How did it feel walking in the doors of the Colonial and seeing this incredible building for the first time?
It’s a very amazing looking place. As I was saying to some of the theater people, I bet there are people that come to see a show here just to be in this place.
When you think about all the history of this place, from Fanny Brice to David Byrne, what does that feel like?
I’m not thinking so much about this specific theater as I’m thinking about what kind of shows people went to see back in the day. What were their shows like, and are they really different than they are now? If people went to see Will Rogers, was that like going to see … Dave Chappelle at Radio City or something like that? I know they had variety shows, which I don’t think anybody’s really been able to pull off again. I love that format where you kind of get a little bit of everything.
If anyone can do it, it’s you.
I’m gonna try!
You have said that you never really had Broadway aspirations, but you’ve always sort of been a theater person. You love a good show. And now you are becoming a theater person. So I’m curious, what are some things you’ve seen that you admire?
A lot. Recently I saw What the Constitution Means to Me, and it’s very entertaining and very moving. There’s lots to chew on and some real stage surprises that I didn’t expect. I saw one called Fairview where at some point—this is a big spoiler—the audience switches places with the performers. Years ago I worked briefly with a theater group. … They had one where they wanted to recreate the least seen YouTube video, which happened to be somebody’s party [laughs] and nobody watched it so they kind of worked on the staging, they gave the audience members headphones and they got their lines fed to them. I thought it was so freaky because it kind of worked. It was really uncanny and very funny.
You seem to really like the element of surprise.
Yes, and I think audiences do, too. They want a certain amount of reassurance that they’re going to have a good time, that they’re in good hands, that they can trust you. But they don’t want to just be given stuff that they already know, they want to put a twist to it. Don’t leave me baffled, but I do want to be surprised. It’s a little balance there.
From you’ve said, and from what reviews have said, there’s no way to describe this show. And you seem to prefer it that way.
[laughs] I feel like it does have an arc to it. It’s not a conventional narrative, in the sense that we’re not doing dialogue scenes, but it does have an arc to it. I think I can tell people that we’re, as performers, we’re untethered. Although there’s a lot of musicians there’s no cables or wires—everybody’s free to move anywhere on stage so a lot of what the impact comes from [is] the staging.
As a frequent audience member, I love to be surprised, but I also like to know what to expect. So if you were to describe this show to someone to try to sell them on it, what would you say?
How would I sell it to somebody who, let’s say, doesn’t know who I am, doesn’t know Talking Heads, doesn’t know any of the songs—or maybe they’ve heard a little bit—but they’ve heard that there’s a good word of mouth around this show? … I would say that it’s definitely a lot of music but it does have a beginning, middle, and an end. There’s a journey that the main character—I guess that would be me—goes through. And it’s a journey that the band helps him with and then kind of joins him towards the end. It’s kind of a journey of engagement. I don’t make it unique to me—it’s not my autobiography but it’s a story that I think a lot of us share. And I think felt like putting an emphasis on that.
And you’re right about it having good word of mouth. Even just a quick Google search will pull up all of these reactions that are insanely positive.
Oh, I’m glad. I haven’t done that. I try to avoid all of it until it’s all over.
You open on Broadway two weeks after you close in Boston. Are you going to read the reviews from Boston before you open in New York?
No. Not even the good ones. ’Cause I remember years ago … somebody would hand me something and say: “This is a great review.” And it would be a great review but they described me as being some kind of complete freak. I realized that it was meant to be positive, but you’re a performer, you’re going to take it personally. So I thought, oh, don’t trust any of them. If someone says it’s a good review, then great, but you don’t have to read it until it’s all over because you don’t want to be thinking about that when you’re performing.
I consider myself pretty up on pop culture and stuff, but I didn’t realize until very recently that you’re also a film composer.
Not very often, once in a while.
Well, you won an Oscar.
The Last Emperor wasn’t just some small picture… it was a massive—
It was a massive thing.
So what can’t you do?
Plenty of things. I’ve tried to write stories, fiction; I don’t think I’m suited for that. … There you go. There’s one!
Why do you feel that this is the time for American Utopia? What makes you think that audiences need and want this show right now?
For the same reason I do. There’s a danger of people falling into cynicism and anger and depression. All of that—which I feel as well—and I feel like we have to find antidotes to that. This show is entertaining, but it’s actually got something to say about an alternative to the way things are. So that’s why I think it’s relevant.
AMERICAN UTOPIA. THROUGH 9.28 AT THE EMERSON COLONIAL THEATRE, 106 BOYLSTON ST., BOSTON. EMERSONCOLONIALTHEATRE.COM