With the curtains of Broadway dark, this weekend brings a welcome double dose of the New York scene to television screens: “American Utopia,” David Byrne’s free-spirited concert directed by Spike Lee for HBO; and “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Heidi Schreck’s not-quite-a-woman show, a hot political commentary that finds a home forum via Amazon.
Both shows are well worth it, although seeing them at home, frankly, reinforces what’s lost in translation, given the tingling that live theater can cause your spine at best – a sensation that doesn’t quite show up on either front. Together they underline what “Hamilton” has accomplished so impressively by evoking that elusive magic. Notably, HBO Max’s “The West Wing” memorable captures a bit of that by bringing a TV show onstage to watch at home.
Byrne, the Talking Heads’ frontman, has always possessed a talent for theater and film, including his 1986 director “True Stories”. These qualities form the basis of ‘American Utopia’, a collection of songs – choreographed and enlightened with imagination – that conveys the cheerful and playful aspects of its music.
On the positive side, this feeling of fun is quite entertaining. The main downside is that while Byrne does address pressing issues in her conversations with audiences – including the importance of voting and the introduction of his performance of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” who verifies the names of the Blacks killed by the police – there is a little topic. Adhesive to the presentation, unlike other productions that marry rock on Broadway (Bruce Springsteen’s “Springsteen on Broadway”, shot for Netflix, comes to mind).
Lee does a beautiful job capturing the performance from every angle imaginable. However, if the overhead shots are pretty cool, but close-ups of Byrne’s feet, along with the rest of the performers, are exposed.
Byrne’s playlist includes the hit “Burning Down the House” and a noisy rendition of “Road to Nowhere,” which consists of a walk through the grateful audience.
“American Utopia” doesn’t set the screen on fire, but Byrne and his associates sure know how to put on a show, even when it looks like they’re not going anywhere.
“What the Constitution means to me,” on the other hand, is a bold idea, one that starts slowly – at least in this format – before sinking into its hooks halfway through.
Playwright Schreck (Tony-nominated on both scores) earned tuition by participating in constitutional debates, reviving her 15-year-old personality to explore – with humor at first, significantly later – its disturbing and inequitable aspects, including mistreatment of women.
Schreck’s memories of “Dirty Dancing” and visiting Legionnaires to become eloquent about the Constitution for mostly older men become sharper as she exits the time capsule and rotates to speak in his voice for forty years.
At this point, her memories and observations deepen, from the patriarchal values of the court to violence against women to her own experiences with abortion.
“When abortion became illegal, it didn’t become rare,” she says, referencing the days before Roe v. Wade. “It only became deadly.”
Schreck concludes by engaging in a debate with a teenage orator, Rosdely Ciprian, about whether the Constitution is indeed the living, breathing document we were taught to admire in school – adaptable to the modern age – or a hopelessly dated construct that must be discarded, starting from scratch. It’s an exciting device, even if it lacks the impact of the material that precedes it.
Directed by Marielle Heller (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”), “What the Constitution Means to Me” reminds us that those who crave the past tend to ignore historical inequalities. There’s even a quote from late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – who caused a stir when she saw the show last year – that makes the unique feel extremely current and touching.
Small inconveniences aside, both shows have a lot to recommend. And if live theater means anything to you, they at least give you a taste of what you’re missing out on.