For David Byrne, the Broadway reopening of “American Utopia” last Sunday — 24 months after his now Tony-winning show first opened in 2019 — was a “friends and family” affair.
“I would look out and I’d go, ‘Oh, there’s so and so’s family!’ ” the 69-year-old music icon told The Post. “You could see all these people that we knew, so it was really like playing for your friends, which meant I had to try not to look at them [to concentrate].”
In fact, the audience included one famous friend who has become a bit of an “American Utopia” groupie: “Amy Schumer came to the opening,” said Byrne. “I think she’s been to the show about eight times!”
“American Utopia” — a theatrical, quasi-concert production that incorporates music, interpretive dance and Byrne’s stage banter, which ranges from comical to topical — won a special Tony last month because it defied categorization by not fitting into the musical or play divisions. But then again, the art-rocker has never played by the rules.
And by breaking Broadway norms, Byrne is now burning down the house at the St. James Theatre with a whole different crowd on the Great White Way.
“The audience to some extent is getting younger and more diverse,” said Byrne. “Way back in 2019, we wanted that to happen, but now, after the pandemic, it actually is happening. It looks to me like some people in the audience aren’t familiar with my music, which to me is a good thing. It means we have to work to win them over, and we basically have to do a good show that is not relying on them being Talking Heads fans or anything like that.”
No doubt, “American Utopia” — which weaves tracks from Byrne’s 2018 album of the same name, other songs from his solo career and some Talking Heads tunes into a socially conscious statement on the country — feels eerily prescient after the pandemic, last year’s contentious presidential election and the protests against racial injustice.
“It seems like we kind of saw what was coming,” said Byrne. “Back in 2019, we were talking about immigration, voting, race. We would drop all these issues into the show, and then of course when the pandemic hit, a lot of that stuff really came to the forefront of people’s consciousness. It was like the curtain had been pulled back … And I thought, ‘Well, that’s what we’ve been trying to do in the show.’ As a performer, I felt obliged to address the world we live in.”
Byrne remained in New York for most of the “pretty brutal” days of the pandemic last year, biking around the city with his “American Utopia” band members to get fresh air and sometimes cycling through the desolate Theater District. Now, he has a new appreciation for Broadway since its reopening.
“Someone like me, who kind of grew up with the downtown music world and arts world, we kind of forget how much of a thing Broadway is as part of New York. I mean, it’s huge,” he said. “And, well, Broadway’s changing. There’s room for the Disney musicals; there’s also room for other stuff.”
And after experiencing songwriter’s block during lockdown — “At the time it was just this kind of cloud that descended,” he said — Byrne is getting his creative groove back: “I can feel that the juices are starting to flow again.”
Byrne will publish a book of drawings that he did during the pandemic in February, and he has an immersive theater piece opening in Denver next summer. And if there’s any doubt about his ongoing relevance with a young generation of musician fans who make him feel “encouraged,” he’s currently on the cover of Rolling Stone alongside Lorde, with the two artists interviewing each other.
But while Taking Heads classics such as “This Must Be the Place,” “Once in a Lifetime” and, of course, “Burning Down the House” get the biggest reaction in “American Utopia,” don’t expect Byrne to reunite with his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band: “No, I don’t think so. It’s been a long time, and we’ve all kind of gone our separate ways.”