David Byrne Breaks the Broadway Rules With American Utopia

Interview   David Byrne Breaks the Broadway Rules With American Utopia
 
Broadway’s Hudson Theatre may be a stop on his international tour, but as the only venue of its kind on the list, you won’t see the Talking Heads frontman like this anywhere else.
David Byrne
David Byrne Jody Rogac

Whether fusing music genres from around the world or guitar-soloing onstage in a tutu, David Byrne has been pushing the envelope in the music industry for decades. That continues with the former Talking Heads frontman’s latest theatrical concert experience, American Utopia, currently at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre through February 16, 2020.

The Broadway engagement is a stop on the show’s international tour, and after playing massive concert venues, Byrne was excited for the more intimate setting of the Hudson. “We chose songs that would help tell a story,” Byrne says. “We were playing in bigger venues where the audience basically wants to have a party, but coming into a Broadway theatre, you can slow down in parts of it—add more content and put more ideas out there.”

Named for Byrne’s 2018 album, American Utopia begins with a near empty stage as Byrne, wearing a plain gray suit and no shoes, sits at a table examining a plastic model of the human brain, singing about the various functions of the mind. As the song builds, two back-up vocalists and a nine-piece band, all dressed identically to Byrne (down to their bare feet) trickle onto the stage.

For the rest of the evening, Byrne and his band perform from the album as well as from his diverse music catalog, including hits from his solo career and Talking Heads classics. The multi-talented band, who bear a wide array of instruments, from guitars to full-sized bass drums, do more than just play music; the entire company dances throughout the show in complex formations, conceived by choreographer Annie-B Parson.

READ: Why Choreographer Annie B-Parson Needed Harnesses to Complete Her Vision for Broadway’s American Utopia

Between songs, Byrne, a Scottish immigrant, speaks to the audience about his perception of America and raises questions about the American standard of a “perfect life.” The show’s high energy musical numbers make it a celebration of America’s diversity and inclusion.

For vocalist Chris Giarmo, the Broadway theatre setting allows for the performers to connect with audiences in new ways. “I feel like a lot of audience members are expecting a fourth-wall situation, but we are breaking that real quick,” Giarmo says. “You feed us as much as we give back to you. That kind of performer-audience duet is super strong here.”

The show is more than a set list. Byrne speaks to the audience in between songs about the importance of political involvement, and American Utopia partnered with the nonpartisan organization HeadCount to offer voter registration to audiences in the venue every night.

“Art is political,” says Angie Swan, the show’s guitarist. “You have these audiences coming in and hopefully they’re leaving with more knowledge than when they came in.”

And with a song or two stuck in their heads, too.

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