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David Byrne: Here Lies Love—The Road to the Stage

May 6, 2014

The legendary musician recounts the creation of the rock opera Here Lies Love.

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Credit: Joan Marcus (Public Theater)

By David Byrne

Editor’s Note: Here Lies Love, following from the concept album of the same name, chronicles the life of former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos. It returned to The Public Theater earlier this year. A cast album of the production was released on Nonesuch Records on May 6th.

How did we get here?

About six years ago, when I had all but given up on this project ever being realized in a theatrical version, I heard that Oskar Eustis at the Public Theater in NYC might be interested. We met and he made it clear that there were no guarantees, but that we’d take it step by step, and would at least do the first of a series of workshops. There would be three workshops in this process, the first two being the most critical, as tests to see if the concept actually worked.

The original concept was a performance with almost no dialogue, set in a virtual dance club, of the type that Imelda Marcos used to frequent. I had always envisioned this setting (Imelda liked discos so much that she installed a mirror ball in her New York apartment), so when I met with Oskar, I made it clear that I didn’t want a proscenium piece.

In my mind this concept was referencing the “track act” shows I’d seen years ago, people like Grace Jones or Frieda Payne performing on small stages, singing along live to backing tracks of their hit recordings. I envisioned this piece being physically similar—a few small stages around the perimeter of a dance floor, with performers on them backed by video screens. On these stages the various singers would appear, in character, and sing the songs that would—with the help of the video, costumes, and staging—convey the narrative. During all of this, the audience could simultaneously dance and soak up the ambience in which the story took place.

The process that would take the performance beyond these initial ideas, thanks to the various collaborators who became integral parts of the project, is what I’m going to write about here.

Oskar and Jenny Gersten, Artistic Director at Williamstown Theatre Festival, suggested that I meet with a few directors. One of them was Alex Timbers, and though his Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a pop musical about the U.S. President, was yet to open at the time, I had seen and loved some other pieces he’d done—Hell House and A Very Merry Scientology Christmas Pageant. In both, Alex had worked with “found” material, and, for the most part, left it completely intact. I found that very attractive, as many of the song lyrics I used had their origins in found texts: interviews, quotes, speeches and statements made by historical figures in the Philippines during that era.

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Alex Timbers. Credit: Joan Marcus (Public Theater).

Alex understood immediately that the piece couldn’t be a conventional musical, with dialogue interspersed between songs. He knew it had to tell the story through other means—the songs, of course, but also the staging, the video elements, and the costumes—plus, it needed to have the energy typical of a club.

***

For our first workshop, which took place in a dark and stuffy room loaned by NYU, we decided to try only the first third of the piece, rather than attacking the whole thing. This first section, Act I, would take us from the relative poverty of Imelda’s childhood through her marriage to then-Senator Ferdinand Marcos. In going through it, we immediately made some changes to my original song lineup. We decided to move “American Troglodyte” to the front slot, to establish the festive clubby vibe, introduce the Filipino inundation and fascination with U.S. pop culture, and, by implication, bring up U.S. influence over Philippine politics. Opening with Troglodyte established right off the bat that you were going to be immersed in the details of this historical world, and have a lot of fun.

This kind of visual storytelling is something Alex does instinctively, and it allowed us to avoid didactic text in the videos and eliminate those pesky dialogue scenes.

I had an existing collection of masks of politicians (Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, etc.) that I had used for an art piece, and Alex suggested that some of the cast use these to visualize the handshake agreements between the governments of the U.S. and Philippines, all while keeping the party vibe going. Then, in the next song, we’d “flash back” to Imelda’s childhood and establish our characters. This kind of visual storytelling is something Alex does instinctively, and it allowed us to avoid didactic text in the videos and eliminate those pesky dialogue scenes.

I knew before we even began that some of the songs I’d previously written would get cut —some didn’t advance the story, others were repeating some information we already had—so right away the songs “Women In Blue” and “How Are You?” went out the window. It also became apparent that Benigno Aquino would need a larger role than I had previously imagined, so we brought him more into Act I. We needed to show who he was and what he stood for, before he evolved into the principal Marcos adversary, and before his assassination, a national tragedy that eventually triggered the revolution that ousted Marcos. We needed the audience to care about his death, which would be essential to the performance.

Though I knew from my research that Aquino and Imelda had dated as adolescents, a strange and wonderful bit of information on its own, I didn’t know more than that at the time. Still, we would introduce him not just as a boyfriend of Imelda, but as a young man on the rise, disillusioned both by his experiences as a journalist in the Korean War, and as a witness to his father’s sudden and complete fall from political favor. I came up with a song called “Grew Up Too Soon,” which incorporated quotes from Aquino on these formative experiences and his reaction to them. I imagined him as a firebrand—a charismatic and passionate public speaker who could move people, and so I gave his songs a gospel feel, with Aquino as the preacher.

“Grew Up Too Soon” didn’t work. This unfortunate discovery was what the workshop process was about—trial by fire. The idea of him as a passionate quasi-preacher would remain valid—that idea maybe wasn’t totally misguided—but the song itself wasn’t clear enough. Other songs would get the axe too. One, about the relative poverty of Imelda’s childhood, and her bond with her maid Estrella (“Every Drop of Rain”) had beautiful choreography, but eventually both it and the song that followed (“You’ll be Taken Care Of”)—in which Imelda’s mother promised on her deathbed that Estrella would be compensated for years without pay—would also be cut.

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Credit: Joan Marcus (Public Theater).

As much as I liked those songs, they got the piece off to a bit of a mopey start. But some of what they conveyed—the bond, the shame, the poverty—still felt essential. Those latter two issues, especially, became driving forces for the adult Imelda. So, much later, I fit this background into some other songs.

Alex instructed the actors to treat the audience as the Philippine public—as if they were giving a campaign speech—and it worked. By the end of the scene, when Ferdinand Marcos is elected, the audience cheers, and therefore becomes complicit in his rise to power.

Beyond figuring out which of the songs worked, and which didn’t, this first workshop allowed us (and especially Alex) to discover how to tell the story visually, and how to find an appropriate tone. Alex solved the storytelling issues almost immediately, often through innovative staging techniques that were as effective as dialogue. The introduction of young senator Marcos via simulated live TV coverage of his senate campaign is a prime example. This innovative use of video, suggested by Peter Nigrini, instantly conveys that he was a charismatic and aggressive up-and-coming politician. Jose, the actor who originated the role, and whose parents, ironically, were active in the opposition to the Marcos regime, looks a little like the young Marcos. And in Alex’s staging you immediately got who Marcos was and what he was doing. The song, its lyrics a mixture of Marcos campaign and self-improvement rhetoric, was allowed to be more than exposition; it’s natural.

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Peter Nigrini. Credit: Joan Marcus (Public Theater).

In that first run-through, Act I didn’t completely find the right tone. It was enough, however, for Oskar to greenlight the second workshop. It was then, four months later, that the piece really began to come together.

***

Act II, the subject of our second workshop, held at an unused stage at P.S. 122, would focus on Imelda’s years of power and glamour and set the stage for the Marcos’ downfall in Act III. We had a meeting before we began, and I was given an assignment to write more songs and adjust some existing tunes.

Alex suggested combining two songs, “Pretty Face” and “Don’t You Agree?” into one.
One of those songs was about the Marcos’s campaign for President, and the other about the good works they planned for after the election: the hospitals, roads and schools they promised, and actually built when they first came to power. Alex instructed the actors to treat the audience as the Philippine public—as if they were giving a campaign speech—and it worked. By the end of the scene, when Ferdinand Marcos is elected, the audience cheers, and therefore becomes complicit in his rise to power.

The Aquino story thread was important in this act too, and another song for him, “The Fabulous One,” also written in the same gospel style as the first, was lyrically based on a famous speech he gave to the Philippine senate called “A Pantheon For Imelda.” Imelda was, when he gave that speech, already First Lady. Aquino attacked her for spending state funds on a grand cultural center when people just blocks from the site were squatting in shanties. This fully established him as a kind of “voice of the people,” who could give voice to the doubts about the policies of the Marcos’s, and their extravagant behavior.

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Credit: Joan Marcus (Public Theater).

Oskar later suggested that Aquino react specifically to Imelda’s visits to New York discos and to the homes of socialites—something we’d just seen and heard in the previous song, “Dancing Together.” I tweaked the first line of “The Fabulous One” to reflect this, and though it sounded a little clunky lyrically at first, it really helped the narrative—he was reacting to what had just been on stage, moments before. The songs were becoming less discrete episodes and more contiguous points along a narrative. Alex also had Ruthie Ann Miles (Imelda) come out on a runway dressed in fur with a glass of champagne at the same time that Aquino is rallying his supporters in response to her decadent ways.

Another point we addressed in Act II was the need, as the narrative progressed, to clarify Imelda’s decision to emotionally distance herself from Marcos and dedicate her love instead to the Philippine people. The song “Star and Slave” was written to do that. The words were taken from an anecdote she told about recovering from an assassination attempt, which I repurposed to apply to her recovering from her husband’s infidelity. I modeled the song on Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” not for the subject matter, but for the narrative and emotional arc. The whole thing worked perfectly.

In pop songs, the character is usually static. The song is not a narrative, but a snapshot of an emotional moment—no change occurs. The character is pissed off, jealous, gloating, sexy, bragging, melancholy or ecstatic. But in musicals, as it was explained to me, each scene is about a decision that a character makes that then pushes the narrative along. Part of the challenge of this piece was not to do typical musical theater songs, but to see if something closer to pop could actually convey a story.

But “Star and Slave” would be one of the exceptions to the pop song rule—there had to be character development within the song itself. Imelda had to be devastated at the beginning of the song and triumphant at the end. It was as close as I could comfortably get to musical theater territory. I was thrilled with the result—I’d been gently nudged by my collaborators to write something that I’d never tried before.

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Credit: Joan Marcus (Public Theater).

Alex had Imelda rise from her bed, where she had just been sobbing after a nightmare, and then, getting to her feet, walk amongst the audience before ascending to another platform stage, now independent and triumphant.

Alex then suggested we needed to go even further—he and Oskar both felt we needed to make it clearer that not only was Imelda declaring her independence, but she also that she was in charge now. So they suggested another song to make that point—that with a sick husband, it was now Imelda who was, along with the generals, running things. I repurposed the music from an earlier song, “Walk Like a Woman,” and found some quotes from Imelda where she mockingly complained, “Now I have to do everything,” to the cabinet. I also found some quotes from the press department, making excuses for the lack of public appearances from the now very sick President Marcos. “He’s writing a book,” “It’s just a small cold,” “He’s so overworked.”

I reasoned that using the music from “Walk Like a Woman” in this new song, “Poor Me,” would be a sonic reminder of the time when Imelda was ready and willing to be made over into a political wife by her then-new husband. The layering recalled the earlier event, and showed how the earlier feeling was being twisted and perverted as it played out down the line.

By the time we finished the second workshop we had sketched out the staging up to this “transfer of power,” as Oskar liked to call it. I felt the tone had been established, and it was a comfortable fit—the concept was, for me, totally working. We had a lot of technical stuff to work out, not to mention all of Act III, and a paying audience still hadn’t seen any of it, but proof of concept was settled, in my mind at least. I was overjoyed.

***

The workshop that would include Act III (and further work on Acts I and II) took place at the Hunter Center at MASS MoCA, and once again there would be some big changes to the material I had previously written. I had been timid about dealing with the ending of our story, the People Power Revolution, but in the eight-month gap between the second and third workshops, I knew I had to find a way to tell this part of the story. I wanted to avoid dealing with the revolution by writing a rousing anthem—that seemed both a cliché and possibly beyond my songwriting skills. To begin the writing process I decided to divide the revolution into two parts: Aquino’s funeral, after he is assassinated (which was in some ways the trigger—the precursor—to the People Power Revolution that would follow two and a half years later), and the Revolution itself, which resulted in the peaceful ousting of the Marcos’s after just four days.

To write these songs I needed to jump back into research mode, and I found a treasure trove in the book People Power: An Eyewitness History, by Monina Allarye Mercado—an oral history of the People Power Revolution that happened to include quotes from Aurora Aquino, Benigno’s mom, about her son as a child and the impact of the massive turnout for his funeral. She said it all. The metaphor she used of her young son as an aspiring drummer was perfect—personal, sentimental and inspiring.

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The haze set off the fire alarm in the Hunter and we all got a little break in the sun at MASS MoCA. Credit: Evan D’Angeles.

That same book had beautiful and moving testimonies from all sorts of people from all walks of life. They realized they were witnessing history, and at the same time making it themselves. I was knocked out. What struck me was how utterly banal many of the details were: people mentioned joggers passing by, the TVs in a shop window, the participation of guys from the neighborhood and girls from the office. These utterly everyday references, combined with what turned out to be a momentous and historical event, was a potent combination. My answer was not to make a rousing anthem, but to zoom into the lives of anonymous participants—the ones who actually made the Revolution happen. One of those quoted summed up the result by saying, “God draws straight, but with crooked lines,” and I thought, “There’s my song title.”

Alex heard the demo and immediately suggested we do it as an acoustic interlude, the way U2 or the Stones might do at one of their stadium shows. Although it was originally not slated to go last (we thought it would come before Imelda is airlifted out of Manila), we eventually realized that nothing could follow “God Draws Straight” except the curtain call. It was sung form the point of view of looking back at those events, after all.

The performing area could be continually reconfigured: sometimes the cast could parade down a runway in the middle of the audience, and sometimes the entire area was cleared so the audience could dance.

Not only did we agree that it should be staged like the acoustic interlude in a concert, Alex and lighting director Justin Townsend emphasized that change by killing all the theatrical lighting entirely. The theatricality we’d been immersed in for the last eighty-some minutes would evaporate and we’d suddenly find ourselves no longer in a club but in the real world, listening as someone tells us what’s just happened to them.

Meanwhile, to solve the problems with the first Aquino song, I wrote a new one during rehearsals called “Child of the Philippines,” in which Aquino lays out some of his political ambitions. I did a rough demo and Justin Levine added some great keyboard and brass samples. We tried it with a 3rd verse in which Imelda joins him and he then blows her off, but it only sort of worked.

This final workshop was open to the public—though MASS MoCA is quite a drive from New York. It was still done on the cheap—thrift store costumes and such (thank you, Andrea)—but we were finally seeing and hearing the whole show, complete with the platforms that served as little stages positioned all around the audience. Alex and production designer David Korins had developed ideas on how to mount this production that went way beyond what I had initially imagined.

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David Korins and vocal directeor Kim Grigsby. Credit: Joan Marcus (Public Theater).

They proposed that some of those platform/stages might move. I hadn’t thought of that. This meant that the performing area could be continually reconfigured: sometimes the cast could parade down a runway in the middle of the audience, and sometimes the entire area was cleared so the audience could dance.

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Credit: Joan Marcus (Public Theater).

The audience would see one scene on their right and then the next on their left, and on top of that the audience would also have to move to different parts of the floor as the stages moved around them. The biggest idea along these lines was what we referred to as the flotilla: a whole stage, with actors singing on it, would move from one end of the room to the other. Just prior to this, the audience would have switched places with the actors—the audience would move up to a stage/platform and the actors down to the floor where the audience had just been standing. This worked as a perfect metaphor as well, as the revolution moved into high gear.

After the workshop at MASS MoCA, I was ecstatic. I felt the piece worked beautifully, and was anxious to get it mounted in New York, but there were still more songs to write.

***

As we began rehearsing upstairs in the former Astor library space, we had the opportunity to take a fresh look at Act I. I wrote some new parts for the first Imelda song that I hoped made her relationship with Estrella and her relative poverty more clear, and began work on another about the Imelda/Aquino breakup, in the hopes that “Child of the Philippines” wouldn’t have to carry that dual burden anymore.

I did a kind of electro-style song called “Opposites Attract,” not knowing there had been a Paula Abdul song by the same name. Luckily, titles can’t be copyrighted, so I stuck with the theme—Aquino’s feeling that they were too different as people to be a couple, and and Imelda’s feeling that love would heal their differences. But my music wasn’t quite cutting it. I knew this would be the last song I wrote for the show, so looking back to the beginning of the whole project I dug into the archive of Fatboy Slim beats that Norm had sent me years ago.

I found some beats and riffs I’d overlooked, and re-wrote the song as “Opposite Attraction” for both Aquino and Imelda to sing. Alex staged it like a second boy band number after “Child of the Philippines,” and had the young Cory Aquino- the woman Aquino went with- symbolically appear in an incredible Filipino flag dress that Clint Ramos whipped up. It worked.

Annie-B Parson had done the choreography from the beginning, and had stoically dealt with re-staging and re-choreographing songs and scenes many times over. I love the way her work fit into this piece. Someone else might have turned it into a disco-voguing-soul-train cliché, but she brought her own movement vocabulary, just odd enough to be fun and accessible, without being overly familiar.

Clint began bringing in the real costumes, little by little, during these rehearsals. There were lots of breakaway outfits so that actors could pop out of costume on stage. Imelda’s wedding dress was modeled on her real one, and the various butterfly sleeve outfits typical of the era were made in the Philippines. These all helped tell the story; they weren’t just a parade of extravagance (though there was that, too).

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Credit: Joan Marcus (Public Theater).

Kim Grigsby coached the actors in singing together, harmonizing and how to make these songs sound like pop music. I watched more or less in awe as she articulated how to make a vowel sound or how to form a note- she articulated this in ways I often wasn’t aware of, and certainly couldn’t put into words.

When we were finally ready, we had a few weeks of previews before the actual opening, which are performed in front of a live audience. Changes are often made based on the preview performances, so the critics know to stay away. Most of us in the creative team would join the audience, notepads in hand. I would take my notes, but if my comment concerned staging or a vocal performance I’d whisper it to Alex or Kim, and defer to them. Theater protocol. Matt Stein did a lot of musical mix improvements at this point—adding dance-remix-type sections and working the dynamic of the song recordings.

I’d empathize with Imelda, and her neediness, her need to be loved, her delusions, both public and private. The audience would too, as guilty as that made us feel at times.

The flotilla—what we called the large moving stage—became an issue for me. It is such a brilliant idea, but moving the whole piece of stage while also moving the audience to another stage—I wondered if all that business wasn’t taking the audience out of the show too much. It became a priority to get that working smoothly. There was some set adjusting and fixing, but mostly it came down to practice—the amazing stagehands and audience wranglers were essential to its success. They made the audience feel secure and kept their focus on the stages where the action was. They learned to move the platforms (and the flotilla) with musical timing, as if they too were all choreographed.

We opened to very favorable reviews, but I really think it was the word of mouth that helped the piece sell out for pretty much the entire first run. I knew the show backwards and forwards, but would still dance, laugh and, yes, cry almost every time I sat in as a member of the audience. It’s a testament to my collaborators and the actors, but, just as much, I think my emotional reaction is because these events really happened.

I’d empathize with Imelda, and her neediness, her need to be loved, her delusions, both public and private. The audience would too, as guilty as that made us feel at times. I’d see Aquino, not a perfect man, but a man who became the man he could be—stepping forward when the time came. And I’d see the Philippine people, seduced by this glamorous couple, as the audience is, who then, pushed and abused beyond endurance, react not with violence but with a calm and peaceful unity, a glimpse of what human beings are capable of at their very best.

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Credit: Joan Marcus (Public Theater).

Acknowledgments

This project has been emerging for a long time. Lots of people were involved in it at various points along the way. Their contributions and suggestions are not always apparent in the present version of the piece, but without them it wouldn’t have gotten to where it is.

Years ago, Marc Geiger at William Morris casually suggested that Fatboy Slim might be a good person for me to work with, though he had no idea it would turn out like this.

In thinking through the theatrical possibilities, Marianne Weems was incredibly helpful and supportive. Kim Whitener helped with an early live version and Jim Taylor had suggestions that only a great screenwriter would think of. Jim Findlay and Steve Luber helped us as well.

That version didn’t happen, but it was part of the process. Oskar Eustis and Jenny Gersten took an interest and the development began in earnest. Thanks to all the staff at the Public who were involved with this, and to the creative team—Alex Timbers (Director), Kim Grigsby (MD), Clint Ramos and Andrea Hood (Costumes), Alaina Taylor (SM), Matt Stine and Justin Levine (Music), Peter Nigrini (Video), Annie-B Parson (Choreography), David Korins (Sets), Justin Townsend (Lighting) and the incredible cast and crew.

In the Philippines, Butch Perez, Jessica Zafra, Joel Torre and Krip Yuson were invaluable, and the path to them was opened by Mario Ontal via John Sayles.

Thanks to Ms. Lia Sweet, Nan Lanigan, Ilene Bashinsky; Frank and LeeAnn at Todomundo; David Whitehead at Maine Road, and everyone at Nonesuch.
Special thanks to all of my family and friends who offered support, criticism and suggestions: Cindy Sherman, Ford Wheeler, Sally Singer and many others.
And most of all, thanks to the Philippine people, whose story this is, who set an example for the whole world to follow.

The force behind Talking Heads and creator of the record label Luaka Bop, David Byrne also works as a photographer, film director, author and solo artist. Works include Playing the Building, an interactive sound installation in New York; Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, a collaboration with Brian Eno; unique bike racks around NYC; and the book Bicycle Diaries.Most recently Love This Giant, Byrne’s collaboration with St. Vincent, and his book How Music Workswere released in 2012. Byrne won an Oscar for his contributions to the score of The Last Emperor and an Obie for Here Lies Love.

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One comment for David Byrne: Here Lies Love—The Road to the Stage

  1. Comment by KJ on May 7, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    Correction in editor’s note: the cast album was released on May 6th. :)

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