Of all the elements that can go wrong with a musical, the one that most often does is the book. It’s almost impossible to write a good one, at least in the traditional style. (Even Gypsy has flaws.) Besides the usual playwriting difficulties there are a thousand traps peculiar to the form, perhaps the most dangerous of which is the problem of proportion. Too much “play” and you stifle the lift that a program of regularly scheduled songs provides. Too little, and the story never gets off the ground.
One way to beat the problem is not to have a book at all, but then something else has to take up the slack. That’s what Here Lies Love — David Byrne’s musical biography of the Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos — does rather spectacularly. There’s no book to speak of, just a “concept” and lyrics credited to Byrne. (The text, drawn largely from the actual words of the principal characters, reads in about ten minutes.) Then there’s the music, organized into some two dozen songs or sung-through scenes, mostly by Byrne and the British musician known as Fatboy Slim. If anything, Here Lies Love is an oratorio, albeit one set to the thick and thumpy disco beat of Imelda doing the Hustle circa 1979.
It shouldn’t work. Disco would seem to be the least amenable song genre for use in a musical. (Well, maybe Gregorian chant would be worse.) As a rule, it lacks sostenuto and melodic development, and is thus useless in dramatizing reflection or growth. The implied narrators of disco songs don’t change: They simply state who they are at the moment, joyful or defiant, often ad nauseam. But in characterizing a politician who was both image-conscious and singularly unreflective, who continued to sell herself as a slave of her people even while her family viciously repressed all opposition and looted billions from the Philippine treasury, disco’s limitations turn out to be expressive. “I’m Every Woman” could have been one of Imelda’s stump speeches.
Still, an accumulation of static songs, apt as they may be individually, ought to make a show monotonous. It does, a little, but something wonderful is also going on. The director Alex Timbers, whose work on shows including Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Peter and the Starcatcher I have found too cutely self-conscious, has imagined, with his designers, a kind of environmental scenario that completely succeeds in place of a book. It’s not just that the Public’s LuEsther Theater has been fabulously kitted out à la Studio 54, complete with mirror ball, neon lights, and pulsating projections. (The whole production is top-notch, from Clint Ramos’s costumes to Annie-B Parson’s choreography.) Nor that the action is distributed over various moving runways and platforms scattered between two end stages. Nor even that the audience is required to stand and mingle (and sometimes shimmy) for most of the show’s 90 minutes. (There are a few seats in an upstairs gallery overlooking the space.) It’s that through these interventions in the ordinary relationship between performance and audience Timbers has forced a blurring of the two. That’s not new, but its service to an explicitly political narrative is.
The result can be uncomfortable, and not just for your feet. Imelda the monster, as played with appealing verve by Ruthie Ann Miles, is offered up as Imelda the disco star, a creature of pop sincerities: “Is it a sin to love too much?” she sings at the start. “Is it a sin to care?” And whatever you know about her shoes, you like her. Jose Llana gives her husband, Ferdinand, a sexy Elvis sneer; his campaign for president in 1965 is immersively staged so that the adoring crowds he backslaps and buttonholes is you. (His landslide victory brought a cheer from the audience.) And even Benigno Aquino, Imelda’s first serious beau before becoming her husband’s top enemy, is introduced boy-band style as a “child of the Philippines” aiming to “give our people a break.” (Conrad Ricamora’s smart take on the character is less disco, more Buddy Holly.) At one point the three principals have a kind of sing-off; it’s almost an episode of The Voice.
In reframing a conflict that had hideous consequences – Aquino was assassinated in 1983, probably on the Marcoses’ orders – Timbers and Byrne risk trivializing or even glorifying evil, much as Evita did about a not-so-dissimilar first lady. But they’re much cleverer than Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were. The featherweightness of disco makes it a more translucent medium than Evita’s ornate and ponderous score; you can see right through it. So even though Imelda’s image is inevitably enhanced by musical theater stardust, nothing obscures the fact that she has willingly bought into very bad things. Her last number, on the eve of the U.S.-sponsored airlift from Manila, is no totalitarian-chic anthem, no “Don’t Cry for Me, Filipinos.” Instead, pathetically and sincerely, it’s a question she asks of her people: “Why Don’t You Love Me?” She still doesn’t get it, and you're left to sort out the morality for yourself.
This sort of ambiguity can be too easy, encouraging a kind of piling on. A few passages remain blurry even aside from the constant splitting of attention necessitated as you move about the room with performers on every side. A character of unclear provenance appears, and before you know why she’s so upset, she’s faded back into the hard-working ensemble. And the title number, which is first warbled by Imelda in the pretty but saccharine style of her youth, later comes back as a feel-good singalong for the curtain call. It’s a mistake; without the distancing effect of the plot, it’s just a dead ringer for Neil Diamond, a “Sweet Caroline” in Manila – and what are we all singing about? The phrase was Imelda’s idea for her epitaph, but she’s still around. In fact, at 83, she’s a member of the Philippine House of Representatives. Yay?
Or perhaps that’s the point: our complicity through nonchalance. Awful things happened and keep happening, but they’re “over there.” The horrible truth beneath the coyness and danceable beat of Here Lies Love isn’t so much about the Marcoses as about our vague and distant response to them. It’s like someone having a freakout on the other side of the dance floor: Not My Problem.
Here Lies Love is at the Public Theater through June 2.