When does a concert become theatre? When does movement become choreography? Why the big suit?
Okay, that last one is an old question, part of the marketing campaign for the 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense – Jonathan Demme’s expert capturing of a concert by the band Talking Heads.
There was a big suit worn by frontman David Byrne onstage, reportedly a response to a comment made to him that everything looks bigger on stage. It was a bit of performance art in rock trappings, fitting for a band whose core members met at art school.
Byrne is on stage now in New York – in a normal-sized suit though still in the grey palette he wore in the 1980s – in American Utopia, an evening of his songs billed as a theatrical concert. The same could have been said of the Stop Making Sense tour, but after a second visit, it seems clearer than ever that Utopia is not a concert placed on a theatrical stage. Instead it’s a work of music-based theatre that would not be out of place at innovative venues like the Brooklyn Academy of Music or, writ even larger, the Park Avenue Armory.
Pop and rock performers have been playing Broadway for many years. Just this summer, Morrissey briefly held forth while in 1986 Elvis Costello brought his Spectacular Spinning Songbook approach to a five-night gig called Costello Sings Again. Rock and pop stars have been reproduced and even revived by more conventional shows like Jersey Boys, Beautiful, and Ain’t Too Proud.
Although there is no narrative to American Utopia, the songs are loosely linked through a consideration of what it is to be human and to exist together in society; no room here for the negative but compelling energy of Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer. There are a few of the band’s hits interspersed among Byrne’s solo work, as well as covers of material by artists like Al Green and Mabon Hodges (Take Me To The River, a Talking Heads staple) and Janelle Monáe (Hell You Talmbout).
Unlike Bruce Springsteen’s personal journey on Broadway through his own songbook, Byrne remains fundamentally enigmatic to the point of gnomic. Yes, we learn a few personal tidbits (that he was born in Scotland and is a naturalised US citizen, that he participated in a turn out to vote effort), but even though he’s centre stage for the entire 100-minute duration, he doesn’t seem much interested in self-revelation.
After opening with Byrne seated at a small table, reminiscent of the late Spalding Gray, while holding a plastic model of the human brain, American Utopia is shepherded into theatre by the unceasingly propulsive staging and choreography of Annie-B Parson (working with Alex Timbers in the role of production consultant) and the ultra-crisp lighting of Rob Sinclair. Parson keeps Byrne and the 11-piece corps of musicians and vocalists in constant motion through the show. Identically clad in grey suits, barefoot throughout.
The most immediate difference from the typical concert is that there are no fixed instruments or amplifiers on stage. Byrne and company wear their instruments on straps and shoulder harnesses. There’s not a cable in sight. This frees the company to be deployed by Parson in ever-changing patterns, echoing and sometimes emphasising Byrne’s trademark herky-jerky awkwardness. It’s certainly several steps beyond the coordinated moves of backup singers in days gone by.
Sinclair eschews conventional concert lighting, marked by reds, blues and purple washes, in favour of often harsh, stark whites that etch more sharply the metallic greys of the clothing and the chain link surround that comprises the show’s only nod to scenery. Save for the occasional warm pink, the illumination is far removed from naturalism, and is more like the lighting at a particularly modern dance performance.
Unlike Bruce Springsteen’s personal journey on Broadway, Byrne remains fundamentally enigmatic to the point of gnomic
It is clear from a second visit that every moment of the show is precisely calibrated. While that may be anathema to the anarchic spirit of rock, it is entirely in keeping with the formal inventiveness of the earliest Talking Heads videos. There’s nothing improvisational on stage at the Hudson Theatre (it is mercifully free of that annoying concert staple, the drum solo, despite six percussionists) – even Byrne’s seemingly casual banter can be spotted on a teleprompter hanging at the front of the first balcony.
Byrne is no stranger to more conventional musical theatre. Here Lies Love was a vibrant immersive retelling of the story of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, a hit in both New York and London, though his Joan of Arc: Into The Fire failed to ignite. American Utopia seems the next step in the ongoing evolution of an artist who, at 67, still has time and room to grow. It’s even possible to imagine another performer eventually taking over the role of David Byrne in American Utopia, just as Heidi Schreck, Lily Tomlin, and Anna Deavere Smith have given way to other interpreters of roles they have written and embodied.
What makes this show more than a concert – even a theatrical concert – beyond the conceptual cohesion, the dynamism of the movement and the definition of the lighting? It’s that Byrne, instead of asking us to stop making sense and settling for just giving us a good time, seems to want us to go beyond the aural and the visual. Like all good theatre, he is asking us to imagine a utopia, inventing one and prompting us towards one. He is asking us to think.
Fefu and Her Friends, a groundbreaking work by the influential María Irene Fornés, who passed away last year, is receiving its first major New York revival courtesy of Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn. Lileana Blain-Cruz directs the show, opening Sunday, which fragments its audience to watch different scenes at different times in different locations during the performance.
Also receiving its first New York revival on Sunday night is Horton Foote’s The Young Man from Atlanta, the 1995 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Directed by Foote specialist Michael Wilson, it returns to Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre, where it received its world premiere before going on to Broadway in 1997 in a separate production.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/. American Utopia runs at the Hudson Theatre on Broadway until February 16, 2020