You remember the famous Talking Heads song with the lyrical hook, “This ain’t no disco…”? Part of the mission of the producers of “Here Lies Love,” a stage musical created by David Byrne, is to let audiences know that the Broadway Theatre in Times Square is a disco. Or, at least, it has been transformed into a reasonable facsimile of one, with the audience on the floor standing, shifting and swaying, and occasionally even dancing, in an immersive experience the likes of which Broadway has rarely if ever seen.
But the “fooling around” —no, that part still doesn’t apply. Not in a show that, beyond the bopping, tells a story of how easily democracy can turn into dictatorship (and, through peaceful revolution), back again, as viewed through the prism of the eventually dictatorial regime of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in the Philippines. “Life During Martial Law” could be an alternate title for the show, which asks the musical question: Does real democracy stand a chance, if old-school authoritarianism has a good beat and you can dance to it?
Sitting on a plush couch in the mezzanine lobby of the Broadway Theatre just before the audience is let in for a Thursday night preview shortly before opening night, musical-theater legend Lea Salonga is having more than slight déjà vu. This is the same theater where she first found fame starring in “Miss Saigon” on and off again over a 10-year period beginning in 1991. Now she’s back, serving as one of a host of Filipino co-producers on the show but, more importantly for those waiting outside, taking on a small but crucial and climactic role through Aug. 13 (and again later in the run, she hopes) as Aurora Aquino, the grieving mother of a slain opposition leader in the Phillipines.
“Sometimes it feels like I never left, I know this labyrinth so well,” Salonga muses, thinking back on her “Saigon” salad days here. “It feels like coming home. But,” she points out, “this lobby was not swabbed in pink lighting.”
Come to think of it, here is a lot of fuchsia to go around in the Broadway Theatre’s lobby areas right now, along with some faux smoke filling the air, part of creating an illusion for theatergoers that they’re entering a discotheque in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. The bigger transformations are inside the auditorium space, where the floor seating has been taken out in favor of a DRO (Dancing Room Only) section in which, as part of the most literally diverting aspect of the show, several platforms will move through the floor area at regular intervals with actors aboard, parting the crowd like a Red Sea under a disco ball, video screens and flashy lighting effects.
“I think it’s great to be able to experiment with what Broadway can be and what is possible,” says Salonga. “I’m really glad that I get to be a part of seeing this turn into something else where the audience, especially the ones on the dance floor, get to be as much a part of the experience as the actors, because they get to be placed in crowd roles where they’re in a rally or on the campaign trail or they’re partygoers at Studio 54.” (Imelda hung with Andy Warhol and other stars there on the gliteratti scene during her New York visits.) And for anyone who fears that this experiment augurs for the future of all of Broadway, she is confident that “the traditional experience is never gonna go away, to be able to just sit in the audience and to be a completely passive observer and just appreciate the performances.” A less active participation is possible during “Here Lies Love,” as well: For those who still prefer to sit their way through a Broadway musical, the mezzanine seats remains intact, and there are newly configured VIP boxes on either side of the dance floor.
It turns out that being rolled out into the middle of a dance floor while belting out one of the biggest 11:00 ballads of this Broadway season is not as easy as it looks. During her big, penultimate scene, Salonga says, “We obviously have to think about the emotion and the solemnity of a funeral march. But at the same time, on the flotilla, we’re all like, ‘Try not to fall. Stabilize.’ It’s all core, all legs.”
Will “Here Lies Love” itself stabilize, in a market for Broadway musicals that’s only gotten tougher, post-pandemic? The show’s producers, actors, creatives and Filipino outreach team are all idealistic that its unique, sometimes experimental components will be features, not flaws, in finding a long-term audience. But there is no shortage of things that bear explaining: From the mind of the Talking Head who brought you “American Utopia”! Broadway’s first all-Filipino cast! A class in world history, in a simulated nightclub! More moving parts than a Rube Goldberg contraption!… And how about those twin controversies that have occurred along the way — like, whether the show glorifies the Marcoses, or that moment when the musicians’ union was at loggerheads with producers about putting more live players in the karaoke-baked concept?
It’s a lot. But democracy, as it’s been said, isn’t easy. Neither is examining its terrible fragility through the form of a deeply fun, fairly avant-garde song-and-dance show.
Prior to opening night, Variety stopped in at the theater and its nearby production office to talk about about “Here Lies Love’s” long gestation and its risks and rewards with many of its creatives and cast members, including Salonga, Byrne, director Alex Timbers, choreographer Annie-B Parson, cast members Arielle Jacobs (the leading lady) and Melody Butiu (who plays Imelda’s nanny, Estrella Cumpas), lead producers Diana DiMenna, Clint Ramos and Jose Antonio Vargas, and actor-turned-producer — and this show’s Filipino community liaison — Giselle “G” Töngi.
Says Timbers, the highly successful Broadway director who’s been working on the show with Byrne since well before it was first produced off-Broadway at the Public Theatre downtown in 2013: “What I love about working on things like ‘Moulin Rouge’ or ‘Beetlejuice’” — two of his bigger shows — “is how it’s about taking you to another world: You walk in the theater and you feel transported. I think here, not only do you feel transported, but it has so much top-spin on it that it doesn’t even look and feel like you’re actually in a Broadway theater. I had grown up watching ‘Secret Garden’ and thing like that — cool shows, but not something that to me spoke to what was happening in popular culture.” Then he saw “Tommy,” the ‘90s adaptation of the Who’s concept album, with its “music-video visuals,” and felt like the shackles had been taken off.
“To me, that question of why you need to see something live is answered by the form of ‘Here Lies Love,’” Timbers adds. “It’s a great gripping story — a story of someone who gets up to the precipice of self-knowledge and then backs away. It’s a hopeful, inspiring story about the power of democracy and of the people. And my hope is that it’s kind of a Trojan horse: You’re coming in for the party and this one-of-a-kind experience and you leave with something that’s a great ripping yarn with a deeply emotional ending. My hope is it kind of holds both in balance; it’s the balance I’m trying to find every day in preview rehearsals at least.”
Timbers doesn’t think anyone considering a ticket should be scared off by the immersiveness. “I’m not someone who likes interactive theater. That scares me, getting pulled into a room or being pulled up on stage. But what I love about this show is that you are cast in the drama in a way, if you’re on the dance floor. You’re at Imelda’s wedding, then you’re suddenly at the funeral march with Aurora Aquino. It makes you complicit at times, and you feel complicated about it. But there’s also the larger metaphor of a dance club where you’ve got this DJ who’s almost like a dictator figure telling you when to dance, when to jump, where to move. You’ve got these wranglers herding you as if you’re in martial law — even though, yes, they’re in pink fluorescent and very friendly. But there are these moments where, at least I feel when I’m on the floor, you’re caught up in a metaphorical maelstrom of history. If you’re interested in that layer, it’s there for you. And if you just want to have a fun time and see this great story with wonderful performances, that’s great too.”
Says lead producer DiMenna, “This is Alex Timbers’ white whale – the thing that has been haunting him, wanting to get this done. Both he and David Byrne at this point in their careers really can name their project, and that both of them named this as their primary priority, I heard that loud and clear from both of them, and getting behind that has been a privilege.”
Without quite comparing himself to Captain Ahab, Timbers confirms: “This is truly my favorite thing I’ve ever worked on. It’s my favorite show ever. During the pandemic, you keep doing those little wishes and prayers for humanity, but I also wished that “Here Lies Love” will happen, you know? My girlfriend will tell you, I wouldn’t stop talking about it at home — and it’s been 14 years I’ve been obsessed with it. There were a bunch of moments where sort of one would lose hope. But keeping the drumbeat going a little bit over the last decade at times has fallen to me. There were two or three really close calls where we’ve gotten very close, where we had dates and there was a budget. We were almost at Studio 54, which would’ve been exciting, and then it all fell apart in one morning.
“But I’ve gotten to do a bunch of shows with the Shuberts and they’ve been wonderfully supportive,” the director continues. “One of the first shows I ever did with them was ‘Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,’ this crazy emo rock musical that they somehow saw some glimmer of Broadway in, which I don’t know that anyone else would’ve thought. So when we started talking about this with the Shuberts, I didn’t even tell the designers at first, because so many times their hopes been dashed. When it finally looked like they generously agreeing to give a house to the show, I said to the designers, ‘Look, you should call the general manager. Don’t listen to me, because I’m just a director that tilts at windmills at this point, in your mind.’”
Timbers sounds as if he still needs to call the general manager for confirmation himself. “It’s wild that this is happening in a Broadway theater. At least once a performance, I’m like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’”
David Byrne has far more than Timbers’ 14 years invested in the project. He first started working on the research and beats for “Here Lies Love” in the early 2000s. Would he go through that waiting game all over again?
“If I’d known it would take that long, I probably would’ve said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, I’m gonna stick with my albums and tours’,” Byrne confesses. And then he immediately reverses course. “Each step along the way was a lot of fun, really, and very engaging and moving. So it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, this is a 20-year slog.”
In expressing some mixed feelings about the length of the journey, Byrne is holding two opposing ideas in his mind at the same time. Audiences who experience “Here Lies Love” — a show that makes you exhilarated and sobered, almost at the same time — may know how he feels.
Sitting in overalls in a production headquarters a few blocks from the Broadway Theatre, Byrne considers some of the obstacles “Here Lies Love” has faced over the past two decades. There are the practical ones, like finding a Broadway house willing to rip its seats out. But then there are those who just don’t get the basic ironies baked into the show, or if they do get ‘em, find these incongruities inappropriate. He’s used to swatting back at resistance to how form meets function here.
Even when the show played at the Public in 2013 and in productions on London’s West End and in Seattle since, on up to now, there have been reviews that have groused at the idea that, in “Here Lies Love,” the audience is compelled to applaud a rousing campaign song for the not-yet-fascistic Marcoses, or even indulge in some Filipino line-dancing during the earlier, more happy-go-lucky parts of the show. Iis it OK for the audience to participate in the good vibes of the rise to power of Ferdinand and Imelda, as the JFK and Jackie of their nation and their day, before they are revealed to have devolved into human-rights-flounting totalitarians?
“If we don’t understand in a visceral way how easily this can happen,” Byrne answers, “then we’re gonna be victims of the same thing. And so the audience, like the Philippine people, gets seduced, and so my hope is that they see how easily that that democracy and all this can be subverted… The fact that it all goes wrong wouldn’t mean anything if it was like that from the start.” And as for anyone worried that the musical numbers seem to show the Marcoses some sympathy before things go wrong, Byrne points out: “Often the best parts go to the villains.”
After years of writing and research that included visits to the Philippines, Byrne’s first iteration of “Here Lies Love” arrived in 2010 as a concept album, or as the cover subtitle promised, a “song cycle,” billed to him and the producer-writer who worked with him on the music in initial stages, Fatboy Slim. Byrne’s liner notes made it clear he had theatrical aspirations and ideas for how to stage the piece, but he studiously avoided jinxing it by actually calling it “a musical” at the time. That album had famous singers mostly assigned one number each, including Tori Amos, Cyndi Lauper, St. Vincent, Sia, Natalie Merchant, Florence Welch and Steve Earle (along with, incidentally, Byrne himself). “I did use that album as a selling tool,” Byrne says, in taking it to the Public and selling them on the idea of workshops and thinking about how to use their space as a simulated disco.
When the Public put it on in 2013, the wall-to-wall song score for the bookless musical had changed considerably s since the concept album. But as a cast album released around that time indicates, the music was pretty well locked in by the time it was put on a stage. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been other big changes to make in the last 10 years, and especially the last 10 months.
“The songs are the same, the story’s the same” as in 2013, Byrne says. “But Alex and I both realized that Broadway audiences are different than, say, the downtown audience at the Public. It seems like a Broadway audience wants to be sure: Who is this? What’s happening now? What connects to that? Sometimes downtown audiences would just go with the flow, and in this case, you have to make sure people know what’s going on a little bit more.” That was mostly solved through video projections conveying important info, not messing with the score. “I added new lyrics just in one song, but only a little bit, and it was really just in order to allow an actor to walk from one side to the other; they needed an extra few beats,” he explains, reiterating just how locked-in the the score has been for a decade. Broadway composers used to composing reams of new material almost up to opening night may read this and weep.
At the Public, there were no seats, just the dancing area, so there were no tough choices to make at the box office about how to experience the show, as there are now.
Says Byrne, “I tell the people I invite, ‘I love the dance floor.’ But on the dance floor, you have to really turn around and look to see all the things that are going on, so inevitably you’re more immersed but you might miss some little details. When you’re in the mezzanine or the galleries along the side of the dance floor, you can see everything, but you’re less in the action.” He resists what would seem to be a natural salesman’s pitch here, that this is a show you have to see at least twice. “We’re trying to compromise it. Some people do not want to stand for 90 minutes. Some people feel like, ‘Oh, I’m not a dancer.’” (Or a shuffler — there is less actual dancing demanded out of the audience than just a willingness to be herded. As a DJ figure cheerfully declares at the outset: “If you came with someone, you will get separated.”)
In talking about how the choreography has changed in the decade since the show premiered downtown, Annie-B Parsons says: “The alterations were in terms of supporting the audience that’s in the mezzanine, which is about 500 people. Alex calls them ‘the swing state.’ We’re trying to get their vote, because we learned how to make the piece for the dance floor, and originally it was a fully danced piece vis-a-vis the audience. Alex has worked really beautifully to orchestrate this idea that everybody in the room is seeing something different, but they’re all experiencing the totality of the show. That’s been the work, to figure that out.”
Says DiMenna, “Expanding the size has been key. The story has remained intact and the storytelling is as intimate now as it was downtown. But these actors are covering almost half a city block in this production,” she says, pointing from a brick wall on one end (“there is no backstage!”), a little bit past where the proscenium, to the back row of the balcony, where at least some of the cast members will make their way at some point each night. If you’re in the front of the mezzanine, you will get some face time with Imelda, whether you’re itching for despot adjacency or not. If the actors were allowed to wear Fitbits, it might make for some interesting step counts.
Even DiMenna feels all that walking, or maybe it’s the accumulated weight of Putting It Together. Standing in the middle of the dance floor during a daytime tech rehearsal, she looks over at a giant, grotesque puppet of Imelda that is laying on the ground, awaiting its part in a protest scene. “Sometimes I look at her and I think, ‘I know how you feel,’” she says.
Jose Antonio Vargas, one of five lead producers on “Here Lies Love,” remembers well his first encounter with the show, a decade ago. “Frank Rich [the former New York Times theater critic] has been kind of a mentor to me since 2001. He was the one who called me up in 2013 and said, ‘You have to go to the Public. There’s a show about Imelda Marcos.’ I’m like, what? So I went and saw it… four times. The first time I saw it, I kept waiting for the song about the shoes, right? And then when it never came, I was like, ‘David is operating in a different sphere here.’
“That was the first thought. The second thought was: ‘What the hell am I watching?’” Vargas leans across the conference-room table, laughs and explains: “I’m kind of a Marshall McLuhan obsessive fan, and you can make an argument that David Byrne may have come up with a quintessential the-medium-is-the-message Broadway musical, using disco and karaoke as a way to tell this story of getting lost in dictatorship.”
That was the theater-kid side of him, reacting with utter glee at the irony and meta-ness of it all. The Filipino side, meanwhile, still had a few hesitations. “I thought it needed to make clearer why we’re telling this story in America,” says Ramos, who in the last decade has become a celebrated author, documentary filmmaker and activist, before additionally adding Broadway producer to that list. “Clint Ramos talks a lot about this, this idea that David Byrne, Fatboy Slim and Alex Timbers authored the show, but Filipinos own the story. So, how does that work?”
They’re making it work, though it has been a process. At the Public, Ramos, a Tony-winning costume designer, was the only key creative on the team who was a Filipino. Now Ramos is a full lead producer on the show, as is Vargas, who says, “I give credit to Diana DiMenna [who first enlisted him to come to Broadway as a co-producer on “What the Constitution Means to Me”] for insisting to Patrick Catullo and Hal Luftig that they needed to bring more Filipinos in, not only on stage, but as producers. She created the space and said, ‘Since this is a Filipino story, what is it gonna take to do that?’”
He can run the stats, but it’s more about spirit. “Lin-Manuel Miranda has an organization that’s tracking things, and something like 95% of Broadway producers are white,” says Vargas. “I’m finishing a book about where do non-white, non-Black people fit in a country that’s been defined by this black and white racial binary? We’re one of the largest immigrant groups in the country, yet you can make an argument that Filipinos are the marginalized within the marginalized (among AAPI populations). So I still get goosebumps when I get off the Q line and walk to the theater three blocks away and think: There’s a show about us on 53rd and Broadway, across from the Ed Sullivan Theater. It doesn’t get any more mainstream than that. So I think that is what the involvement of Filipinos means to this, to actually have ownership, to have skin in the game; that it’s not just about us, it’s also by us.”
Beyond Vargas’ and Ramos’ presence as primary producers, an all-star lineup of Filipinos marquee names has been brought in as producers, too, including H.E.R., comedian Jo Koy, Black Eyed Peas member Apl.de.Ap, New York City Ballet ballerina Georgina Pazcoguin and Salonga herself — all of them privately making financial investments in the show as well as lending an important public imprimatur of support. Also in the producing ranks is Giselle Tongi, an actor and activist brought in to lead community engagement efforts.
The show seems to be connecting with that underserved audience. Although the research has not distinguished between Filipino and non-Filipino AAPI attendees, DiMenna says that “I do know that in terms of people who self-identify as Asian, we’re tracking between 15-20%. And Broadway audiences are typically 1% people who identify as AAPI… As my Filipino colleagues have taught me, they throw a really good party. And that’s what it feels like when we have more Filipino audience members. We’ve got a really mixed group of humans on that dance floor kind of all rocking out together. And you do end up partying with strangers, and it’s not so scary.”
Not that it’s all about the party. “I see Filipino multi-generational families near me, and they’re explaining the show to their kids and grandkids,” DiMenna says. “In this theater, you can do that because nobody’s shushing you. It’s not like we’re encouraging people to talk over the show, but it’s a communal happening.”
Although the songs haven’t changed, Vargas says he worked with the creators on subtle tweaks in framing the material. “At the top of the show, before the DJ goes ‘Did you know that karaoke is a Filipino invention?,’ I don’t know if you noticed — there’s a line now that says, ‘Did you know that the United States bought the Philippines from Spain for $20 million?’ I advocated for that line because that was missing to me. In the global diaspora, the Filipinos are very unique in the way that we were colonized by Spain for 300 years and then the Americans came for 50 years. We were this country’s first exercise in empire.”
Clint Ramos thinks one reason some of his fellow Filipinos have resisted seeing the Marcoses’ story told is that it can feel like dirty laundry, something that different generations may not even discuss among themselves, much less think is an appropriate subject for outsiders who might trivialize the story or turn it into shoe-referencing camp.
“When I first encountered the project,” says Ramos, one of the O.G. team memers from the Public days, “it created in me this access to my Filipino-ness, which I had put on the shelf when I migrated to America, because you want to assimilate. It also spoke to the time in the ‘90s when I moved to the States and spent a lot of time getting in trouble in the clubs, like the Factory Bar and the Palladium. David captured this essence of being under a spell, and I understood it on a very fundamental level. Not only did David do the Philippines research part, he did the disco research part. There are so many tracks where he’s, like, quoting Giorgio Moroder. This really reminded me so much of disco in the Philippines, which has been very much like a cultural colony of America.
“It sounds strange,” Ramos continues, “but I found what he shared with me creeping over to really having compassion for my people. For me, part of the immigrant experience is to kind of negotiate shame and pride — that shame that somehow we as a nation and the people could not get it together, that this giant experiment of democracy failed in the Philippines because of us. That is part of the Philippine psyche, this idea that what all of these colonizers have told us is true. But a very powerful force came to a self-governing island and basically clothed us with these concepts that were ill-fitting, so how was this not going to fail?
“So I was able to negotiate that sort of love/hate relationship with every political figure, including the Marcoses and Aquinos, and really understand what happened. None of these people are heroes or angels or monsters for me. They’re all Filipino human beings that were subject to large forces. I’m not saying that we’re absolved of any ills involved — we are our own people — but I have not stopped unpacking my being Filipino, and ‘Here Lies Love’ is a a big part of that.”
Töngi says that, in her community engagement efforts, she has run into “some lingering suspicion, absolutely. A lot of people still have wounds that haven’t healed from the Marcos regime. We had a community night where we brought all the activists in New York City that are Filipino, the ones that relentlessly protest on the streets, to experience it. Of course they were hesitant: ‘Why would we do that?’ I was like, ‘Give us the benefit of the doubt.’ They were on the dance floor, clutching their hearts, crying after the show, really moved to action.”
Says Melody Butiu, who’s been with “Here Lies Love” from the beginning as Imelda’s estranged nanny, “The world is so different than it was 10 years ago. When we first told the story, it was a different political landscape. And now with Bongbong Marcos [Ferdinand and Imelda’s son] in as president, and with authoritarianism rearing its head all over the world, I just think we have to not just have a neutral observation. We have to have a really clear point of view of where we stand and what’s at stake with the democracy and what this cautionary tale can be. I do feel like it’s growing and deepening with this production.”
Butiu says she looks for the members of her community that are flashing the L hand sign — which stands for “Laban,” or “fight” — near the end of the show. It’s different for leading lady Arielle Jacobs, who gets an indication of audience representation from what gets a laugh. One of her favorite moments in the show is a fleeting one that may not even register with most of the audience, when Imelda swears at her cheating husband in Tagalog. “If I hear a chuckle, then I know that we’ve got some Filipinos in the house.”
Jacobs is one of the many cast members who is experiencing a first, after being a lead actress in shows from “In the Heights” to “Aladdin.” “I’ve played every ethnicity under the sun, but I’ve never had the opportunity to play a Filipino before,” she says, speaking for almost all her fellow actors. “I’m doing it for my own family, and I want to stand up there and be a role model for other people who are yearning to see themselves represented up on stage. I’ve looked up to Lea Solanga my entire life, from listening to the ‘Miss Saigon’ cast album on repeat when I was little. Now I have a dressing room right next door to her.”
Salonga is having the same experience, even as more of a veteran. “This is the first time on stage on Broadway that I get to actually play my own ethnicity, because I have played Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese… For ‘Once on This Island,’ I made the choice that this is a Filipino nurse, but the role itself is not written as Filipino. But this one is, and it was a real person.”
“Here Lies Love” represents an interesting amalgam of key players who are Broadway traditionalists and newcomers alike. It’s not just to do with the Filipino-American cross-cultural elements. Take Annie-B Parson, an outsider whose work on the show is being universally acclaimed, even though this is not her realm — her previous presence on Broadway with Byrne’s non-narrative “American Utopia” notwithstanding.
“I’ve never choreographed a musical before,” she points out. “It’s not my thing… it’s like a jazz composer playing in the classical realm.” She’ll allow that maybe “it could become that. I don’t really want to shut a door. It’s just that I don’t know that much about it.” (Except for the classics, which she obviously knows and reveres: “(Bob) Fosse or (Agnes) DeMille — oh my God.”)
Parson had her reasons for being pulled into the project from the start, not just because of how long her association with Byrne stretches back. “One thing that really interested me so much when I first started working on it, and continues to, is the way Imelda Marcos danced with the world leaders. She danced her way through diplomacy, rather than having a table between her and Castro or Nixon or whoever.” The depth of what she has brought to the show’s choreography has grown on this production. “Jose Antonio Vargas has changed the show for me a lot because he did this brilliant dramaturgy sort of retelling of the history for us when we were making it this iteration, and we did not have that the first time. Anything that I knew about Filipino history then, I learned on my own through watching a documentary or looking at a book. But now the whole group studied with him, and how lucky were we? It was just extraordinary to sit in a room with him for a few days and have him go song by song by song and tell us the history behind every song. I really felt I could now coach and deepen and change the verticality of the dances based on what Jose was teaching us.”
Ramos certainly feels the show has changed implicitly since its pre-Broadway incarnations, despite the lyrics remaining the same. He’s a big champion of those lyrics, anyway, since so many of them almost directly quote Filipino sources Byrne found in his research.
“What David and Alex have done is meditated on the complicity of America in the fate of this nation,” says Ramos. “And apart from that, it’s very evident that the ownership of this has been clarified. The words of the musical are largely an assembly of words spoken by Filipinos, by Aquino, by the Marcoses. What’s so beautiful about this Broadway production is that it’s now found a home in this all-Filipino cast. Having words that were borrowed from Filipinos now live in Filipino bodies, and these songs coming out of Filipino throats, this is almost like a homecoming.”
The controversy over whether the show glorifies the Marcoses or glorifies the peaceful people’s revolution that drove them from power can be settled with word of mouth coming from those who’ve seen the show. What may still remain mysterious to many is how that other controversy got settled. The Local 802 and the production ultimately compromised on the musicians’ union’s efforts to keep “Here Lies Love” from getting an exemption to the rule that 19 live players should be hired for the show, as required in the Broadway Theatre’s contract for musicals. The show’s take was that the music is rooted in the karaoke culture of the Philippines, with even Byrne’s original liner notes for the concept album referring to his wanting to reflect the ethos of karaoke and disco “track acts.”
Rather than go into lengthy arbitration that would extend the debate well into the show’s run, the agreement now has 12 musicians taking part, a handful of whom were already planned to strum guitars and play drums on stage during an acoustic finale. It’s not clear what the hiddenm added players are doing — Byrne’s essential karaoke aesthetic remains intact — but producers say they aren’t just biding time.
“I think that we’ve integrated these new members of the music department with grace and love, and that everybody has moved forward with the essence of David’s artistic concept, which was well-established,” says DiMenna. “Our job was to bring them in and incorporate and integrate them, not just musically, but as human beings and as members of the company. The gracious solution was to not only respect the outcome but celebrate it, taking the high road and figure out how to make it a good thing. Our biggest priority was, how do we make these human beings feel welcome and integral and that their talent is contributing, which I think it is? So I feel good about how we’ve resolved it on our end.”
It’s not just the music department that has gone through some interesting wrinkles, but every component, if not all of them as headline-worthy. There is the very act of removing the seats and installing huge overhead lighting rigs and video screens, something that was a big sticking point in getting to Broadway. “We’ve taken a do-no-harm-philosophy to the theater,” says Timbers. “We’re not boring holes through the walls. We’re not ripping out décor or painting things over like maybe other sort of semi-immersive shows. We operated everything within the shell [constructed around the edges of] their theater and hopefully been very respectful of it, and I think [the Shuberts] appreciate that.”
Will the whole Broadway community be respectful in return of this audacious a break from so many traditions? DiMenna says: “Broadway’s a menu, and people’s appetites have changed, so if we don’t update our menu, then we’re contracting and not expanding. It’s important for us to expand the offerings, and that’s OK. Everybody still eats. I get that there are people who are resistant to that change, but this is refreshing an ecosystem that needs refreshing. I don’t think anybody would look at the trends and argue that, really. We feel a lot of industry support because I think people who really care about Broadway know that we need broader audiences, new audiences, younger audiences.
“A lot of people have said yes to unconventional things on this show. It’s not typical for a theater owner to let you de-install their orchestra. A lot of people have done a lot of really weird things that they might not normally have done. And you go in the room next door and you’re like, ‘Yeah, that paid off.’ I personally have a tremendous amount of gratitude for the people who took a risk and said, “Let’s see; let’s try.’ I think that’s the future of Broadway: How do we work together to make it fresh, bigger, different, more for everybody? It’s a party and everybody’s invited. Wouldn’t that be a nice slogan for Broadway for a while?”
Anyway, if this brand of immersive theater with moving parts does catch on, it could create a whole new classification of Broadway worker — the herder.
Says Byrne, who in previews could be seen in the “dancing” section nearly every night, taking notes, “Because the audience on the dance floor has to move from one area to another and pay attention to the songs and the action and story at the same time, I give credit to the wranglers, the people in the pink jumpsuits who have to kind of gently guide the audience as some of the platforms rotate or get extended or move around. What they do requires a kind of skillset,” he says, admiringly, “and they’ve gotten better and better at knowing how to gently guide people without, like, ordering them about.”
When it comes to physical audience prompts, he’s happy if “Here Lies Love” only takes its fascist metaphors so far.