The rise of Imelda, in her own words
By Ian Cuthbertson
1 May 2010
When rock musician David Byrne found out Imelda Marcos wanted the phrase "Here lies love" as her epitaph, he was inspired.
"It was like being handed a title on a platter," he says. It was five years in the making, but Here Lies Love, a 22-song musical about the widow of former Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos, has just been released as a double CD.
The show, co-written by former Talking Heads frontman Byrne and Fatboy Slim (Norman Cook), first saw light at the 2006 Adelaide Festival. Murray Bramwell wrote in The Australian: "There are intriguing ironies in Byrne's approach to Imelda, but we need more perspective and contrast. Here Lies Love is a likable concert, full of good tunes and unfathomable ambiguities. It may yet be a terrific show, with perceptive themes and liberating anti-theatrical elements, but at the moment the festival is hosting an uncertain work in progress."
Average notices aside, Byrne says the outing was incredibly useful. "Part of doing it as a festival show in Adelaide was to find out which songs were superfluous to telling the story, and we found that a couple were," he says. "I didn't dump them from the record but they won't be in any theatrically staged version we might do in the future. That's what we learned from Adelaide."
Every musical needs to be performed in front of an audience, preferably sooner rather than later, to see if it flies. But with the funky beats of Cook -- English DJ, big beat musician, record producer and electronic dance pioneer -- forming the backbone of much of the music, there was another test Byrne wanted to apply. "We also wanted to know if people would start dancing to the songs, which they did, especially in the second half, where things get a little more upbeat," he says.
If five years on the project seems like a long time, "it will probably be another year before we get a theatrical version together. It's just such a process," Byrne says. He is not sure the show would work as traditional Broadway fare ("it has no book, in the theatrical sense"), but he's convinced it will find its niche. "It will be a kind of hybrid: not quite Broadway and not quite a rock opera."
At one time Byrne considered bumping the show quickly in and out of discos, and indeed the idea is floated in the hardback book by Byrne that accompanies the deluxe edition of the CD. It is no longer on the agenda.
"I wrote that five years ago when there were a couple of mega-discos left," Byrne says. "I think they're all gone now."
Times do change, and quickly. Not only have discos gone the way of big hair and flares but the traditional album is under threat in the era of the digital download. So where does that leave a $45 double CD with a 115-page hardback book and a DVD tucked inside the back cover? "For a lot of folks the continuation of the album format is going to be a really difficult sell," Byrne says, before admitting he is as guilty as anyone else of quickly grabbing the one or two songs he likes from a particular album. "In a way this cherry-picking is supported by the record companies, [which] really do focus on a couple of songs on an artist's album that they think will pull the rest along," he says. "So I thought, what if you give people a reason to listen to more than one or two songs? They'll get more of a story, they'll find out more about the character of the person who's singing the songs, their history, and some real depth."
People who listen to the entire album will be rewarded with more than narrative depth. They'll hear stunning performances by Florence + the Machine on the title track, and other high-profile guests including Cyndi Lauper, Tori Amos, Sharon Jones, Steve Earle, Martha Wainwright, Sia and Natalie Merchant.
But what they won't hear about -- or see -- are the shoes.
Most people tend to associate Imelda Marcos with her 3000-plus pairs of shoes. Colourful shoes, wonderful shoes that would, one imagines, be a gift for any designer staging a musical about Marcos.
"Oh yeah: the elephant in the room that I don't mention," Byrne quips.
The composer says his musical stops just hours shy of when the shoes were discovered. "When Imelda and her family were airlifted out of Manila, that's when the story is over. That's their downfall," he says. "The shoes weren't discovered until a few hours after that, when the mobs descended on the palace to see what kind of life they had been living in there."
Weirdly, the mob also discovered an entire house full of Heinz sandwich spread. "Funny you never hear about the sandwich spread," Byrne says, laughing. There's also no mention of the 15 mink coats, 508 gowns and more than 1000 handbags. And, speaking of elephants in the the room, what possessed Byrne to spend such a chunk of his life creating a musical about Marcos?
There were two key elements. The first was when Byrne read Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Emperor. Byrne says the book (about Haile Selassie, who ruled Ethopia for 45 years) revealed the world of a royal court to be highly theatrical. "By that I mean it was an artificial world full of pageantry, ritual, proscribed and very symbolic behaviour," he writes in the book accompanying the CD.
The next trigger was finding out that Marcos loved to go to clubs and discos in the late 1970s and early 80s, to dance and hang out with the demimonde in Studio 54 in New York and other velvet-rope joints in various cities. Combining the two seemed irresistible and so, after a few beers with Cook in New York's West Village, Here Lies Love was conceived.
It's not just the shoes that are missing from the musical. Byrne felt no obligation to present Marcos as the woman who, as much of The Philippines was mired in poverty, went on multimillion-dollar shopping tours, sent a plane to pick up Australian white sand for a beach resort, and who bought huge Manhattan properties in the 80s. "I don't go into a lot of detail about the abuses she perpetrated," Byrne says. "The story I am interested in is about asking: what drives a powerful person, what makes them tick? What in Imelda's background made her the person she is? So I thought, we'll hear it from her own lips."
It's for this reason most of the lyrics in the musical are words spoken by Marcos and others during and after her husband's ascent to power.
Byrne admits this made the songwriting a good deal easier: "She would drop these sound bites that people would remember, long before it was fashionable."