David Byrne’s “American Utopia” is an example of where entertainment and art can converge, and where they should be headed together in America. The show runs just under two hours and consists largely of music originally by The Talking Heads. David Byrne,the seasoned frontman of The Talking Heads, has long occupied an interesting space in music. Influenced early on in his career by world music, his music can trace its compositional roots all around the globe. The Talking Heads’s popularity in the 80s helped to diffuse global influences both consciously and unconsciously into pop music.
As one files into the Broadway theater and takes one’s seat before the show begins, they are faced with a white barrier blocking off the stage. The barrier, functioning like a curtain, is covered with the names of locations and small sketches of cartoon violence. The handwriting of the locations is reminiscent of notes passed in middle school and elementary attempts at cursive. It’s fun, it’s cute, it’s easy on the eyes. But it paints a rather sinister picture of the American utopia promised (though now more seemingly critiqued) by the show’s title.
How does the show relate to utopia? Is it about communism? Is it about capitalism? Is it about voter suppression reform? Is it about… the president? No, not exactly. The show isn’t about any one particular thing. The show is about the state of entertainment in light of the way we live today. The show is a perfect example of what the arts can do during times of turmoil, about the joy that can be brought to struggling people, the informative statements that can be made to those who are lost, and how communities can be brought together into one while still preserving individuality.
At its core, the show is a concert. That core, that informal, woohoo-filled energy informs the emotional connection between the audience and performers. This is achieved through Byrne’s breaking of the fourth wall in his transitional anecdotes, and the stage presence of all the band members and performers. Sustained eye-contact, open gestures, and jovial body language are all very inviting aspects of the performer’s stage presence. Each person has their own identity, their own character, which exists independent of the other people on the stage. Though the frontman, Byrne shares the stage with his band and becomes one of the group. It is not “The David Byrne Show” in the slightest, and that is why it is so strong.
Everyone wears a simple grey suit with no tie. It is a uniform in the sense that it is a shared clothing style. Everyone seems to wear it just differently enough, seems to inhabit the costume in their own unique way, however. At no point is there a socialist essentialism through assimilation. Everyone coexists as part of an identifiable group but never seems to sacrifice their individuality because of the subtle, personal touches each performer makes to how they wear the suit or carry themselves inside of it. Another important element of the costume is the lack of shoes. This subverts the formality inherent to suits and adds to the casual and intimate feeling of the show. More than that, it is reminiscent of many non-Western performance traditions. From South Asia to the Pacific Northwest, the absence of footwear allows for greater and more dextrous use of the foot as an element of performance.
This show, like The Talking Heads’s catalogue, draws heavily from global influences. The cast is incredibly diverse, and not because the casting director wanted to have a diverse group of people to parade in front of liberal critics, but because the show draws from so many different artistic experiences and is so unconcerned with artificiality. These are the best people to be doing what they do, the best bassists and percussionists and keyboardists and dancers and guitarists — of course they aren’t all going to be the same person. Byrne makes the occasional didactic socially and politically-minded comment between songs, but for the most part, the show’s message concerning the importance of inclusion speaks for itself.
The show is a romp: pure and simple. It is fun. It is a good time, in fact, it is the best time you will ever have on Broadway. But, ugh, Broadway, paragon of the old way of doing things; home of the cigar-smoke-smelling, crab-claw-cracking, watch-which-costs-as-much-as-a-house-wearing, monopoly mascot of yesteryear. Broadway is expensive and cuts people out of experiencing this show on a financial basis. Broadway is also culturally prohibitive. It is an institutional symbol which is hard for everyone to feel welcome at. The only place where “American Utopia” falters is in its choice of setting. I can only imagine what it would be like to see that show in a place where a homogenous group of people weren’t sitting in velvet lined chairs cheering only under the safety of the anonymity provided by the dim house lights. This show, this modern art-as-entertainment spectacle, belongs out in the world it is seeking to represent, seeking to educate, and seeking to inspire.