Brow Beat

Why Don’t We Dance at Musicals?

Imelda Marcos on the cover of the Here Lies Love album.

When I walked into the Public Theater’s LuEsther Hall Saturday night, I was greeted by a man in a hot pink jumpsuit shaking his hips. He wanted to let me know that he was my usher and that he was dancing.

Here Lies Love, an “immersive theatrical event” conceived by David Byrne (of Talking Heads and bike-riding fame), tells the story of Filipina first lady Imelda Marcos through many songs and even more costume changes while the audience dances along in a clublike atmosphere. Those familiar with the history, and not just the shoes, know that poor country girl Imelda moves to the big city and meets journalist Benigno Aquino. They break up and, after a whirlwind 11-day courtship, she marries Sen. Ferdinand Marcos. With her help, he’s eventually elected president. Ferdinand is corrupt, cheats on Imelda, gains more and more power, declares Martial Law, and imprisons the opposition leader, Aquino. After a heart attack, Aquino is sent to the U.S. for surgery, but, when he returns to Manila 11 years later, he’s assassinated as he disembarks the plane. Three years later a rigged election prompts the peaceful People Power Revolution, and the Marcoses are airlifted from the country. Aquino’s widow is named president.

The Marcos saga makes for a great story. It has everything: a love triangle, political ambition, good triumphing over evil, tons of clothes. But it also has poverty and hunger, which sometimes makes the set design a little awkward—nothing says revolution like a spinning disco ball. While Alex Timbers, the show’s director, told the New York Times that it was an “unequivocal condemnation” of the Marcos regime, that wasn’t entirely clear to me. Political strife is mentioned, but the general feel is what you’d expect from a dance club—plus the occasional news reporters walking through the audience as the actor playing Ferdinand campaigns.

Still, while the show can be morally confusing, the interactive element is an unequivocal blast. More musicals should employ DJs and dancing ushers.

Immersive and interactive theater is having a moment. Events like Sleep No More, Then She Fell, and Roman Tragedies at BAM are all about exploring spaces and choosing your own adventure. Whether it’s walking through a house and rifling through papers or wandering around a modern-day Roman amphitheater, audience members are getting restless. Why should we be sitting, when we can be standing and getting in on the action? (Besides, sitting, or so we’re told, could kill us.) With musicals, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be dancing instead of just watching other people sing and dance. So, when my usher started teaching me to line dance the Filipina way, and asked me to sing along, or directed traffic as the stage began to move around every which way, I happily complied.

It may not be a Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk, quite, but more theaters should follow suit. We need more musicals with line-dancing breaks.