Oh, man. I want to write a 100,000,000 word novel about David Byrne’s Broadway theatrical concert American Utopia.
I tried to write about this theatrical thrill ride stream-of-consciousness directly after arriving home from the show and after an hour had 2500 words which I couldn’t make heads or tails of on review. And maybe that’s okay.
After all, David Byrne’s album is all about the struggle to make sense of the chaos of the here and now in America. As bleak as that might sound, my God, is it fucking joyful. American Utopia is the happiest two hours I have ever spent in a Broadway theater. Because in all this mess, there is a sense of unity of purpose, cohesion, and the indomitable spirit of the artist all at play.
The show, with consultation by director Alex Timbers and choreography by Annie-b Parson, is deceptively simple. A playlist of 20 songs by David Byrne and the Talking Heads, and one cover. The songs are mostly from the eponymous album, with a few crowd-pleasers like “Burning Down the House.”
David Byrne holds a very close second place in my heart, inches away from the importance and reverence with which I respect Dolly Parton. Their storytelling has influenced mine so deeply – Parton with her deep felt emotions and belief in the kindness of the American spirit, and Byrne with his commitment to exploration of the quirks of the human mind. In his song “Every Day is a Miracle,” he sings of the potential for discovering the divine in the mundane. In “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” he conjures the battle between dread and excitement when guests are on their way over. In “I Dance Like This,” he performs a simple shake of his fists, because “If I could dance better, you know that I would.”
Until Friday night, I had never seen Byrne live. It’s a very special experience to see someone you consider one of your prophets in person for the first time. Frankly, listening to him sing all of these songs about striving to do the best that you can even when it’s nearly impossible was overwhelmingly resonant as someone who has four months of sobriety from alcohol.
Between the songs, Byrne, in all his charmingly awkward glory, pulls the show together with somewhat rambling and increasingly political monologues. He talks about voter registration in a non-partisan way, introduces the band as almost entirely comprised of immigrants, and leads the band in an extremely intense cover of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” a protest song about police brutality and victims of gun violence.
Like Byrne, the band, unencumbered by wires via the technology in their mic packs are free to wander the stage in their uniform gray suits. There is a strolling keyboardist, several guitarists, two dancer-vocalists (including Brooklyn’s own Chris Giarmo, relentlessly charismatic), and six or so percussionists all carrying their instruments on specially constructed harnesses, and Byrne himself.
Performed on an empty stage walled by hundreds of thin metal chains, Byrne explains the lack of wires and freedom of movement were put in to place to allow maximum connection between the audience and the performer. The open space and this liberty to move is itself a powerful metaphor in this moment when all around us we feel walls closing in. The empty space allowed Annie-b Parsons’ odd (in the best way) and percussive choreography to shine beautifully as Byrne and his dancers told a story of trying to figure it all out.
The show subtly packs a powerful message about the quagmire in which we’re entrenched these days, offering not a solution but suggests that we might be able to find contentment in the search for one. Leading into “I Zimbra,” Byrne discusses Dada absurdist poetry, and how those writers were simply attempting to joyfully find some sense and truth in the chaos of their world. Like those suffering in the course of and the aftermath of World War I, Byrne makes parallels to our own time of brutality and pain.
Byrne returns to this idea of finding clarity in the mess over and over, with a spirit of hope rather than despair with each consideration. By allowing the audience to connect with the performers and the space so intimately, Byrne lets them experience his lyrics on a more personal level than he would in an arena, and thus the show feels bespoke to each individual in the house. It was so exciting to see an audience in a Broadway theater go crazy in what so many consider a reverent, quiet space. The audience was up on its feet and dancing.
The technical tightness of the show, the overwhelming soundscape of the music, and the truly wild audience-performer relationship elevated this from a concert in a Broadway theater to theater in its purest form.
I wanted to write about the experience of actively being able to feel the verb “exhilarate” acted upon your body during American Utopia. About how everything about an experience that means so much to you it’s religious comes together and you’re spending two hours laughing and crying and shaking and how you feel it in waves bowling you over with emotion and gratitude that you’re alive at the same time as your heroes and about how you can’t really put it into words without sounding like you’re nuts. And maybe that’s okay and maybe that’s the chaos of it all.