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History With a Disco Beat

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Imelda Marcos turned 94 on July 2. The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that the country’s former first lady was feted with “a night of singing, dancing, and socializing.” The article did not reveal whether the birthday girl cut a rug, nor did it mention if the evening’s musical soundtrack included the thumping disco beat of which she was so fond in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Two and a half weeks later, Here Lies Love had its Broadway premiere. The immersive musical, which The Straz has invested in, puts much of the audience on the floor of or at least inside of a disco-era nightclub, rubbing shoulders with and potentially doing the bump with cast members.

Here Lies Love began life as a 2010 concept album created by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim (Norman Cook). The story is set in a splashy ’70s disco, like the ones Imelda frequented. She claimed to be flattered when a reporter played the album for her.

Disco and Imelda’s paths took oddly similar turns in the 1980s. Disco was hit with a massive backlash around the turn of that decade that rendered the D-word commercial poison. Interestingly, as anti-disco forces were declaring victory, disco was going underground for a brief regrouping before re-emerging as dance music and topping the charts again – or did you think Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson were playing new wave?

Imelda had a comeback as well, and she didn’t even have to change her name.

She was exiled in 1986 along with her husband, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The couple, friends of then U.S. President Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy, were allowed to settle in Hawaii. Ferdinand passed in 1989 and the Philippine government allowed Imelda and her children to return to their homeland.

Some observers might have expected the Marcos family to atone for its crimes by withdrawing from the public eye. That didn’t happen. Imelda served three terms in the Philippine House of Representatives. Her and Ferdinand’s son, Bongbong, is now president.

Here Lies Love is significant for having an all-Filipino cast, a first for Broadway. It also sparked a dispute over its use of prerecorded music (like they play in discos) which violated musicians’ union rules.

That dispute was resolved with Byrne adding a dozen union musicians to the production. A more philosophical debate has dogged Here Lies Love since it was first staged in 2013: Does Here Lies Love sanitize the story of, or even glorify, the Marcoses?

Imelda’s ridiculously large collection of shoes was a frequent target of late-night humorists. What the Marcoses wrought in Manilla was no joke. Ferdinand Marcos led a brutal, bloodthirsty and ravenous regime. The country was under martial law for almost a decade. Political opponents of Marcos lived under near constant threat of arrest or violence. Further, Imelda’s shoes were only the most visible example of the couple’s thievery, as they drained the national coffers to support an ever more extravagant lifestyle.

There’s little reason to think Imelda’s manicured hands weren’t wrist-deep in this rot. So the musical’s soft-focus vision of her could be seen as naïve or even disingenuous.

On the other hand, Byrne is not a historian and Here Lies Love doesn’t claim to be just the facts, ma’am. It’s an offbeat look at a remarkable if reprehensible character who, in spite of her sins, still is celebrated by many of her compatriots.

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