Checking phones, hobnobbing with friends, dressed in clubwear, polo shirts and summer street wear, they gather nightly in Manhattan to take part in a ritual. The DJ, rocking out in a booth perched above the stage, puts on the first record, and makes a promise: "We're gonna dance you all the way to the Philippines!" The club is not a club, exactly, but a theatre made up to look like one, and the occasion is Here Lies Love, a musical retelling of the life of Imelda Marcos, composed by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, and recently extended through July. And the audience is present not merely to silently observe, but to self-consciously serve as an audience to the passion of Imelda (Ruthie Ann Miles) - her romantic and squalid journey from small-town beauty queen to national icon to symbol of wretched authoritarian excess.
Nearly 30 years after Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos fled the Philippines in an American helicopter, Imelda still occupies a charged place in the international consciousness. Her political legacy has been swamped by the absurdity of the thousands of pairs of shoes discovered in her wardrobes after her departure. But she also fascinates in a manner that few other deposed leaders, or their spouses (barring Eva Peron), still do. How many musicals are being written about Elena Ceausescu?
The show, directed by Alex Timbers (full disclosure here, Timbers was a college classmate of mine), takes on the trappings of a night out at the disco. The action takes place on two stages at opposite ends of the theatre, along its sides, and on a cross-shaped platform in the centre, whose rotation requires the audience to hastily shuffle out of its way.
The show echoes Imelda's own 1970s Studio 54 nights, but it also reflects disco's status as the musical genre that is closest kin to melodrama. More than anything that came before it, disco made room for diva chic - the unabashed celebration of the mercurial, the hyperexpressive, the deliberately overblown. Here Lies Love's critical insight is to see Imelda Marcos as a disco diva, Gloria Gaynor or Donna Summer transformed into the first lady of her nation. She is the ingénue turned star turned woman scorned, each new role encompassing its own song, and its own style.
Byrne and Fatboy Slim are pop-music veterans, each with a string of hits to their name, but Here Lies Love is no jukebox musical. Instead, it subtly contrasts its warring political personalities through their clashing musical styles. Here Lies Love juxtaposes Imelda's florid, romantic ballads with the more frantic loverman come-ons of her one-time boyfriend and later political rival Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino (played here with boy-band panache by Conrad Ricamora) and the stolid approach favoured by her husband Ferdinand (Jose Llana).
"They're our Jackie and John," an onlooker exults as Imelda and Ferdinand greet their countrymen at the beach soon after their wedding. (The transition from formal finery to swimwear is one of the show's funniest sight gags.) Imelda tenuously waves, and Ferdinand silently demonstrates his own, more authoritative greeting while indicating she should lift her chin up, as well. Imelda, living her own storybook fantasy, is gripped by self-doubt about her transformation: "The little girl he married, is that still me?" As the Marcoses' leadership tips over into rigid authoritarianism, the music begins to take on a darker, metallic tinge.
In a country whose elections have always been "a personality contest", according to journalist Beth Day Romulo (who was also married to Ferdinand Marcos' former foreign minister), the Marcoses were always the biggest personalities of all. The details of their excesses, and of Imelda's in particular, are the stuff of a Douglas Sirk melodrama. Imelda would fly abroad with an entourage of one hundred, including one worker whose only job was to keep an eye on her luggage at all times. Imelda's "ladies-in-waiting" were frequently given instructions on how to dress for events. Even as Imelda was being brought in to testify to the commission appointed after the assassination of Benigno Aquino in 1983, the proceedings were interrupted for the commission to sing Happy Birthday to the country's first lady.
"What our people want is a woman of beauty," Imelda insisted, convinced that her husband's political rival Corazon Aquino (Benigno's widow) could never appeal to the Philippine masses. Politics was converted to melodrama, with two women - one glamorous, and one frumpy - competing for the country's wayward affections.
The Marcoses were deposed not because of their corruption, but because of the sheer grotesque overkill of their corruption. A family with more money than they could ever possibly spend insisted on stealing billions more from the country's coffers. The wedding dress paid for out of the Typhoon Relief Fund; the twin Mercedes-Benz sedans and US$2 million (Dh7.3m) trust fund as wedding presents for their daughter; the "mini-department store" in the basement of Malacanang Palace; the Marcoses' grotesque consumerism was itself the stuff of melodrama, a revelling in excess divorced from everything but the demands of spectacle.
Even in defeat, Imelda made sure the story was told as she wanted it to be told. The imposition of martial law in 1972, the violent suppression of student demonstrators, the murder of political rivals - all were secondary to the glamour and elegance of the Marcos era. Here Lies Love has been accused of closet sympathy with Imelda, but its sympathies are with the melodramatic swoop of her life. The lingering sensation of the show - an amoral, apolitical one - is of Imelda's affinity for the large gesture. This is not a Tom Stoppard drama; it is a disco musical set in a nightclub, and politics is merely another excuse to face the music and dance.
Here Lies Love is crafted like a ballad, the high hopes and romantic fantasies propelling it forward lying shattered like so many disco-ball shards at the singer's feet at its conclusion. The show draws to a halt with the Marcoses fleeing the Philippines for Hawaiian exile in 1986, but real life offered another melodramatic twist. Ferdinand died in 1989, and Imelda returned to the Philippines two years later, to a kind of bemused acceptance. She was elected to the House of Representatives in 2010; her daughter became governor of the Marcoses' home state of Ilocos Norte and her son Ferdinand Jr was elected to the Senate that same year.
Imelda, now 83 years old, is a kind of Filipino elder statesman, her melodramatic excesses all the more winning, it seems, the further removed she is from her one-time despotic power. The same phenomenon has been observed elsewhere. Russians betray a sneaking fondness for Stalin, and some Egyptians, weary from the turmoil of the last two years, may wish for a return to the mundane tyranny of Mubarak. The passage of time bleaches out the gruesome details of the Marcoses' reign - the murdered rivals, the bloodied students, the imposition of martial law - leaving only the vague imprint of a glamorous, now-inaccessible past. But Here Lies Love prefers to give the last word to the people whose money Imelda Marcos stole and whose trust she betrayed. The triumph here, if there is one, belongs to the faceless masses who depose their king and queen, glamour be damned. After the light-show assault of the Marcoses' hasty departure, the DJ (Kelvin Moon Loh) approaches centre stage, acoustic guitar in hand, and sings a song whose lyrics are crafted from the testimony of the protesters who overthrew them in 1986. "God draws straight with crooked lines," the chorus argues, as an impromptu band gathers onstage for one final singalong. Plain-spoken acoustic sincerity trumps glamorous machine-made hoopla, every time.
Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy.