On the dance floor of Here Lies Love, the musical for which the Broadway Theatre was remade into a disco, you’ll often find yourself just a few feet away from the show’s three main characters, who appear on platforms above the audience, singing songs built out of political sloganeering. You’re also face-to-face with another class of performers. As the musical follows the rise of Imelda Marcos, first lady of the Philippines, a group of employees in pink jumpsuits shuffle through the stage doing crowd control—nudging people to face the right direction for a character’s entrance, or clearing a path for another performer to zip through the audience before breaking into song.
The show sets the Marcoses’ rule in a club (Imelda frequented Studio 54 and had a mirror ball installed in her Upper East Side townhouse), and originates with David Byrne, who conceived an album built around Imelda’s story with lyrics largely excerpted from her and other political figures’ interviews and speeches, laid juicy get-on-your-feet hooks devised in collaboration with Fatboy Slim. The resulting music is irresistible to a totalitarian degree. The title song references the phrase Imelda (still alive at 94) has said she wanted on her gravestone, and starts out with her diaphanous platitudes about her humble upbringings before it hits a chorus that hints at her megalomaniacal ambitions and practically begs everyone to sing along. The point, as elsewhere in the show, is to get the audience grooving with the synthy messaging of dictatorship, with enough moral dissonance to make your stomach churn as your feet keep moving—a that’s how they get you parable.
Amid all the blazing sounds and visual fury, there is precious little character development. We don’t really get a sense of Imelda’s character transformations from innocent to cruel dominator. We don’t see anything of the Marcos marriage. We don’t see their evolution into power-hungry, abusive monsters. Projections showing news headlines sketch the dark history of the Philippines, while the audience is left with song and dance and lights and froth, and occasional instructions and dance and wave our hands in the air.
Sometimes the songs are beyond ridiculous. A number like “Gate 37,” in which Ricamora as Aquino anticipates—sadly correctly—being assassinated as soon as returns to the Philippines from temporary exile in America, should be searing, but it’s laughably twee and ridiculous, underscoring that the marriage of musical and politics can sometimes feel a forced and absurd one. Lea Salonga as Aurora Aquino, Ninoy’s mother, sings one song at the end, “Just Ask the Flowers”—a beautiful ballad and lament for sure, but not as show-stopping as it needs to be. And who was Aurora Aquino as a person? The musical doesn’t say. She appears, then she disappears.
After the audience has witnessed Imelda’s terrible transformation, she and the remaining characters are bellow-singing “Why don’t you love me?” all around the theater. Again, the sentiment, the demand, seems as mad as it is unearned. Love seems to be the last thing Imelda is lacking; she insists on devotion and loyalty from all she encounters.
The problem that Here Lies Love cannot solve is that this is not a period of history to easily craft a pulsating dance musical around—and, if you are determined to do so, then it needs greater attention to characterization and story than what is left to the projections here to handle as kind of dutiful sidebars to the gleeful circus galloping around them. A final song underscores the gravity of history, but it is stark contrast to the revels that have preceded it—far too little, far too late.
To compensate, or double down, Timbers emphasizes pure pageantry in his staging. The actors often perform on an array of moving platforms that transport the action to various parts of the theater while incidentally sweeping the standees into new configurations. (Guides in pink jumpsuits with airport-style light wands keep them from getting mowed down.) You are left to draw your own conclusions about how crowds, whether in Manila or Manhattan, respond to being pushed around for too long and for apparently arbitrary reasons. There’s a reason affiliations and uprisings are often called movements.