When it was announced that Here Lies Love was making its Broadway debut, I went from celebratory to awkward to questioning to “Now wait a goddamn minute here…” all within 60 seconds.
Part of me wanted to go to the premiere of Here Lies Love in New York to celebrate a moment in Filipino and Filipino American history: the first Broadway show fully stocked with actual Filipino actors playing Filipino characters in a Filipino narrative — well, it’s kind of a Filipino narrative. We’ll get to that later.
The immersive disco-encrusted musical, which is a “mostly standing-room” situation, dramatizes the rise and fall of the former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos played by Arielle Jacobs. In addition, Conrad Ricamora, Jose Llana, and Melody Butiu reprised their roles as Ninoy Aquino, Ferdinand Marcos, and Estrella Cumpas, respectively.
On top of all of this, Filipino treasure and legend Lea Salonga starred as Aurora Aquino for a limited time before Reanne Acasio stepped into the role. Filipino actress Vina Morales will then take over on September 22, marking her Broadway debut.
The common thread here is this beautiful swath of Filipino and Filipino American faces. Some of them are familiar, while others have been given the opportunity to literally step on a stage and be introduced to the entertainment masses.
Salonga also serves as producer of the musical alongside some of the biggest and notable names in the Filipino entertainment diaspora Tony winning costume and set designer Clint Ramos; author, activist, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jose Antonio Vargas are lead producers while Oscar and Grammy-winning musician H.E.R. and comedian Jo Koy have also boarded the Here Lies Love producing train.
The musical is packed with Filipino names, strengthening the diaspora and bolstering the representation of the culture.
As of August 23, 2023, the calendar on the Here Lies Love website has the musical running through the beginning of January 2024. I have no plans on seeing the musical because I have no plans on going to New York any time soon. I debated on whether I should write about the musical before seeing it — because it does deserve to be given a fair shot. How could I judge something without even seeing or experiencing it?
I have no right to judge the musical — the cultural impact and discourse it has on the community which I am part of is a different story.
Here Lies Love has been a divisive project since its inception, mainly because of its source material: Imelda Marcos.
Imelda And Ferdinand
Imelda Marcos is the widow of the longest-serving president of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos. He is a dictator who placed the country under martial law from 1972 until 1981.
In 1983, Ninoy Aquino, who was in opposition to Marcos, was assassinated when returning from exile. It wouldn’t be until 1990 that a court would convict 16 people and acquit 20 others in the murdering of Aquino. The 16 were also convicted of the murder of Rolando Galman, who Marcos claimed killed Aquino. Many Filipinos believe that Marcos helped orchestrate the assassination of his political rival.
Marcos died in 1989 never having to face criminal charges for running the Philippine treasury to the ground. According to the New York Times, who did a real good job of unpacking this, it wouldn’t be after Marcos’s death that a jury in Hawaii awarded damages of almost $2 billion against his estate for the killings and tortures of almost 10,000 Filipinos. However, not many victims have seen this money.
A former beauty queen, Imelda Marcos was the face, the glamor and the elegance of the regime. She lived a life over abundance and wealth which soon became a cultural moment. Her ridiculous collection of shoes, her life of excess and aggressively wealthy lifestyle in the face of extreme poverty in the Philippines became pop culture iconography. She was a veil of mindless beauty and refinement that covered a horrible regime.
She had a love for nightlife and disco music, thus providing the inspiration for Here Lies Love, a musical based on concept album by Talking Heads legend David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. In a statement about the album, Byrne said he was interested in “what drives a powerful person-what makes them tick?” and “How do they make and then remake themselves?”
A Musical… For The Culture?
With clubby music pulsing in its veins, the album on which the musical is based, included Cyndi Lauper, Tori Amos, Sia, St. Vincent, Florence Welch as well as Allison Moorer and Nellie McKay alternately playing the roles of Imelda Marcos and Estrella Cumpas.
Byrne and Fatboy Slim would go on to adapt it into a musical with Alex Timbers remaining the sole director.
Not one Filipino name was mentioned in the original source material besides Imelda Marcos.
And this is where the cracks of the glaring white starts to shine brighter through the beautiful brown. Yes, Here Lies Love is filled with Filipino names and faces — names and faces that I celebrate, that I love. I do not want to diminish their being but it can’t be denied that this musical not only puts the Marcos regime on a musical pedestal, but it is through the lens of non-Filipino creators.
It’s a Filipino story told by white people using Brown bodies.There is no changing that. The Filipino source material, no matter what side of the fence you stand on, politically — is material that was initially controlled by non Filipinos. Yes, they are white men.
It’s a form of colonization that has been baked into the already fractured system of entertainment and beyond. Marginalized narratives have always been co-opted by white people. You don’t have to throw a stone that far from Here Lies Love to hit Miss Saigon, The King and I, West Side Story, and Evita. K-POP seemed like a beacon of hope. It was an anomaly because it was a show on Broadway telling an Asian story written Jason Kim who is of Asian descent. Unfortunately, the musical closed abruptly after just 44 preview performances and 17 regular performances.
The problem isn’t the whitewashing of the narrative, the problem is that we continue to let this happen.
“It’s truly gratifying to have Filipinos on Broadway who are playing Filipinos,” said Caro Mangosing, Founder and CEO of Vinta Gallery in a statement regarding Here Lies Love. “We are past playing for Rogers and Hammerstein, Schonberg and Boublil, and the great Stephen Sondheim. We are past playing all kinds of other Asians in stories written by white people… but hear me out — now we are playing Filipinos (cool) — STILL written by white people.”
Mangosing, who was also the founder and executive director of the youth-centered Kapisanan Philippine Center for Arts and Culture has been very open about her feelings when the news of Here Lies Love Broadway debut . She caught heat for it and In a statement on her website, she admitted that there are many people who have DM’d her, agreeing with her stance, but they are afraid to say it out loud for fear of being labeled as unsupportive of the community.
Mangosing points out that “actual conversations and public acknowledgement of the crimes of the Marcoses are not going to take place” — which makes sense. The Marcoses are not exactly the shining example of the Philippines. “I really feel the threat of political/personal repercussions for me and my employees speaking about this — the Philippine government does still ‘red tag’ dissenting organizations — that is fucking real,” she continued. “Democracy in the Philippines is a façade. This rebel energy has real risks. I wonder if everyone with stars in their eyes watching the interactive spectacle that is Here Lies Love, really understands, knows, or remembers what that threat feels like.”
For many, Marcos and his actions been swept under the rug. When something so toxic gets swept under the rug, it starts to eat away at the culture and impact its community in harmful ways — mainly the culture starts to cannibalize itself. However, it hits different for Filipino Americans and more westernized Filipinos vs. native Filipinos.
Mangosing makes incredibly insightful points and she sparks a nuanced conversation within the Filipino diaspora as well as the broader question of representation and authenticity. The discussion is just not Black and white and goes beyond the surface of this musical.
Going down a social media rabbit hole of critiques on the musical gave me exactly what I expected regardless if they were Filipino or not: there are those who stand firmly on supporting; there are those who are adamantly opposed and then there are those who remain conflicted.
Holy shit, Here Lies Love is a masterpiece
— Declan Rockett (@RockettDeclan) August 23, 2023
“I watched Here Lies Love” is gonna be the theatre gays’ version of “my wife is Filipino” I fear
— Joelle Thérèse (@sea_needs) August 24, 2023
Here Lies Love…honestly, it felt flat. Idk if it’s because I’m a Filipino born in PH overly familiarized w/ the story and probably this is really intended for the American/FilAm audience who have no idea of our history. Still, the problem is, why do we tell narratives from +
— proud of TEN LEE (@lemnisca_ctus) August 18, 2023
the POV of plunderers as if to victimize them and oversimplifying it as some wrong decisions pushed by their own bad situation. While there’s a democracy spiel by the end, it felt like a consolation, to appease and disclaim that this show is not pro Marcoses. But choosing +
— proud of TEN LEE (@lemnisca_ctus) August 18, 2023
Imelda as the main character definitely is not the way to go about it in this tome and context. As a musical though, the interactiveness is a nice touch. However, I can never bring myself to ‘party’ with Imelda. In any way or form.
— proud of TEN LEE (@lemnisca_ctus) August 18, 2023
One Redditor said the musical was “PRO DEMOCRACY” and that it is not in support of Marcos. And there was generally an overall warm ovation for the musical. Another said, “I’m Filipino and wanted to support this show, but all the controversies so far even before it opened turned me off from ever paying money to see it.”
As for the reviews from theater critics, it seems to be a mixed bag . New York Times‘s Jesse Green said that the musical “tempers the atrocities with the pleasure of its songs”.
“Here Lies Love bets that glamour can make up for narrative — or, rather, that in a show about the dangers of political demagogy, glamour itself is the narrative,” writes Green. “It’s a case of form follows function into the fire. We are drawn to cultural and political excitement in much the same, often dangerous way.”
In Naveen Kumar’s review for Variety, he writes, “There’s a precedent in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” for giving a dictator’s wife the pop-rock treatment. But Here Lies Love banks on brevity and formal innovation, forgoing scripted scenes at the expense of factual details and character development.”
He continues to address the deeper meaning of the musical: “There is a welcome air of celebration around Here Lies Love as an unprecedented showcase of Filipino culture. But glorifying its subject is an uneasy proposition that the production hasn’t managed to reconcile.”
“A brief coda aims to suggest that the show is conscious of this geopolitical context — that its mirrorball rave has been a warning all along,” Kumar said. “But if audiences at Here Lies Love are meant to represent the body politic, what does it mean that this descent into fascism feels like such a blast?”
It sounds like everyone is aware that there are problems with the musical, but there are also minor wins. It’s safe to say that Filipinos are fine with minor wins… but it’s time for some major ones.
The Musical Knows Exactly What It Is
Things are a mess — and those involved in the musical aren’t avoiding it. If anything they are very open about it.
After Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., (a.k.a. Bongbong… IYKYK), son of Ferdinand and Imelda was elected Philippine president in a landslide vote in May, the musical caught more heat about why they decided to bring the show back after 10 years with the Marcos family back in power.
The musical released an official statement in regards to this (read full statement here):
Why now? History repeats itself. Democracies all over the world are under threat. The biggest threat to any democracy is disinformation, Here Lies Love offers a creative way of re-information – an innovative template on how to stand up to tyrant.
Why on Broadway? We cannot tell the modern history of the Philippines without the United States. They’re intertwined. Here Lies Love is an Anti-Marcos show. It is a pro-Filipino show, being told in a quintessential American form: the Broadway musical.
Two cultures, two histories, continuing a centuries-old complicated dance.
“We’re not oblivious to what’s happening out there. And I know that there are a bunch of people who don’t like me at the moment,” Salonga said in an interview with Playbill. She added, “That’s fine. I’m used to it. It’s OK.”
“There has been a lot of commentary that has come out. And I can’t exactly say, ‘No, you’re wrong.’ In my head, it’s like, ‘I absolutely understand, you do have a point, you have every right to be angry, and you have every right to feel the way you’re feeling,” said Salonga, who found that revisiting a pivotal part of her teenage years through the musical was emotional.
“There is an emotional truth to the piece that even in rehearsal, we’re finding ourselves, just, affected…There’s so much going on emotionally, that I’m finding myself having to choke tears down, because I have to sing the song and I cannot be crying.”
In the same interview, Jacobs, who plays the starring role of Imelda Marcos, knows exactly what she was stepping into. Similar to the reaction of the general public, her mother cried tears of joy when she landed the role. Meanwhile, her grandfather had a different reaction to the news, responding with a stoic, “the Dictator”
“[Imelda Marcos] represents a lot of pain for a lot of people,” Jacobs said. She also has a job as an actor to portray this character without judgment. She treated Imelda “as a character: a woman who rose to power and then was corrupted by it.”
Jacobs adds that dictators like Marcos aren’t born with devil horns, adding “They were born as regular human beings…And then they turn into people who make choices that hurt a lot of people.”
She also points out that Here Lies Love isn’t a documentary, but “an opportunity for people to experience a moment of history in a way that will enable conversations and be more impactful than it would be if they were watching a documentary or reading a history book.”
Jacobs makes a good point. Documentaries about the Imelda Marcos exist, including Showtime’s 2019 documentary, The Kingmaker, a fascinating look at Imelda Marcos’s delusion directed Lauren Greenfield. In addition, Ramona Diaz’s Imelda (2003) which featured the titular first lady saying the words “Here lies love” for the first time.
Imelda Marcos first uttered the words "Here lies love" in @ImeldaFilm. I asked her what she wanted to be written on her tombstone. #herelieslove @PBS @IndependentLens WATCH — pic.twitter.com/5rfVxpuWoe
— Ramona Diaz (@CineDiaz) April 5, 2023
Documentaries are great, but Broadway tells a flashier story.
What Have We Learned From Here Lies Love?
As Salonga mentioned, everyone has the right to feel the way they do and she has an emotional connection to this era of the Philippines. It almost feels as if it’s cathartic for the Tony award winning trailblazer.
Jacobs, who has the blessing and burden of portraying Imelda in the musical is right: Here’s Lies Love will spark conversation about the Marcos regime and the trauma it caused a nation — which aligns with Mangosing’s yearning for the Filipino community to not deny horrible truths that haunt the country.
As a member of this community I keep an eagle eye on, I still want to see Here Lies Love. I want to judge it as a musical, but as a benchmark for representation, it already has too much baggage to be a groundbreaking moment that launches our community into the stratosphere of representation it deserves.
We deserve better than a fleeting moment of inclusivity that allows white storytellers to tell our stories. This is the major problem with Here Lies Love. With all the abundant amount of narratives and stories that populate our rich diaspora, why this one?
I’ve come to the conclusion that no Filipino play, movie, musical, TV series, TikTok video, IG story or any content under this goddam sun will satisfy every Filipino in this country let alone on the face of this Earth. If you are trying to satisfy the needs of everyone, you’re running a fool’s errand.
Here Lies Love can be lumped into projects that have romanticized and let villains tell their story. Let’s be honest, Imelda is a villain. If she doesn’t have a degree in Villainous Studies, she at least has a Certificate of Completion.
For the most part, villains make for a great character study and are more fun to watch. If anything, Wicked, provided an insight of the mind of a “villain”, but there was so much nuance in this story that made it complex and successfully blurred the lines of good and bad. After that, it seemed like everyone want to do a villain origin story.
In the recent years, Disney has banked on villain spin-off movies like Malificent franchise and more recently, Cruella, which is slated to have a sequel. DC released not one, but two movies about a group of baddies with The Suicide Squad and Marvel Studios is following suit with its own anti-hero team The Thunderbolts. Joker, which served major incel energy, is getting a sequel with Joaquin Phoenix starring alongside Lady Gaga as Harley Quinn, another popular comic book villain character who has her own animated series and another movie about “villains as heroes” called Birds of Prey.
The fact that these are fantasy and comic book characters doesn’t make it as obvious that we are celebrating “bad” people. It’s a very gaslighty way of saying, “Don’t judge a person by its cover”. It’s when it starts to depict human — and some times real-life villains and monsters where this starts becoming a problem. Series like Dahmer have sparked debate while movies like The Wolf of Wall Street and American Psycho, although hyperrealistic, still give us images of white men failing upward and having a great time doing it. Here Lies Love is just mimicking this, buy putting a dope beat to a narrative about a regime that did hellacious things.
Yes, Filipino and Filipino Americans are craving representation. We want to be seen — but at what cost? For the sake of art and a buck?
Here Lies Love feels like a musical that is the result of learning the aggrandizement of sensational figures in media and culture no matter how horrible they are (i.e. the whole Trump administration). This is something that thrives and festers in Hollywood and is ultimately taught by the dominant culture, because it’s their system and it is what works for them. It just makes sense that others follow, no matter how it impacts the culture.
I’ve been asking every Filipino I encounter in the entertainment community their thoughts on Here Lies Love. As marginalized creatives and storytellers, most understand the nuanced conversation that comes along with this musical. It’s been the same response, mostly: “I have to see it first to form an opinion.” I appreciate that. At first, this seems like a fair approach.
I was talking to a Filipino friend (born and raised in the Philippines) and another Asian friend who wasn’t familiar with the Marcos regime and Here Lies Love. My Filipino friend put it into a perspective that made my ears perk up. She said: “Imagine someone made a disco musical about the Khmer Rouge — that’s what this is.”
Normally, I would say, “Well, you haven’t seen it yet so you can’t really say that” but she has every right to say that because the musical tethers itself to the Marcos name. It’s about Imelda Marcos. It’s title are words she said that she wants on her tombstone (not the frozen pizza brand).
Here Lies Love can’t get away from the fact that this musical is about a woman and a regime that nearly ruined the Philippines and tortured and killed thousands of people. There isn’t a mirrorball big enough to distract us from these unforgivable acts. Even if it is the best musical in the world, it can’t escape the fact that it is couched in a story that has left a wound in the Philippines that has barely healed. That’s the problem. What makes it even worse is that we just boarded on this train — and I would imagine that some involved did it half-heartedly to fear being excommunicated from the culture. It’s not the musical or anyone involved that’s the problem, it’s the optics and scope of the situation.
Here Lies Love is comparable to the discourse surrounding movies like Schindler’s List or 12 Years A Slave or any movie about the holocaust or enslaved people. However, with most of those, the main character isn’t the oppressing regime. At least with these emotionally heavy yet divisive films, the film puts the hero or the oppressed in the spotlight. Here Lies Love puts Imelda Marcos front and center when it may have been more exciting to see the story told from a fictional character who lived through the regime or through the gaze of the Aquinos.
But alas, that’s not sexy enough. As I have learned in journalism, if it bleeds it leads.
Outside the representation of it all, there even was also a dust up between Byrne and the musician union after it was announced that Here Lies Love was going to use pre-recorded music instead of live music. The musical explained via an iOS press release that using pre-recorded music is a concept from Byrne that celebrate the Filipino tradition of karaoke and how it was part of Imelda’s political strategy.
“Let’s be clear about what’s happening here: rather than negotiate, David Byrne is trying to break the union,” says 802 President and Executive Director Tino Gagliard in a statement to Playbill. “Broadway musicians are not ‘gatekeepers’ like Byrne callously said.”
Gagliard aded, “Instead of using his show to lift up musicians that are struggling, he’s denigrating their work, tossing them aside and saying they can’t do it. That’s not the way Broadway has operated for 157 years and we will not stand by as working musicians are told they are not good enough.”
The musical should know better than to come after unions and guilds at a time when labor movements are slaying the game.
With two white men writing the musical, a white director at the helm, this musical was fighting a losing battle — especially in 2023 when marginalized communities are thirsty for representation as much as they are for the need to be angry at something that is supposed to represent them.
Five years ago, Variety‘s Chris Willman reviewed the Seattle run of the show calling it “a whole subgenre of dystopian-diva musical”
He continued, “Byrne’s show is undeniably in the tradition of “Evita,” the mother of all royal rags-to-bitches shows, except it’s a lot more fun in the audience-participation telling, then — ironically — more serious about the death toll tallied while dictators and their complicit spouses shake their fascist groove thang.”
Five years later it seems like was more awareness of the show’s content but in 2023 we are in the same place.
This musical isn’t for Filipinos. It’s for white Broadway audiences that have the access to watch this after eating a huge dinner at Carmine’s. That said, perhaps its time for the Filipino diaspora to start asking different questions when it comes to representation and progress for our community. Instead of asking “How can we become seen and included into this world of entertainment in the most authentic way possible?” we should ask “How do we want to be seen and how do we control our narrative?”
There is no clear cut vision as to what equity looks like and we are looking to white people to help us.They are giving us answers that we don’t agree with. What ends up happening is that it works better for everyone around us but ourselves, but we just go with it — that’s the hospitable Filipino way. Unlearning that is a process. As Mangosing pointed out, we need to DECOLONIZE.
We need to advocate for ourselves. Not only in spaces of art, but in the grand scheme of things. Too many people stay quiet for fear of being ostracized, but that was when the Filipino and Asian diaspora were living in a scarcity mindset. We are not necessarily living in a world of inclusive abundance, but it sure as hell are seeing a lot more representation than 5-10 years ago.
Here Lies Love is not the end all to Filipino representation. Neither was Easter Sunday. Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t tell the entire story of the Asian diaspora and Bros isn’t the template queer experience just like black-ish isn’t the entire swath of the Black experience.
However, the Filipino and Asian movement toward progress is still in its infancy stages. There has been movement to progress but that movement has stalled at visibility. The visibility is present but how do we harness that visibility and use it in the best way possible? That question has yet to be answered because right now, it’s the wild, wild west when it comes to Asians in entertainment and it feels we’re all jockeying for the spotlight instead of taking pause and evaluating what needs to be done to progress rather than have a temporary win that is regurgitated message that hasn’t been working.
Questions bring forth discussions. Constructive criticism leads to debate and ideas. Taking risks and finding new ways that stray away from what we have learned from the dominant culture requires uncomfortable discourse to figure out what the community needs and how it wants to present itself and move forward from this place of arrested development. If we are just satisfied with one story to be our tentpole of our culture, our representation will be nothing but a tombstone that reads “Here Lies Love”.