Since “Here Lies Love” opened to almost universal rave reviews at the Public, there has been speculation that the David Byrne-Fatboy Slim musical about the rise and fall of the Marcos regime in the Philippines would transfer to a larger venue. Which theater — or space — it would book was the question since the show, like “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” is an immersive experience. (“Natasha” begins a 14-week limited engagement on Tuesday, September 24, having moved its opulent, custom-built “pop-up” supper club Kazino to a new location on 45th Street, just off of Times Square.)
Most of the speculation about “Here Lies Love” centered on Circle-in-the-Square Theatre — a Broadway house with the most flexible seating and where the musical “Soul Doctor” appears to be flailing. That will not be the case. The decision has now been made, and the show will be moved to the basement of the two-star Hotel Pennsylvania in midtown. Director Alex Timbers, set designer David Korins, and New York architect Mitchell Kurtz are currently in the process of reconfiguring the space to accommodate what made the interactive experience at the Public so appealing.
Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, told the New York Times last July, “It is certainly true that we are looking at conventional theater spaces as well as unconventional spaces. But wherever we go, we will maintain the actor-audience relationship and interaction, and the space will have to keep the feel and energy of a nightclub.”
“Here Lies Love” is set in a disco, and the majority of theater-goers during the run at the Public’s LuEsther Hall were asked to stand in an open space while the actors sang and acted on platforms and moving catwalks. There was also a narrow balcony above the “disco” where other patrons could choose to sit, but the sight lines were not ideal. (It’s not clear at this point whether there will be seating at the Pennsylvania, but it is unlikely.) At the LuEsther, personnel were on hand to guide groups so they wouldn’t be trampled by either some of the moving set pieces or by their fellow standees. At times, the audience was encouraged to dance or to stand-in for the populist mobs which Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, played by Jose Llana and Ruthie Ann Miles, would attract with their flamboyant demagoguery. The 2010 concept album, on which the show is based, was inspired by Imelda Marcos’s love of disco, which rivaled her love of shoes. She was a constant habitué of Studio 54 and a lover of the most purple prose and songs. The title itself — “Here Lies Love” — is a taken from what she suggested should be her epitaph.
The musical cleverly incorporates both the party atmosphere and the tragic collision between the Marcoses and the family of their chief political opponent, Benigno Aquino, whose assassination upon his return to the Philippines was widely seen to be the work of Ferdinand Marcos’s henchmen. In the wake of the protests, “People Power” toppled the Marcos regime and led to the election of Corazon Aquino, the widow of Aquino. The 1986 transfer of power celebrated in the musical will be especially poignant and nostalgic given the souring of the Arab Spring.
The choice of venue means that the show will not be eligible to compete for Tony Awards. That sigh of relief you hear is coming from the producers of other musicals that will be part of the season as “Here Lies Love” would have stood to garner quite a few nominations in the race. However, in exchange, there will be another revenue stream. While Broadway theaters also sell comestibles and booze, the atmosphere created within an immersive experience lends itself to party with a drink in tow, whether it’s another shot of vodka for “Natasha” or Red Horse Beer for “Here Lies Love.” That Filipino brew is known for its extra kick.
Photo by Joan Marcus