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Jul 21, 2023

David Byrne’s Broadway musical is a breakthrough for Filipino American performers, but at what cost to the historical truths it dances around?

In November 2014, I traveled to the city of Tacloban on the island of Leyte for research on a multidisciplinary project to understand the impact of communication during Super Typhoon Haiyan (also known as Yolanda). It was a full year after the deadliest typhoon in Philippine history made its landfall, killing more than 6,000 people and displacing 600,000 inhabitants. Parts of the city were growing steadily thanks to international aid; other parts remained wrecked and graffitied.

The Santo Niño Shrine and Heritage Museum, colloquially known as the Imelda Marcos Museum, and one of the 20 presidential palaces built during martial law, had been damaged but renovated. As I meandered through the richly decorated rooms, I stopped at the paintings depicting the Marcos family in mythic symbols.

“Oh, she’s so pretty,” a Filipina tourist cooed. Up to that point, she had been chatting with her companions in another Philippine language, but now they stood closer to me, admiring the painting. “It’s such a shame. Imelda did nothing wrong.”

The moment lingers with me after all these years: a subtle, ambiguous encounter in Imelda’s hometown among Filipinos and a Filipino American standing before an epic painting that, depending on your point of view, could be called either art or propaganda. The Marcos dictatorship’s cultural product is a site where narratives of power, artistry, and justice converge.

Here Lies Love, now on Broadway, is a similarly charged space for working out the legacies and futures of the Philippines as a former colony of the United States and a young nation state, bringing up concerns about historical distortion, artistic responsibility, and truth and creative license in a time of misinformation.

When I first heard of this new staging of David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s musical on Broadway, I had mixed feelings. I saw the show’s debut at the Public in 2013, and I walked away impressed with its immersive environment but feeling uneasy and slightly sick, wondering why Imelda seemed to be portrayed as a victim of circumstances and why there was very little mention of the Marcos regime’s human rights violations. At the same time, I was excited to see Filipino American theatre colleagues get work, especially beyond playing bit roles.

Indeed, the new iteration of Here Lies Love offers a historic first for Broadway: It has an all-Filipino cast and majority Filipino creative team. It’s a far cry from other historic moments in tangled Philippine-American performativity such as the 1904 World’s Fair or the 1976 filming of Apocalypse Now.

“This show puts up a flag,” journalist and filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas, one of the show’s lead producers, told me. “It says, this is what the American theatre can look like, sound like, be like, and feel like. To me, the American musical theatre is one of the quintessential American inventions. And the fact that this Filipino show can exist in the American musical theatre—I think that’s a classic flag.”

Yes, the show is certainly a flag for innovative theatre in its use of space and immersivity, and a flag for Filipino and Filipino American representation at the highest level of American theatre. But what other flags is Here Lies Love planting? There have been persistent critiques in both the Philippines and U.S. media that Here Lies Love is not only authored by a white man, but that it essentially glorifies tyranny and Imelda.

Costume designer Clint Ramos, also a lead producer on the show, said that he understands where the comments are coming from. But he thinks critiques of the show’s white authorship and alleged glorification of tyranny are incomplete—that they are based on an American rubric of social justice talking points, and require greater nuance in light of current political relationships between the two nations.

“You’re looking at an American looking at the Philippines,” Ramos conceded, but added, “The Philippine story is an American story. Every single presidency in the Philippines has been meddled with to different degrees by the United States.” The relationship has continued up to and including the Philippines’ current president, Imelda’s son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. “The first head of state to invite Marcos for a state visit was Joe Biden,” after which the U.S. “quickly announced that they were building four new American bases in the Philippines,” Ramos said.

Vargas further distinguishes between authorship and ownership.

“David Byrne authored this, Alex Timbers developed and directed it, but the Filipinos onstage and Filipinos whose lives have been touched by this—we’re still living with this history,” he said. “They have ownership of this, and I think you see that play out onstage in a really beautiful way.”

What I gather from the producers is that Philippine and American relations are so enmeshed that they feel that a non-Filipino like Byrne can sincerely and responsibly tell the story, so long as it is handled with due diligence, research, and support from a majority Filipino creative team who can exercise their own agency in retelling the story. I posed this possibility to other Filipino creatives and scholars not affiliated with the show.

“I’m always wary about white people telling our narrative,” said playwright, translator, and director Guelan Luarca, who is also the artistic director of Tanghalang Ateneo, the longest-running theatre company of Ateneo de Manila University. “It’s not an impossibility, and they can do it very well, but I am still wary about it.”

Luarca has yet to see the show (he was in the Philippines when we spoke via Zoom) and is debating whether or not to see it when he returns to New York. “It’s a big deal that there’s finally representation, but it’s in the form of the narrative of these people [the Marcoses]. It’s an ongoing debate that will sit with me whether or not I watch it. It’s a tension that I’m acknowledging, and I just happen to be an individual and practitioner who’s comfortable with tension. It’s not black and white for me.”

Dr. Lisandro Claudio, Philippine cultural historian and chair of the Center for Southeast Asia Studies at UC Berkeley, pointed out the touristic origins and similarities to Orientalist travelogues of Bicycle Diaries, David Byrne’s 2009 book, in which the songwriter detailed his inspirations for the Here Lies Love song cycle.

“White people have studied the Philippines productively, but you feel that David Byrne was kind of a parachute journalist,” Claudio told me. While he also has yet to see the show (he was also in the Philippines when we spoke), Claudio listened to the album when it came out in 2010 and has kept track of the show as it has evolved. “This kind of touristic account of the Philippines becomes the genesis for Here Lies Love, and that’s where my concern lies. Now we’re covering that up—we cover up the genesis of this play by having an all-Filipino cast, having Filipino producers.”

Still, Claudio noted that despite his discomfort with this premise, texts can evolve. “The text is constrained by its origins as one of David Byrne’s camp touristic fantasies, and now it’s been given to largely Filipinos. Can they grow this text? Can they make it more capacious?”

After attending this new iteration of the show, I see the efforts made by the director and designers to add more history and complexity through projections and via Ninoy Aquino’s placement in the theatre. But ultimately I feel the nuance and new additions are drowned out by the disco.

That may be intentional.

“For Here Lies Love, its meaning also lies in what is absent in it,” Ramos said, adding, in a quote from an essay about the show by Gina Apostol, “Dissonance is the message.” He continued: “This is not a panacea or an antidote to anything. We’re not proposing a solution. We’re just asking questions, as far as I’m concerned. How do dictatorships actually form?”

But in an age of rampant misinformation, do we need more dissonance? And for the average theatregoer who shows up without any knowledge of Philippine history and is simply looking for a fun night out, how effective can this dissonant message be? And how can people look for absences they don’t even know about? Furthermore, these theatregoers might reasonably ask: Why does it matter whether the musical glorifies Imelda Marcos or not?

This past May, while I was in the Philippines, I attended a performance in metro Manila of Floyd Quintos’s The Reconciliation Dinner, a drama about a dinner party between two politically polarized families. Consider this banter between Mica, a pro-Marcos daughter, and her family friend’s son, Norby, a queer activist and campaigner for Leni Robredo (who ran against Bongbong Marcos in the 2022 elections):

Mica: We’re gonna fly to New York pa to watch “Here Lies Love” when it opens.Norby: OMG… with Lea [Salonga]?Mica: Ya… and the first ever all-Filipino cast on Broadway! Now that’s real theatre!Norby: Oh, I am so jealous. The first all-Filipino Marcos apologist cast on Broadway!

The moment got a big laugh from the Filipino audience. It was a passing moment amid the other political and social issues plaguing the show’s fictional family, but it was a point of humor and conflict, revealing tensions around class, national pride, art, and kinship ties in just a few quips.

The notion of art and entertainment aiming to rehabilitate the Marcoses is a live issue in the Philippines. Family and friends pointed me to two films recently released there. Produced by Imee Marcos (Imelda’s oldest daughter), Maid in Malacañang (2022) and Martyr or Murderer (2023) include a mashup of news media alongside creative fictional accounts of the Marcoses, and they promote the debunked narrative that Ninoy Aquino had unrequited feelings for Imelda. Playwright, activist, and martial law survivor Bonifacio Ilagan says that Maid in Malacañang in particular “signals the making of more ‘artistic’ concoctions aimed at the official rehabilitation of the Marcos family.” It’s coincidental that the timing of these films aligns with the staging of Here Lies Love, and the Broadway musical is clearly not intended as propaganda. But there is concern that it could be ripe for use by historical revisionists who want to soften the perception of the Marcoses, erase stories of corruption under martial law, and to add more glamor and American validation to this political dynasty.

Whether or to what extent Here Lies Love further perpetuates historical distortion remains the key thread for those questioning why this musical is being staged now. Not only has Bongbong Marcos been president since May 2022, but the Philippines experienced six years under Rodrigo Duterte, dubbed by Time “The Trump of the East” for similarities to America’s 45th President in terms of populism, disruption of liberal elites, and misogyny. Sara Duterte, the former president’s daughter, is currently vice president alongside Bongbong Marcos. After all the bloodshed in the Philippines, mostly against urban poor, and with police falsifying evidence to justify extrajudicial killings, there are questions about justice, politics, and collective trauma that need to be addressed. It’s true that Here Lies Love mentions Bongbong’s presidency and the resurgent threat to democracy at the end of the show, leaving a significant amount of history and current events for the audience members to Google or research later. What kind of impact might this have for audiences?

“I worry that young Filipinos or just the new generation will leave the theatre thinking that martial law is a disco number,” says Ralph Peña, founding member and artistic director of Ma-Yi Theater Company, who has seen this most recent version of the musical. Peña had to leave the Philippines when martial law was first declared in 1972 and later returned to attend high school and college. He had to flee again as a university student when authorities tried to blackmail him into turning in his colleagues. He has friends who were tortured, imprisoned, and killed. “If we all agree that the world is a smorgasbord of narratives, free to the taking, do you have a responsibility to the people you took that story from? It’s not as if the sins of the Marcoses are over. They’re still paying for the money they stole. The people they tortured and jailed are still around.”

And if audience members have no knowledge, or only a superficial understanding, of martial law going in, can the show on its own really be “an innovative template for standing up to tyranny”, as a post on the show’s official Instagram account puts it? I asked Vargas what this show means in the greater expanse of Philippine history and of how the Marcoses have tried to portray themselves.

“Well, it’s a piece of musical theatre, right?” he replied. “It can’t hold everything that we’re asking of it. For me, what I’m most excited about are all my family conversations, because I have some aunties that are pro-Marcos, and they’re going to be like, what is happening?”

I also spoke to Jessica Hagedorn, author of the 1990 novel and 1998 play Dogeaters, staged at the Public in 2001. The story is a gritty, epic portrayal of the Philippines during martial law and American occupation, the same era that Here Lies Love spans. Hagedorn saw the musical at the Public in 2013. I asked her if she had any thoughts about how Here Lies Love would play into the sanitization of the Marcos regime.

“Well, I think Imelda is going to be flattered by her glamorous portrayal, no matter what,” she replied. “I doubt she has a sense of irony. But this is really a question for David Byrne. Here Lies Love is his musical work, not mine. Why aren’t you interviewing him?”

Unfortunately, David Byrne was unavailable for comment. In an interview with the Washington Post, his response to what moved him to bring the musical back now was that “the show has maybe more relevance,” in part because there’s a new Marcos in as president and because authoritarianism is on the rise in other countries as well.

Filipinos I’ve spoken with have conflicted feelings about Here Lies Love—feelings I share, because so many of our friends and colleagues are involved in this show. We hold the paradox of being proud of their achievements while also worrying about the repercussions of the show. One thing is undeniable: For folks on the creative team, Here Lies Love has had a genuinely transformative effect on their identities as Filipino Americans and on their Filipino diasporic experience.

“This project is extremely difficult and attracts controversy,” Ramos said, “but what I’ve experienced through it is my own personal reckoning about the Filipino experience that has given me this deep compassion for our people and the tragic absurdity that came out of this regime. When you look at the American occupation, the foreign force clothing you with these garments of democracy with no idea of fit, it creates a culture of confusion that they capitalize on.”

Lea Salonga may embody the show’s contradictions more than anyone, though she’s only scheduled to appear in it through Aug. 19 (she is also on the show’s producing team). It is significant that the Broadway Theatre itself is the same place where Salonga, dubbed “Pride of the Philippines,” originated the lead role of Kim, a Vietnamese bartender in Miss Saigon, an explicitly Orientalist fantasy. She returns to the same stage, though it has been stripped of 900 orchestra seats to create a club floor, to appear as Aurora Aquino, mother of the assassinated Ninoy Aquino, prominent opposition leader to Ferdinand Marcos.

“Lea Salonga is a very interesting figure, because she is the one Philippine artist who is really a mediator between the Philippines and the West,” explained Claudio. “She’s mediating so many things. As someone who is well-entrenched in the theatre scene in the Philippines and also well-entrenched in Broadway, and as someone who belongs to a more or less middle-class liberal anti-Marcos milieu in the Philippines.” He also alluded to controversy that surrounded Salonga in 2016 when some fans questioned her seeming support for the Marcoses because she had posted on Facebook about the Marcos family having been kind to her family. “She’s occupying worlds at the same time,” Claudio continued. “It’s kind of perfect that Lea Salonga is part of this production, because in a way it’s a mediation of the Filipino post-colony in the master’s house. That is who Lea Salonga has been ever since she was 16.”

That’s a lot to put on one Filipina. And to go from the role of Kim to Aurora, where she finally plays not only a Filipina but the mother of the slain senator representing democracy, feels like a transformative and triumphant symbol of how far Salonga has come in her artistic journey. It feels like a larger symbol of hope for Filipinos around the world.

Yet the problematic dynamics of Filipino and Filipino American identity are also wrapped up in the very song she delivers as Aurora Aquino after Ninoy’s death, “Just Ask the Flowers.” She sings, “When I asked my son, ‘What do you want to be?’ / I was a little surprised when he said to me / ‘I wanna be a drummer, Mom.’” For this song, the script notes that “all lyrics are derived from quotes from Aurora Aquino and others present at his funeral.”

“Ninoy was shot in ’83,” recalled Peña, who, through family and friend connections, ended up at Ninoy’s house to view the assassinated senator’s body firsthand. “He was there, dead, laid out on the table,” Peña recalled. “And Aurora instructed others not to clean him so that ‘the world can see what they did to my son.’ It was bad. I was literally five feet from the body; his face was smashed because it hit the concrete. Completely covered in blood.”

He paused, as my mind leapt to a moment in American history: to Emmett Till’s mother declining to have her son’s body touched up so the world could see the full extent of the crime against him. This tragic event in Philippine history could have been an opportunity for common ground with other Americans in addressing violence and oppression.

“Instead, they make Lea, as the mother, sing a song about her son wanting to be a drummer,” Peña continued. “Now you tell me that’s not a white lens. The Filipina mother says, ‘Don’t clean my son! I want them to see what they did to my son!’ Isn’t that a stronger statement?”

We sat in silence. The memory sank in, as this oral history passed between two Filipino Americans.

“I don’t blame the Pinoys here at all,” Peña added, using a common informal self-identification among Filipinos. “These are the creators thinking, ‘That’s what you want to focus on.’ It’s such a Western take on that event. It romanticizes the death.”

That story haunted me after our interview ended.

In April, I attended the traveling photo exhibition Golden Years: Weighing Philippine Martial Law 1972-1981 in Los Angeles. Curated by Victor Barnuevo Velasco, a writer and founding member of Albay Arts Foundation, the photos depict the Philippines from the 1960s to the ’80s. Each organizer that hosts the exhibition can display the photos in their exhibition space as they wish, customizing it to the local community.

In L.A., portraits of Imelda Marcos clustered in one corner of the room, while the opposite corner contained a huge altar where local members of the community left prayers for family members and victims of martial law. I found the tension between these images striking: The flowers and porcelain crocodile stared down the coiffed Iron Butterfly. The goal was not to erase or hide Imelda or the Marcoses, but rather to offer a counterpoint to the dictatorship’s legacy of greed and atrocity. The viewer not only has access to a bevy of information and viewpoints, but agency and dignity in navigating this painful chapter of Philippine history.

I bring up this example not to ask that Here Lies Love be more than it can be. It is true that we cannot ask this musical to do everything. But we can place it in the larger arc of history and geopolitics. This show is an opportunity for Filipinos, Filipino Americans, and theatremakers to productively address our relationships to collective memory, the ethics of making art, and transnational power dynamics.

Ramos, who noted the feelings of shame that can come with the Filipino American experience, said he hopes the musical will inform social justice conversations and make Americans curious about our history. “When we talk about racism, we cannot not talk about imperialism,” he said. “Let’s also talk about America’s desire for empire. And maybe people will also look up some things that they are willing to learn about.”

Across all my interviews, I detected a common experience of Philippine culture: the ability to exist and even thrive in precarious, liminal spaces. Perhaps this is the best approach to the strange creature that is Here Lies Love, an immersive work that is undeniably historic for Filipino representation in America and innovative staging on Broadway, as well as part of a larger legacy of both Western colonialism and critiques of the West. To grasp it more fully requires a capacity to sit with tension, discomfort, and paradoxes.

It also requires knowledge and recognition of the roles Filipinos have played in our nations’ history, both in relationship to the United States and also independent from it. In the face of its potential for disinformation and historical revisionism, it requires that we lift counter-narratives, especially from voices who were silenced under dictatorship. And despite the potential for distortion, I fervently hope that Here Lies Love’s prominent presence in the American theatre can create an opening for artists who’ve been shut out for too long to claim more agency and dignity, and specifically to tell their own stories of Filipino and Filipino American experience.

Otherwise both our nations run the risk of forgetting the truth, and ourselves. As poet Arvin Abejo Mangohig writes in Martial Law: Poems for the Dead, we may end up in a place where:

We name typhoons, not people. We rememberSurviving, not those who did not.We remember nothing under water.

Amanda L. Andrei (she/her) is a playwright, literary translator, and theatre critic based in Los Angeles.

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In November 2014, When I first heard of this new staging of David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s musical on Broadway,This past May, while I was in the Philippines,Mica:Norby:Mica:Norby:Filipinos I’ve spoken with have conflicted feelings about Here Lies Love—In April, I attended the traveling photo exhibition Golden Years: Weighing Philippine Martial Law 1972-1981 in Los AngelesAmanda L. Andrei (she/her) is a playwright, literary translator, and theatre critic based in Los Angeles.