Once in a while, various things one has been working on for years have an opportunity to converge, separate strands meet, and it all falls into place. As if they’d always been meant to come together. In reality, one can’t always plan it, though we might try…but happily this seems to be one of those times.
I often get asked, “What is this show about? What is this song about? What is the message, what are you trying to tell us?” My preferred answer would be to refer them to the quote from old-school Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union!” It seems to me that in creating something—a song, a show, a blog post, a meal, a dance—a vision comes together, intuitively, gradually, bit by bit, little by little, and we don’t always know the totality of what we’ve made until we can actually see, hear and taste it.
A few years ago I did a show that involved high school color guards, and it wasn’t until I watched a run-through that I realized the show was about inclusion. The same thing is true with many of the songs I write. If we’re lucky during this process, we’ve remained true to some unconscious guiding principle – we often know what that is, even if it’s hard to articulate at the moment. It was that way with this show – it wasn’t conceived all at once, but rather one part of it led to the next, it evolved organically, and as soon as one element was resolved, the next one presented itself – a new puzzle and mystery to be solved.
And at some point, there it was.
In retrospect, it all made sense together, as if it had been conceived all at once. But the truth is I didn’t really know what it was about until it was close to up and running.
Here’s how my thinking went, and how the show evolved:
As I was recording the songs for my American Utopia album, it occurred to me that they would be exciting to play live – and I realized that a lot of my older material would fit right in. I imagined a live show…I pictured a lot of drummers, a kind of drum line/samba school/second line – that would create the rhythms. I had this vision of how exciting that would be – both for me and for an audience.
I also realized that what creates the biggest impact on an audience is performers. By that, I mean we might go ooh and ahh at pyrotechnics and wild video projections, but it’s the people on stage that interest and move us the most. The human connection, I realized, carries more weight and emotion than all the gadgets in the world. If I could foreground the performers, I might connect in a visceral and exciting way.
I wondered what that could be. Remember that.
A few years earlier, I had toured with the musical artist St. Vincent, and we had a large horn section that we decided should be completely mobile…not a complete surprise, as it’s not unusual for horn players to carry their instruments. We did a fair amount of moving around while playing, but certain elements of the band—the keyboard and the drums—were still firmly stuck in place. Could I liberate them, too? It turns out I could. Drummer Mauro Refosco, whom I’ve worked with for years, said we’d need 6 drummers to reproduce the necessary grooves…I checked the budget and it was tight, but I could afford it. And it turns out there is a technology that allows a keyboard to be mobile, so Karl Mansfield tested it out. Guitarists have been able to be untethered for years – and now everyone else could do it, too.
I realized that with everyone untethered, I could now have a completely empty stage. No wires, no mics, no gear, no risers. Wow. Obviously we’re going to move around. Visually, how does one emphasize that emptiness? With all this work to achieve emptiness, we want people to notice it! I hate seeing all the gear, speakers, stagehands, tech and support stuff that tends to crowd and surround concert stages. Now I can relegate all of that to the edges…but how to define our empty space?
At first, I thought maybe a curtain or scrim would hide it all. But then I realized that when we played outdoor festivals, the wind might turn scrims into sails. Scary. We tried some fabric that was more like a mesh, which let lots of air through, but even that wasn’t enough.
An associate mentioned that in Vegas, they sometimes use a fine lightweight chain for a curtain – and probably the wind would pass right through that. It did! And we could pass right through it too – we could now enter and exit the stage anywhere. This was getting exciting. Solving one problem creates opportunities in other areas!
There were more technical hurdles, but by the time we’d begun rehearsing we’d solved most of them, and it became immediately apparent how liberating this experience was going to be. We had no idea how audiences would react, but for us it was simultaneously a steep learning curve—playing, moving and sometimes singing all at the same time—and a complete thrill.
Annie-B Parson, whom I’d worked with a number of times in the past, came on board and we began to collaborate on discovering movement that seemed appropriate for the songs. Sometimes she gave us complex movement to try, and sometimes, a little surprisingly, we’d discover, or at least I did, that the simplest idea could have a huge emotional impact.
Eventually I realized we were doing something no one had even done before, or if they had, I didn’t know about it. When we began to put the show in front of audiences, I realized there was a kind of narrative there. Friends, and even strangers, began to point it out, and we all sensed it, as well. As a friend from London said, “The American Utopia of the title is there on stage.” I also realized that this narrative was not something told, it was something experienced.
Because of how theatrical the show is, others started telling me, “This needs to go to Broadway.” Why not? But what did that mean? Parked in a beautiful Broadway theater, we can perfect the sound, the lights, the movement – we don’t have to adapt to a new place every night! It was an exciting challenge – I realized a Broadway setting would likely be a different audience than the concert crowds I was used to. The Broadway crowd has slightly different expectations. There might even be audience members who don’t know me or my music – which for me is exciting. I thought to myself that this new context might be good – it might actually help to bring out the narrative arc a little bit more, to make it just a little more explicit. I asked Alex Timbers, whom I’d worked with twice before on musicals, to help. He brought some original and insightful ideas to the room, ideas I was too close to imagine, and we used those to build on what we had, to add some extra elements and nuance, while keeping what is integral to the show.
So, after all this, what do I think this show is about? I won’t say—that’s like putting the nose on the clown—but I will say the title is not ironic.
People also ask me whether I will be darting into a town car after these shows, or taking a flying leap onto my bicycle.
Take a wild guess.