David Byrne Discusses the Hedonistic Musical Magic of 'Here Lies Love'

A chat with the iconic musician (and Seattle Rep artistic director Braden Abraham) about the one-of-a-kind political disco theatrical experience.

By Seth Sommerfeld April 6, 2017

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♫ Byrne's on a road to the Philippines, come on inside... ♫

Potential understatement of the year: Here Lies Love will be unlike anything Seattle Repertory Theatre has ever produced. But who wants anything resembling normalcy from a disco musical about the wife of a Filipino dictator that originated in the minds of Talking Heads’ David Byrne and Fatboy Slim? 

Here Lies Love follows the elected rise and martial law fall of Ferdinand Marcos’s regime in the Philippines from the vantage point of his wife, Imelda. For the show, Seattle Rep will transform into a decadent disco dance floor, extending the stage over the orchestra seating and immersing the audience in an on-your-feet party scene. The intent is for the audience to be swept up in the joyous emotions the Philippine people felt during the Marcoses’ rise—that alluring intoxication—so that when things turn, they feel connected to the people the Marcoses betray.

Considering this will be the first time Here Lies Love has left New York City, Byrne, original director Alex Timbers, and the rest of the creative team have been heavily involved with getting things just right for the Seattle Rep run. Performances of Here Lies Love begin tonight (April 7) and run through May 28. Byrne will also be in town on Thursday, April 20 to discuss the musical as part of MoPop's annual Pop Conference.

In anticipation of Here Lies Love's Seattle debut, we sat down with Byrne and Seattle Rep artistic director Branden Abrahim to discuss bringing the show to Seattle, pop music being political, and the similarities between the Marcos regime and our current political climate.

What about Here Lies Love struck you and made you want to bring this show to Seattle?

Abraham: Well I saw it in New York a couple of years ago, and it really was one of the most extraordinary theater experiences I’ve ever had. I came back to Seattle and I remember saying, “I don’t know how we would ever do Here Lies Love, but I would love to figure out how to make it work.”

The show is so successful on so many levels. As a theater person who loves narrative and design, it kind of melds form and content with music in a way that I’ve never seen before. It’s this immersive experience where you are as an audience member a part of the show. You are on the set with the performers all around you, hearing the story, the lights are there, and you’re feeling the music, so there’s an emotional drive to that and a sort of sensory experience that is really extraordinary. And then there’s the strong narrative element of the piece, this story of 30 years or so of history in the Philippines: and the rise and fall of Ferdinand Marcos’s regime and the People’s Power Revolution, which is this very engrossing and inspiring story.

I didn’t even know David at the time, I didn’t know Alex, but I was dreaming about it and trying to figure out how it would fit here or if there was an alternative space for it. I found out that David and Alex were looking to maybe take it outside of New York and take it to the West Coast. We started talking, and it made sense for us to start it here.

What made Seattle a good fit for the show when you were looking to take it out of New York City?

Byrne: When dealing with Braden and [producing director] Elizabeth [Farwell-Moreland], they not only seemed enthusiastic, but also very together. They understood what the problems were going to be and what we were up against. And they were very collaborative in that way. Can we do this? Is this going to work? So that just seemed like okay, this is going to be a good relationship. It’s going to be really interesting transforming the theater seeing what happens.

So what transformations will be made to the theater for the show?

Abraham: We’re decking over the orchestra, so we’ll just put the stage right in the middle. A majority of the audience will be on the dance floor, on the stage. Then they’ll be some seating on the perimeter, kind of running up stage/down stage. We’ll also use the balcony for some seating too.

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Jaygee Macapugay stars as Imelda Marcos in Here Lies Love.

What do you see as the correlation between this political regime and this disco music that isn’t inherently political? So often the political nature of music is only discussed in terms of direct protest songs, but do you feel things like disco actually have political ties simply because they’re products of a certain cultural era of a given time?

Byrne: It’s definitely in the culture of the time. When I heard Imelda loved going to discos, she had a mirror ball put into her New York townhouse, and had the roof of the palace in Manila kind of turned it into kind of a dance club, I thought, “She lives within that musical world, within that genre.” That’s telling me something, that there’s something about the music that she feels a kinship for. It embodies something about what it feels like to be her.

And maybe not just her, but also any powerful person who builds their own kind of hedonistic crazy world. It’s a bubble that they live in and it’s filled with music and dancing. Everything is going to hell in a hand basket outside, but the party goes on.

She used to she used to sing when Marcos was running for election. [Laughs] She was the wife, and she would come up and sing a song. Not a disco song at that point, but the music was integrated into their whole story for a long, long time. That heady feeling is part of what the Philippine people would have felt when they endorsed the Marcoses: when they got swept up in the whole kind of thing of we’re going to be great again, we’re going to do this and nobody is going to laugh at us as being a silly third world country, we’re going to be able to hold our heads up high, we’re going to modernize everything, and all that kind of stuff. And there were elements of that they actually accomplished. People loved them.

And then it kind of all went south. But the parties went on. [Laughs]

Abraham: David’s talked about this before, but because you’ve been so swept up by how intoxicating they are and what they’ve done, you also feel that betrayal when martial law is declared. And you feel the betrayal of the people too, which of course leads to the People Power Revolution.

You mentioned the kind of whole hedonistic glitz bubble… does the show feel any different now that our country elected somebody who lives in a place with literal golden elevators?

Abraham and Byrne (simultaneously): Yes. [Laughs]

Byrne: I think there are a lot of parallels between the Marcoses and people here. They use those kind of phrases, you know, like “let’s make it all great again.” Those kinds of intoxicating promises seduce people. There’s an aspirational thing where people go “we want to be like them.” Marcoses brought a lot of that too. They were very glamorous. She was beautiful and he was very handsome, and they would always be posing. Their whole thing was very much a media event.

Abraham: There seems to be these patterns of behavior in narcissists who come to power: how they lead, who they scapegoat, who they blame, going after their rivals, going after minorities, law and order platforms, and threatening to take away civil liberties. The rhetoric is all there.

Byrne: But the show is not a history lesson. It’s fun. But the history is real.

Abraham: And I think the inspiration of the People Power Revolution, and the strength of the Filipino people to restoring democracy is also inspiring.

Since it’s an atypical production, what should people be prepared for when they come to the show?

Abraham: We’re letting people know a little bit of what they can expect to experience. Just on a practical level, you should wear comfortable shoes and check your bags at the door.

Byrne: We kind of reassure them that although it gets called “interactive” or “immersive” theater, people are going to be touching you and you won’t be dragged up on stage to made to do something foolish. There’s no fear. We’re not here to embarrass you.

Do you have any favorite responses you’ve received from past audiences, David?

Byrne: Oh, lots of them. [Laughs]

My favorite has happened more than once—not with the same person—where the audience members, particularly ones who were still loyal to the Marcoses—and they’re still out there—reacted to the show as if it was real. They treated the actors as if they were real. It was a personal betrayal. There was one woman, I remember, who started yelling, “Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!” to the actors. And I thought, it’s a show, it’s a show, lady. That’s not her. [Laughs] She stormed out after a while.

Then there was another one whose political leanings went the other way, and at some point she was getting so angry that she just started giving the finger to the Marcoses. [Laughs] And I just thought these are actors. These are actors

It’s so thrilling that people feel that strongly about it, that they are so wrapped up in it.

Here Lies Love
Apr 7–May 28, Seattle Repertory Theatre, $88–$123

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