The Hit You Haven’t Heard Yet
by Nora Hogan
Walking into the Hudson Theater on a bitterly cold January night, I wasn’t sure what to expect from David Byrne’s American Utopia. The show is a self-described “once-in-a-lifetime Broadway event” and has received stellar reviews from numerous critics. However, all of this hype did little to enlighten me on what I was about to watch. I am a big fan of the Talking Heads, the New Wave rock group that Byrne fronted in the 70s and 80s. But since the band’s disbandment in 1991, his music and artistic work have become a bit too avant-garde for my taste. Regardless, when my Dad and I were gifted tickets to go see American Utopia for Christmas, I was very excited to go see Byrne perform live—he is a rock legend, after all.
The show is a window into the mind of David Byrne himself. The production opens with Byrne holding a plastic human brain alone on stage and singing “Here,” from his 2018 album American Utopia. He muses about the fact that human brains have more neural connections when we’re babies, which are gradually lost as we age. Soon, Byrne is joined by two other singer-dancers who are clothed in the same outfit as Bryne: a light grey suit with a white button-down underneath and barefoot. As the production progresses, more musicians, who are also clad in the same garb, join in, until the entire cast (12 in total, including Byrne) are singing, dancing and playing their instruments together on stage. It’s nearly impossible to not dance in your seat to the set playlist that features heavy drum and dance beats. Absent from the stage are any microphones or drum kits so that the performers can be completely “untethered,” as “that’s what this show is about,” according to Bryne. However, props are absolutely not necessary: the stage’s lighting effects transform what would be a traditional concert into a piece of art.
Byrne resolves his internal musings near the end of the show, stating: “The connections in our brains can be re-established—and that extends to the connections between us all.” The show’s broader metaphor is evident in the gradual inclusion and connection between Byrne’s fellow musicians on stage. However, Byrne also intertwines this message with a not-so-subliminal political slant into the production. He initially emphasizes the audience’s obligatory connection to politics by reminding them of their civic duties via a voter registration booth in the lobby of the theater. In the performance itself, the set includes Janelle Monáe’s protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” a powerful memorial to African-Americans killed by police officers, and the nonsense song “I Zimbra” that alludes to the current American political climate. This association caters directly to Byrne’s targeted audience, middle-aged white liberals that most definitely listened to the Talking Heads in their youth. This fact is most evident when Bryne’s declaration that “we’re all immigrants” is met with rousing applause from the crowd.
American Utopia is definitely worth the watch. Even traditional “nose-bleed” tickets ($39 on StubHub) give you a good view of the stage thanks to the intimate nature of the Hudson Theater. Fans of the Talking Heads will revel in the live performance of classics such as “Road to Nowhere” and “Once in a Lifetime,” but even novice listeners of David Byrne’s work will enjoy this innovative audiovisual experience. Time is running out to see American Utopia, as the show’s run on Broadway ends on February 16th.