David Byrne’s roving creativity has often led him in disparate directions. The former Talking Heads frontman (and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer) has displayed his photograph-based visual art at Mass MoCA, and complemented his rock and pop resume with compositions for a Twyla Tharp ballet and a Robert Wilson opera.
His newest theatrical project is an innovative musical, helmed by one of the hottest young directors working in New York today, now in the midst of a sold-out run of workshop performances at Mass MoCA through Sunday. (The production is set to officially open at New York’s Public Theatre in 2013)
"Here Lies Love," an "immersive" theater piece featuring music by Byrne and electronic music producer Fatboy Slim, is written by Byrne and directed by Alex Timbers, a two-time Obie Award-winner who was up for Tony awards for best director this year (for "Peter and the Starcatcher" with co-director Roger Rees) and for best book of a musical in 2011 for "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson."
Choreography is by Annie-B Parson.
The production tells the story of Imelda Marcos, the stylish and perhaps ambiguous wife of longtime Filipino leader Ferdinand Marcos, as informed by the perspective of an obscure figure from her childhood.
"It’s a very kinetic, dynamic, visceral way of telling this rise and fall of Imelda Marcos," says Timbers, 33, seated in a rehearsal studio at MoCA. "The show does not glorify Imelda Marcos, but I think we examine the politics of power and the pathology behind someone who so boldly sought out power and the love of the people and then had a country turn on her."
Audience members will enter a 360-degree set in Mass MoCA’s Hunter Center and remain standing throughout the production, at times encouraged to turn and face another direction, move about or, for the willing, dance. A cast of 12 will perform on moving platforms and at times while moving amidst the audience. The storytelling is aided by video projections as well.
Much of the music comes from the 2010 album of the same name, by Byrne and Fatboy Slim -- packed with burbling electronic beats and intended to recall Marcos’ fondness for the disco culture of the late-1970s.
The collaboration with Byrne has been an easy one, Timbers says, noting that successful rock musicians sometimes have trouble adjusting to the very different demands of musical theater, in which songs must propel the story forward while also reflecting emotional changes in the characters.
"He’s been the first to say, if he has a song that feels maybe emotionally static, to say maybe this doesn’t work," Timbers says, noting that Byrne has written several new songs to flesh out the stories of characters who’ve emerged, during rehearsals, as more important than originally conceived. This process "suggests to me someone who is just getting better and better as he goes with communicating character and context and someone who really draws inspiration from these things, just like any theatrical artist," the director adds.
There’s little dialogue in this theatrical incarnation, so the songs, choreography and video must do more than simply entertain--they tell the story. Timbers says he wants to create a theatrical experience that pushes the form forward in some ways, but remains rooted in the basic tenets of storytelling.
"I think it would be very easy to do this show as a series of music videos, or as a kind of spoofy adventure. That’s certainly not what David’s interested in, and I don’t think that’s a very ambitious thing," he says. "It’s trying to be a really hip, cool, experiential piece with amazing music, but it’s trying to really tell a story."
Timbers has prior experience with a certain kind of audience-immersive theater, but says "Here Lies Love" will stand out by resisting the temptation to play up its novel elements at the expense of telling a clear story and fostering emotional connections with fully realized characters.
"I think what’s ambitious about this piece is, and what I think not all 360-degree theater attempts to do, is not only attempt to tell a story in a very lucid way, but also establish an emotional connection with your protagonist. While this show is not overly self-serious, it’s not campy or kitschy. It is truly serious in its dramatic endeavor."
This run of workshop performances is billed as a co-production of Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Public, and was preceded by a key three-week residency at Mass MoCA. It continues what has been a very successful history of collaboration between Timbers and WTF. He developed his irreverent rock musical "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" there, as well as his current New York success, "Peter and the Starcatcher," co-directed with former WTF artistic director Rees.
"I think the place has good karma," Timbers says,