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You can immerse yourself — literally — in this Broadway show


Is the future of Broadway immersive? The makers of the new musical "Here Lies Love" are so betting. It begins with a famous story, the rise and the fall of the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda Marcos. The show includes music by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. And here is the immersion part - it turns New York's Broadway theater into a disco with members of the audience on the dance floor. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: A crowd gathered outside the theater after a recent preview performance of "Here Lies Love."

NICO DE JESUS: My name is Nico de Jesus. I thought it was very fun. I didn't expect to get a history lesson in a disco, but I did.


ARIELLE JACOBS: (As Imelda, singing) Just say, here lies love. Here lies love. Here lies love.

ALEX TIMBERS: I think this is a risky, adventurous, one-of-a-kind endeavor.

LUNDEN: Alex Timbers is the director.

TIMBERS: Its success or failure will probably have some impact on whether people try to do something like this again.


JACOBS: (As Imelda, singing) The ladies passing by, a better class than I. How much it means to me to be like these.

LUNDEN: "Here Lies Love" was a hit off-Broadway 10 years ago at The Public Theater, and the immersive staging was essential to David Byrne's concept. He read that Imelda Marcos was a fan of disco, so he wrote a score with a thumping beat and melodic hooks.

DAVID BYRNE: I imagined it as being a theatrical story, a musical story being told in a discotheque and on little platforms around the periphery.


JACOBS: (As Imelda, singing) Eleven days since the moment we met. Eleven days I will never forget.

Getting to walk through the audience and really connect with them every night, I feel like I'm getting to experience the show fresh.

LUNDEN: Arielle Jacobs plays Imelda from age 16 to 57, when a revolution forced the Marcoses to flee the country.

JACOBS: I'm literally 3 feet from you, you know? I am touching them. I'm shaking their hands.

LUNDEN: The theater has gotten an expensive makeover. Three hundred audience members stand on a dance floor while others sit directly above it or in the balcony. Video screens provide historical context. Choreographer Annie-B Parson says the audience is invited to dance.


CONRAD RICAMORA: (As Ninoy Aquino, rapping) Come on, let's give our people a break. You say...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, rapping) Give our people a break.

RICAMORA: (As Ninoy Aquino, rapping) Over here, let's hear...

ANNIE-B PARSON: Often, when you go to the theater, you're just sitting on your seat, you know? And the thing passes by, and you have some sort of vague experience.

LUNDEN: But in "Here Lies Love," audience participation is not all fun and games. Director Alex Timbers says as the show goes on, you become aware of the corrupt, repressive, murderous Marcos regime.

TIMBERS: The audience can get cast in the drama in a way. So you can be cheering on at the wedding of Ferdinand and Imelda. But then, 40 minutes later, you can be at the funeral march for Aquino.


LEA SALONGA: (As Aurora Aquino, singing) That day, something was born in those afternoon showers. And the reason they're here, you need just ask the flowers.

TIMBERS: And you feel, in a way, complicit. You know, I cheered when they won the presidency, but now I realize the tyranny of dictatorship.

LUNDEN: David Byrne says the show is about the fragility of democracy.

BYRNE: People were seduced by the Marcoses. They were glamorous. They were good-looking. They did keep a lot of their campaign promises in the early days. So it seemed, to a lot of people, very promising. But then, it all goes south.

LUNDEN: For most of the cast members, Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos' rise and fall happened long before they were born. But Arielle Jacobs says the legacy is something they all share.

JACOBS: And it's so exciting to be in this cast of a hundred percent Filipino people because all of us, I think, feel such a deep connection to the story and to each other.


RICAMORA: (As Ninoy Aquino, rapping) This song right here is going out to all my Filipinos going through the struggle. You may feel like nobody sees you, but Aquino's got your back. Now listen up. (Singing) Once upon a time, I was a little prince.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) I was a prince.

LUNDEN: Rodrigo Bucsit was in the audience at a recent preview.

RODRIGO BUCSIT: That felt really Filipino, like a party vibe kind of thing. And this kind of sounds corny, but you kind of get tearful because you don't realize how much media you already consume that's not you. And then, when you see a full show where it's, like, all Filipinos, it's kind of awesome, you know?


RICAMORA: (As Ninoy Aquino) Now listen up. (Singing) I am a child of the Philippines, from Cagayan to Lake Sebu.

LUNDEN: For those unfamiliar with the history, there are displays in the lobby as well as a QR code in the Playbill, which links to a historical timeline. And to the surprise of many audience members, they learn the current president of the Philippines is Bongbong Marcos, Imelda and Ferdinand's son. And Imelda, who famously left thousands of pairs of shoes in the palace when she fled in 1986, is living there again. Set designer David Korins says...

DAVID KORINS: At its best, theater is showing you something - while entertaining you, something that is thought-provoking and meaningful.

LUNDEN: And in the case of "Here Lies Love," in a completely kinetic way - in the audience's bodies. So is this the future of Broadway theater? Already, an immersive production of "Guys And Dolls" is being planned for later in the season. So theatergoers will walk through Times Square to enter an environment depicting Times Square. David Byrne well knows the boom-and-bust nature of the business.

BYRNE: It's a huge gamble for us and for Broadway theater owners. But I've noticed that the demographic of the audience is different than the usual Broadway show. They're much more diverse and much younger than the usual Broadway show. And I thought, that's what Broadway needs.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.


JACOBS: (As Imelda, singing) Just say, here lies love. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.