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Broadway Q&A: David Byrne of ‘American Utopia’

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |

Broadway Q&A: David Byrne of ‘American Utopia’

Part concert, part theatrical piece, David Byrne’s American Utopia on Broadway brings together the magic of music, dance and story all on one stage. A prolific artist, Byrne is a singer, songwriter, guitarist, actor, writer, and filmmaker – not to mention a Talking Heads founding member. In American Utopia, Byrne is joined by an eclectic group of artists and dancers from around the globe singing his songs. Imagine a sparse stage with barefoot musicians and dancers in gray suits. There are no cords or mics, so the untethered musicians can be completely free to move. American Utopia was staged and choreographed by Byrne’s longtime collaborator Annie-B Parson. Alex Timbers, the director of Beetlejuice on Broadway who also directed Byrne’s Off-Broadway show, Here Lies Love, served as a production consultant. Byrne’s American Utopia castmates include Jacquelene Acevedo, Gustavo Di Dalva, Daniel Freedman, Chris Giarmo, Tim Keiper, Tendayi Kuumba, Karl Mansfield, Mauro Refosco, Stephane San Juan, Angie Swan and Bobby Wooten III.

David Byrne stars in ‘American Utopia’ on Broadway (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

David Byrne stars in ‘American Utopia’ on Broadway (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Can you talk about your creative process?
David Byrne: With Here Lies Love, for example, there was an idea and subject: Imelda Marcos, former first lady to Philippines. She is still alive. She loved going to discos in New York and Manila. And I thought, “There's a fascinating story here, and a musical world that is already part of this story. Can I bring those worlds together? Can I have that that kind of exuberant dance music and tell a story at the same time?” It took a lot of figuring out, and Alex Timbers, the director, was really helpful putting that together.

But with this show, there was an idea about staging that became almost first. Could you do a show where all the musicians are untethered, where there is nobody sitting in a drum kit or behind a keyboard? Every musician on stage can move around. So you have this possibility of making little groupings or staging it in a way where there is a little community. They are all moving around, evolving and changing. I thought, “Let's see if that's possible, because it implies a certain amount of technology. But it's all hidden.” Little by little, I discovered it was possible. And then, as we started working on the show, we realized, “Oh, there is a kind of three-act thing going on here.” It wasn't like I planned it. The piece sort of started to show itself. I realized now we have to make that a little more obvious.

How did American Utopia come to Broadway?
DB: We were doing a version of this as a concert, and I honestly wasn't thinking about Broadway. But when we started doing this over a year ago, some Broadway folks saw it and said, “You should bring this to Broadway.” I kept hearing that from all different folks as we were touring around. So I thought, “Wow, it’s a really exciting idea. Let's try and make this happen.” Not only because we get to park at a place, but because it's a different audience. The audience comes with different expectations. Some of those expectations are opportunities for us. Some of them are challenges for us.

We're doing the same show, but adding things to it, shaping it a little bit more. There's an inherent narrative to what we have been doing and we’re bringing that out a little bit more. With a Broadway audience, you have the opportunity to put things in place a little slower than you do in a concert. In a concert, you've got to get people going as fast as you can. With the Broadway audience, you can build your world.

Is there something important you learned early on in your career that stayed with you?
DB: I actually learned some things very early on about money and budgets. That doesn't sound very creative. But if you don't figure that out, you don’t get to do the creative. I

When you plan on doing a tour, and you should figure out, what do I get paid? Not just me, but what does the band get paid per show? How many shows a week are we doing? What is our income? What's our cost? What are our weekly costs? If there isn’t anything left over, we’ve got to cut something. We have to use fewer buses or have fewer bits of gear on stage. That builds the world where you can do the creative stuff. First figure out how much you have to spend. Then you can be as creative as you want.

The piece includes some of your older Talking Heads hits. What inspired you to use those songs in the show?
DB: Others were telling me, and I realized that, there was a kind of journey, a kind of narrative arc, to the show. Then I started thinking, “Okay, what songs are going to help bridge or connect the dots between here, here and here? And luckily, there's a fairly sizable catalog. So I thought I could pick certain songs, and some of them happen to be really well-known songs. It’s helping advance the narrative arc. Plus, I think people will like to hear them.

Can you talk about seeing theater when you first moved to New York?
DB: I moved to New York in the mid-seventies. A little bit after that, I was introduced to a lot of downtown experimental theater. It blew my mind. To me that it was as exciting as the first time I heard rock and roll, pop music and funk. I thought, “Oh my God, a whole world has opened up here.” When I saw theater, I felt the same way.

What would you say if someone were to ask, “Why should I see American Utopia?”
DB: Let's say you've never heard of me. You don't know Talking Heads music. The show has something to say about who we are at this moment in time, and the possibilities of what we could be in the future.


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