In Spike Lee’s film of David Byrne’s American Utopia, an ensemble of 16 musicians and vocalists fill the stage of Broadway’s Hudson Theatre, moving freely around one another, all wearing identical gray suits. Throughout the film, which premieres on HBO and HBO Max on Saturday, one performer really pops out: Chris Giarmo, whose sparkly eye shadow, expressive mustache, and precise dancing make him a kind of bedazzled counterpoint to his monochrome bandmates. A downtown fixture who, like everyone in the cast, made his Broadway debut in American Utopia, Giarmo—along with his fellow dancer and vocalist Tendayi Kuumba—is onstage nearly every moment in the show, singing and performing Annie-B Parson’s unique choreography. He’s a big part of making a show that’s quite serious-minded feel like a celebration as well. The New Jersey–born Giarmo Zoomed with Slate from a brilliant pink room in his home in New Orleans, where he discussed drag, arch support, and bringing downtown art uptown.
Dan Kois: Whoa, what is this beautiful room you’re in?
Chris Giarmo: It’s Kimberly Clark’s beauty room. Kimberly is my drag persona, and this is her home base. It’s where I film all of her videos.
You have a YouTube channel for Kimberly and you’ve been performing in that persona for a long time. What did your drag experience bring to the work you did in the show?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot. For Kim, the act of putting on makeup was always just a tool—just a way for me to get from Chris to Kim. I wasn’t painting my true deep self on my face when I was doing Kimberly Clark. No, she’s the kind of incredible trashy Jersey woman that I grew up with my whole life, that I worship. But with American Utopia, from the beginning, I was wearing makeup and I knew it wasn’t drag. I knew it wasn’t Kimberly’s gig. But I needed to put on a face. At first, I didn’t really know why. But then after a show in Brazil, a fan messaged me on Instagram. He was this 16-year-old kid. And he was like, “Hey, I just wanted to let you know how important it was for me to see a queer person onstage with one of my music idols. I was the kid with the purple hair in the second row.” And then I was like, Oh, OK. This is not necessarily about me putting on another face. It’s really just a very basic act of me stepping into my queerness and owning it.
The show plays with uniformity. Everyone’s wearing the same suit, but you have that opportunity to present a little wink to those in the audience who need that particular message.
Yeah. Representation is just so obviously important, and I know that. I’ve known that forever. But then I really understood it.
A fun side benefit is that the makeup just looks great with that suit. It really pops on a stage. What’s it like wearing the suit? Is it comfortable?
The suits we wore on tour were a little different than the ones we wore for Broadway. On the road, they were a little bit more couture, let’s say. They looked incredible at first and after a lot of sweating—I’m a very sweaty dancer—they were a little rundown by the end of those 10 months. For Broadway, they got remade and fully costume-ified. We got lots of gussets and things put in. But they were always comfortable. Annie-B Parson, the choreographer, was aware that we’d all be wearing suits the whole entire time, right from the beginning. So the choreography was tailored to the suit, no pun intended.
Between the gray suits of this show and the big suit from Stop Making Sense, should we start thinking about David Byrne as a menswear icon?
I think if the look that you’re referring to is self-reflection and self-analysis, then yeah, I think that’s a look that most men should try to adopt.
What was it like dancing barefoot for 100 straight minutes? Didn’t you need arch support?
I come from the downtown dance theater world, and so most of my performance experience has been dancing barefoot. I will say I’ve never done a downtown show as many times as I’ve done this Broadway show, so it was a different kind of stamina over a long period of time for foot and arch health. A lot of ibuprofen, a lot of massage, and a chiropractor.
This process seems like it was really collaborative. Are there any particular musical moments that feel distinctively you?
I’ve assisted Annie-B on a lot of choreography gigs, and I did choreograph one number in this show. I did “Burning Down the House,” because I’m an old color guard, marching band person, so they were like, “You got this.”
Your connection to Annie-B Parson is how you first got involved in this show. For people who are used to either traditional Broadway choreography or traditional backup dancer choreography in a live music show, the dancing in American Utopia will feel really different. Can you talk about how Annie works and how the choreography for this show was born?
Yeah. Annie-B has a company called Big Dance Theater, and I’ve performed with them since 2005. Annie’s always been interested in, as she calls it, the virtuosity of form versus the virtuosity of a performer. The choreography is just as important as the lighting, which is just as important as the costume, which is just as important as the music, which is just as important as David’s words. Everything is even. She’s more interested in how her movement interplays with those other elements, I guess, instead of it being, I don’t know, a distraction or a support or something.
Or even a showcase. It’s not about showcasing individual bodies and technique.
So much of the way we think of dance as a pop-culture phenomenon are these huge, big explosive moves, like So You Think You Can Dance, but there’s something to be said for these very specific, small movements. And for me to come from Annie-B’s world, where that’s extremely natural for me to do, and then to perform with Tendayi Kuumba, who comes from a very diverse dance background, but most recently Urban Bush Women—that’s a very different style of movement. I think we just collaborated in such a beautiful way. My entire performance is in Tendayi. We are this insane duo.
How would you describe that duo’s role in the show? Sometimes you’re narrators, sometimes you’re like a chorus, sometimes you’re like backup dancers.
We came from, I think, the strongest professional dance background in the band. You know, we’re singer/actor/dancers. So for us I feel like it was a different excitement to come to Broadway. I think we took that and ran with it. When I watched the film for the first time, I was just like, Oh my God, look at these weirdos. We are just having such a blast. I feel like we put in just the right amount of camp and just the right amount of wink to really hold space for that cheesy showiness that we love about Broadway. I didn’t realize how much of it was there until I watched the film, but we’re just living our best little musical theater lives. I’m so proud of us.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.