NEW YORK – Since returning to Broadway's “American Utopia” after the pandemic pause, David Byrne has noticed a few things about his audience: It seems younger, a little more diverse and people are juiced to see live entertainment again.
“They're thrilled, just completely thrilled, to be in a theater, seeing a show, hearing music,” he said. “It's like, ‘wow, did we miss this or what?’”
“American Utopia” had its formal reopening at the St. James Theatre on Sunday, although there were a few weeks of previews. The music and dancing, performed by a barefoot troupe that operates without wires, is the same as before the break. The theatrical concert is a call for hope, connection and reaching utopia. Byrne has made a few changes to his monologues to reflect the times.
Some of the change in the audience composition might be due to Spike Lee's filmed version of “American Utopia,” which streamed while the live show itself was dark.
“I can sense that there are audience members who are not as familiar with the Talking Heads songs we play,” he said. “They're coming to see it as a show, and they're taking it all in — not simply as music fans but as people who are seeing a show. They have to absorb it and process it in the same way that they would with any musical where they don't know all of the songs ahead of time.”
Quickly in the show, he addresses what has kept people away.
“Thank you for leaving your homes,” he says. “I used to say that in the old world and it had a different meaning. But many things have changed,”
He references COVID-19 in some of his other monologues.
“Because of the nature of the show, because I talk directly to the audience and I'm not a character in a play, I have the opportunity to address a little bit of what we've all been through,” he said in an interview. “First I thought, ‘how do I do that?’ I didn't want to turn the show into being about the pandemic. But I can't ignore it.”
During the break, Byrne thought about musical changes, swapping some songs for others in a personal catalogue that encompasses nearly 45 years, but ultimately decided he liked the current mix.
There was no question about bringing the show itself back. All of the pre-pandemic performances had sold out, so he knew there was an appetite for it. He also considers it a distillation of many ideas about performance that he'd been trying through the years, and Byrne thought “I should let this ride for a little bit before I abandon it and go on to something else.”
“American Utopia” has performances scheduled through next spring. Byrne has committed to a different theater project in Denver, Colorado, next summer, so it won't go on indefinitely.
Just as importantly, “American Utopia” doesn't feel dated upon its return, he said.
“The show dealt with a lot of issues that really came to the fore during the pandemic, whether it was race and policing or voting,” he said. “It was, in a way, lucky, maybe prescient. We just happened to catch the tenor of the times. It didn't seem to lose any of its relevance.”