The Artist Abroad

She danced while a nation burnt


NEW YORK - Was it Oscar Wilde who quipped that one thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about?

In this regard, Imelda Romualdez Marcos need not worry. The ex-czarina of the Philippines has never been out of the spotlight even after her less than glamorous exit from center stage. Still, the provincial lass-made-good lived very well in Honolulu, though perhaps not as luxuriously as when, with Ferdinand, bringing the country to ruin. When apparently unable to touch her bank accounts while being tried in a US federal court for alleged crimes committed while in office, she was bailed out, literally, by her glam friend Doris Duke—a trial in which she was acquitted, on her birthday no less, leading her to remark that it was Ferdie up in heaven who made it all possible. Of course, I doubt it was from heaven that the dead tyrant pulled strings. Besides, it has always struck me as odd, the implication of that statement, that only a miracle would save her from federal prison, suggesting that if there had been no divine intervention she would have been found guilty.

Former first lady Imelda R. Marcos

David Byrne’s musical Here Lies Love, labeled a “poperetta,” would surely not surprise Imelda, did she care to notice, that her life story has been reclaimed for the stage at the Public Theater, a theatrical mainstay of downtown Manhattan. Would the work please her? She probably would consider that question irrelevant, apropos of Wilde. Byrne has fashioned a piece of musical theater that attempts to depict a psychological portrait of La Imelda within the setting of a discotheque—his and Fatboy Slim’s music, lights, DJ, slide shows, the works—going by the much publicized fact of Imelda’s fancy for discoing.

He with some singers performed the music at a Carnegie Hall concert gig some years back, and was rightly criticized (by myself, among others) for overlooking the much darker side of the woman who would be queen. This time there is more of that side, while still hewing to the pop psychologizing of a poor girl’s need to satisfy her craving for acceptance and respectability by acquiring all the conventional tokens of a high-end lifestyle: jewels, artworks, real estate—not to mention shoes, of which there is blessedly no mention here.


Here Lies Love has catchy, danceable tunes, and, as staged by Alex Timbers, motion, sound, images and lights combine to not just evoke an era but also actually transform the theater into a disco. There are no seats, except for the upper boxes, so most of the audience becomes disco goers, standing and dancing beside moveable platforms where different parts of the poperetta unfold. Ruthie Ann Miles and Jose Llana bring verve and magnetism to their roles as Imelda and Ferdinand, embodying the real-life duo’s view of themselves as the mythical Malakas (Strength) and Maganda (Beauty).

It is a thoroughly enjoyable spectacle. And yet, pop psychology is in the end unsatisfying, simply because it adheres to a rather simplistic intellectual frame. Yes, Imelda was driven by an unflagging insecurity about her humble origins but one’s social genesis is not the only determinant of future behavior. Played with convincing grit by Melody Butiu, Estrella Cumpas—the loyal servant who took care of Imelda and her siblings when they were poor relations of the father’s first family—tells Imelda, in one of the sharper encounters, that there was nothing wrong with growing up poor.

Rather than point to that as a measure of her character, Imelda shied away from this inconvenient bit of reality and deliberately made moral and ethical decisions in her personal and political life (to her, they were inseparable) that stressed appearance above everything else. In Byrne’s telling, she causes the disappearance of Estrella and also warns Ninoy Aquino not to return once he leaves with his family for the United States.

The poperetta stresses Imelda’s penchant for culture and the arts. True enough, but nowhere is there a mention of the huge scandal due to the1981 tragedy that befell workers rushing to complete the Film Palace, as part of the Cultural Center complex, with strict orders from Imelda that they were to do so 24/7 to ready it for her ill-advised Manila International Film Festival. The haste led to a top floor collapsing and burying those underneath it, in quick-drying cement. Attempts were made to suppress the deaths—after all, these bodies belonged to nobodies—but the event was too much of a tragedy to be kept from the news.

Political and social events are sketched that point the way to the 1986 People Power movement that forced the Marcoses to flee. Towards the conclusion, a member of the terrific ensemble starts playing on acoustic guitar songs whose lyrics are based on the actual words of those who had taken part in the 1986 uprising. He is joined shortly by two other drum-playing ensemble members. It is a beautiful, reflective scene, and I initially thought, what a great way to end the night, hearing from the too-often anonymous. I was mistaken, however, for the last number is reserved for Imelda and the ensemble, singing the lead song, “Here Lies Love.”

Good music, wrong notes.

Copyright L.H. Francia 2013

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  • jpastor

    For some reason Ilocos Norte folks continue to support this vampire that have long sucked into the people’s blood. She stretched her face skin that the original skin may now be passed her neck.

    • jr18496

      The reason people from Ilocos support Marcos is… they are IDIOTS!!!

      • lawrence knight angel


  • banana na

    di lang DANCE ang hilig ni IMELDA MARCOS, mahilig din itong KUMANTA ng DAHIL SA IYO while the NATION BURNT at naging congresswoman pa itong si MELDA….ONLY IN THE PHILIPPINES HISTORY….haaa

  • victor1052

    In spite of all the abuses this woman had committed, she and her son and daughters get to be congresswomen and senator. Erap and GLoria get incarcerated, but not Imelda and her children. What kind of a rotten country we really have.

    • opinyonlangpo

      Its not the country, its the people. Filipinos should ask what kind of people they really are. This coming election, the winners reflect the quality of the voters.

      • manuelcdiaz

        40% of the Filipino voters are united idiots and will elect idiots, charlatans and thieves into office. The 60% supposed to be intellectuals are so busy killing each other, debating each other to death so the 40% idiots prevail.

      • cowboys2

        And these idiot voters are the number one cry babies and complainers. Mandusa kayo sa katangahan nyo.

      • koolkid_inthehouse

        This 40% are in poverty manipulated by corrupt politicians and used as pawns by congress and senate. They created a magna carta of the poor and funded a half built ghettos for them and the same corrupt politicians pocketed the money.
        Ask your politicians to create decent jobs for the millions of unemployed Filipinos so that they can’t be maninpulated and can afford to education and could buy a house wherever they want to live.

        Don’t be a donkey, think why they are in the 40%. If you are knowledgeable you should have known the root cause of why they end up in the 40%.

  • Yahoogle

    Meldita, Meldita… Makukulong ka pa ba?

  • wazgoingon

    Is there a way, the government can ask the Marcoses to explain how they acquired their wealth? It certainly couldn’t have come from inheritance as the estate of the late dictator has yet to be determined. How can Sen. Marcos justify his declared wealth of over P400M when all his life he has been in government as governor, congressman and now a Senator. Imelda lives her live to the hilt and throws lavish parties. Where does all the money come from? The BIR should crack down on high profile individuals instead of going after small businessmen, who barely make enough in these trying times.

    • ksa202

      The BIR should check this out. I’m pretty sure nowhere are they going to find that proper taxes were paid. It’s like Henry Sy whose net worth is some 9B USD and yet pays a measly 12M Php in taxes.

  • yaonglaan

    The Worst Curse that ever happened in our country

  • koolkid_inthehouse

    All politicians are like that. They dance and sing to get elected while the nation is suffering from poverty. Can’t blame these politicians, Filipinos are gullible.

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