David Byrne may be a debutant on Broadway, but he’s no stranger to the NYC theater world. In the past decade, he’s collaborated with Alex Timbers and Annie-B Parson on two acclaimed Off-Broadway musicals: Here Lies Love, with Imelda Marcos as its focus, and Joan of Arc: Into the Fire. The three are at it again on a bigger stage, minus the biographical material.
American Utopia, which began its four-month run in October, instead gains its steam from making the universal personal—and vice versa. The performance combines elements of a concert with philosophical digressions and Broadway production values. Byrne runs through new songs, old solo and Talking Heads favorites, a few collaborations and one topical cover while touching on human existence, interpersonal connection, politics, technology and social injustice, to name a few light subjects. But thanks to a ringleader at ease, a killer ensemble and an abundance of movement and rhythm, the show maintains a joyous, propulsive flame throughout. Here’s how Byrne conjures the love to set the theater on fire.
Byrne starts out as the lone person on stage—à la the groundbreaking concert movie Stop Making Sense—accompanied by a model of a brain. It feels somewhere between Hamlet with Yorick’s skull and a teacher fronting a biology class. That he sings of its properties and celebrates its virtues should come as no surprise; he’s nothing if not a thinking man’s musician. The gray color scheme extends well beyond the brain. Byrne is outfitted in a (well-fitting, for the record) gray suit, as are all the instrumentalists and dancers who join him, and the spartan set is surrounded on three sides by a similarly colored chain-link curtain (whose malleability plays a part in the show). It’s eye-catching and unifying rather than dull and neutral—if still a contrast to the whimsy of the preshow curtain, designed by Maira Kalman.
This is his beautiful house
The former Talking Heads frontman spends plenty of time discussing the ways people connect—but connection serves as a larger metaphor. The neural connections in brains, how television masquerades as a connection, how instruments are an extension of ourselves are just a few examples. With his songs juxtaposed as they are in this show, a theme emerges of home or finding one’s place; the title (utopia’s direct translation being “no place,” as coined by Thomas More from the original Greek words) is a clue. “This Must Be the Place,” probably the prettiest and most affecting song in the Talking Heads canon, gets a lovely reading here. It turns out this is the place: it’s easy to see this stage as Byrne’s home, where he and the band are most connected. Those instrumentalists and dancers are in near-constant motion. The drum kit is split among six different people, but doesn’t miss a beat. Everyone has to work together to make it work.
Same as it ever was?
To this observer, this star who never seemed comfortable with stardom looks like he’s having fun. He jokes at the audience’s expense and his own, speaks a made-up language before launching into the dada lyrics of “I Zimbra,” and encourages everyone to get up and dance to “Burning Down the House.” He’s said in interviews that he’s more comfortable with social interaction than he once was—it shows.
Maybe worry a little about the government
Things you’ll learn during Byrne’s spoken interludes: He’s an avid biker (you probably already knew that). He believes in voting in every single type of election. He thinks we’ve left young people in some trouble when it comes to the environment—though the show feels optimistic on the whole. And he asked Janelle Monáe’s permission for a “white man of a certain age” to cover her 2015 protest song, “Hell You Talmbout.” She was receptive to the idea. It’s emotional. It’s rhythmic. It connects the show to reality and the performers to the audience.
They dance like this
Though everyone on stage dances—the self-deprecating “We Dance Like This” serves as a particular highlight for the choreography’s importance—much of the heavy lifting is taken up by Tendaya Kuumba and Chris Giarmo. They act almost like jesters, using expressive gestures to engage the audience and interpret the songs. There are other delights in the stage movement: a short homage to the herky-jerky dance in the “Once in a Lifetime” video; those two dancers doing the chopping motions on the arm from the same video; a brief Mick Jagger–like strut, hands on side, by Byrne. By the time the apt closer “Road to Nowhere” begins, you might find it hard to stay still yourself (and like with “Burning Down the House,” most in the house don’t).
American Utopia runs through February 16, 2020, at the Hudson Theatre.