David Byrne — singer/songwriter, frontman of the groundbreaking band Talking Heads, author, composer, director — is poised to add another title to his collection: Broadway star.
This fall, Byrne will lead a group of musicians in American Utopia, a new production adapted from his album and tour of the same name, featuring songs culled from both his solo career and Talking Heads’ catalog. The project began several years ago, around the same time Byrne was putting together Reasons to Be Cheerful, a cross-platform effort that grew out of writings and talks he had delivered as a means of promoting optimism in dire times.
“I thought I had no choice,” Byrne explains. “In the times we live in, one is almost obliged to respond as best we can. Reasons to Be Cheerful is a journalistic way to respond to that, and American Utopia is a way of responding through musical performance.” (Byrne hopes to integrate elements of Cheerful for American Utopia audiences in different ways, from the design of the theatre lobby to merchandise.)
To make the leap from the concert circuit to Broadway, where American Utopia will begin previews October 4 and open October 20 at the Hudson Theatre (after a Boston run), Byrne recruited a pair of trusted collaborators he had teamed with on the acclaimed musical Here Lies Love: Annie-B Parson, who also worked on the American Utopia tour and is contributing both choreography and musical staging for Broadway, and red-hot director Alex Timbers, who is serving as production consultant.
“When we started talking about bringing this to Broadway, I knew it would need to be modified somehow, and I thought he’d have a good sense of how to do that,” Byrne says of Timbers, who also teamed with him for the musical Joan of Arc: Into the Fire. “He has a sense, as do I, that there’s a sort of narrative arc in the show. It’s not necessarily autobiographical, but the arc is there, and I want to bring it out without making it too obvious so that it’s not just a bunch of songs.”
With that aim, Byrne is taking a couple of songs out of the show and putting others in, “to help the shape.” As the material is not entirely sunny, he also wants “to give it less of a traumatic ending and a more gradual beginning, so that the audience has time to adjust.” (The ending will still offer, Byrne promises, “a punch in the gut.”)
Byrne describes American Utopia’s arc as “a journey of self-discovery, and of discovering a larger community that’s supportive, and eventually being able to engage the larger world, step by step. The songs don’t always address that lyrically, but it’s about what you see on stage. We’re not just talking about how things can be; we’re showing that. To show is more effective than to talk.”
The lineup of musicians — including a half-dozen drummers, a lead guitarist, a bass guitarist, and a couple of singer/dancers — also remains the same as it was on tour, with the exception of one player who had to bow out for medical reasons. “From the beginning I had the idea that the stage would be cleared of stuff so that there was nothing there but musicians,” Byrne says. “The keyboard transmits to a laptop on the side of the stage; the guitar transmits to an amplifier on the side of the stage. The musicians are untethered, free to move around. It’s a great, liberating feeling, and it’s made me realize that when people come to see a show, they’re most interested in seeing other people.”
For Byrne, this approach represents an extension of how he’s aimed to connect with audiences throughout his career. During the Talking Heads tour showcased in the beloved 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, he recalls, “we had all these screens, and huge boxes on stage, but it was mainly about the performers. That’s been a constant, and with [American Utopia] we’re pushing that idea even further.”
Of making his Broadway debut as a performer, Byrne says, “I’m excited about it. It’s a new world. I expect the audience will be a little bit different, that people will come with different expectations.” But he adds, “I think we’re in a time when things you wouldn’t have thought of as suitable for Broadway now are. It’s an interesting and exciting moment for theater in that way.”
Theater “wasn’t something I was aware of when I was growing up,” Byrne admits. “But when I moved to New York, I lived downtown, and there was all this theater there that kind of blew my mind. It was really speaking to me. In the same way I discovered rock ’n’ roll when I was younger, I discovered avant-garde theater. I don’t think I copied it, but it was really inspirational.”
Byrne’s hope is that American Utopia serves a similar function for audiences — and gives them, perhaps, a few reasons to be cheerful. “We’ve all heard people say, ‘Music got me through high school.’ Or, you know, ‘A DJ saved my life,’” he adds, referencing an early-’80s single. “And it’s done that for me throughout my life.”
Photo above: the company of David Byrne’s American Utopia. Photo by David Webster.