Wear comfortable shoes and stretch pants. Other than that, there’s no way to prepare for the spectacle that is the David Byrne musical, Here Lies Love. Co-written between Byrne and dance DJ Fatboy Slim, the production chronicles the rags-to-riches story of Imelda Marcos, the wife of controversial 10th president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos. Staged previously in London and New York, the musical's arrival in Seattle has generated much buzz, from Byrne's recent, regular appearances in town, to an almost unrecognizable Bagley Wright Theater, now transformed into a night club.
Like any night club, party-goers are on their feet, and so too are most members of the audience (there is some gallery seating but "the full experience," with no obstructed views, is offered to main floor standing guests, who are expected to stand and be ready to move the full 90 minutes of the play). And as soon as the catchy, techno-pop music starts, that crowd becomes an essential part of the story.
From beauty pageant queen to First Lady of the Philippines, Marcos’ story unfolds rapidly as she comes into wealth, power and celebrity practically overnight. News stories and graphics are projected onto the walls amid strobe lights and fog, and attendees are transformed into citizens of the Philippines—and by the end, participants in the People Power Revolution.
In this way, the audience is granted a level of autonomy that’s hard to deliver in a traditional performance; a singular stage doesn’t tell you exactly where to look, nor do the stars of the show (in this case, Imelda, played by Jaygee Macapugay, and Ferdinand, played by Mark Bautista) tell you exactly how to feel. With moving platforms and a cast that dances through the crowd, the space feels like a public square (if that square were also a discothèque), and there’s no room for complacency. Ushers sporting pink jumpsuits guide the crowd throughout the show to accommodate the moving platforms, and a DJ cues scenes and choreographed dances with each new song.
The razzle dazzle can be hard to keep up with; you might not know what’s happening until it’s too late, and looking around at other members of the audience, you might find similar expressions of confusion, or even betrayal. Perhaps this is how the people of the Philippines felt as they watched their charismatic leader declare martial law. A newscaster’s voice floods the room at one point, stating, “This is the end of democracy.”
The music and melee can be overwhelming, but a triumphant tone rises above it all. As the opening song begins its reprise at the end of the show, it has already become an anthem. Cast members take their bows from different parts of the room, joining the audience in a dance party, and lyrics are projected onto the walls for everyone to sing along.
The night I attended (April 20th), near the end of the show as Imelda sang from a perch at the top of a ladder, the crowd was joined by none other than Byrne himself, who was in town for the annual MoPop Pop Conference. Dressed all in white, he boogied along, dancing like it was 1986.
By show's end, you may feel dizzy, or the need to hydrate. But you will feel something. While telling the story of an important period in history, Here Lies Love shows how unique our individual experiences are, even when moving in unison with a crowd.