Interview: Mauro Refosco and Karl Mansfield's Roads to American Utopia

The pair are David Byrne’s musical directors for the Tony-honored production.

Brazilian-born percussionist Mauro Refosco began playing with former Talking Heads front man David Byrne during his 1994 In Constant Motion tour. American-born Karl Mansfield, a veteran Broadway keyboard player and synth programmer, first worked with Byrne on his Public Theater musical Joan of Arc. Together, they're the dual musical directors of Byrne's American Utopia, now at the St. James Theatre for a victory lap after its Tony-honored 2019 run and subsequent Spike Lee filming.

Here, the pair talk about developing the sound for the show, the hidden technical elements, and what it means to them, as musicians, to be featured so visibly when many other instrumentalists are not.

Karl Mansfield and Mauro Refosco
Karl Mansfield and Mauro Refosco
(© Tricia Baron)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

When David was describing this show to you, was his pitch the full idea of, like, "This is gonna be all of us shoeless in gray suits and none of the instruments will be visibly wired?"
Karl Mansfield: Pretty much. He literally took an envelope, drew a cube on the back, and a little stick figure inside the cube, and said "This is what I want the show to be." And I really didn't know what that meant, but it looked interesting. He said, "Do you think we could do this with keyboards?" And I said, "Yeah." I didn't know how, I didn't know what I was saying, but it turned out that we could.

Mauro Refosco: He sent me an email and asked, "Mauro, I want to do a show without anything set up on the stage. The stage is absolutely empty. How many percussionists or drummers do you think you would need?" And I was like, "Nothing's set up? Really?" So I brainstormed a little bit and said, "Minimum is four, maximum is eight," and he said, "Cool, you have six. Go assemble them."

How did you develop the orchestrations and general sound of the show?
Mauro: After that first email, I got ahold of the American Utopia record and the songs that David was thinking of from his catalogue and I started writing down the orchestra parts. Once I had a sketch, I sat down with the percussionists individually, listened to the music, and explained my ideas to them. It was a bit of a group effort with a little bit of guidance.

Karl: I did the same as Mauro. I listened to the American Utopia record and the back catalogue and realized that a lot of the music David wanted to do was keyboard and percussion heavy. So the idea of doing all those keyboard layers with one player and a small rig was very challenging, but very exciting. I have the keyboard split into multiple zones, and then layers within the zones. Some notes trigger, like, short samples and stuff like that. I can trigger that and then play something else while that's playing. Yeah, it's pretty complicated, but it's worked out so far.

But it looks effortless to an average spectator like me.
Karl: In some ways it is, which happens with theater shows. You do them so often that elements of it can become routine. But in our particular show, there's always an element of…not danger, but adrenaline. You have 12 moving bodies onstage and a lot of equipment sticking out of them. We never get to just phone it in. It's also a testament to [director and choreographer] Annie-B Parson, because she was able to look at each one of us and identify things we could do and things we shouldn't try. If you watch closely, you'll notice that she always has me standing pretty still, so that makes my part look pretty effortless.

Mauro: We had a month of rehearsals to prepare for our first show. The very first week, we learned the music, and then the second week, we started with some of the tech aspects of it. The show is really high-tech. It appears to just be people walking around the stage and playing instruments, but inside our suits and inside of the instruments, there is all this technology — radio transmitters to transmit the light waves and microphone waves and our monitors. The technological aspect was really deep.

So the second week, we were getting the sound in our ear monitors, and at the same time, Annie-B was teaching us the choreography. She would do three songs a day, and then at the end of the day, we would run those three songs. The next day, she would add three new songs, and then we would run six songs. Until we learned the whole show.

Mauro, having worked with David since the 1990s, how has he developed as a musician over all that time?
Mauro: What I've noticed with time is that his singing has gotten so much better — he's in the prime of his voice. He's got this exuberant, beautiful voice, and his way of communicating it gets better and better. But he's an incredible guitar player. His rhythm guitar playing, man. It's something. I've seen him playing a couple of times solo and it was amazing. The idea of playing actual shows is like a kick in the butt. It makes you perform. I think David likes that challenge. He's never going to do 50 rehearsals. The first tour I did with him, we did a week of rehearsals and started playing shows. And you get better once you're on the stage. That's what happened with American Utopia.

What does that mean to you as musicians, as artists, to watch this film version and know that what you're doing will now live on forever?
Karl: Being part of that film is just an incredible honor and the show just keeps exceeding whatever I expect. I never thought it would come to a second Broadway run. And I'm proud that my kids get to see it. But it sounds unbelievable. I couldn't believe that we sounded that good and full and everything.

Mauro: When you're playing the show, you don't realize it. I went to a screening of the movie and I had never seen the show, even though I had played it 200, 300 times, and it was so beautiful I was crying. Watching it on the big screen with nice sound, I was like, "Wow, we're doing this?"

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