Because the world is mysterious and beautiful, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim have written a critically adored musical together called Here Lies Love. It tells the story of Imelda Marcos, the disco-obsessed (and shoe-obsessed) wife of Ferdinand Marcos, who was president and then dictator of the Philippines from 1965 until 1986.
Imelda Marcos begins life as "a simple country girl who had a dream" and then rises with her husband on the back of a populist swell. She dances by Ferdinand's side while he terrorizes the country, until finally the inevitable counter-populist swell rises against the state.
Unlike other musicals, you don't have to forgive this one for its melodramatic, sappy songs. The fast numbers are groovy disco bangers, and the slow numbers are touching, tropically inflected twee rock/pop.
Production-wise, this show will be unlike anything you've ever seen at the Rep. The installation of mobile dance floors will significantly change the theater's seating situation, and the audience will be dancing (according to the demands of the dictator, of course) throughout the show.
Recently, I talked about all this stuff with the Talking Heads frontman inside a special office inside KEXP.
I think I read in the Guardian that disco intimidated you. Is that true?
Intimidated me? It was something I liked! But it was very much frowned on when I was coming up musically. There was huge segregation between indie rock and dance music. Disco wasn't considered real music. It was considered a formula made from machines. And I thought, "No, no, no! There's a lot of creativity there, and I think it's really good."
What about disco seemed new to you at the time?
There were really early remixes—I think they were called "extended mixes" then—and they'd take the songs apart and do things you'd never hear in a traditional song. And I thought, "Man, they're really playing with all the elements of the music—deconstructing it, putting it back together, and reassembling it in different ways." That wasn't happening in other kinds of music.
Did that kind of remixing inform the language of Here Lies Love? I know that the language Imelda Marcos uses in the show is sort of a "remixed" version of things she actually said.
A lot of the words are taken from things she actually said, and things that other people in the historical materials said. That, I thought, was great. It meant that I wasn't putting things into people's mouths. I can say, "That may sound outrageous, but that is exactly what they said." And I can't take any responsibility for it.
So it wasn't a conscious choice to match the remixing culture of disco with Marcos's language in the show?
Sort of not. I knew that a DJ creates narrative—the music brings people up and down, and there's a whole arc to the evening. But I thought, "What if that was a real story? What if it wasn't just the energy of the music and the beats that were doing that, but a real story that would follow the kind of arc a DJ would make?" So that was part of the original idea as well.
Why the stage then? And not film or some other medium?
Live is exciting! Living people are exciting. I didn't imagine it being as complex a thing as Alex Timbers, the director, made it—with the platforms moving, and the middle platform rotating, and runways expanding across the space, and all that. I just imagined little tiny stages around a dance floor. So I imagine you can't do that as a film, and you can't do that in any other format than the stage.
I hear the audience has to dance. Have you experienced resistance?
There's apprehension when they hear about it. We reassure them: No, we're not going to drag you up on stage and embarrass you in front of other people. We're not going to shove a microphone in your face. The actors are not going to have their hands all over you—unless you want.
Because when people hear "immersive theater," they think, "Oh, it's going to be embarrassing. I don't want to be put on display." But it'll be like you're in the audience in a club.
So people are compelled to dance because of the sweet four-on-the-floor beats?
They kind of are, yeah.
That must be the horror of the show, because they're dancing to dictators.
Yes, because the audience gets totally seduced. And they're cheering them on, fully realizing these people are going to turn into dictators.
It's tricky when the cure is the same as the poison. Populism creates dictators, but populism also destroys them.
One of the things I felt about the Marcoses, and it seems to happen in other cases as well, is in the beginning, they were very seductive. A large part of the population loved them and thought they were glamorous. The things they were promising sounded great, and they actually delivered on some of the promises. But when they declared martial law, it all went insane. It wasn't like they twisted people's arms to take power. Most people went with it. They liked the idea. I thought, "Okay. That looks familiar."
What's the Filipino response to the show?
Lots of Filipino folks have seen it and reacted to it. There are still Marcos loyalists. Those people don't like it. They may like the first half. But when it starts to turn, they don't like it. They have reacted by yelling at the actors.
And the non-loyalists?
They find it very important that the story of what happened is being presented, because it was kept out of the history books.
Do you get any pushback for being a white Scottish guy writing their history?
You'd think, right? It meant that I always had to go and ask. I had to ask people in the Philippines and ask Filipinos here. We had Filipino actors whose parents were activists at the time, and I'd ask if I got certain parts right. And the actors would say, "David, this part, you need to fix it."
I can't remember right now. They were really small things. But they wanted it to be correct.
I read that you were devastated by the end of the show. Even though the show itself is three years old, when you see it, you still feel bad. What is it that devastates you?
When I hear the songs at the end, and the whole revolution part, it's incredibly moving to me. It's like music. Every time I'd see it, I'd be completely broken down, but then I'd think, "Wait a minute, you wrote this!"