INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Vogue SEPTEMBER 12, 2019 - by Robert Sullivan
DAVID BYRNE'S INVENTIVE, AMBITIOUS NEW MUSICAL AMERICAN UTOPIA ARRIVES ON BROADWAY
When Annie-B Parson was a kid growing up in Chicago in the '70s, her father didn't take her to see musicals; he took her to the ballet. This turned out to be a relevant education for the cofounder of Big Dance Theater, the experimental company that injects dance into theater and theater into dance. It was at home that she watched the midcentury classics. "I did love them," she says. "Those old dances, I know them by heart" - and not just the dances but everything about them. "I was kind of addicted to them, until I totally rejected them and got into Talking Heads," she says, laughing.
She is remembering all this in the SoHo production studio of David Byrne, her childhood idol turned frequent creative collaborator, four months before their latest project, American Utopia, arrives on Broadway. It's a hot summer day, and the Talking Heads founder is walking Parson through his gorgeous archive of tapes, files, and art, to the office in the back, where they are working on the show's transition from stage to stage - in this case, from concert venue to Broadway theater. They speak like old friends, which, at this point, they are.
When Parson brings up a childhood love of Oklahoma!, Byrne interjects: "Did you see the new version?"
"Yeah, so good, right?"
Byrne is nodding. "We'll talk about that later," he says, smiling.
American Utopia, the 2018 album, was Byrne's first solo work in more than a decade and his very first to hit Billboard's Top 10. (It will perhaps shock fans that prior to that, he had reached only the Number 15 slot in 1983, with the Talking Heads' Speaking In Tongues.) American Utopia, the show, grew out of the subsequent success of the concert tour, though that tour was by no means typical. Performances were choreographed by Parson to be less rock show - i.e., drummer behind his drums, guitar player cradling his instrument, singer stoic behind his microphone stand - and more of a multilayered performance piece: a twelve-person band, clad in vaguely Maoist costumes, moving through a shape-shifting chain-link curtain. At some point during the tour, people began to pull Byrne aside to point out that his rock show felt like a story. "They would say, 'It's there - it's hard to put into words, but we felt it,'" he recalls, grinning.
The Broadway show - which opens this October at the Hudson Theatre - will be a new iteration of that glorified concert: a series of songs performed by a barefoot band, untethered and able to move around the stage as a dance troupe might. As Alex Timbers, the show's production consultant, puts it: "It's part rock concert, part theatrical spectacle, and part intimate exploration of a major artist's career."
Performances begin with Byrne seated alone at a small table, pondering the disconnections of the brain. "Now, it feels like a bad connection," he sings. Although it has neither dialogue nor plot nor anything resembling a typical narrative structure, the show, you might say, is a search for good connection, and it is not giving too much away to say that at one point, the cast poses with Byrne for what resembles a family portrait (the production was still being developed through the summer). The protagonist is transformed, in other words, by the people around him - though you don't want to push Byrne or Parson on what it all means. "We don't want to be reductive!" Parson says.
"We just want to bring it out a little bit more," Byrne adds, "but, without, you know, putting a pin in it, without putting a nose on the clown."
Broadway loves noses on its clowns, to put it mildly, but Broadway is also lately in love with rock stars and pop stars and what you might call musical residencies.
The past few years have seen Bruce Springsteen, and more recently Regina Spektor and Morrissey, move into midtown venues. The more traditional jukebox musical is on something of an upswing as well, with The Go-Go's Head Over Heels; Ain't Too Proud - The Life And Times Of The Temptations; and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. Still to come this year is an adaptation of Alanis Morissette's groundbreaking album Jagged Little Pill, and next year, Girl From The North Country, a Depression-era musical set to the songs of Bob Dylan, is expected to arrive on Broadway. And then there's Hadestown, the album of netherworld ballads from singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell that is now a Tony Award - winning musical. You might say that Broadway is feeling flexible, with members of the downtown avant-garde regularly landing real estate uptown. So as singular as it seems, American Utopia might just be the direction Broadway is going: toward innovative performances that move us in new and startling ways.
Growing up in suburban Maryland in the '60s, Byrne had, he recalls, zero interest and little exposure to classical American theater - save for a Broadway cast recording of The Sound Of Music that was a staple in his family's LP collection. He played in rock bands in high school and college and, after a stint at the Rhode Island School of Design, started in 1975 what might be called the ultimate art-rock band. The Talking Heads not only gave us minimalist, near-punk hits (Psycho Killer, Once In A Lifetime, and their Top 10 hit, Burning Down The House), they also helped us reimagine what a rock concert could be.
The same year that Byrne founded the Talking Heads, he showed up at what is now the August Wilson Theater for a work by experimental playwright Robert Wilson titled A Letter To Queen Victoria. Being a Robert Wilson piece - using language less like dialogue and more like concrete poetry - it wasn't your typical Broadway production. The shows sometimes began with patrons walking through basement rooms where actors were, say, hanging from a swing. "I saw that and my mind was blown," says Byrne, still amazed. "I had just moved to New York, and I'd never seen anything like it." In the '90s, Byrne visited a handful of old theaters as they were being renovated, and his sense of the history and importance of those places in the American cultural conversation more fully took root. "In a certain way, it's people coming for entertainment, but in other ways it's America speaking to itself," he says.
Byrne and Parson began working together in 2008, when Byrne was touring with Brian Eno for their 2008 musical collaboration, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Parsons was one of three choreographers on the tour, but she and Byrne clicked. In 2012, they again worked together on the Love This Giant tour, supporting an album Byrne had recorded with St. Vincent, and then in 2013 on Here Lies Love, the story (sort of) of Imelda Marcos, cowritten with the English DJ and producer Fatboy Slim. It played at the Public Theater - and, yes, they'd like to see that production make it to Broadway too. "We were working on that," Byrne says, "and I thought, Why are these musicals always the same?"
"And from a dance perspective they're always the same," says Parson. "I guess that's the idea. It's like comfort food."
Parson and Byrne set out to turn this idea on its head. But rather than experiment with technology - see Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark or the new King Kong - their work has a humanistic bent. "I thought, People! People onstage!" he recalls. "I can push that further and not try to compete in the area of projections, flash pots, and amazing sets that drop from the ceiling. I had a sense that, as human beings, when we go to a show, that's what we're interested in - that it's the people that really move us."
True to this spirit, Byrne has allowed the work of others to influence the direction of American Utopia. One song, Everybody's Coming to My House, had initially been a work about anxiety: "It feels like I am saying, 'Oh, my God, all these people are at my house - when are they ever going to leave? Do I have to talk to all of them?' " But now - thanks in large part to a moving cover performed by the Detroit School of Arts Vocal Jazz Ensemble - he sees it differently. "When the students do it, it's more of a yes. Yes, everybody is coming to my house; come on over, yes! It's about inclusion and welcoming people. They haven't changed a word, but they've changed the meaning completely."
Utopia is something of a dirty word in the U.S., at least since the Puritans couldn't handle anything but work and imperfection in this life. But Byrne helps us feel its possibility. "Here's this musician who, for the last forty years, has been observing American society," says Timbers. "And here he is in this moment of our cultural crisis, and we're able to look at the world through his lens." Not to put a nose on the clown, but this is a work that turns the theater into a utopia, just for a bit.