music by Tom Gandey and Jose Luis Pardo, began as a concept album in 2010. From there, it ran at off-Broadway’s Public Theater (2013, 2014-15) and London (2014-15), both times garnering multiple awards.

Now director Alex Timbers has returned to the immersive concept, at least in part. (Originally, the entire audience stood). Timbers, also the director of Moulin Rouge, seems to emphasize spectacle over substance.

Here Lies Love is about another ruthless woman married to a dictator; in this case, Imelda Marcos, who was married to strongman Philippine leader Fernando Marco. You may remember Imelda as the woman who owned (and perhaps still does) thousands of pairs of shoes.

You may see some resemblance to Evita Peron, the story of a rags-to-riches, ambitious and beautiful woman who does anything to achieve fame and fortune. Even some moments in the show echo moments from Evita.

Can we feel sympathetic at all? At least Evita died young, which added a note of tragedy. Imelda is still alive and her son is now the dictator of the country.

Both women did little to help either the impoverished people of their country, who they claimed to be dedicated to, or to moderate the dictatorial impulses of their husbands. In fact, each encouraged those impulses while racking up private and secret fortunes.

Yes, the stories have some differences. Imelda (a regional beauty queen) dated Ninoy Aquino, another rising politician but with democratic impulses, before she met Marcos. His story is interwoven; he becomes Marcos’ and Imelda’s nemesis, leading the opposition (even when it is persecuted) and running for president against Marcos. 

One thing the show does accomplish is to acquaint audiences with the country’s history. I wonder how many knew that the US gained control of the islands from Spain after the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century. In 1899, the US put down the move for independence, killing many and sending hundreds of thousands to camps in the US.  Or that the country only gained independence from the US in 1946.

The Marcos – Aquino competition continued for decades. After being imprisoned, Nimoy was exiled to the US; when he returned in 1983, he was assassinated while exiting the plane. Later, his wife, Cory, was elected President, and Marco and Imelda were airlifted out of the country to the US at President Reagan’s direction. Aquino’s liberal party remained in power for an extended period; in the 21st century, Aquino’s son became president. Today, it is Imelda’s son who is president; it is reported that he is repeating many of the tactics and abuses of his parents. Imelda has served in the Philippine legislature; she has also been sued and prosecuted worldwide for corruption.

The show created controversy before it opened when it announced it would only use pre-recorded music. That had been done in the other productions. After protests from the musicians’ union, producers agreed to hire a small number of musicians. It was unclear to me which if any, songs were sung to live music. The rationale the producers gave was that karaoke is extremely popular in the country.

Jose Llana and Arielle Jacobs, as the Marcos’ convey the power-hungry, money-grabbing couple to perfection. How can you feel any liking or sympathy for them? Conrad Ricamora as Nimoy Acquino, Kristina Doucette as his wife Cory, and his mother, Aurora, have both ethics and tragedy to move you emotionally. Aurora (Reanne Acasio the day I saw the show) has the powerful anthem “Just Ask the Flowers” sung at Nimoy’s funeral.

The reality is that this show is more disco party than an attempt to tell a story of lust for power.

At times it can be infectious, but you can never forget that we are applauding a dictator and his equally morally challenged wife.