Monday, October 23, 2023

Here Lies Love (Broadway)

♣♣♣♣/♣♣♣♣♣

Hailing from Leyte, young country lass Imelda (Arielle Jacobs) dreams big, with her lofty ambitions buoyed by the twin mantra of beauty and love that she strongly believes in. She packs her bags to leave Tacloban for Manila where she catches the eye of a young politician of the name Benigno Aquino (Conrad Ricamora). Despite their romance not really blossoming because he thinks she is too tall, she easily finds a worthy substitute in Ferdinand Marcos (Jose Llana), a senator vying for the highest position in the land. When he eventually triumphs in a landslide election victory, what follows is a life of opulence and absolute power she could only dream of, with her primary love interest now becoming their regime’s biggest critic. But is power meant to last forever or are we just waiting for a rude comeuppance to crash this lavish party?

A marriage of convenience between disco and musical theater, Here Lies Love is unlike anything you’ve ever seen on Broadway before. Instead of plush seats, VIP ticket holders get their own dance floor, within arm’s reach of the actors performing on the revolving platform studded with neon lights. It feels strange dancing to Imelda Marcos’ ascent to power serving as the backdrop, though. The concept feels more appropriate for jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia where the audience can dance the night away without having to divorce the disco vibes from the horrible Martial Law subject matter.

And that’s another notable observation. While the audience on the dance floor seemed down to shake their moneymaker, only a handful of the songs felt danceable. As a musical, you need to know the purpose of your songs. Are they there to make people dance or to tell a story? Here Lies Love tries to straddle both and it’s hit or miss. There are two instances wherein the audience are asked to stand up and prodded to dance by the emcee, which they gladly do. However, their energy and the catchy beats just do not seem to coincide.

As for presentation, the plot unfolds by alternating disco routines with “live broadcast” clips of the actors as their performance is flashed on various screens resembling LED television sets all around the theater, making it look like a string of Breaking News segments in sepia. The songs are upbeat but kind of forgettable, the only one defying boredom being Just Ask the Flowers, which is hardly even danceable. While the musical starts off seemingly pandering to Imelda, it actually wraps up as a not so veiled mockery of her, despite framing her early on with a sympathetic veneer of women empowerment.

Is Here Lies Love pro- or anti-Marcos? While my preconceived notions hovered above the former and grew stronger in the first half as the narrative is anchored on Imelda, the second half flips it around, making good use of the ubiquitous digital info boards to display Martial Law figures as well as extravagant price tags of vanity projects. The character’s dialogues then begin to border on asinine; the delivery, sarcastic. The musical wraps up with the emcee declaring that history repeats itself and that Imelda’s son is now president before he sings a People Power inspired ballad with the rest of the cast.

Here Lies Love is not what some might refer to as historical revision. Far from it, to be fair. It makes a conscious effort to complement its glamorization of a polarizing personality with no BS display of facts. In the bigger scheme of things, though, the dilemma is ill timing. Publicity, regardless of perceived value, is still publicity. Given how misinformation spreads and how anything nowadays can easily be refashioned as a propaganda tool  based on popularity alone instead of truth value, it’s scary to imagine how this musical might actually end up getting twisted to serve the ambitions of the world’s greediest political dynasty.

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