Theater isn’t a word you hear thrown around much on new music blogs, unless of course it relates to the latest high Twitter drama between aspiring rappers. Looking straight at you Azealia Banks and Angel Haze. That’s because the staging of contemporary pop music around a narrative hasn’t historically fared well. A handful of theater producers have staged nostalgic sing-alongs like Mamma Mia or Rock of Ages on Broadway and subsequently ported these almost-current frankensteins to the silver screen, but these musicals routinely fail to deliver a story of any substance, or interest fans of cutting-edge pop. With Here Lies Love, a wildly creative disco opera, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim seek to bridge the gap between pop innovators and the theater.
Here Lies Love tells the story of the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, the wife of the former dictator of the Philippines. It’s a classic rags to riches to drugs to clubbing all night on the presidential palace story, complete with a bowtie revolution at the end. The title was inspired by Imelda Marcos’ suggestion that her gravestone should read simply “Here Lies Love,” in place of her name or other adornments—she’s still alive, so we’ll just have to wait and see. It’s also unmistakably a product of both collaborators: David Byrne can’t resist slipping in a syncopated anti-authoritarian anthem or two, and Fatboy Slim fills the production with throbbing beats that put you right in the Manila heat.
But what’s most remarkable about Here Lies Love isn’t the story, or the curious pairing of creators, but its both unique and possibly replicable path to success. It began as a concept album, which was released in 2010 and featured 22 guest vocalists, an all-star cast including Florence Welch (of Florence and the Machine fame), St. Vincent (surprise, surprise), and Santigold. Though David Byrne always envisioned it coming to life in the theater, it was released as a standalone album that was reviewed (read: panned) by Pitchfork. But whatever faults some critics find in it, Here Lies Love (as released in 2010) is an album in a way a Broadway soundtrack simply isn’t. The repetition of overt musical themes and clear story lines that pervade most Broadway cast recordings don’t exist.
In an age that finds many bemoaning the decline of the Album as a capital-letter concept, how can you get an audience to sit still and essentially listen to an album without the celebrity draw of a concert? The answer is partially the obvious: you don’t.
The fact that Here Lies Love is at its heart is an album and not a "book," or a "play," presents significant staging challenges. In an age that finds many bemoaning the decline of the Album as a capital-letter concept, how can you get an audience to sit still and essentially listen to an album without the celebrity draw of a concert? The answer is partially the obvious: you don’t. Here Lies Love employs an innovative constant breakdown and rearrangement of the stage to immerse the audience in its action. Sometimes you’re the middle of a crowd at a political rally, with your face simulcast onto the walls, while other times you’re staring up at a line of club dancers hovering above you as they disco away the night. If the question is how can you effectively stage an album with actors, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim seem to answer: "be as dynamic as possible."