You may ask yourself: How did David Byrne end up with a Broadway show?

David Byrne at the Emerson Colonial Theatre where his show “American Utopia” will make a three-week run.
David Byrne at the Emerson Colonial Theatre where his show “American Utopia” will make a three-week run.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

David Byrne didn’t become a US citizen until he was entering his seventh decade. In 2012, the year he turned 60, the songwriter went to a federal building in Manhattan, where he lives, to take part in a small naturalization ceremony with about a dozen other applicants.

Born in Scotland and raised into early childhood in Hamilton, Ontario, Byrne grew up outside Baltimore. As a permanent US resident and Green Card holder, he’d always believed he could vote in local elections, just not for president.

“Then I got busted,” he says with a laugh. Showing up on Election Day at a neighborhood elementary school, he was told he couldn’t vote at all. So he took the plunge, applying to become a dual citizen of the UK and the US. He keeps the little flag from the oath ceremony as a reminder.


The notion of citizenship is the foundation of “American Utopia,” Byrne’s latest project. What began as an elaborately choreographed concert tour is now on its way to Broadway, with a preliminary three-week run beginning Wednesday at the Emerson Colonial Theatre. It’s another ambitious undertaking for the ever-inquisitive artist, whose resume includes film, opera, books and, of course, the enduring legacy of his one-of-a-kind rock band, Talking Heads.

As usual, Byrne had big ideas as he prepared to assemble a band to tour behind his latest solo album, 2018’s “American Utopia.” He wanted his large group of musicians — 12, including guitar and bass, a keyboardist, and a half-dozen percussionists — to move fluidly about the stage, with no cords, no props, no fixed positions. So the keyboardist and drummers strapped on their instruments, enabling them to join the dance steps.

The high-concept presentation was both a critical hit and a crowd-pleaser. But Byrne had no thought of taking the show to Broadway — not, that is, until after the opening date of the tour, in New Jersey, when he heard from promoters who thought it would be a natural fit.


“I took that on board and said, ‘I think I’d like to do that,’ ” Byrne said one hot afternoon in early August, on a quick preparatory visit to Boston. Over a lunch of crab Louis at Black Lamb in the South End, wearing white Levi’s and a baby blue guayabera, Byrne spent a relaxed hour discussing bike trips, his excursions to Boston as an undergrad at the Rhode Island School of Design, and the current, less-than-utopian state of his adopted nation.

The upcoming 16-week residency on Broadway, he said, “is not something I would have thought of naturally, but it is a very theatrical show. The idea of parking in one place — doing it in a theatrical sense, where you really have a chance to fine-tune, not throwing it up every day in another town — is kind of exciting. It will be most exciting if I can get some people who don’t even know who I am, who don’t know Talking Heads.”

“American Utopia” begins performances at the Hudson Theatre a week after departing Boston, on Oct. 4.

The show’s choreographer is Annie-B Parson, who is known for her experimental performance company Big Dance. She first worked with Byrne over a decade ago, on his collaborative tour with Brian Eno. From their first discussion for the “American Utopia” tour, she loved his minimalist approach: “uncluttered, untethered, very committed to moving through space.”


Byrne, she said on a phone call from New York, embodies precisely the sort of human quirks she prefers over virtuosity in her field.

“Yes, he has limitations, but his limitations are really beautiful,” said Parson, who says she was influenced by Byrne’s inimitable stage presence long before they met. “He has incredible strength as a dancer . . . He can be very large-scale, very funky, in a very particular way. Very kinetic. I find that really beautiful and interesting.”

For the show, Byrne dressed himself and the musicians in matching gray suits, buttoned-up gray shirts, no ties. Completing the uniform, they’re all barefoot.

Check that: Most of them are barefoot. A few members have arch problems, Byrne said, so they wear flesh-colored booties: “I’d paint toes on them so they’d look like bare feet.”

The look signals togetherness. On “Everybody’s Coming to My House,” one of the key tracks from the “American Utopia” album, it suggests a gathering of close friends comfortable enough to take their shoes off.

The show, which features several Talking Heads songs, from “I Zimbra” to “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” is vaguely autobiographical. But unlike Bruce Springsteen’s recent storytelling show on Broadway, “American Utopia” is less memoir than it is an allegory. It’s about a man who lives “very much inside his own head,” as Byrne explained. (The show opens with the white-haired performer holding a brain.) He’s a man who only gradually comes to recognize the tremendous value in community.


“It’s a journey of discovery,” he said. Coincidentally, as the tour unfolded, he came to understand his own story arc more clearly through the observations of friends and fans.

“People would tell me, ‘The utopia you’re talking about is right there onstage. It’s not a hypothetical thing.’ I thought, OK, yeah, that’s very theatrical. Show, don’t tell. Let them experience what it’s about, and they will connect the dots.”

The “utopia” of the title, he said, is not to suggest that perfection is attainable.

“Throughout the history of this country, it’s been a place where those kinds of ideas were encouraged and made manifest. Most of them didn’t succeed, but it was a place where you were given that opportunity. Yes, you can make a better society, or you can try. . . . I thought, hmm, it’s a nice time to remind ourselves of that.”

Parson, who has created dances for Bowie and Baryshnikov, among many others, said she hears a bit of Walt Whitman’s yearning for connection in her creative partner’s narrative. Byrne has been working on enhanced monologue material with production consultant Alex Timbers, the director of the stage adaptation of “Here Lies Love,” Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s eccentric 2010 rock musical about Imelda Marcos.

“I’ve come to realize the title of the show is not a cynical nor an ironic statement,” Parson said. “The use of the word ‘utopia’ is aspirational. It’s not a feel-good ignoring-of-reality, but a wake-up kind of show.


“I think David sees America as a work in progress. I think he believes it was created as a process, and he’s proposing we continue to work on this process — not walk away, or drive a truck over it, but engage in it.”

To that end, Byrne has just relaunched Reasons to Be Cheerful, an online project that began as his own blog posts about human innovation and social progress. It’s now a stand-alone website with dedicated writers, editors, and a weekly newsletter. The project was initially conceived in tandem with “American Utopia.”

“At various points, I tried to integrate them more, but it felt a little forced,” Byrne said. “People will make the connection if they want to.”

More straightforward is his inclusion on tour of a cover version of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout.” She wrote the song in 2015 to protest the rash of deaths of African-Americans in confrontations with police officers.

“That, to me, was one of the most moving, emotional protest songs I’d ever heard,” said Byrne, who in the past has featured other, less weighty cover songs in concert (see: Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”). “I felt like in the times that we’re living, we’re kind of obligated to react in some way, shape, or form.”

Though the song ended the setlist on his tour dates, for the Broadway-bound show the musicians will add one more encore: “One Fine Day,” a rousing, gospel-flavored track from his 2008 album with Eno.

“It’s more of a communal, uplifting thing,” Byrne said. Sending the audience home on a positive note: It’s his civic duty.

American Utopia

At the Emerson Colonial Theatre, Sept. 11-28. Tickets from $59, www.emersoncolonialtheatre.com

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.