American Utopia The Book: David Byrne’s Lyrics and Maira Kalman’s Theater Curtain

Publishing a big colorful book as a companion to a Broadway musical is nothing new, but  “American Utopia” the book is surely unique.

In the last few years, there have been coffee table books that include behind-the-scenes interviews and the full libretto, annotated (Hamilton the Revolution, The Great Comet: Journey of a new Musical to Broadway, and Dear Evan Hansen through the window) and Young Adult novels spun from the plot (Dear Evan Hansen) again.

But American Utopia (Bloomsbury Publishing) is certainly the first time that a Broadway musical has made a companion book based on its theater curtain.

David Byrne commissioned illustrator Maira Kalman to create these drawings for the curtain at Broadway’s Hudson Theater, for the four-month run, ending this past February, of “David Byrne’s American Utopia” the musical. The show featured Byrne and 11 other musicians performing songs from Byrne’s 2018 album of the same name, along with previous songs, including those from his days as singer, guitarist and songwriter for Talking Heads. The curtain, which spanned the full length and height of the stage while the house was filling with the audience, then rose as the performance began.
Now, those same drawings are the illustrations in what is largely a picture book, similar to the children’s picture book on which Byrne and Kalman collaborated back in 1987, Stay up Late, which is about friends and family entertaining a new baby on his first night at home. (In their short bios at the end of their new book, Byrne and Kalman each mention their children and their grandchildren.)
The few words on the pages of “American Utopia” the book are those sung (or sometimes spoken) on the Broadway stage during “David Byrne’s American Utopia.” The book begins the way Byrne began:
“Despite all that has happened, despite all that is still happening, I think there is still possibility — we are still a work in progress….”

The book doesn’t so much tell a story as evoke a mood. The illustrations arguably serve the same purpose on the page as the music did on the stage.

At the end, Byrne writes: “Here is the hope and joy that I believe emanates from this show turned into something you can hold in their hands.’

“American Utopia” the book is scheduled for official publication in October, shortly after Spike Lee’s film of “American Utopia” opens the 45th annual Toronto International Film Festival on September 10, which may or may not be a virtual festival this year. (The film is then planned to stream on HBO sometime later in the Fall.)  “David Byrne’s American Utopia” the musical is also planning to come back to Broadway, when Broadway comes back.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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