Here Lies Love
Here lies the problem with Here Lies Love's cast album, if you will: It really can't be considered the way the traditional cast album would be, and yet, that's more or less my task. The show about the Marcos regime in the Philippines is an immersive environmental audience experience wherein the music is designed to be just one part of what's going on: There are video projections, action is played on various spaces (some of which move) around a room, with the audience members themselves sometimes movingliterally following the action, becoming the mobs at political rallies or, yes, dancing to the beats. And the instrumental accompaniment for the show, full of throbbing dance rhythmsinsistently aggressive or simmeringly subtle but almost ever-presentis pre-recorded. Dramatic phrasing, declamations, accusations, expressions of love, etc. must be done on the beats, which can de-fang or even neuter some of the intensity of the words.
Fascinatingly, this juxtaposition often works to an advantage: it mocks and trivializes political rhetoric, would-be manipulative maneuverings, plaints and pleas. The seductiveness of dance music with its decidedly disco pulse or laidback mental massage can be analogous to the hypnosis and salesmanship that power plays and elections can be. It's being drugged, relaxed and encouraged to go with the flow and feel good. When served up with smoothness or percolating pep, do we dance to the danger, shrugging it off as we shake shoulders, emotionally unshaken by political shake-ups? So we must keep the original context and setting in mind when experiencing this cast album. Without the bells and whistles, without historic scenes on screens, couch potato attentive listening may result, alas, in the increased awareness of (and annoyance caused by) relentless underdeveloped, repeated musical and lyrical lines. What might be absorbed subliminally and needing to be plain-spoken when one is dancing and bombarded with visual stimulation may feel mindlessly mind-numbing, coming at us in mathematically precise series of equal waves. You could listen while moving at the gym or down the block, and get swept up in the sway and swim of it and you may be intoxicated. There are some respites from the head-bobbing/foot-tapping times when the cardiovascular workout slows and some more genuine feeling and drama suddenly comes along. Then it's back to being led, lemming-like, by the polished Pied Pipers' honey-sweetened poison. The Marcos and Aquino regimes as presented here put the "party" groove into political parties, although pesky realities like illness, imprisonment, death, and revolt do put a damper on dizzying danceability.
Those familiar with the original album that led to the piece being staged will find many differences from that song stack. With considerable new material, David Byrne (who wrote 13 of the pieces alone on the 2-disc set) has augmented the score made up of pieces he created with Fatboy Slim, tweaked and re-shaped some, and discarded others. (Tom Gandy and J Pardo supplied some additional music.) A quite thorough and lengthy history of the show's step-by-step development and the reasons for the choices and changes are given in the booklet, from Byrne's articulate perspective. Some background information is also supplied by Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director at Manhattan's Public Theater where Here Lies Love is ensconced for a return engagement. A separate song-by-song synopsis lets us follow the dialogueless musical's storyline. Also included are photos of the actors and the real-life figures, and all the lyrics, along with indications of who is singing what line.
David Byrne and Fatboy Slim participated in supplying instrumentation and production duties for the pre-recorded tracks, along with a bevy of musicians. Music and vocal supervisor is Kimberly Grigsby; many tracks have layers of vocal back-ups supporting the protagonists, adding to the sense of the mob mentality reinforcement and candy coating of echoed sentiments. While many instruments are used, there's often a blanket of sound melding the Imelda Marcos struggle, triumph and retreat into one big soup as she rises and falls like the music, culminating in a full-circle reprise of the rags-to-riches story of humble beginnings she preferred to bury. The curtain call version of the title song leaves us with those three words she wanted carved on her tombstone.
As Imelda, Ruthie Ann Miles presents vocals which are strong but not gratuitously showy, even in most of the power-grabbing, self-aggrandizing, self-pitying moments. With a well of charm and pluck, even coming off as wistful or joyfully clueless when it suits her needs to distract and deflect, she takes the lioness's share of the score without overwhelming. While not stunningly charismatic or strikingly cunning via disc, her chameleon-like vocal adjustments to situations and goals or whom she's singing to more often than not sustain the interest needed. (Granted, some numbers that have more repeats of lines may result in diminishing returns as selections wear out their welcomes, but few tracks are lengthy.) Is it the beat or the sense of entitlement in the party girl that make matters of life and death not seem like so much is at stake (especially, hey, if it's not her death).
The always welcome talent of José Llana as Ferdinand Marcos is a huge plus of a presence, as he succeeds in making a baldly deceitful politician and husband almost endearing. Such is his amazing grace, and we want to hear more from him. His "A Perfect Hand" is a highlight and also has some of the most effective lyrics and satisfying melodies. Melody Butiu evokes some sympathy as a character whose past support and caring creates a fly in the ointment of Imelda's self-oiled machine of self-image, though the music style stymies full development of her feelings and the ensuing confrontation. Conrad Ricamora as Aquino, backed by the male ensemble, has his best moment in the foreboding of the farewell at "Gate 37" and Natalie Cortez as his mother is barely in "in-control" mode while mourning on "Just Ask the Flowers." And Kevin Moon Low's "God Draws Straight" is potent. While the ensemble usually is voiced together, some soloists truly shine albeit briefly with emotion-laced voices, such as Renée Albulario's crystallizing the lamenting in "Order 1081."
A certain fact gives us pause when poised to criticize the stupefying simplicity and clichés of some lyrics. And that is: the words Byrne puts in some characters' mouth are their very own (or near replicas) from speeches, interviews, and first-hand accounts. Throughout, Byrne is inconsistent about using pure rhymes, which makes already gem-challenged sets of words that much more lackluster. Still, some don't quite still the voice of objection or the rolling of the eyes when Imelda utters such words as:
"The most important things are love and beauty/ It doesn't matter if you're rich or poor" (Which would be right at home in a glib made-for-TV movie, Hallmark card or Chinese fortune cookie)
"I understand the pain you feel ... I know someday you will understand" (Straight out of a "how-to" book of handy reassurances, pat answers to serve as a verbal pat on the head)
"Flowers exploding in my heart" (Call the poetry ghostwriters or is there a cardiologist in the house?)
"Nothing can stand in my way/ Let me be your star ..." (Sounds quite a bit like the determined stage-struck gal vying for the lead on TV's "Smash")
It would be a lie to say that Here Lies Love would have no appeal to those allergic to dance music. I have little interest in the genre and the disco era was only tolerable to me when singers I liked jumped on the bandwagon, and yet I found Here Lies Love's cast album capable of casting a spell with its surprising effectiveness and lurking drama of slinky propaganda and the human desire to glorify/deify leaders and eternal blind hope. History, with 20/20 hindsight, makes for interesting perspective and we groove along and move right along, shaking our bodies as a country's ambitious movers and shakers crash and burn. As Nero supposedly fiddled as Rome burned, so the Philippines' historical figures seem to want to keep on dancing in denial, singing, hosting a party they thought would never end.