David Byrne, rock star with the Talking Heads and member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, knew the stories of Imelda Marcos's thousands of pairs of shoes. But when he wrote a musical play about her life he left out the fact most people know about Marcos. Why did he chose her as the subject of his play?
"I'd read that that Imelda Marcos loved going to discos," Byrne said. "More than that, she had a mirror ball in her New York townhouse. She transformed the roof of the palace in Manila into a dance club. So I thought, here is someone who is totally immersed in a particular kind of music. I thought if there is a story there, let's see if it would work to tell that story through a certain kind of music."
The story Byrne tells is of the poor flower girl who grew up to become the First Lady of the Philippines. A woman who wants inscribed on her tombstone (Marcos is 87 and a senator in the Philippines congress) the phrase, "Here Lies Love." Byrne took that as the title of his disco musical.
Byrne imagined a musical staged in a night club when he wrote "Here Lies Love." He enlisted the help of English DJ Fat Boy Slim (Norman Cook). "I wanted some real authentic dance beats, better than what I could do."
But there was one problem: He couldn't find anyone to stage it.
"I tried for years and didn't succeed. But before putting it on the shelf forever, I thought, I'm going to ask really great singers to interpret songs that I think are really right for them."
That result was "Here Lies Love," a concept album featuring an all star cast including Tori Amos, the late Sharon Jones, Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine, and Cyndi Lauper.
The 2010 album was a hit, New York's Public Theater came calling and the night club musical Byrne imagined was staged to sold-out audiences.
The real regime of Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos and President Ferdinand Marcos was not all discos. The Marcos government reputedly killed more than 3,000 political opponents, tortured tens of thousands and stole up to $10 billion in government funds.
In 1986 Imelda Marcos was deposed in a peaceful overthrow dubbed the People Power Revolution, a precursor of the Arab Spring. Now that’s all part of David Byrne and Fat Boy Slim’s nightclub musical. But “Here Lies Love” focuses less on history, more on the charismatic character.
In fact, with minor changes, the lyrics are taken from the words of Marcos, like how she used her charms in meetings with international leaders.
David Byrne says the song "Please Don't" references an Islamic uprising in the Southern Philippines. "She decided Libya was supporting it and she said, 'I'm going to talk to Gaddafi, we'll sort this out.' And it worked! She said, see! Handbag diplomacy, she called it."
“Here Lies Love” is coming to the Seattle Repertory Theater in April 2017. It presents a challenge to artistic director Braden Abraham: How will he convert a conventional proscenium theater into a night club with the stage in the middle?
"We’re about to find out. We’ve engaged an architect," Abraham said. "It’s going to be like nothing we’ve ever done before."
"The audience shouldn't be afraid," Bryne said. "Although they might think of immersive theater as some place they'll be dragged on stage and a mic shoved in their face, that's not going to happen. There's no intent to embarrass people. That being said, wear comfortable shoes. There will be dancing."