If you didn’t get your act together and see David Byrne’s stage show American Utopia when it toured the country last year, the music gods (or rather, Byrne) have blessed you with a solution: It’s Broadway bound! Debuting on October 4 at the Hudson Theater for a limited run, Byrne and his crew of musicians’ futuristic concert experience will be transformed for a new stage with a newer narrative, changes that Byrne says will result in a historic event for theatergoers and audiophiles alike. “It’s something people have never seen before in a musical setting,” he teased to us. “It’s presenting live music onstage in a way that I don’t think anyone’s done before.”
With Byrne still tweaking American Utopia’s final form, we recently hopped on the phone so he could exclusively share some info about the show. This included what to expect on the set list, why there are no parallels to Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway outing, and why he’ll continue to go shoeless.
When it was announced you would be taking the show to Broadway, you said that you never really had any Broadway ambition. What gave you the final push to bring the show into this next chapter?
I go to see a fair amount of theater — I’ll go all over the place to see a good show. I like that most of my shows have a theatrical element to it. But I never thought to myself, This just has to go to Broadway, it makes sense. That really came from all of the people who saw the stage show, the viewers and the investors. So I thought it could be a nice challenge! It would be a different audience, given that people seeing a Broadway show have different expectations than a concert audience. They react a little bit differently.
How so, do you think?
I’m used to people standing up at my concerts by the third or fourth song. Probably half of the audience at that point! But that’s probably not appropriate at a Broadway theater. [Laughs.] If people do it, it’s totally fine, but I want to ease into it a little more. Especially with people who aren’t too familiar with my work.
American Utopia has been referred to as a “special event” ever since its Broadway announcement. How would you define the show with a little more pizzazz?
“Special event” is true, but it avoids the issue. It’s tricky! [Laughs.] There are quite a few musicians who’ve been doing relatively short runs on Broadway these days. A lot of those are concerts, or the same concept they’ve been doing somewhere else. We want to make it clear that this really is theatrical, but it’s not a play. There’s not a lot of acting in it. It’s not a musical in that sense of the word. It’s a little hard to define. I don’t know what category it falls into. It’s closer to Pina Bausch, or somebody like that, compared to a traditional musical or a traditional concert. But telling a mainstream audience, Hey gang, this is very Pina Bausch, that’s not going to work!
Are you going to include any autobiographical elements?
No, it’s not particularly autobiographical. This is different from Springsteen’s show. I do tell a couple of anecdotes from my life, but mostly it’s broader than me. All of the elements from the stage show are staying, too — the choreography, the design. That’s a key part of the show. It’s something people have never seen before in a musical setting.
Does that mean you’ll remain shoeless?
I will. I can’t speak for everyone, but a couple of band members had arch issues. [Laughs.] They had to wear little footies by the end to help them out. I never had any problems! The only problem was sometimes when we performed outdoors, with the sun beating down on the stage, I would step on the stage and be like, Whoa, whoa, whoa, that’s hot, blisters are coming!
What do you hope to convey with the anecdotes you’ll be sharing?
I want to pose questions that anyone in their lives would ask themselves. And then the song kind of provides the answer. Not in the literal sense but in the emotional sense that only a song can do. I think the audience senses that. It’s like a person’s journey and how they discover themselves and how they can engage with the world.
How did you select the songs that ultimately made it to Broadway? I noticed that a few songs given to me in the set list weren’t included in the stage show.
I tried to strike a balance between newer things that people may not be too familiar with, a few surprises that might make people think, Oh, I’ve forgotten about this!, and then songs that are very familiar. It’s important to balance between those tiers so people don’t feel like I’m indulging myself too much. [Laughs.] I’ve done that in the past, where I’ve only played new stuff. But most importantly, all of the songs need to go together in one piece. I want to ease people into the show a little more slowly, so the audience can absorb and figure out exactly what’s going on.
Was there any pressure to transform the show into a “greatest hits” Broadway extravaganza?
Thankfully, there was no pressure. I think part of that was because the concert was already out there, so it wasn’t like we were talking about a hypothetical show. People saw it was working, and the audiences were really enjoying what we were doing. There was no need for imagination. It was a great relief.
You were nice enough to pass along a few songs you’re including in the set list, so I’d love to go through them to learn why you selected them all. The first one is “I Know Sometimes a Man Is Wrong,” which is a new addition.
It’s a short song about emotional yearning. It’s going to set up what’s to come in the rest of the show. It’s a person on their journey in life, and they’re missing something in their life, but they don’t know what it is. The same goes about “Don’t Worry About the Government.” [Pauses.] It’s funny. When Talking Heads originally did that song, it was a song about living in a nice condo with modern conveniences and good plumbing and no cockroaches. It became the opposite of what everybody was doing in the folk scene at that moment. Everybody was snarling and angry, and this was a young guy who just wanted to live in a nice apartment! Everybody thought I was being ironic with the song because of the lyrics and the context. But I think people will see a certain truth to it now. It’s not a great virtue living in an apartment filled with cockroaches. You don’t have to have a penthouse, but people want to have a decent life. Everyone can accept that in some way. It’ll be seen and understood in another way with the passage of time.
The other new addition is “One Fine Day,” which was a collaboration with Brian Eno. Did you two work together again to find the best placement in the show?
He knows about it. We did this one many years ago, and I find this to be another song of hope and aspiration. I’m going to end the show with this song, actually. I know a lot of people don’t know it, but they’ll understand what it’s about. I performed it recently with the Brooklyn Youth Choir, and the musical director arranged it into a simple version without many instruments. I knew that’s how we should do it — really stripped down to get that emotional feeling. It’s dicey to talk about an ending we haven’t tried yet, but that’s what we’re aiming for.
The two songs you’re definitely including from the American Utopia album are “Every Day Is a Miracle” and “Dog’s Mind.”
I indulged myself with “Dog’s Mind” with my pet interests. [Laughs.] In the show, I managed to create a segue between talking about politics into asking something simple like, What’s going through a dog’s mind? What are dogs thinking about this, and what do they know that we don’t know? It becomes a song about perception and feelings and understanding the world. We think we see it all, but we don’t. Dogs hear better than us, dogs smell better than us, and they know things we don’t know. Describing it makes it sound like an intellectual idea, but putting it into a song, it becomes quite emotional. And it’s funny. A dog tries to imagine driving a car!
Since the new hot Broadway trend is having live animals onstage, will you have a real dog swing by every show?
I don’t think so, as nice as that would be. [Laughs.] For “Every Day Is a Miracle,” the verses are quite surreal. The chorus is sincere. It really just asks, Isn’t life and the world incredible? It’s a super-corny and cliché thing to say, but juxtaposed with other weirdness, it tempers the sentimentality. Things can be bizarre but can still be wonderful.
It’s fun that you lean into life’s lulls, too, with “Lazy” on the set list.
You gotta sprinkle in some hits, but this song wasn’t a huge hit in the U.S. In the rest of the world, it was very big. When I was writing it, I thought it would be a great club song, and clubs are known for people being very energetic and dancing around. Lots of bouncing and all that. Well, let me contrast this club song with not being energetic with being lazy. Let me make laziness sound really sexy. It doesn’t come in during a club scene in the show but rather the bigger emotional arc.
The three Talking Heads songs you’re currently working with are “I Zimbra,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and “This Must Be the Place.” Why this particular trio?
They’re not bunched together in the show, but they’re really fun songs to do! They’re all also a big step forward in the development of the character, who the show is representing. Well, it’s not a character, it’s me, but it’s not totally autobiographical. Those songs represent big leaps in a person’s journey, whether falling in love or enjoying a carefree moment or stopping for a moment and asking, How did I get there?
You’re also reprising your cover of Janelle Monáae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” which you used to conclude most of the tour stops. Why was it important to keep that protest song in?
It’s always fun to cover someone’s song as part of a show. It’s a way to indulge in something that you don’t always do as an artist. I wanted to cover somebody’s song that deals with being engaged and responding to the times that we live in, because we live in very interesting times. I heard her recording of the song, and I thought it was incredible. It was a way of talking about that subject without being too didactic about it. It was celebrating the lives that have been lost. I remember first thinking, Should an older white guy do this song? How would that go down? So I gave Janelle a call, and she loved the idea. We tried it out in our show, and it’s kind of a punch to the gut for the audience, once they realize what it’s all about. But it’s a moving and important song, and I’ve had many people tell me that. That message will continue in the Broadway show. I put it near the end.
You mentioned earlier that your goal is to put on a great Broadway show for everyone, fans or otherwise. How would you pitch the show to people who aren’t familiar with your work?
I would emphasize that it’s a lot of fun. The audience will sense there’s a story, not a literal story, but a story I go on and the audience goes along with it. It’s presenting live music onstage in a way that I don’t think anyone’s done before. You don’t have to know any of my songs. You don’t have to know Talking Heads. You don’t have to know what I’ve done. Once in a while, I’ll be talking to someone who doesn’t know my background and they’ll ask what I do. I’ll go, Oh, I’m a performer and musical artist and this is what I have coming up. When that happens, sometimes you can see the pitch working and they respond, Oh wow, that sounds really cool, I’m going to check that out. Or conversely, I’ve gotten responses in the past like, I don’t know what the hell you’re you’re talking about, I still don’t know who you are. [Laughs.] Let’s hope the first response comes out on top.