Choreographer Annie-B Parson says that in her latest work, the upcoming Broadway production American Utopia, “the music and dance are the protagonists.” And the leading players providing them are both acclaimed stars in their fields.
American Utopia is the brainchild of celebrated singer/songwriter/pop Renaissance man David Byrne and Parson. Known for her varied and innovative work as cofounder and director of Big Dance Theater, Parson has collaborated with many artists and writers, from David Bowie and Ivo van Hove to Sarah Ruhl. Like with the musical Here Lies Love, which paired her with Byrne years ago, American Utopia began its life as an album; in this case, Byrne first enlisted Parson, with whom he had also collaborated on previous tours, for a series of concert dates.
For the Broadway iteration — set to begin previews October 4 and open October 20 at the Hudson Theatre, following a run in Boston — Byrne and Parson have recruited additional A-list talent in Alex Timbers, who directed both Love and Byrne’s subsequent musical, Joan of Arc: Into the Fire. Timbers, currently represented on Broadway by both Beetlejuice and Moulin Rouge!, is credited as American Utopia’s production consultant, as Parson is tasked with both choreography and musical staging.
Timbers recalls that when he saw the concert version of American Utopia, “I was blown away by the bold theatricality and invention throughout the piece. American Utopia instantly felt like it represented a milestone achievement in the career of a major American artist. It also felt in dialogue with one of my favorite pieces of David’s, Stop Making Sense, the film that chronicles [Byrne’s band Talking Heads’] theatrical concert tour from the 1980s.”
The new production of American Utopia will feature 11 additional musicians: six drummers, about half of them playing Brazilian percussion; a lead guitarist, a bass guitarist, a keyboardist, and two dancers who will also serve as vocalists. “They’ll all have battery packs so that they can move anywhere,” says Parson. “So the band is in choreographic motion throughout the show. And that was David’s idea.”
When Parson began working with Byrne more than a decade ago, on a tour showcasing music he had cowritten with the musician/producer Brian Eno, “he had things set up more like a traditional rock band, with a platform for drums and everyone kind of static. But he’s become more and more mobile.” In first discussing tour plans for the American Utopia tour, “he wanted everyone to be in gray suits” — a feature that will remain — “and nothing else on stage. My task was to sculpt them some way in space.”
For Parson, the essentially positive nature of dance — “It’s the opposite of static or lethargic; people are moving in a group, so it’s alive, hopeful, harmonious,” she says — fits the philosophy behind American Utopia. “When I first heard that title, I thought it was ironic,” she admits. “But I think David takes that word very seriously. It’s not a naïve, pie-in-sky positivity; he is extremely aware of everything that’s going on. But he’s being earnest.”
Parson adds, “David is inspiring on so many levels. How do I count the ways? He has an encyclopedic knowledge of art-with-a-capital-A. He’s an omnivore, so curious and not at all a snob; he’s interested in everything. But that’s not even the best part. The best part is he can take all those ideas and get them down to a central idea, and work from that core.”
Timbers describes both Byrne and Parson as “incredibly generous collaborators and outside-of-the-box thinkers. I couldn’t be more excited to work with them.”
Photo above: Annie-B Parson, David Byrne, and Alex Timbers. Photo by Shira Friedman.