Out With the Velvet Seats, in With the Dance Floor

How one show got a theater to transform itself into a disco.

Photo: Christopher Payne/B)Christopher Payne/Esto
Photo: Christopher Payne/B)Christopher Payne/Esto

For years, scenic designer David Korins and director Alex Timbers thought it would be impossible to bring Here Lies Love to Broadway. The musical, built on a concept by David Byrne that sets the life story of former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos to disco beats (engineered by Fatboy Slim), was a hit when it premiered Off Broadway at the Public Theater in 2013 and, later, in London and Seattle. But even so, it didn’t seem fit for midtown. The problem: The show relies on turning a theater into a disco with ticket buyers included in the action. “I’ve heard DJs say there’s an arc to the evening, taking the audience up and down and up again, and I thought, What if you could do that with a story and the audience is dancing at the same time?” Byrne said. He’d also learned Marcos loved going to Studio 54, and wondered, “Maybe this is an instance where the heady and ecstatic and transcendent feeling of dance music might reflect how it feels to be a person in power?

The creators had made over smaller spaces into clubs, but convincing a Broadway theater owner to permit major structural changes was harder. They “exhausted” their options in New York — warehouses and ballrooms, too. Nothing worked until a spot opened up at the Broadway Theatre. Owned by the Shubert Organization, it’s one of Broadway’s largest venues, hangarlike in size with the capacity to seat over 1,700. It also has a history of taking on big design projects, having housed Miss Saigon’s helicopter in the early 1990s and, in 1974, Eugene Lee’s multi-layer set for an all-surrounding version of Candide.

Korins spent the last three months overseeing a massive overhaul of the space. Already, they’ve had to tweak the original plan: Previous versions of the musical had actors perform to pre-recorded backing tracks in the style of karaoke for most of the show, with only three actor-musicians. After pressure from the musicians guild Local 802, it will employ eight more musicians, a negotiated number still below the typical minimum of 19 for the theater (though pre-recorded tracks are still used). Here Lies Love is making a risky bet on the lengthy renovation of its new home as well as on its concept at a time when Broadway prefers familiar IP. Korins, who worked on Beetlejuice and Hamilton, put it this way: “I’ve done some complicated and ambitious work on Broadway, and this is 100 times more complicated.”


Strip down the house


Work started in early March with the removal of 900 orchestra seats. That made room to extend the stage’s platform through the proscenium arch and out into the rest of the theater as the crew set about assembling the steel superstructure that would hold up the stage and the galleries that surround it. Prior to construction, Korins and his team put together renderings and checked on city fire and safety codes with the architect Mitchell Kurtz, who has worked on redesigns for Playwrights Horizons and New York Theatre Workshop, among others. In case of a fire, for instance, a safety curtain would fall right across the middle of the stage, so they needed to design egress points on either side. The chairs, meanwhile, were transferred to a storage space off-site. “I don’t want to be here when they have to put the seats back in,” Korins joked.


Install a new skeleton


Doing the show in a traditional proscenium theater (i.e., one in which an arch creates a clear separation between the audience and the stage, not one in the round) in Seattle proved to Korins and Timbers that they could eventually up the scale, so they adapted the basic concept from that run — the key innovation being that the galleries around the dance floor would connect to the seats in the mezzanine, which look down onto the stage. The materials, made of “thousands of linear feet of steel,” according to Korins, were assembled off-site and then brought into the Broadway Theatre and installed over several weeks in March and April. The production even added a wheelchair lift to allow access to those seats and connect them to the rest of the mezzanine (the building previously had wheelchair seating only in the orchestra).


Envelop the audience


Here Lies Love intends to fit about 1,100 audience members with around 300 standing on the dance floor. (The show itself has a 23-person company.) In previous runs, according to Timbers, people have come back to see the show multiple times from different angles: Some had originally decided that they didn’t want to stand but then, after watching from the galleries, wanted to be closer to the performance the next time. Others bought floor tickets but then wanted to sit farther back and see the “top shot of all the motion of the thing.” To keep the show immersive for all, video is projected on the walls and on screens in the mezzanine, doubling some of the action playing out down below. The dance floor and the mezzanine both have platforms where ensemble members will appear and dance among the audience. That cast works alongside a set of “audience wranglers,” who wear pink jumpsuits and help move everyone around the stage in order to get people facing the right direction during key moments. There is also a “blender” that extends out from the central platform and rotates around the dance floor, helping shift the crowd around the space. “We’re thinking a lot about how to extend the experience to envelop people,” Timbers said, with every vantage point intended to provide its own unique advantages.


Polish the club


While the production went into tech rehearsals with the cast on the revamped stage — centered, of course, on a humongous disco ball — in the beginning of June, the rest of the theater got a makeover. Crew members constructed rectangular gray hallways in the space formerly occupied by the rear orchestra, through which the audience will walk to the dance floor, that are designed to resemble an entrance to an ordinary club. Video screens added to the lobby will offer a basic history of the Marcoses’ controversial regime and America’s involvement with it — in one iteration, there are photos of Imelda dancing with a series of American presidents as part of her soft power campaign with U.S. leaders. The musical has been criticized by some for de-emphaszing the atrocities the Marcoses committed, which included instituting censorship and martial law, the embezzlement of billions of dollars, and the murder and torture of political opponents.

Imelda herself is still alive and claimed in 2010 to be “flattered” by Byrne and Slim’s concept album. Her son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. is the current president of the Philippines, having won in 2022 after a campaign that attempted to inspire nostalgia for the Marcoses legacy. However, the Here Lies Love producers insist this is an “anti-Marcos show,” and the Broadway version is being altered with an awareness of recent events. “We’re looking very hard at the U.S.-Philippines relationship and at America’s complicity in the Marcoses’ rise,” Timbers said. “Even though this show takes place before Bongbong’s election, there’s a moment acknowledging it.”

And before previews, test audiences were brought in to approximate how guests will flow around the floor to allow for modifications to the staging. How the real audience will actually move, of course, is the final uncertainty. “We have this mapped out within an inch of its life,” Korins said, “and I’m sure it’s going to evolve.”

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How Here Lies Love Transformed Its Theater Into a Disco