Talking Heads and Dancing Shoes: How Fatboy Slim Brought His Beats to Broadway
The UK rave legend breaks down how an odd encounter with David Byrne led to the creation of a glitzy musical about party girl and shoe-loving Filipino First Lady Imelda Marcos.
Here Lies Love at New York's Public Theater. Photo credt: http://herelieslove.com/
Many people know Fatboy Slim from his hits like "Weapon of Choice" and "Praise You," and their accompanying videos directed by Spike Jonze. Ravers know Fatboy Slim as a peak hour DJ champion, with his endless energy at the decks and an impressive supply of colorful shirts. But this year, the man known as Norman Cook brought the nightclub to the most unlikely place: an off-Broadway musical, one created in collaboration with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.
Staged at New York's Public Theater and concurrently at the National Theater in London's North Bank, Here Lies Love is literally off-Broadway, but still in NYC and still in Manhattan, not too far a cry from the site of the long-gone Studio 54. "The first thing David said was 'I'm going to set this in the nighttime and the crowd will be there in the nighttime. There won't be a stage or an audience,'" Cook explains, laughing. "'Yeah, good luck with that,' I thought. I was in there to make sure it stayed in a nightclub and [didn't get] too Broadway. It was very firmly off-Broadway."
Cook's relationship with the source material for Here Lies Love started half a decade ago when Byrne approached him to assist with songwriting and arranging of a 2010 concept album of the same name. Released on Nonesuch, the album featured guest vocals from a slew of artists including Sia, Róisín Murphy, Santigold and Florence Welch.
Imelda Marcos with (some) of her many shoes. Photo credt: Credit: Pat Roque / Associated Press
Here Lies Love tells the story of the Philippines' notorious First Lady Imelda Marcos, most famous for her extensive shoe collection at a time when her dictator husband, Ferdinand, presided over unprecedented famine in the country. My parents (who attended a performance of Here Lies Love with me), were familiar with the legend of Marcos, but the musical's plot explores more personal details of Marcos' rise and fall beyond her footwear. Her relationship with Ferdinand, the banishing of the woman who raised her, Estrella Cumpas, run-ins with Fidel Castro and Richard Nixon, as well as her seemingly random presence in the glitzy drug-riddled disco scene of New York in the 70s. One visual montage from the musical literally shows pills raining from the sky.
For his part, David Byrne has said his intention was to tell a story about "what drives a powerful person, what makes them tick." In a pairing as unlikely as a Filipino First Lady and Studio 54 itself, he turned to Fatboy Slim for help on bringing that narrative, and the club, to the stage.
"My input on it was purely on the songwriting and arranging [Byrne's] vision; putting it on the stage, I really couldn't get my head around it," Cook says.
Cook says Byrne was fascinated with Marcos' interest in disco and nightclub culture and imagined if she was still upholding her party girl status today, she more than likely would be embracing the hedonism in a place like Ibiza. Given that Fatboy Slim held a residency on the island, Byrne, merely connected the dots when looking for a musical partner.
"So I got the call to help with the whole nightclub element," Cook explains. "He didn't want it to be like Annie—he got me in to weave the narrative in amongst music you would hear in a nightclub. It was a great learning experience."
While Cook is adamant that Byrne is the true visionary behind their collaboration, songs from Here Lies Love, like the acid-house tinged "American Troglodyte," flow with Cook's sharp and melodic production style. Even for a veteran producer like Cook, his work on the album and musical brought him to new places as a musician.
"Most of the nightclub music I do isn't very lyrical," he explains. "It's based of some sort of repetition or theme, and all of the songs would start with just the melody and the song which is the story. I would say 'yeah that's great but it has about four too many verses or bridges, and we've got to cut it down to a three minute pop song' and [David] said we can't because it has to tell the story and the conversations between two people."
The stage version of Here Lies Love radiates with the Fatboy Slim influence. There's a jubilant DJ waving his arms from a booth littered with Fatboy Slim stickers, perched above the crowd, all herded together in a way familiar to clubgoers. Trippy projection mapping layers the walls and it would be hard to find a broadway musical that matches the volume of this. Cook agrees with comparisons between the show and the continuous, immersive nature of a DJ set but he but notes how the the performance aspect of the theater panders to a specific type of artist.
"I think the reason a lot of DJs are DJs is because there's that barrier between you and the audience," he says. "There's a DJ booth to hide behind—that's why a lot of them are DJs versus lead singers; lead singers you're right out there, they see your ass if you turn around, or scratching it if you need to," he chuckled.
For Cook, working on the musical was a profound experience, and a bit of a milestone in his already-storied career. Even after the last notes were written, it wasn't until he was going to the theater with his wife that it hit him. "As we walked down the street we saw the big sign with my name on it—I wasn't sure if my name would be on the lights—I suddenly realized 'I actually stumbled upon co-writing an off-Broadway musical!' That was one box that I didn't think I would tick off in my career."
For those hoping for more Fatboy Slim-on-Broadway moments, don't get too excited. Cook compared the experience to running a marathon: a proud moment in his life, but not necessarily one he's eager want to repeat.
"I think if David Byrne phoned me up again, whatever he said, I'd say yes to."
David is an Associate Editor of THUMP and has been a Fatboy Slim fan since he was seven years old. @DLGarber