I was born a year before Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. became Philippine president, and I left the motherland for good four years after the People Power Revolution. In a sense, Here Lies Love is a story not of my life, but of how the events depicted in the show helped shape my life. Therefore, with no intention to minimize a serious medical condition, I will say that I enjoyed the show despite a touch of PTSD.
Here Lies Love largely succeeds in presenting a rather complex story in a 90-minute musical (no intermission) set to pulsating disco and techno-pop beats. The dissonance can be a challenge to overcome, more so for Filipino ears that typically do not traditionally associate sad or serious songs with dance music.
Equally challenging is that irony, nuance, and satire are often lost on ESL speakers, made even harder when it is sung through. The production, however, makes good use of projections (key dates, events, breaking news, etc.) on video screens on the auditorium’s four walls to help the audience begin to comprehend two decades’ worth of critical events squeezed into less than two hours.
Ultimately, it becomes very easy to be immersed and lost in the circus and pageantry of it all, exactly just how autocrats want it, and what we all need to watch out for with diligence and vigor. Suddenly, the populace is dancing with the dictators, seduced by “pride and beauty and love,” ignoring precious, innocent human lives that tragically fall by the wayside.
The production team held numerous focus groups to collect and understand feedback. Perhaps in response to criticism that Here Lies Love does not hit the Marcos regime hard enough, that the pain and suffering caused by the conjugal dictatorship were effectively glossed over, companion pieces on the show’s website and storyboard displays in the theater’s lobby and hallways attempt to bridge the gap. But in general, people can’t seem to be bothered to do their homework. Not getting a firm grasp of a musical is one thing, but real-life implications are another matter, making it easier for historical revisionism to happen, leading to the return of authoritarian regimes across the world.
There might be, however, a small glimmer of hope. The audience had a strong positive reaction whenever Ninoy was onstage, and even more so when Aurora lamented her son’s murder at the hands of the dictators.
In spite of the story’s complexity amid some controversies (like an eventually resolved disagreement with the musician’s union), the individual performances were stellar, the harmonies tight, the costumes exquisite, and the stagecraft precise (no one got run over by the moving platforms). I felt somewhat conflicted about applauding the performances of Arielle Jacobs (stunning, Imelda) and Jose Llana (swaggering, Ferdinand), and it was a lot easier cheering on Conrad Ricamora (enthralling, Ninoy Aquino) and Lea Salonga (show-stopping, Aurora Aquino).
All told, the show provides a welcome air celebrating abundant Filipino talent on Broadway. Star-making turns by Moses Villarama (DJ), Melody Butiu (Estrella Cumpas), and Jasmine Forsberg (Maria Luisa/Imelda’s inner voice) will hopefully open more doors for them and the rest of the talented groundbreaking company, marking the first time an all-Filipino cast has performed on Broadway.
One of the best outcomes from watching Here Lies Love is the start of meaningful conversations across family generations. In an environment where younger Filipino-Americans are more eager to embrace their roots, where assimilation should no longer mean the complete surrender of one’s culture and origins, there is a distinct possibility that we will understand our motherland’s historical dance with autocracy well enough to not re-repeat it.