Songs of Disco and Dictators

Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne on Imelda Marcos and the bubble of power

When David Byrne dances he seems both absorbed in the movement of his body and detached from it, torso and legs vibrating rhythmically, face oddly expressionless.

In his recent book, How Music Works, he describes his terpsichorean style as "jerky, spastic, and strangely formal." You can see it almost nightly at Here Lies Love, his seductive new musical about Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos, now playing at the Public Theater.

Byrne is hardly the only chart-topper to have recently turned to theater. A John Mellencamp musical has just announced an out-of-town tour while Kinky Boots, with music by Cyndi Lauper, and Hands on a Hardbody, co-composed by Phish's Trey Anastasio, have racked up Tony nominations. But Here Lies Love stands as the most original and fully realized of the lot.

It may seem surprising that Byrne, the former Talking Heads frontman and celebrated solo artist, has written (with the assistance of DJ Fatboy Slim) an Off-Broadway tuner. More puzzling: What took him so long?

A restless creative force, Byrne has already supplied scores for dance performances and films. He added a modern-dance troupe to his recent tour. And in the 1980s, he composed music for a section of Robert Wilson's operatic epic, the CIVIL warS, though this has never been staged in its entirety.

On Mother's Day, Byrne pedaled to the Public a couple of hours before the evening performance. He was running late, having just returned from a visit to his own mother, but he seemed unperturbed, radiating that signal mix of intensity and impassiveness as he spoke about the show or paused to dandle the four-month-old child of its star, Ruthie Ann Miles.

Byrne wore a white denim jacket, a white button-down, and a bristling wave of white hair, all of which blended with the white brick at the back of the Public's mezzanine, but didn't camouflage him from the fans squealing below.

He first conceived the musical some years ago when he learned that Imelda had a mirror ball installed in her Manhattan townhouse, converted the roof of a Manila palace into a club, and made the rounds at various New York discos in the late '70s and early '80s, though Byrne never encountered her there. "I wasn't really part of that scene," he says.

Byrne began to wonder if disco's dazzle and sheen could serve as an allegory for Imelda herself. "Maybe that music or atmosphere evokes something of what she's feeling," he says.

Oskar Eustis, the Public's artistic director, who helped shepherd the piece through years of development, called disco "a beautiful metaphor for what [Byrne] was really interested in—the way people in power live in a bubble of their own."

After a year of research, Byrne began to shape the words of Imelda, her husband, Ferdinand, and her childhood housekeeper and friend Estrella Cumpas into lyrics. Rather than offer "straight retro-disco-nostalgia," he enlisted Fatboy Slim to give the melodies and rhythms a more contemporary dance beat.

Initially, Byrne wanted to stage Here Lies Love in a club rather than a traditional theater, re-creating the feeling of "this big democratic thing, a giant room full of heaving bodies." But he toured several local clubs and found them too partitioned and exclusive: "They've all been subdivided into VIP rooms and bottle rooms and chill-out rooms. And the actual dance floor space is a quarter of the size of what it used to be."

So with the aid of the innovative, Obie-winning director Alex Timbers and a crack design team, Byrne worked to transform a little-used Public space into a club and a concept album into a musical. This meant cutting old songs, penning new ones, adjusting lyrics, jettisoning verses, enhancing the character of political rival Ninoy Aquino, and diminishing that of Estrella.

Some artists might bristle at these changes, but his collaborators say Byrne responds to most suggestions with speed and grace. "He's not interested in his own ego," says Eustis. "He's interested in making something happen."

And something does happen. Here Lies Love feels far less like a Broadway show than a dance party. A great one.

Lights swirl, bass notes boom, and platforms bearing the actors move around the floor. Though there are a few seats in thebalcony, most audience members stand and shimmy for the entirety of the 85-minute running time. As does Byrne. "We're not sure he's ever missed a show," says Eustis. (Byrne admits to missing several.)

"I can't help but want to dance with him," writes Miles via e-mail. "We all get so excited when his head of white hair is spotted through the fog."

Here Lies Love is both a traditional musical (it has a discernible plot and conveys character and emotion through song) and a startlingly inventive one. It relies almost entirely on found text (speeches, interviews, clandestine recordings, Imelda's high school yearbook) and eschews a libretto.

"Part of the energy is that the music keeps going," says Byrne. "If you stop it too many times with dialogue scenes, you lose that musical momentum. Every DJ knows that."

Indeed, the uninterrupted music is so infectious, the atmosphere so dynamic, and the performances by Miles and Jose Llana (as Ferdinand) so charismatic that you often forget you're boogying down to the beat of a deeply repressive regime that used martial law and murder to silence discontent.

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