David Byrne may not be able to see into the future, but he’s certainly lived a creative life that’s ahead of the curve.
Rewind back to 1979. By the time mainstream radio was catching up to the nervy new wave of bands like the Talking Heads, frontman Byrne was pushing the group to incorporate African polyrhythms into their palette — several years before other rockers followed suit. Not long after, the act’s final trek (immortalized in Jonathan Demme’s 1984 concert doc Stop Making Sense) demonstrated the broader visual possibilities of major tours, decades before that became de rigueur in the industry.
Now, a year after his acclaimed Broadway residency wrapped, Byrne is back on the Great White Way with the Fatboy Slim collaboration Here Lies Love. Based on the real-life story of Filipino First Lady Imelda Marcos and her husband’s brutal dictatorship, the musical unfurls the story of a fib-friendly autocrat who gradually dismantles a democracy while demonizing the press and blaming their sins on the opposition. Sound familiar? Well, Here Lies Love wasn’t crafted as a reflection of current times. Eerily enough, Byrne debuted an early version of the prescient project as far back as 2006; that song cycle morphed into a 2010 concept album and an off-Broadway production in 2013 before finding its way to New York City’s Broadway Theatre this fall.
Regardless, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer insists crystal balls weren’t consulted in the creation of this musical. “I didn’t see all of it coming, everything that’s happened in the last 10, 12, 15 years since I started working on this,” Byrne tells Billboard, while noting, “I saw it happening in other parts of the world.”
Even so, he just may be offering audiences a peek into Broadway’s future. Working with director Alex Timbers, the convention-averse artist is reimagining what it means to be a Broadway audience member with Here Lies Love. While some viewers have traditional seats, theatergoers with floor access are immersed in a constantly shifting, club-themed experience. A rotating stage, live video projectors and a mobile cast prevent anyone with floor tickets from standing still for very long – fitting for a restless creator who’s spent his nearly half-century career moving forward.
I saw Here Lies Love at the Public Theater during its initial NYC run a decade ago. I walked out thinking, “God, that must have been awful to live through.” At the time, it seemed so separate from our American experience.
And here we are!
I actually cried when I left the theater, realizing how familiar the world of the play now felt. I know you started this project in 2006. Did you see all of what’s happened in America coming way back then?
I didn’t see all of it coming, everything that’s happened in the last 10, 12, 15 years since I started working on this. I saw it happening in other parts of the world. At some point I knew the People Power Revolution was a big inspiration for the Colour Revolution in Tunisia, the revolution in Ukraine. They ousted a dictator, more or less, and they were very much inspired by the Philippine example. But now we’re talking the United States and some other places as well, Israel. Whoa, here we go. It really strikes home and becomes extra moving. I can’t say I had much to do with that.
Was recent history the impetus for bringing it to Broadway, or was that always the end goal?
We always hoped we’d find a more permanent home for it. The other runs were really short. Whether it was Broadway or some warehouse somewhere, we hoped we’d find another place or it — Broadway being really good because people know where that is. People are like, “I feel safe going to a Broadway show” rather than some warehouse in Brooklyn. It took a long time – a lot of dead ends, various theater owners dangling a place and then, last minute, yanking it away.
Well, it’s an unusual production and I’m sure it’s a risky investment.
(laughs) The theater owner basically has to take out all their orchestra seats. They have to commit to all that.
How many theaters did you approach before the Broadway Theatre finally gave this the greenlight?
I seem to recall having at least three other theaters in the past 10 years where we thought, “they wanna do it, we’re gonna move ahead.” David Korins, the set designer, would draw up a set of plans — which is not cheap to do — then they would go, “Oh, we’re gonna put something else in there.” It took some convincing: we had to show them how it could be done, we had to get the capacity high enough so that the income was quite a bit more than it was at the Public Theater. Once we got that it was like, “Let’s give it a try.” To be honest, I think COVID helped us out. There were so many theaters that were closed. I think theater owners just thought, “We’re paying rent and taxes on these places, we gotta get something in there.”
Do you think your success with American Utopia helped you have any Broadway clout?
Maybe. I’m not sure but maybe. People now kind of associate my name with something else they’ve seen on Broadway so they think, “He knows that world, he can do that world.” Maybe.
You’ve written a book called How Music Works that, in part, addresses the business of music. With a couple of Broadway productions under your belt, are you beginning to understand the business of Broadway?
Like the music industry, part of it is frustratingly opaque. How do you figure my percentage based on this, that and the other? It’s like trying to figure out what you’re owed from streaming. But Broadway has a completely different set of rules and thank God I have lawyers and other people to help me figure out and untangle that stuff and negotiate on my behalf. It’s really complicated, the structure of the deals on Broadway. Some of it kind of makes sense in that it’s structured so the investors get a trickle of payback even before it’s gone into profit, otherwise they’d be out of pocket for months and months. For ambitious playwrights or people who want to do music things in theaters like that, I wish it was simpler: It would open it up to a younger demographic and more emerging artists whether they’re writers, directors, musicians, whatever.
When I saw it at the Public Theater, a reprise of “Here Lies Love” served as the final song. When this play first hit Broadway, that was cut, ending the show on a more somber note. Was that done to emphasize the stakes we’re in?
It was. It was also done because we thought, “We want to be careful not to end with a song that celebrates Imelda.” But you’re right, so many audience members said, “What happened to the sing-along at the end?” So now we’ve brought it back. It’s technically not part of the show proper, it’s the curtain call, but we’ve brought it back. People feel like, “okay, we had our cry,” which happens to me every time as well, and then this big communal sing-along.
You started working on this a while ago. What was it about Imelda that compelled you to tell this story?
I’m old enough that I remember her as being this larger than life, flamboyant, outrageous personality in the news, at clubs, at social things, all that stuff. I also had this idea of doing a music show in a dance club so an audience could be dancing while they’re getting a story rather than sitting passively in seats. When I saw that she loved going to dance clubs — she turned the roof of the palace in Manila into a dance club, she had a mirror ball installed in her New York townhouse, and not many of us do that (laughs) — I thought, “wait a minute, she lives as much as she can in that environment: dancing, sparkling lights.” I thought, “Maybe her story needs to be told using the idea I had.” I spent a long time doing research and I went to the Philippines and asked people, “Here’s the story I’ve come up with — what do you think?”
Did you talk to folks who knew her?
Oh yeah. Many people knew her or met her. She’s incredibly charismatic, they said. One woman in the Philippines had no idea what I’d written, but sat down next to me and said, “Imelda was never poor.” And I thought, “Whoa, okay.” But I knew Imelda, like other public figures and politicians we know, will change her story depending on who she thinks the audience is. To one audience, she’ll tell the story of how she was poor and so she understands what your life feels like. To somebody else, she’s a society lady.
You did American Utopia and now this — are you thinking about doing more on Broadway?
I don’t have any plans right now. Right now, I’m asking myself, musically, what do I want to do next. I don’t think I can go back and just do an ordinary tour. The American Utopia tour we thought of as a radically different way of doing concerts. Now, I think, I’m stuck — that’s where the bar is set. You have to come up with something radically different again.
I suppose that’s a way to draw attention to new albums, which can sometimes seem to fly under the radar these days.
There’s that hope — with live performance you can draw attention to some of the music. I can see doing another album. I write songs, it’s part of what I do, but I have to keep asking myself, “What would be a really exciting thing to see?” I don’t have an answer to that. Setting up drums and amps and playing songs again feels, “You’ve raised the bar a little higher than that.”
Speaking of raising the bar, Stop Making Sense just got a 40th anniversary re-release from A24. Do you feel some joy looking back on it, or are you simply not interested in reliving the past?
I don’t like to relive the past but I’m really proud of what we did. I’ve seen screenings of the film recently looking at the print and IMAX print and it is kind of amazing what we did at that time. I think it holds up really well. So I’m happy to celebrate that. A24 is doing an incredible job. That’s all pretty good.
With the band reuniting to discuss the film’s anniversary, I keep hearing people ask about a reunion tour. I always say, “I would bet good money against a Talking Heads reunion tour.” Is that a bet I would win?
I think that’s a bet you’d win. We’re all really happy drawing attention to this film, this moment in our history and how it holds up and this new print and introducing it to a new — we hope — younger audience. But no, that doesn’t extend to, “Now we’re gonna do a reunion tour.”
You have a distinct singing style, but with Here Lies Love you’re writing for other voices. Did you have to change your process?
I loved writing in styles that, to me, seem like not my typical singing style. “This is what this character would do.” To hear that realized is exciting. There are some of the actors, I’ve been told, who modeled their vocal approach on my demos, which is very flattering. [The other] night one of the actors knew I was in the audience and threw in a little “same as it ever was” into one of their songs. (laughs)
What do you hope people ultimately take away from Here Lies Love?
We’ve talked about the politics — it gives you a kind of sobering bit of realism of what can happen and what is happening around the world — but a big message of hope when you see that the Philippine people peacefully ousted a dictator. It’s an amazing, hopeful moment to hold up as like, “Look, this can be done.” Because the show is so radical in the way it reimagines how to stage something, I’m hoping that other people don’t copy this show but that they rethink what a show can be. It doesn’t have to be done the same way over and over again. [A Broadway play is] not a dream I ever had since I was a teenager: I wanted to be in a rock band. But I also saw a lot of downtown theater that really inspired me and that was an inspiration for Stop Making Sense. I kept thinking, “Oh, there’s ways to do things on stage and tell stories in a certain way that Stop Making Sense tells a story as well.” So sometimes, you may find yourself (laughs) in some place you really didn’t expect to be.