David Byrne on bringing American Utopia to a more 'open-minded' Broadway
While jukebox musicals may never die (at least based on the enduring popularity of titles like Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia), Broadway is also expanding its space for pop and rock musicians, inviting them to bring innovative new works to the Great White Way.
With projects like Bruce Springsteen’s Springsteen on Broadway, the possibilities for musicians looking to try something different are suddenly available to them in New York City theaters. And David Byrne, the enigmatic musician and Talking Heads frontman, is taking full advantage with American Utopia.
The show, which is inspired by Byrne’s 2018 album of the same, marks his Broadway performing debut. Now in previews at the Hudson Theatre, American Utopia is, as Byrne describes it, “a narrative of ideas of a person’s journey through life.” Though Byrne is the figure telling the story, he stresses that it’s not entirely autobiographical, but meant more to evoke certain emotions and ideas for the purpose of engaging with concepts like social justice and civic engagement. The entire 11-person band is self-contained, allowing them to move freely about the blank slate of the empty stage without any amps or other gear visible to the audience.
American Utopia features numerous tracks from Byrne’s more recent solo work, as well as some classic Talking Heads hits like like “Burning Down the House,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and “Road to Nowhere.” Opening Oct. 20 for a limited engagement through Jan. 19, the show also includes choreography and musical staging from Annie-B Parson and production consulting from Alex Timbers (Moulin Rouge). It’s a slightly adjusted version of a touring live show of the same name Byrne been doing for more than a year.
EW called up Byrne to talk about the genesis of the project, how Broadway is becoming friendlier to more innovative shows of this nature, why the entire cast is clad in gray, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Can you walk us through the evolution of this from album to live show to Broadway production?
DAVID BYRNE: The album started with a lot of programmed drum tracks that Brian Eno sent me. He thought maybe I could do something with them, turn them into songs or something. They were very percussive, very energetic-sounding. I imagined what that would be like to reproduce that live. So that was always a seed that was planted, and then as the record evolved it became based less and less on those, but the idea of performing with a whole group of drummers stayed in my mind.… I wondered if like a marching band or a drum line, if the drummers could all be mobile. And then I started wondering if everything could be mobile.
With everybody being mobile, being untethered, that meant we could do other things. We could clear the stage of everything except ourselves. We could choreograph the entire show, everybody is in motion, and the show could be more democratic. Different bands parts of the band could come to the forefront at different times. There wasn’t a fixed structure of, say, me in the front and the band in the back. Sometimes the band comes to the front and I’m in the back. And then I had to figure out how to create a space for us that would make it very clear what we had done. If you go out and the audience can see all the crap that’s all around us, the gear and the boxes and the crew hovering around the edges, then it doesn’t really look empty. I didn’t have ambitions to go to Broadway. But almost immediately when we started doing live shows, about a year and a half ago, I got wind of Broadway producers or investors or somebody had seen one of our very first warmup shows and were saying, “You have to bring this to Broadway. This is different than a regular pop concert.” So I reached out to some producers, and well, here we are.
Were you inspired at all by other musicians coming to Broadway, like Sting with The Last Ship or Bruce Springsteen with Springsteen on Broadway?
Those shows told me that Broadway was opening up to other kinds of music and other kinds of shows. That’s a good sign; that means what I’m hoping to do might be possible. It might be accepted. It might not get pushed away with “Oh, that’s not the kind of thing we do here.” People are becoming more open-minded about what we do here. I thought that was really good.
How much has it changed from the touring production to Broadway?
I suspected that a Broadway audience is going to be different than a concert audience. They come with a different set of expectations, and they bring different baggage when they go out to see a show. When we did the live concert shows, people would just get up and start dancing almost immediately, sometimes almost all the way through the show. Broadway’s audience is not going to do that. They may dance at the end, and they do, but they want something else. Some friends of mine told me they perceived a narrative arc within the concert. I agreed, and I thought, “Let’s bring that out a little bit more. We’ll change out some of the numbers, and [we’ll] introduce all the concepts and what’s going on, and I’ll talk a little bit more.”
The shaping of that narrative arc, was that the impetus behind bringing Alex Timbers on board?
Yes, exactly. Alex saw that too. It was not just his directorial skills, but his dramaturgical skills. He would see how that arc was working and how one part of what we’re doing would relate to something further on in the show, like how the beginning relates to the end, and all those kinds of things.
For those who are Broadway fans, what assumptions should they put aside coming into the show? And then, what assumptions should your fans put aside coming in?
I’ll start with the fans. If they haven’t seen the show before, it’s completely different than anything I’ve ever done before, but it still has a lot of songs they’ll be very familiar with. So I think they’ll be happily surprised and not feel like they’ve been assaulted by something completely unfamiliar. Broadway fans, my dream is that we get an audience at some point that is really pretty much unfamiliar with me and my material and Talking Heads, and doesn’t know these songs very much. That would be really exciting. If there’s word of mouth that this is just a good show, that’s moving and exciting and innovative, if that’s what they hear, then to me that’s a dream come true.
How would you describe the story or experience of the show narratively?
In its simplest terms, you’ve got a person who’s very much inside themselves. The show starts off with me holding a brain, and then it moves to a person who gets involved with a larger community, and that’s the band. There’s 11 of them plus me, so there’s a dozen of us, and they all function like a wonderful, ecstatic machine. There’s a joy in that. This person is coming out of themselves a little bit. This person and the whole community move on from that to engaging with a wider world, to engaging with social justice and issues and civic engagement and all those kinds of things. It’s not narrative in a conventional sense; it’s more a narrative of ideas and emotions.
Your show is very movement-driven, and you’ve made it so every musician can move freely. What intrigued you about that possibility?
I’ve done shows before where musicians can move around. I did a tour with St. Vincent a few years ago and all the brass players could move around, which is not that uncommon. And then I did another one before that where we had some dancers and singers that could move around, and there was always all this other stuff on stage. All the gear and the players, they were kind of locked in place. And this time I thought if I could get everybody to move, if everybody was free, then we wouldn’t need to have anything on stage except us. And that is going to help tell the story.
It’s certainly not an unfamiliar look to anyone who’s seen Stop Making Sense, but what was the reasoning or creative decision behind the all-gray palette of the show’s wardrobe?
I definitely wanted us all in the same outfits. I thought a suit would be fairly attractive, but then I wanted to balance that out with something else so it didn’t look like we were trying to look like a bunch of conservative business people, or like we were dressing up going out for some event. So I had us all be barefoot. That is a counterbalance to the formality of the suits. They ended up being gray because I asked [the lighting designer], “What color would you like the suits to be?” He said, “If they’re white I can’t make you disappear, and if they’re black I have to use too much light to illuminate you. If you can get them to be a medium gray, then that would give me the most options.” Purely practical.
You explicitly stated that the title is not ironic, and that the American utopia it refers to can be seen on the stage. With our current state of affairs, do you find something bittersweet in that title, or perhaps something like salvation in at least being able to realize such a title within the four walls of your theater?
The title and what we do and what the show is about, it’s an antidote to a lot of what’s going on in the world at the moment. Not just in this country, but in other countries too. So it’s very much nonpartisan, but I ask questions about who we are, what do we want, and what do we hope for ourselves.
How did you hit on what older songs to include? Was it purely narratively driven, or some desire to get in greatest hits?
It was a mixture. I knew that people are going to want to hear some songs they’re familiar with, to ground it in something they know. But also, the catalog is deep enough that I could cherry-pick songs that help advance the narrative. In a show like this one, “Psycho Killer” is not going to be appropriate. It just doesn’t help the story at all. It doesn’t fit. But luckily there’s plenty of other things.
You’ve already toured the show, but do you have plans for it after this? Turning it into a filmed event, perhaps?
Yeah, we’re looking into it. It’s too early to say what’s going to happen.
You’re halfway to an EGOT, with an Oscar and Grammy. Any hope this could be your way into the T?
I’ve heard that technically that’s not very likely. I’m not sure what the rules are, but someone told us this doesn’t fit in the categories.