In the online version of today’s Wall Street Journal, I review Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, David Byrne’s new Public Theater musical. Here’s an excerpt.
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Chronologically speaking, David Byrne, who was born in 1952, is by definition a purveyor of what the millennials call “dad rock.” But there’s nothing daddishly old-fashioned about the minimalism-tinged world-music rock of the founder of Talking Heads, who in recent years has discovered the stage and is now presenting his second show, “Joan of Arc: Into the Fire,” at the Public Theater. The Public’s latest musical-theater ventures, “Fun Home” and “Hamilton,” are as unsquare as it gets. As for Mr. Byrne, anything by the man who gave us “Houses in Motion” and “Life During Wartime” is bound to be worth seeing—or hearing—and “Joan of Arc” is no exception. Even so, it isn’t a fully successful theatrical experience, and the reasons why “Joan of Arc” doesn’t quite come off are almost more interesting than the show itself.
The most surprising thing about “Joan of Arc” is its straightforwardness. Mr. Byrne, who has written the book as well as the songs, steers clear of the ironic overlay usually found in contemporary treatments of the story. His Joan of Arc is an innocent young countrywoman who claims to have been visited by angels, believes what they tell her, transforms herself into a warrior, endures hideous tortures at the hands of her inquisitors and goes to the stake secure in her faith….
What gives here? All I know of Mr. Byrne’s religiosity, or lack of it, is his reply when asked by a journalist in 2002 if there is a God: “I would say yes, but in a form so strange and so convoluted and so unusual for us that we will never, ever understand it.” This makes it all the more surprising that “Joan of Arc” is direct to the point of naïveté. The lyrics are singsongy: “Each day we take confession/As the towns they hold all fall/With my banner here beside me/To each village large and small.” As for the dramaturgy, it’s rigidly linear, with event following event in a pageant-like procession that makes “Joan of Arc,” like “Jesus Christ Superstar” before it, feel more like an oratorio—or a double album—than a stage drama.
None of this would matter if Mr. Byrne’s through-composed score were more musically varied, but while it has his stylistic fingerprints all over it, every song in “Joan of Arc” consists of an endless string of four-bar phrases in four-four time. In the near-total absence of extended dialogue scenes, you find yourself longing after a half-hour or so for something to break the sameness—a waltz, a joke, even an intermission….
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Read the whole thing here.
David Byrne, Alex Timbers, and Jo Lampert (who plays the title role) talk about Joan of Arc: Into the Fire: