Building David Byrne’s ‘Utopia,’ One Gray Suit at a Time – The New York Times


You may find yourself on 44th Street, having just come out of the theatrical dance piece/rock show/neuroscience lecture “American Utopia.” And you may find yourself — like the quizzical protagonist of one of David Byrne’s best-loved songs — with a bunch of questions about what you’ve just seen.

For the mystified as well as the merely curious, we offer answers to your burning questions, compiled with the help and insights of the show’s creator Byrne and the creative team, including the 11 multitalented merrymakers onstage with him at the Hudson Theater, where the show continues through February.

Even before the release of his 2018 album “American Utopia,” Byrne had an idea of what its concert tour might look like. “I had a dream of a squad of percussionists advancing downstage,” he says. “Like a second line band, drum line or samba school.” Over the course of that tour, which comprised 144 performances in 26 countries, Byrne realized that “a kind of narrative arc” was emerging that would suit the theatrical stage. The director Alex Timbers (“Beetlejuice”) was brought in to coax out threads and themes.

Byrne’s bodaciously boxy big suit, immortalized in the 1984 concert film “Stop Making Sense,” wouldn’t have felt right this time: “I thought plain but elegant suits would unify us and help reveal us as a tribe, a community,” he said.

Martin Greenfield, a master tailor in Brooklyn whose client list includes six American presidents, LeBron James and cast members from “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” was happy to oblige. Working with the Kenzo-designed tour suits as a blueprint, Greenfield used a 3 percent Lycra fabric that would breathe, stretch and best withstand the performers’ gyrations and perspirations. And each suit was designed to accommodate the individual performers: looser sleeves for the drummers, shorter pant bottoms for the dancers. There’s extra-stretchy material under the sleeves and in the trousers, too.

The lighting designer’s suggestion, as it is easier to light than black or white. And lighting, in this case, is pretty cutting-edge: The performers wear tiny BlackTrax infrared transmitters in half-inch openings on the shoulders of their jackets, allowing the lights to automatically track them as they move around the stage.

Going barefoot would contrast nicely with the formality of those suits, Byrne thought. All the performers come to the stage in their own unique pair of slippers or flip-flops. Most take them off right before they enter, sometimes a split second before coming through the curtain. “I have yet to get a splinter,” Byrne said. “But it does mean the stage has to be spotless.” A couple of performers had arch issues by the end of the concert tour, though.

KriskaDécor Snina Babylink, to be exact. That is, 13.75 miles of aluminum chain, fabricated in Spain. Double the density of the concert tour version, it weighs more than 3,000 pounds and comprises more than a million links.

Byrne’s original stage design concept was an empty box, devoid of mic stands, pedal boards, cables and speakers. But how to frame the emptiness? He happened to hear about some lightweight aluminum chain that was being used in Las Vegas. “How did they use this in Vegas?” he said. “I never found out.”

The curtain was first tested in a Pennsylvania warehouse in Amish country. “I rode a bike to the warehouse among the cornfields and horses and buggies,” Byrne recalled. “Katy Perry was about to rehearse in another warehouse. It was all quite surreal.”

But it was a success — the chain not only allowing wind to pass through, but the wireless radio signals from the mics and instruments. And, Byrne said, “the light on the chain looked beautiful.”

Perhaps they were among the 51 Brazilian, African and Latin percussion instruments played in the show. One of the most intriguing is the berimbau, which consists of a steel string and the hollowed-out husk of a gourd-like fruit, and is played with a wooden bow. Its scratchy sound, often heard accompanying the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira, adds to the groove of the numbers “I Should Watch TV” and “I Dance Like This.”

There’s also a tambourine machine, which allows one person to play several tambourines simultaneously. And the tama, or talking drums, whose expressive pitch modulations, in the hands of a practiced player, evoke the sound of a human voice. “Tama was developed by the Wolof people,” said Gustavo di Dalva, the show’s master tama player. “It used to serve a communication function between villages, announcing festivals and meetings.”

The performers and stage crew wear earpieces, getting a carefully balanced mix of each musical number piped right into their earholes. For sound designer Pete Keppler, the design process involved a careful study of the acoustic qualities of each individual percussion instrument. There’s a lot of tricky active (on-the-fly) mixing during the show too, with the enthusiastic intermingling of the performers making that process even trickier.

That was Chris Giarmo, the show’s dance captain. He was charged with keeping Annie-B Parson’s choreography intact on the world tour, and recalibrating it to fit all sorts of venues. He’s a musician and sound designer, and teaches voice as an adjunct professor at N.Y.U. Tisch School of the Arts’ Experimental Theater Wing. He also choreographed the movements for that reliable roof-raiser “Burning Down the House,” drawing on his color guard and marching band background.

The lyrics for “I Zimbra” were derived from “Gadji beri bimba,” a 1916 phonetic poem by Hugo Ball, the German author-poet and co-founder of Dada. More than a half-century after Ball strove to stop making sense, he got a writing credit for the opening track on the Talking Heads album “Fear of Music.”

It’s a protest song, featuring the names of black citizens killed by police, called “Hell You Talmbout.” It’s not currently available on Spotify or Apple Music. But you can listen to the song on YouTube or SoundCloud, as well as in between chapters in the audiobook of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Talking to Strangers.”

Look, a song about a murderous bilingual maniac might have felt out of place.

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