Staging a high-energy, disco ball-adorned musical about one of the most sobering events in Filipino political history might seem like an impossible task, but “Here Lies Love,” a production currently running at the Seattle Repertory Theatre has some star-power help.
Originally co-written as a concept album by David Byrne of Talking Heads fame and DJ Fatboy Slim, the musical details the rise and fall of the notorious First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos and the complex romantic ties she entangles herself in along the way.
The album, which features the vocal talents of musicians like Cyndi Lauper and Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine, was adapted into a stage musical that premiered off-Broadway at the Public Theater in New York City in 2013, then saw a limited run at the Royal National Theatre in London a year later.
Now, two-time Tony Award-nominated director Alex Timbers hopes the dramatic transformation of the Seattle Repertory’s Bagley Wright Theatre from a traditional proscenium space into a ‘70s dance club will give “Here Lies Love” the reincarnation it deserves.
“I think her story is intoxicating because it’s the classic tale of someone who grew up with nothing,” Timbers told NBC News about Imelda Marcos' appeal as a public figure. “But she also characterizes the power of greed and the moral relativism that can occur when people obtain power. It’s a Cinderella story in some ways, but also an incredibly terrifying story in others.”
Born in 1929 to a wealthy aristocratic family in Manila that quickly fell into poverty following her mother’s death and her father’s failing law practice, Marcos grew up struggling to make ends meet.
The musical traces her pursuit for a life of fame, which she was granted in 1954 when she met Ferdinand Marcos, then a member of the Philippine Congress. Their short courtship before marrying has been referred to as the “11-day whirlwind” and was highly publicized.
It was during her husband’s dictatorship under martial law from 1972 to 1981 that Imelda Marcos became infamous for her extravagant lifestyle, which included owning a stash of elegant dresses and jewelry as well as a collection of shoes, which numbered in the thousands, according to Time magazine.
The Marcos family left the Philippines for Hawai'i following the People Power Revolution.
One particular challenge the “Here Lies Love” creative team faced early on was how to convince an audience to follow the journeys of some of the Philippines’s most controversial figures. For Filipino actor Mark Bautista, who reprises his role as Ferdinand Marcos from the show’s West End run, the solution was simple — he asked his agent to schedule a one-on-one meeting with Imelda Marcos herself.
“She talked a lot about how romantic her husband was, and how he was smart and could give a rising speech without even looking at a script,” Bautista, who grew up learning about the Marcos reign in his school in the Philippines, told NBC News. “It helped me understand Marcos a little more, and so in the show I try to bring out his charm — to show why so many people voted for him.”
Scenic designer David Korins, who also served as scenic designer for Broadway’s “Hamilton,” worked with Timbers to create a new kind of experience that would fully immerse the audience in the Marcos’s journey to the top: a 360-degree stage.
“David Byrne already had the idea of using club music to explore Imelda,” Timbers said. “I mean, she had a mirror ball in her home, she attended Studio 54…it felt like a natural extension of his concept to set the show in a club, on a stage.”
The idea was to set up one main stage in the middle of the Public Theater and have the audience spend the 90 minutes of the play standing, dancing, and mingling around it.
Whether they’re partying alongside Imelda Marcos as a young woman trying to discover herself, supporting Ferdinand Marcos in the midst of his presidential campaign, or mourning the death of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, there is no physical way for play-goers to remain passive.
“At one point you’re cheering on the election and you stop yourself and think, ‘wait, I just cheered on Ferdinand Marcos … I feel strange about this,’” Timbers said. “The audience is cast in different roles throughout the musical, and sometimes they’re contrasting roles.”
The show’s unique staging is what makes “Here Lies Love” the Seattle Repertory’s most expensive show to date, as the proscenium theater had to be completely altered without affecting the original architecture, according to the company.
Seats have been removed, an entire section of the orchestra has been platformed, and galleries have been built on stage. The American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco had to cancel its plans to stage the show in 2016 after looking at a potential loss of between $800,000 and $1 million, according to public television station KQED.
While play-goers can expect to spend a majority of the show growing up with Imelda Marcos, they will also be with her as her life comes crashing down, and will be able to see how the Marcos’s actions have affected the governed people — particularly the People Power Revolution, the nonviolent organizers and protesters who helped restore democracy to the Philippines. Though “Here Lies Love” begins with Imelda Marcos' hopes and dreams, it ultimately ends with the hope and power of the Filipino people.
“You can’t do a show about a complicated populist figure without giving the perspective of the people,” Timbers said. “There’s something beautiful about the power of people in the face of tyranny. Right now in our world, that’s as an important thing as you can discuss.”