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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. -- When you think of former Filipino First Lady Imelda Marcos, thousands of shoes might come to mind. But the extravagant, ultimately disgraced wife of ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos makes musician David Byrne think of disco and power.
Byrne is fusing both in his new musical about the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos. It’s still in development, but a workshop production of “Here Lies Love” is being staged for the first time in front of audiences this week in western Massachusetts as part of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The production is a collaboration between the festival, New York's Public Theater and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams.
Earlier this week, I dropped by a rehearsal at MASS MoCA. Head engineer Kurt Wells pressed buttons, turned knobs and addressed the room through the board. A young cast of 12 Filipino-Americans milled around the stage, wearing wireless mics as the crew continued to tweak the lighting and sound. Then, lead actress Ruthie Ann Miles got the go-ahead to start belting it out.
"With my heart and with my soul..." she sang, before she was interrupted so the crew could adjust a light cue.
This is a big moment for Byrne. The idea for his first musical, "Here Lies Love," has been bumping around in his head for a long time.
"For years I’ve thought that — and I’m not alone in this — that the kind of world that a powerful person builds around themselves, whether in politics or other areas, it becomes this little world unto itself," Byrne said. "They create a little bubble."
Byrne kept those thoughts to himself until he started reading about Imelda Marcos and discovered she loved going to discos.
"She had a mirror ball installed in her New York townhouse. Not many of us can make that claim. And she had the roof of the palace in Manila converted into a music club," Byrne said, and recalled thinking, "Wow, here’s somebody who lives in one of those bubble worlds, who brings her own soundtrack."
And her soundtrack happens to be a genre of music Byrne says he likes quite a bit. So the career musician set out on a quest to create a throbbing, disco-infused theatrical experience based on Imelda Marcos’ life.
"Here’s somebody who lives in one of those bubble worlds, who brings her own soundtrack."David Byrne on Imelda
"At the time I imagined to myself, 'What if you could have an evening at a dance club — hear a lot of music, have some drinks — but in the course of that evening you somehow got story at the same time?' "
To tell that story accurately, Byrne plowed through biographies and watched news footage to inform his characters.
"I made notes of things that they said in interviews, things that they wrote, quotations they gave, this kind of thing, which were really useful," Byrne said. "Sometimes, more than sometimes, many times those found their way into the lyrics."
The musical's title came from a documentary in which, Byrne explains, Imelda Marcos says, "Everything she’s done she’s done for love, and that on her tombstone she wants it to say, ‘Here Lies Love.' And she was making a little soundbite there, but I thought, 'Wow!' "
But a disco musical about the over-the-top wife of a fallen dictator was not an easy sell. Byrne says New York producers didn’t “get it” — and didn’t want it. So he recorded a concept CD two years ago with Fatboy Slim and singers including Martha Wainwright, Tori Amos, Cyndi Lauper and Florence Welch.
Eventually, Oskar Eustis at New York's Public Theater heard it and suggested Byrne take his idea to risk-taking director Alex Timbers. His production company had already turned the seventh president of the United States into an emo rock star in last year’s Tony nominated-musical, "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson."
Timbers said when people remember Imelda Marcos they remember her obsession with shoes. The director admits he was relieved that Byrne decided not to include a single song about footwear.
"Not dealing with the shoes helped relieve the question of sort of the camp and the kitsch that David doesn’t want this show to have," Timber said. "I think a danger whenever you’re dealing with a kind of Evita-like subject is a self-seriousness that is destructive. And I think this embraces the kind of irreverence of the concept of the project."
“I think a danger whenever you’re dealing with a kind of Evita-like subject is a self-seriousness that is destructive. And I think this embraces the kind of irreverence of the concept.”director Alex Timbers
But, Timbers and Byrne insist they're not making fun of Imelda Marcos. In fact, they want the audience to connect with her. But how do you make someone who abused her position of power so blatantly into a sympathetic character?
"Tricky question," Byrne said. "If this is successful, you find yourself in this quasi uncomfortable position of empathizing with the wife of a dictator and at the same time going ‘I am not going to sympathize with this person.’ "
And that's the tension they're looking for, according to director Alex Timbers.
"To be clear, we’re not trying to glorify Imelda Marcos," Timbers said. "I think it’s important to try to understand the politics of power and the pathology behind someone who would — so, sort of desperately — seek and manipulate power, but I don’t think she’s the one your heart breaks for at the end of the show."
Timbers said the only way to find out who that person is would be to try to see the (sold out) show this weekend at the Williamstown Theatre Festival — or wait until he and David Byrne takes it to New York’s Public Theater in the spring... after many more hours of tweaking.
"Here Lies Love" will be on staged at the Hunter Center at MASS MoCA through Sunday, June 24 as part of the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
This program aired on June 21, 2012.
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