Watch Life-Affirming Performances from David Byrne’s New Broadway Musical American Utopia

It’s time, writes Kim Stan­ley Robin­son in his essay “Dystopia Now,” to put aside the dystopias. We know the future (and the present) can look bleak. “It’s old news now,” and “per­haps it’s self-indul­gence to stay stuck in that place any more.” Of course, David Byrne has nev­er been a dystopi­an artist. Even his catchy decon­struc­tions of the banal­i­ty of mod­ern life, in “This Must Be the Place,” for example—or Love Lies Here, his dis­co musi­cal about Imel­da Mar­cos—are filled with empa­thet­ic poignan­cy and an earnest desire to rehu­man­ize con­tem­po­rary cul­ture.

Still his oblique take on things has always seemed too skewed to call utopi­an. Late­ly, how­ev­er, Byrne has become unam­bigu­ous­ly sun­ny in his out­look, and not in any kind of star­ry-eyed Pollyan­nish way. His web project Rea­sons to Be Cheer­ful backs up its opti­mistic title with inci­sive long­form inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism.

His lat­est stage project, the musi­cal Amer­i­can Utopia, which he per­forms with a cast of dancers and musi­cians from around the world, announces its inten­tions on the sleeves of the match­ing mono­chro­mat­ic suits its cast wears.

Bare­foot and hold­ing their instru­ments, Byrne and his back­up singers, musi­cians, and dancers march on the “Road to Nowhere” with smiles hint­ing it might actu­al­ly lead to some­place good, They per­form this song (see them on Jim­my Fal­lon at the top), and a cou­ple dozen more from Talk­ing Heads and Byrne solo albums, espe­cial­ly last year’s Amer­i­can Utopia. In the course of the show, Byrne “lets his moral­ist out­rage explode” yet “bal­ances it with lev­i­ty,” writes Stacey Ander­son at Pitch­fork. “There is a polit­i­cal engine to this per­for­mance… with a clear­ly hum­ming pro­gres­sive core… but Byrne’s goal is to urge kinder con­sid­er­a­tion of how we process the stres­sors of moder­ni­ty.”

The musi­cal doesn’t sim­ply urge, it enacts, and pro­claims, in spo­ken inter­ludes, the sto­ry of an indi­vid­ual who opens up to the wider world. “Here’s a guy who’s basi­cal­ly in his head at the begin­ning,” Byrne told Rolling Stone. “And then by the end of the show he’s a very dif­fer­ent per­son in a very dif­fer­ent place.” The road to utopia, Byrne sug­gests, takes us toward com­mu­ni­ty and out of iso­la­tion. Amer­i­can Utopia’s min­i­mal­ist pro­duc­tion com­mu­ni­cates this idea with plen­ty of pol­ished musicianship—especially from its six drum­mers work­ing as one—but also a rig­or­ous lack of spec­ta­cle. “I think audi­ences appre­ci­ate when nobody’s try­ing to fool them,” says Byrne.

See sev­er­al per­for­mances from Amer­i­can Utopia, the musi­cal, above, from The Tonight Show Star­ring Jim­my Fal­lon, Late Night with Stephen Col­bert, and the Hud­son The­atre, where it’s cur­rent­ly run­ning. The musi­cal debuted in Eng­land last June, caus­ing NME to exclaim it may “just be the best live show of all time.” Its Broad­way run has received sim­i­lar acclaim. Below, see a trail­er for the show arriv­ing just in time, The Fad­er announces in a blurb, to “fight your cyn­i­cism.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Byrne Cre­ates a Playlist of Eclec­tic Music for the Hol­i­days: Stream It Free Online

David Byrne Launch­es Rea­sons to Be Cheer­ful, an Online Mag­a­zine Fea­tur­ing Arti­cles by Byrne, Bri­an Eno & More

David Byrne Curates a Playlist of Great Protest Songs Writ­ten Over the Past 60 Years: Stream Them Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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