Like many Broadway musicals, “Here Lies Love” involves a lot of dancing. Notably less common: how much moving is done by the audience.
It isn’t unheard-of for a musical to tell the story of a dictator’s wife, but this one, with songs by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, is distinctly focused on its subject’s dancing habits. Imelda Marcos — wife of Ferdinand Marcos, the longtime president of the Philippines — was fond of discothèques. Accordingly, the Broadway Theater has been half-converted into a club on the model of Studio 54. There is a giant disco ball and a D.J., and the orchestra seats have been stripped out so that up to 300 members of the audience can experience the 90-minute show while crowded on a dance floor.
As at a disco, those standing can dance as they like. But they are also herded by wranglers in magenta jumpsuits with light-up wands like the ones used to direct taxiing airplanes. Wheeled platforms and runways are regularly rearranged around the floor area, displacing audience members. One cruciform platform is aptly called the Blender. It churns the crowd like batter.
The rest of the audience is seated, above the dance floor and back into the depths of the mezzanine. But these viewers move, too, encouraged by the D.J. to join the standing folks in a simple line dance, picking up the moves from cast members spread throughout the theater on more platforms and catwalks. A lot of the story action happens up there, too.
“The engagement of the audience’s body is highly unusual,” Annie-B Parson, the show’s choreographer, said. “And when you engage the body, you also engage the mind and the heart.”
“Here Lies Love” has developed over more than a decade in various incarnations, but dance and audience motion have been at the center of the conception from the start, said Alex Timbers, the director: “We didn’t want it to be interactive, with people pulled up onstage and feeling embarrassed. We wanted the audience to be moving as a unit so no one feels singled out.”
The idea is to cast the audience in the drama as extras, Timbers said. They aren’t just dancers at the club. They are guests at the Marcos’s wedding; the public at political rallies and election parties; witnesses to the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr., the Marcos’s rival; participants in the People Power Revolution that overthrew the dictator in 1986.
“Your journey changes, just like America’s relationship with the Philippines,” Timbers said. “After Aquino’s assassination, you feel a little complicit in having danced at Imelda’s wedding.”
Similarly, the D.J. telling everyone what to do is somewhat dictatorial. When Marcos institutes martial law, no audience member “is getting tortured or anything,” Timbers said, “but there is a metaphor at play physically.”
“You watch the audience applaud,” Parson said, “and you watch them wonder why they’re applauding. It’s pretty Brechtian.”
Development of the show has been a trial-and-error experiment in how to get audiences to move as the creative team wants. “You don’t have the same audience every night,” Timbers said, “so you’re looking at trends, at human nature.”
Elaborate charts delineate how the wranglers can redistribute the crowd effectively and safely without being distracting. And since the people in the mezzanine face in one direction while those on the floor face in several, directing everyone to “step to the right” in a line dance isn’t a simple matter. (Well-placed performers and video screens help.)
Parson, who has worked with Byrne on concerts tours and on his recent Broadway show, “American Utopia,” comes from the world of postmodern dance. She said that while Timbers “has a beautiful sense of the body and space,” he and she had opposing, if complementary, attitudes about the fact that no audience member of “Here Lies Love” could see everything.
“Alex worked really hard to share all the story material with everyone in the theater,” she said, whereas she was thinking about the composer John Cage’s philosophical idea that every seat in the house is perfect. “It becomes about perception. I love the experience of watching someone watch things that I might not be seeing. You feel things in your body that you may not see.”
It’s a question of perspective, and not the only one. Many reviews of “Here Lies Love” and public objections to the show have focused on how the glamour and play of the club atmosphere rub against the show’s critique of the Marcoses.
Parson said the context of disco — “an ecstatic dance form that tips quickly into despair” — is intentionally ambiguous. “Dancing is relative. You can use it for ill or for the greater good.”
Imelda’s use of dance, what became known as her handbag diplomacy, “was embodied statesmanship,” Parson said. “She didn’t put a table between her and Nixon or Castro. She asked them to dance. She wasn’t a great dancer but that gave her a lot of power.”
At one point, cast members act this out, wearing masks of famous political leaders. At other points, the choreography borrows a few of Imelda’s signature moves: circling her eye with two fingers, tapping the tops of her butterfly sleeves.
The line dance, Parson said, was designed to be “fun and easy, something you could do in a chair if space was tight.” (“The Philippines have a really muscular tradition of line dancing,” she added, noting that the line dancing performed by the all-Filipino cast at parties is much more intricate.)
Much of the choreography for the cast is more complicated, but mostly in tone, Parson said. In the title song, for example, Imelda tells the audience to remember her for love. “But let’s talk about the families she destroyed,” Parson said. “It’s a beautiful song, but it is ironic, so that’s how I choreographed it, with swinging umbrellas and sternum to the ceiling. You can’t take it straight.”
Timothy Matthew Flores, who plays Aquino’s son along with other ensemble roles, said the detail of Parson’s choreography — “every single movement has a meaning” — made it more difficult than flashier and harder-hitting dance he’s done before. And running all around the large theater is “90 minutes of cardio.”
But getting the audience out of their seats and dancing? That’s just fun, Flores said. “They start off shy and then they end up having a really good time. You can see them thinking, ‘Wow, this is not like any other Broadway show.’”