“If a totalitarian regime was going to have a sound, it would be club music,” says Alex Timbers. “All presided over by a DJ on high, one man controlling everything you did.” The hot young director (“Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” “Rocky, Das Musical”) has tested that theory by staging in a disco setting “Here Lies Love,” the new David Byrne musical about Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos. The Public Theater’s LuEsther Hall has been transformed into a party space, in the festive as well as the political sense. The musical, based on the 2010 concept album by Byrne and Fatboy Slim, charts the rise of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his glamorous wife until the “People Power” Revolution of 1986 ended their repressive kleptocracy. Ironically, that seminal democratic moment led to the election of Corazon Aquino, the widow of Benigno Aquino who, the show posits, was Imelda’s first great love before she married Marcos. Benigno had become the archenemy of the regime; he was imprisoned, exiled, and finally assassinated upon his return to the Philippines. It was widely believed that the Marcos government had ordered the murder.
The environmental concept of the show allows the audience — most of whom remain standing for the 86-minute piece — to be cast as “extras,” joining the Filipino people as they move from adoration to repulsion, from hope to anger and disillusionment. It is fall from grace documented in the multimedia images projected onto the walls of the theater, part of a kinetic production that reconfigures the space as the story unfolds. The focus is Imelda, who gave the musical its title when she said that her gravestone should bear the line, “Here Lies Love.” Timbers recently spoke to ARTINFO about the musical, which opens on April 23 and runs through June 2, and the seductive power of “The Iron Butterfly,” who even now is a sitting member of the Philippine House of Representatives.
What comes through in the musical is Imelda’s hold on the Philippine people, at least some of them. What is the source of that?
The people obviously have a complicated relationship with Imelda. Yes, she did terrible things, and yet she was sort of fabulous and beautiful. What I find fascinating is that Imelda would visit schools when she was first lady and people would faint and swoon. Marcos, too, when he cut through crowds, people would dab his forehead as a sign of respect. And now even though they stole all this money, Imelda’s back in their lives and she thinks one of their progeny will one day be president. She thought of her beauty as a way to lift up the Filipino people. In her reflection they were gorgeous to the world. They saw themselves in her image, the best version of themselves in her. It was complex.
Was there something religious or ecstatic about it?
If people are fainting or mopping brows then there must be a certain amount of that. But the story of these two families — the Marcoses and the Aquinos — is so Shakespearean. Aquino steals her virginity, dumps her, she marries Marcos, they start rising. Aquino stands in opposition to the regime which plants bombs in their own country in order to force martial law. They arrest Aquino, throw him in prison, send him to America, warning that if he comes back, things will not go well. He’s killed on the tarmac upon his arrival. His wife becomes president and now his son is president. It’s not the Bushes and the Clintons. It’s a far deeper and richer story than that.
It’s interesting that Imelda thinks of herself as a victim. Is this tragedy or farce?
To say that a couple who’ve embezzled millions and tortured and imprisoned people is tragic lets them off the hook, so we’re more in the farcical realm. But in our interpretation of history, she’s someone who loves this person [Aquino] wildly in the beginning, who dumps her, then she loves Marcos with abandon and he cheats on her and then she becomes devoted to the people and they turn on her. And she can’t figure out why no one loves her. She doesn’t think the problem couldn’t possibly reside within herself.
Is there a bit of Lady Macbeth or even Maggie Thatcher in Imelda?
In her big number, the show posits that once she feels the betrayal of Marcos, she takes him and the country by the balls and becomes the Iron Butterfly. She channels all her insecurities and weaknesses toward the accumulation of power.
How aware were you of the similarities between Imelda and Eva Peron, the first lady of Argentina, who has her own pop opera?
There’s no denying that we were aware of it. One of the things that we thought would make this feel fresh was to make it a fully immersive experience and cast the audience as supporters of Aquino and Marcos. You can’t do this in “Evita.” There is this really interesting moment each night when Marcos is elected and the people go crazy. You’re not thrilled that the Marcoses are elected and so you feel deeply uncomfortable that you are celebrating the election of future dictators. At its most successful, you’re not just at a party but at an historical event. You are cast as a participant in all these events. And with all the success of “Evita,” they never set out to do that.
Is that the point of using actual transcripts and other historical material?
You need those to create context and provide segues. What’s amazing is that some of the songs are taken entirely from transcripts and quotes from Imelda and the people around her. This all really happened. People know about Imelda and the shoes but not much more. The real material carries a certain weight. The stuff is so striking. “A musicalized historical document” is a kind of cool way to think about it.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Imelda?
Most of our political American stories are Cinderella stories, men who come from nothing, from a small town like Clinton and Hope, Arkansas, and achieve greatness. But Imelda was so ashamed coming from a garage, sleeping in boxes in the midst of typhoons that were blowing off the roof that when she became first lady, she started this campaign to reinvent herself as having lived in this amazing palatial home. She’d take reporters through it. It’s hard to wrap your head around that as an American. It just seems such a perverse and strange way to construct your own personal narrative. That and the fact that she had a private disco in her home and a nightclub on the roof of the palace. Very kind of weird and cool.
Did it make you think of shame as an underrated emotion?
[Laughs] Absolutely. I think for Imelda it was a huge driving force throughout her public life. It’s a sense of shame that keeps you from being seen for whom you are truly are. That makes us put up all these obstacles to your personal happiness.
The disco setting and the fact that at one point you have the Marcoses dancing and preening in sexy beach wear appears that you are saying something about the eroticization of political power.
That’s absolutely fair. The club beats are overwhelming, seductive, and slightly seedy, all the things the Marcos regime was. Then what happens is that at the end of the show, a guy comes out with an acoustic guitar and sings about the Filipino people. It’s not about Marcos and Imelda. It’s about the triumph of the people over the cult of personality. It’s a hopeful show, the sound of the street over the sound of power. David’s instinct to use the club as a metaphor was a really smart one.