Imagine David Byrne walking into a traditional theater space and declaring, “Actually, this is a disco.”
With apologies to the lyrics of his 1979 song “Life During Wartime,” that’s just the impulse underlying “Here Lies Love,” the so-called disco musical Byrne co-wrote with veteran DJ and beat-slinger Fatboy Slim. Their brainchild is being staged through June 16 at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, an org that’s gone to the considerable trouble and expense of ripping out the floor seats and building elaborate moving platforms to turn a proscenium house into a facsimile nightclub. There, for 90 minutes each night, dramaturgy and compulsory Filipino line dancing will delightfully co-exist.
The show was first produced with a pair of successful runs at New York’s Public Theater in 2013-14, and this production is clearly aimed at setting the stage for a hoped-for berth at whatever Broadway house might be similarly willing to tear up its floor. (Which one wants to be first to volunteer? The Lyric? The Lyceum?) That would be a deserving ascent for one of the more creatively satisfying rock-to-theater crossover projects yet — but in case it doesn’t get that far, Seattle should become an immediate destination for anyone with a serious interest in immersive theater, Talking Heads, the underserved intersection of show tunes and club beats, or the whole subgenre of dystopian-diva musicals.
The diva in question here is Imelda Marcos, the disgraced Philippines First Lady who became a punchline in the late ’80s for her shoe-hoarding — at least among blasé Americans less tragically impacted by her husband’s decades-long totalitarian regime. (She was also at the center of The Beatles’ harrowing visit to the country in 1966: They were taunted by unruly crowds and roughed up by police after “snubbing” an invitation for a visit with her — an invitation of which they were unaware.) Will there be giant dancing stilettos and pumps? Obviously there’s a layer of irony built into the disco-fied setup of “Here Lies Love,” but thankfully, not quite that much. (The famous footwear fetish comes up only in a wink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of foreshadowing in the opening quest ballad when Imelda, still an impoverished ingénue, sweetly sings that “sometimes I had no shoes.”) Byrne’s show is undeniably in the tradition of “Evita,” the mother of all royal rags-to-bitches shows, except it’s a lot more fun in the audience-participation telling, then — ironically — more serious about the death toll tallied while dictators and their complicit spouses shake their fascist groove thang.
The first “production” of “Here Lies Love” was as a well-realized concept album in 2010, when Byrne and Fatboy Slim had a starry cast of 22 pop or R&B singers (including Sia, Tori Amos, Florence Welch, Natalie Merchant, Steve Earle, and the late Sharon Jones) stop in to sing a number. By the time an equally strong cast album emerged four years later, Byrne, rewriting like an old Broadway hand, had replaced about a third of the music. What stands now is a 26-song score that proves needless any concerns about his ability to transcend his rock idiosyncrasies for a medium demanding more in the way of both formality and variety. Although the emphasis is on contemporary beats, “Here Lies Love” has the proverbial bit of something for everybody — ingénue ballads, Elton John-style ’70s pop-disco, tropical love songs, angry soul stirrers, political rockers, folk protest tunes, tinges of techno, and pretty straightforward musical theater tunes — as it breathlessly runs the gamut from the Disney-esque to the Danceteria-esque.
As directed by Alex Timbers (Tony-nominated for “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”), the staging at the Seattle Rep is elaborate enough to verge on distracting from the music and story, although you quickly get used to all the hoofing and herding. A DJ character occasionally barks orders, telling the crowd to pay heed to the usher/dancers when they start waving lighted traffic batons to move folks out of the way of platforms that occasionally roll the cast from one side of the theater to the other. The balcony remains seated, and elevated boxes have been temporarily constructed on either side of the floor, allowing different views for the quick-to-tire or generally boogie-averse among us. The balcony’s obstructed views of a secondary stage are accounted for with big video screens that also announces dates, names, and other details in a musical with only the barest smattering of spoken dialogue. The DJ warns standing patrons that “you will get separated, and that’s okay,” a warning that doesn’t really come true until a final stretch that suddenly shepherds most of the audience on stage and most of the cast on the floor. The final effect is to make you want to come back the next night, if not to hear the more exuberant portions of the score again, then to find out where you physically end up starting at a different vantage point.
The beating heart of the show has to pump a lot of blood to keep up with all that showmanship. It’s there — and it helps, in some ways, that “Here Lies Love” is newly topical, thanks to President Trump publicly cozying to the current president of the Philippines, whose death toll in his war on drugs is seen by many as proceeding in the worst tradition of Ferdinand Marcos, who was overthrown in 1986. Once again, the international community is associating the word “strongman” with the country, echoing the musical’s ominous assertion — in Byrne’s otherwise infectious “Don’t You Agree” — that “sometimes we need a strongman, when things out of control.” Attendees in a blue city like Seattle might even find parallels closer to home, in lines about “the end of democracy” and how a leader swept in on a wave of reform can camouflage authoritarianism as populism.
If you’re often not sure whether Byrne is thinking of the show as a giddy, dishy, multi-culti soap opera or earnestly intentioned political theater, that’s ultimately to its benefit. Imelda herself (played with innocent, then scary, glee by Jaygee Macapugay) is presented as an essentially apolitical figure — “Politics puts you to sleep,” she’s told by Aquino (Conrad Ricamora), an early boyfriend who becomes her husband’s antagonist and martyr — who becomes her country’s de facto leader after husband Ferdinand Marcos (Mark Bautista) is hobbled by a combination of public infidelity revelations and lupus. The adultery and female vengeance is played up for all it’s worth, as Imelda turns into the steeliest possible magnolia in the mid-show standout “Men Will Do Anything.” Yet the production oddly forgets about Imelda and her cuckolded husband at the finish, which is given over to a song delivered by demonstrators enacting a non-violent revolution. Giving the regime’s newly empowered victims the last word, at the expense of any real epilogue for the exiled Imelda, is a curious choice dramatically, but one that makes perfect sense philosophically. And, along with racially sensitive casting, the essential seriousness of that ending may help explain why the Filipino community has largely embraced a musical some initially worried would trivialize their story.
That being said, “Here Lies Love” is full of trivial delights for pop music fans, too. Not least among these is the moment in the show where, for just three minutes, it effectively turns into a Talking Heads concert. That’s with the song “The Fortunate One,” delivered by Aquino as a broadside against the spendthrift excesses of Imelda, his one-time girlfriend turned political archenemy. You can’t hear the song’s spoken-word verses without hearing Byrne’s “Once in a Lifetime” voice intoning them, and it doesn’t hurt that the actor is wearing a white, if not oversized, suit. Throw in a climactic, slamming guitar riff that sounds right out of “And She Was,” and the effect is complete. It’s a nice little throwback in a show that otherwise further establishes just how little Byrne’s prodigious path is the same as it ever was.