In 2010 David Byrne and Fatboy Slim released a superb collaborative concept record called “Here Lies Love.” The sumptuous double album was chockablock with club beats and Latin rhythms and featured a who’s who of (mostly female) vocalists, including Florence Welch, Sharon Jones, and Cyndi Lauper narrating in song the captivating tale of Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos’s rise from poverty to the palace.
Even before the album’s release Byrne envisioned the story and music as a theatrical piece. Next Wednesday through Sunday, the first serious glimpse of that vision of “Here Lies Love” will be available to audiences at the Hunter Center at Mass MoCA in North Adams. The performances — coproduced by Mass MoCA, Williamstown Theatre Festival, and The Public Theater — will present the work-in-progress as it is being tinkered with by Byrne and his creative collaborators, including Tony-nominated director Alex Timbers.
“It’s just a snapshot of where it is along its developmental line,” says Timbers of the “immersive” show, which surrounds the audience with actors, dancers, and video in a nightclub-like environment. “We’re just really getting the set together and starting to focus the lights, and get the video all cued up,” said Timbers by phone earlier this week. “It’s really thrilling to put it all together, but it is a little like being shot out of a cannon.”
This is a return trip to Western Mass. for Timbers, who is the artistic director of the theater company Les Freres Corbusier, having worked on his 2011 Tony-nominated musical, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” at Williamstown. “The Berkshires has been a great home for starting these large projects,” he says.
Speaking of the Tonys, we caught up with Timbers fresh from the telecast, where he watched “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which he co-directed with former Williamstown artistic director Roger Rees, pick up five awards. (Timbers and Rees were nominated for best director, but Mike Nichols took the prize for “Death of a Salesman.”)
Q. Congratulations! Five Tony Awards, not too shabby!
A. Yeah, it was awesome, it was a really wonderful night. I’ve been working on that show for 5½ years so it felt terrific.
Q. And I suppose if you weren’t going to go home with the best director honors, getting beat by Mike Nichols would be the way to go?
A. Not so bad. Last year I lost out to the “South Park” guys [best book for “The Book of Mormon”] so at least these are people that I consider heroes [laughs].
Q. Was there any video you were able to watch of David Byrne’s previous multimedia production of “Here Lies Love” in Australia?
A. That one was really a concert with video elements, so I think this is the first three-dimensional, fully staged theater piece. It’s obviously not a conventional musical because it doesn’t have dialogue or audience seating. It’s an immersive environmental experience. I like to call these “360 shows” because they really take place all around you. And here, a lot of the performers are amidst the audience and they’re on platforms. I think the closest popular entertainment to it is “De La Guarda.”
Q. That’s funny because when I interviewed Fatboy Slim recently he said David Byrne originally envisioned it as a combination of “De La Guarda,” “Stomp,” and “Evita.” Does that feel accurate?
A. I think that’s exactly right. I think the big challenge about this is — and I consider it a challenge of the form — can you create what is sort of inherently an experiential entertainment but provide also a narrative and an emotional hook into it? I think if you can do that, that feels like something new that I haven’t seen before.
Q. People think Imelda Marcos and they think shoes, but that part of the story wasn’t an element of the album’s narrative. Has that been added?
A. Yeah, no shoes in this show. From the beginning David was really clear that he did not want this to be campy. And the story ends when the Marcoses are airlifted out of Manila and all the shoes were discovered after that. So for him, this is a fun but serious psychological investigation of the politics of power and the pathology behind corruption. It’s not a sympathetic portrayal of Imelda Marcos but because you are depicting her onstage, she is your protagonist. It’s also not without trying to understand this human being.
Q. Who brought you and David Byrne together?
A. The Public Theatre put us together. I did “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” there. Immediately, I adored him and I adored the album.
Q. Were you a David Byrne fan?
A. I’ve been a huge fan of his for years. I think he’s one of the most important artists of the last several decades. I own two DVD copies of [Talking Heads concert film] “Stop Making Sense.” The whole conceit of “Stop Making Sense” is something that has been incredibly influential, the idea of building a performance from zero. And I’ve listened to his music for years. So the idea of getting to collaborate with him on something is really exciting. What’s even more exciting is how collaborative he is. He’s surrounded by a lot of amazing theater artists, whether it be designers or the artistic staff at Williamstown and The Public Theater, and he’s just really interested in making a really good theater piece, and there’s no ego at all. If someone has a suggestion that makes sense, he is the first person to say “I’m going to write a new song.” And I think that’s really, really cool. And I think that’s resulted in a piece that’s grown significantly over the last two years that I’ve witnessed. There are a lot of people at his level that think what has anybody got to teach me? And I think we’ve all learned a lot from each other. It’s literally the most creative and open room I’ve ever been part of.
Q. “Here Lies Love” seems like it falls in line with Les Freres Corbusier’s mission of populist theater?
A. Yeah. It is a little less overtly comic and postmodern in its deconstruction. But, yeah, it’s a kind of “Schoolhouse Rock” approach to the history. This is the way that I would want to learn about Imelda Marcos [laughs].