David Byrne’s Disco Dream: ‘Here Lies Love’ Review
When you enter the Broadway Theatre in New York City for a performance of Here Lies Love, a production based on the life of Filipino First Lady Imelda Marcos featuring music by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, you will likely be asked by an usher if you're ready to party.
Even if your answer isn't yes, that will probably change after you step out into the neon-lit auditorium, where an enormous glittering disco ball sits in the center. If you have floor tickets, you'll stand and dance among the actors as they perform around you. The stage will physically shift from place to place. The music will be loud, and it's impossible not to feel like a guest at an elaborate, disco-themed celebration.
Throughout the 90-minute show, which portrays Marcos' journey from an ordinary Filipino girl to the wife of a dictator, there is much breaking of the fourth wall, a device used by Byrne in the past. In 2019, his first Broadway production, American Utopia, blurred the line between the traditional concert experience and thought-provoking theatre, all while engaging directly with the audience. Last year, Byrne's Theater of the Mind, which ran in Denver, included immersive, sensory experiences that were meant to "reveal the inner mysteries of the brain."
Byrne has always been a performance artist in a rock 'n' roll world, interested in the physical and psychological relationship between artist and attendee. "Your way of announcing your existence and communicating your thoughts to people is through performance," he told 60 Minutes in 2023. That's why he wore that famous oversized gray suit onstage during his Talking Heads days.
Byrne and Fatboy Slim recognize the irresistible draw of a four-on-the-floor beat in any context. Get people clapping along, and you've got the foundation for a party. Here Lies Love relies much on this sense of team spirit, even if the songs don't remain in your head for long.
Here Lies Love made its debut at the Public Theater in New York in 2013. It has since drawn criticism for seemingly making light the actions of a woman whose immense wealth and need for power led to protests in her home country. It's taken on more significance now that Marcos' son, Bongbong Marcos, has been sworn in as president of the Philippines in 2022.
Watch a Trailer for 'Here Lies Love'
But as Byrne sees it, it's one thing to watch a show about the life of someone like Imelda Marcos but it's another to dance through it as she did. "I had seen some musical performers who had hit dance records," Byrne told The Washington Post in 2023. "They would perform in discos. They would do like a karaoke set. The songs were very short. I thought, 'Wow, what if you could do that for a whole evening? Wouldn't that be amazing?' DJs talk about their arc of an evening, that you build it up. What if that was a narrative arc, not just a musical energy? Later, I read that Imelda [loved] going to Studio 54. She had a disco ball in her townhouse."
It may feel a bit strange to be dancing to the story of a dictator's wife, but Byrne explained, "What if that's the story that gets told? Given how popular karaoke is in the Philippines. We give it that heady, frothy environment. I'm thinking that excitement is what it might feel like to be a person in power. And for an audience who feels like they’re participating in all that excitement."
Here Lies Love came under more scrutiny recently when it was revealed that the production includes no live musicians. The New York City musicians’ union, AFM Local 802, operates under a strict contractual agreement with Broadway that stipulates a minimum number of live musicians at all shows.
After the union threatened "further measures," Here Lies Love argued that its use of prerecorded music was a nod to the popularity of karaoke in the Philippines and a metaphor for Marcos' tale: Political figures often hide behind artificial guises to maintain power and deceive people into loyalty. Here Lies Love ended up hiring live musicians.
Still, at the center of the production is the controversy of dramatizing a troubling historical figure. Which is something Byrne is well-equipped to handle. As an artist, he reconciled his position as an oddball years ago. "I know at some point, I was trying to find a community and family, a community of artists or friends," he told The Washington Post. "Trying to let the audience and other people know that I might be a little unusual, but it's OK, and you might be unusual, too, and that's okay. You can be accepted. You can have fun."
Here Lies Love won't fill you in on everything there is to know about Imelda Marcos. And even though it includes an all-Filipino cast, it doesn't quite reckon with the lasting impact of the Marcos regime. But it does reflect history in a certain way: Even the most dazzling of parties and people aren't always what they appear.