NEW YORK — David Byrne has been thinking a lot about numbers recently.
As in: How many people packed into a room makes it a happy mob? What’s the perfect number you need to make them lose their inhibitions and dance? What if there are too many? Too few?
The Talking Heads frontman’s preoccupation has been triggered by the reopening of his immersive show “Here Lies Love,” which returns this month to the Public Theater.
The exact number of people is important because the show is staged as an interactive disco that charts the rise and fall of Philippine ex-first lady Imelda Marcos. The audience mills around or dances as platforms move and the action switches from one side of the room to the other.
When it was in the Public’s LuEsther Hall last year, the show had a capacity of 160. This time, Byrne and a group of commercial producers are hoping to push that number to 200 or so.
“There gets to be a tipping point where a certain number of people become a crowd. I don’t know that exact number. I’m sure it has something to do with density,” Byrne says. “By increasing the number, we’re going to kind of push it further that way and that’s going to be great.”
Byrne, who teamed up with Fatboy Slim on the music, has been shepherding the show for 10 years, ever since a light bulb went off in his head when he learned about Marcos owning a disco ball.
It turned out the former beauty queen-turned-dictator loved to dance, converted the roof of one of her Manila palaces into a nightclub and hit discos regularly in the 1970s.
The unique project began as a concept album, performed in a handful of live concerts including a 2007 engagement at Carnegie Hall, before it was developed into a full-blown theater piece directed by Alex Timbers.
The musical begins with Imelda as a poor girl who gains fame as a beauty pageant winner. Following a whirlwind courtship, she marries up-and-coming politician and soon to be president, Ferdinand Marcos.
The Marcoses ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986 — the last 14 years of that under martial law — before being driven into exile in Hawaii during a 1986 popular revolt, leaving the country’s economy faltering under huge debts. Ferdinand Marcos died in 1989 and Imelda has since returned to her homeland and entered politics.
“I wanted you to understand a little bit what’s motivating Imelda, what’s driving her, what her delusions are, but also what her pain is, what she loves, so you understand what makes her do the things that she does,” Byrne says.
It turns out that disco — bombastic, sentimental and a tad delusional — works well with a story that may leave theatergoers feeling uneasy about how much fun they’re having. The show ends with democracy restored but no mention of her collection of 1,220 pairs of size 8 shoes.
Byrne’s working on a new musical that, like this one, uses no spoken dialogue. But he hopes it doesn’t take another decade.
Might it also involve another powerful person? One who also created an insulated world? Byrne laughs: “Somebody will do a musical about Henry Kissinger, but I don’t think it will be me.”