New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

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New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

NYU’s ‘Here Lies Love’ syllabus dives deep into the controversial musical

Two NYC-based professors, one from NYU, collaborated to compile a selection of resources that contextualize David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s musical.
(Courtesy of Marconi Calindas)

An NYU professor contributed to a public syllabus analyzing David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s “Here Lies Love,” a controversial disco-pop musical about former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos. Lara Saguisag, NYU Steinhardt’s Georgiou Chair in Children’s Literature, and Nerve Macaspac, an assistant professor at City University of New York, wrote the syllabus, titled “Here Lies Love in Critical Contexts.”

Despite critical acclaim, the show faced backlash for its portrayal of the Marcos dictatorship and martial law in the Philippines. The show’s protagonist, Imelda Marcos, was the wife of the nationalist President Ferdinand Marcos. After Ferdinand Marcos instituted martial law in 1972, he unleashed a wave of human rights violations, and tens of thousands of people were killed, tortured, detained or went missing. 

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos’ corruption and lavish lifestyle seriously impoverished the Philippines. Due to historical revisionism and disinformation campaigns, the Marcos family returned to power 36 years after their removal from office, with the election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as president last year.

The show has the first all-Filipino cast on Broadway and a production team including famous Filipinos in the entertainment industry such as comedian Jo Koy, Tony Award-winner Lea Salonga and Grammy winners H.E.R. and However, critics have accused the musical of glorifying the Marcoses, questioning if the show’s all-white writing team fairly discussed the subject. In response to the controversy, the production posted a statement on its Instagram, clarifying that it is an anti-Marcos show.

“If you talk to any Filipino in New York, regardless of their political affiliation … I think we have the same shared mixed emotions about the show,” Macaspac said. “Because we’re always proud if there’s anything Filipino in showbiz or Broadway … so it’s really complicated.”

“Here Lies Love” is an interactive show that turns the theater into a real-life disco. The seats of the orchestra section were removed so that 300 audience members could stand on the dance floor, a few feet away from the actors. The show encourages the audience to dance along and interact with the story. While the immersive performance is an effective storytelling tool, it raises the question: Should we be dancing with dictators?

“If you come in without any knowledge or minimal knowledge of the Marcos administration, you will feel differently from somebody [who does],” Saguisag said. “There was a moment when the words ‘Marcos Wins’ flashed on the screen walls …  Across from where I was standing, a group cheered. I assumed they probably did not know what this moment meant.”

With their syllabus, “Here Lies Love in Critical Contexts,” Saguisag and Macaspac, two Filipino professors born and raised in Manila, aim not to criticize the show or offer their opinions. Rather, the syllabus is an invitation to watch the musical analytically and engage with its subject matter.

“It’s taking the time to make this a teaching moment for all of us, Filipinos and non-Filipinos, because this is so historic for us, for the Filipino community in the U.S. to be in Broadway,” Macaspac said. “It’s a brilliant idea to somehow transform this smash-hit Broadway musical into a collective community learning moment.”

For Saguisag and Macaspac, the syllabus is a way for them to discuss all of the mixed emotions and confusing feelings they experienced in the theater. 

“The work on the public syllabus was about me processing these feelings, but in a way that engages with the musical in a critical way rather than outright dismissing it,” Saguisag said.  “The musical, at the end of the day, provides space for this very important discourse.” 

Further, Sagusaig said that they “were really interested in educating people about Imelda’s active role in the conjugal dictatorship and why the Marcoses are back in power.”

After watching the show, Saguisag and Macaspac carefully curated the syllabus around the musical’s themes. Made with support from Sulo, the Philippine Studies Initiative at NYU and Steinhardt’s Department of Teaching and Learning, the syllabus contains a list of academic readings, journalistic writing, poetry, images, films and other resources to show a complete picture of the Marcoses and their regime. The resources, Saguisag said, were deliberately picked to reflect specific perspectives.

“We were very conscious of making sure that voices from Filipinos in the homeland were included,” Saguisag said. “We recognized that we should definitely include Filipinos based in the Philippines, but also voices past and present.”

The learning materials are organized thematically into 12 weekly reading lists that touch upon the key points of the show and aspects that were omitted. 

To launch “Here Lies Love in Critical Contexts,” Sulo hosted a two-day launch event on Sept. 20 and 21 at the King Juan Carlos Center. The event included teach-ins led by Saguisag and Macaspac and screenings of the martial law documentaries “Imelda” and “11103.” 

“The hope for the two-day event is to really recenter back to our community … to strengthen our community together over films, over discussions [and] over Filipino food,” Macaspac said. “We are so excited with the reception to the syllabus… of Filipino communities, academics and NYU offices. It’s been very positive and really welcoming … Even people from the production are very supportive!”

The welcome reception of “Here Lies Love in Critical Contexts” is a positive sign that Saguisag and Macaspac’s work is already fulfilling its intended purpose: encouraging everyone to connect back to history and to the communities around them.

Contact Ella Sabrina Malabanan at [email protected].

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