David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’ Returns, Like Many of Us, Tempered by the Pandemic: Theater Review

David Byrne American Utopia
Matthew Murphy

While it’s a pretty small problem in the context of the larger challenges presented by the return of live music, how a performer addresses the pandemic during a performance is no small matter. It is insensitive to seem too happy to be back? Is it too much of a downer to dwell on the tragedies of the past 18 months? And if the appropriate tone is somewhere in the vast gap between the two, how does one navigate it?

Although the recent relaunch of rock-oriented Broadway shows by David Byrne and Bruce Springsteen in many ways had an easier return than touring acts — weeks-long residencies in a single theater involve little travel and equipment-moving — both faced a huge challenge in how to adapt and incorporate the pandemic into their thematic performances. Of course, they’re dramatically different shows, but the fact that both staged their second runs at the St. James on West 44th Street — Byrne basically took over the theater after Springsteen’s summer run closed on Labor Day weekend — does invite a brief comparison between the two.

Springsteen mentioned the pandemic briefly and elliptically during the monologue portions of his autobiographical “Springsteen on Broadway,” saving his big statement for the end, by closing with the eulogy-ic “See You in My Dreams” instead of the euphoric “Born to Run.” By contrast, Byrne — whose restless and prolific creativity found outlet in two pandemic projects, his “Social Distance Dance Club” at New York’s Park Avenue Armory and the “We Are Not Divided” multimedia effort — spoke of it several times during the narrative portions of “American Utopia,” adapting and incorporating it into the larger theme. (Variety caught the show, which relaunched in previews on Sept. 17 and opened officially on Sunday, on Oct. 14 — almost two years to the day after we first saw it.)

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Matthew Murphy

Broadly speaking, “American Utopia” is the same show that Byrne toured in 2018, adapted to Broadway the following year, and made into a Spike Lee-directed film a year after that — which is great, because it’s an artistically brilliant and thought-provoking performance that deserves to be seen by many more people (even if Byrne is probably staging it much longer than he’d originally planned). It is a seemingly simple but logistically difficult production: A completely bare stage with 12 “untethered” performers, who are more or less in constant motion, on a stage enclosed on three sides by curtains made of hundreds of small, hanging metal chains, which rise from the floor as the show opens. The chains are not only used to section off the stage but also occasionally as props — during “I Should Watch TV,” Byrne disappears into a brightly illuminated spot on the screen, as if a television is consuming him; during another, the musicians’ seemingly disembodied hands hold out their instruments from behind the curtain, to comic effect.

The show also has a thematic throughline, spawned from the concept that human brains have many more neural connections when we’re babies, which are gradually lost as we age: “Does this mean babies are smarter than us, and we get stupider as we grow older?,” Byrne asks. “Where do those lost connections go?” It also has an uncharacteristically political subtext that unspools as the evening progresses, via a stark reminder of the importance of voting, as well as an impassioned segment focused on the Black Lives Matter movement that has sadly taken on even more gravity in the two years since the show opened on Broadway (more on both shortly).

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Matthew Murphy

And while “American Utopia” shares a title with Byrne’s latest studio album, songs from it make up less than a quarter of the 21-track setlist, which acts more as a carefully curated career retrospective, reaching all the way back to the Talking Heads’ 1977 debut and spanning crowd-pleasers like “Once in a Lifetime” and “Naïve Melody (This Must Be the Place)” to deeper cuts like “I Should Watch TV” (from his 2012 collaborative album with St. Vincent) and “Toe Jam” (a relatively obscure 2009 song with grime act BPA), and even a Janelle Monae cover.

The pandemic is mentioned even before the performance starts: Whereas the earlier show was preceded by a recorded message from Byrne asking the audience to silence and put away their phones, now that message also includes a request for people to wear their masks at all times except when sipping a drink. And Byrne wastes no time getting straight to it after he takes the stage: “Thank you for leaving your homes,” he said. “I used to say that in the old world and it had a different meaning. But many things have changed,” he continued, before segueing smoothly into the show’s standard introduction about how human brains change as we age.

The eleven musicians come onstage gradually, wearing ear-set microphones and matching grey suits and grey shirts, and all are barefoot (except one who was inexplicably wearing shoes designed to look like bare feet). The lighting is stark; there aren’t even any colored lights until midway through the show, and even then they’re single colors to suit the mood of a song.

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Matthew Murphy

The instrumentation is also deceptively simple: Apart from the two singer/dancers, the only melodic instruments are played by a keyboardist, bassist and guitarist (although Byrne also plays guitar on a few songs), and everyone else plays percussion, with the instruments harnessed to their bodies, marching-band style. The choreography, designed by Annie-B Parson, is elaborate yet never ostentatious, with lots of synchronized movement, walking in unison, and simple hand gestures.

A second visit to the show reveals just how intricate that choreography is: It’s designed to appear natural and free-flowing, and yes, it’s a wide-open stage and the performers have been doing this show regularly for three years (albeit with an 18-month pandemic hiatus). But how the dozen performers do it without once running into each other — to cite just one challenge — boggles the mind: They move like a single organism, with sometimes just one or two performers accompanying Byrne, sometimes all of them; sometimes they’re broken up into groups, sometimes they’re all banded together; sometimes they’re arrayed in a straight line across the stage; sometimes they’re marching around it. And while Byrne is always the lead singer and frontman, he also happily cedes the spotlight at various moments throughout the show, falling back into the larger group so that everyone gets their shine. More subtle but equally intricate are the backing vocals. Each performer has vocal microphones but rarely sing all at once; sometimes it’s five, sometimes three, sometimes just one singing harmony with Byrne. Similarly, at times as many as eight percussionists are playing interlocking, overlapping parts.

To that end, Byrne took several minutes to introduce the bandmembers (their names appear below), noting that although he has nothing against musicians performing with pre-recorded backing tracks, all of the music in “American Utopia” is performed live, and introduced each performer as they began playing “Born Under Punches.”

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Matthew Murphy

Although the group’s spine-tingling performance of “Once in a Lifetime” is arguably the most musically intense moment of the show — it brought the crowd to its feet both times we saw the show — the activist and political-leaning segments have become dramatically more pointed after the events of the past two years. Byrne updated the voting-themed portion of the show to reflect the 2020 presidential election and the recent mayoral primary in New York: He noted that the 67% of registered voters who cast ballots in the presidential election was the highest since William McKinley was elected in 1896, but also said that the average turnout for most local elections is 20%, and the mayoral primary had just 23%. As a spotlight illuminated approximately 23% of the crowd, Byrne pointed to them: “I think they’re smiling under their masks — because that 23% just decided the future for you and your children,” he said ominously. He concluded by stating “We have to do better than 23%,” and noted that, as it has throughout the show’s run, there is a voter-registration booth run by the non-profit Headcount in the show’s lobby. (Also, to mark the show’s reopening, the production has made monetary donations to Oil Change InternationalHungry For Music, and Movement for Family Power.)

Yet even more momentous is the group’s cover of Janelle Monae’s anti-police-violence lament “Hell You Talmbout,” which Byrne again introduced by saying that he’d emailed the singer after seeing her perform the song, asking if she’d mind if a “white gentleman of a certain age performed it; she said she’d be delighted.” Sadly, the song, which is lyrically based around the tragically familiar names of people of color murdered by police, has become even more chilling with the addition of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor and others to Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Atatiana Jefferson and Emmett Till, which follow in painful, unrelenting succession.

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Matthew Murphy

Byrne uses a quote from James Baldwin to segue from that harrowing segment into the uplift of the finale and its closing song “One Fine Day,” saying that despite all of the opposition Baldwin faced, he still believed this country could change for the better.

“I take encouragement from that, and from [Monae’s] song — and marches — that things can change,” bringing the theme full circle. “The connections in our brains can be re-established — and that extends to the connections between us all.”

Performed a capella — with all twelve bandmembers singing — the song’s lyrics coincidentally reference the pandemic (“I complete my tasks, one by one/ I remove my masks, when I am done”) before concluding,

“Even though a man is made of clay/
Everything can change, that one fine day.”

As if to reflect the confusion over what to do when that fine day finally arrives, the group encores with the Talking Heads’ 1985 hit “Road to Nowhere” — a finale even more paradoxical and fitting today than it was two or three years ago, yet one that looks at an uncertain future with that most vital human quality: hope.

“American Utopia” is scheduled to run Wed.-Sun. (twice on Saturdays) at the St. James Theatre through March 2022. 

Band members:
Jacquelene Acevedo
Gustavo Di Dalva
Daniel Freedman
Chris Giarmo
Tim Keiper
Tendayi Kuumba
Karl Mansfield
Mauro Refosco
Stéphane San Juan
Angie Swan
Bobby Wooten III
Standbys: Renée Albulario, Alena Ciera, Chris Eddleton, Evan Frierson, Abe Nouri, and Natalie Tenenbaum.

I Know Sometimes a Man Is Wrong
Don’t Worry About the Government
This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)
I Zimbra
Slippery People
I Should Watch TV
Everybody’s Coming to My House
Once in a Lifetime
Glass, Concrete & Stone
Toe Jam
Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
I Dance Like This
Every Day Is a Miracle
Burning Down the House
Hell You Talmbout
One Fine Day
Road to Nowhere