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You can immerse yourself — literally — in this Broadway show

<em>Here Lies Love</em> tells the story of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos' rise and fall in the Philippines. The $22 million immersive musical production is a big Broadway gamble.
Billy Bustamante, Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
Here Lies Love tells the story of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos' rise and fall in the Philippines. The $22 million immersive musical production is a big Broadway gamble.

On Thursday, a new $22 million musical opens on Broadway and it may be a bigger risk than most. Here Lies Love, with a score by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, literally turns the Broadway Theatre into a disco, with many members of the audience on the dance floor, surrounded by the actors. It tells the story of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos' rise and fall in the Philippines. At a time when Broadway ticket sales are down, is an immersive new musical a way to bring audiences back?

After a recent preview performance of Here Lies Love, a crowd gathered outside the theater. "I thought it was very fun," said Nico de Jesus, who had just seen the show. "I didn't expect to get a history lesson in a disco, but I did!"

"I think this is a risky, adventurous, one-of-a-kind endeavor," explains director Alex Timbers, "its success or failure will probably have some impact on whether people try to do something like this again."

Three hundred audience members stand on a dance floor, while others sit directly above it or in the balcony.
/ Billy Bustamante, Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
/
Billy Bustamante, Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
Three hundred audience members stand on a dance floor, while others sit directly above it or in the balcony.

Here Lies Love was a hit off-Broadway, 10 years ago, at the much smaller Public Theater. And the immersive staging was essential to David Byrne's concept. He read that Imelda Marcos was a fan of disco – she was a frequent visitor to Studio 54 and installed a mirror ball in Malacañang Palace. So, he wrote a score with a thumping beat and melodic hooks, to invite the audience to dance along with her. "I imagined it as being a theatrical story, a musical story being told in a discotheque," Byrne says, laughing, "and on little platforms around the periphery."

"Getting to walk through the audience and really connect with them every night, I feel like I'm getting to experience the show fresh," says Arielle Jacobs, who plays Imelda from age 16 to 57, when a revolution forced the Marcoses to flee the country. "I'm literally three feet from you. You know, I'm touching them. I'm shaking their hands."

The theater has gotten an expensive makeover. Three hundred audience members stand on a dance floor, while others sit directly above it or in the balcony. Set designer David Korins has used 63,000 pounds of structural steel to construct the new environment and wrapped the auditorium with video screens that give historical context. "We build not just playing spaces, but we build seating places for audience to sit, looking down into this box," he explains. "We have catwalks that performers are walking on. We have things that you normally would never think about building, right? So, we have running lights and fire egress and emergency lights and exit lights ...We had to file permits with the city."

And in this 360-degree environment, choreographer Annie-B Parson says the audience is asked to dance. "Often when you go to the theater, you're just sitting on your seat, you know, and the thing passes by, and you have some sort of vague experience," she says.

But in Here Lies Love, audience participation is not all fun and games. Director Alex Timbers says as the show goes on, you become aware of the corrupt, repressive, murderous Marcos regime. "The audience can get cast in the drama in a way so you can be cheering on at the wedding of Ferdinand and Imelda. But then 40 minutes later, you can be at the funeral march for Aquino," Timbers explains. "And you feel in a way complicit; you know; 'I cheered when they won the presidency, but now I realize the tyranny of dictatorship.' "

David Byrne says the show looks at the fragility of democracy. "People were seduced by the Marcoses," he says. "They were glamorous. They were good looking. They did keep a lot of their campaign promises in the early days. So, it seemed to a lot of people very promising, but then it all goes south."

For most of the cast members, Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos' rise and fall happened long before they were born, but Arielle Jacobs says the legacy is something they all share. "It's so exciting to be in this cast of 100% Filipino people," says Jacobs, "because all of us, I think, feel such a deep connection to this story and to each other. There is such a community."

"That felt really Filipino. Like a party vibe kind of thing," said an audience member named Rodrigo Bucsit. "It's cool because you don't realize how representation really matters until you actually see it. And this kind of sounds corny, but you kind of get tearful because you don't realize how much media you already consume that's not you. And then when you see a full show where it's like all Filipinos, it's kind of it's awesome."

Lea Salonga as Aurora Aquino in <em>Here Lies Love.</em>
/ Billy Bustamante, Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
/
Billy Bustamante, Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
Lea Salonga as Aurora Aquino in Here Lies Love.

For those unfamiliar with the history, there are displays in the lobby, as well as a QR code in the Playbill, which links to a historical timeline. And, to the surprise of many audience members, they learn the current president of the Philippines is Bongbong Marcos, Imelda and Ferdinand's son, and Imelda, who famously left thousands of pairs of shoes in the palace when she fled in 1986, is living there again.

"At its best, theater is showing you something while entertaining you," says set designer David Korins, "something that is thought provoking and meaningful." And, in the case of Here Lies Love, in a completely kinetic way – in the audience's bodies.

So, is this the future of Broadway theater? Already an immersive production of Guys and Dolls is being imported from London later in the season, so theatergoers will walk through Times Square to enter an environment depicting Times Square.

David Byrne well knows the boom-and-bust nature of the business. "It is a huge gamble for us and for Broadway theater owners," the songwriter explains. "But the demographic of the audience is different than the usual Broadway show. They're much more diverse and much younger than the usual Broadway show. And I thought, that's what Broadway needs."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 17, 2023 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous web version of this story misspelled Malacañang Palace as Malacañang Place.
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Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.