When the curtain rises on Joan of Arc: Into the Fire at New York's Public Theater to reveal a punkish Jo Lampert in tight black leather, the audience will encounter a Maid of Orleans unlike any other.
For this raw, resonant take, David Byrne reteams with director Alex Timbers and returns to the site of their 2010 musical Here Lies Love with driving rock anthems sung by soldiers, robed church officials and the 15th-century French martyr.
"I was never a huge musical theater fan," says Byrne, 64. "But the power of songs to tell a story is so tempting -- how a song can get into a character's heart and mind in a way text can't."
Ahead of its March 15 opening, the Talking Heads icon and Lampert, a backing vocalist for indie group Tune-Yards, reflect on how Joan's story can be tied to the gray areas of today.
What drew you both to the story of Joan of Arc?
Jo Lampert: She's a folk hero that's real. When Joan hears her voices, she finds purpose -- the fervor for freedom. She owns that strength and is able to inspire others.
David Byrne: What boggles the mind -- why her story has endured for centuries -- is that people are still trying to interpret her. Marine Le Pen, the French right-wing politician, claims her! She has become this vessel, and people have always wanted to put their stamp on her.
What was yours?
Byrne: I'm attracted to the puzzle and ambiguity. Because of the music, Jo's performance and who Joan is, the audience goes with it. At some point they have doubts: Are we supporting a religious maniac who is leading an army? Are we supporting that in this day and age? Her character becomes more nuanced, less perfect, and the audience becomes conflicted.
Lampert: I struggled with that at first, with Alex. It was the day after the election and we were both broken. I asked, "What makes her different from these people?" And it was the difference between spewing vitriol and hate, and fighting for unity and love.
Meanwhile, some of the music delves into her sexuality.
Lampert: I came to being queer as a late bloomer, so being pure and asexual is something that I connected to as a kid. In "Sword and Fire," I sing that no man will touch me from now on, I will renounce this woman's shape. I'm nervous to talk about sexuality in this way, because there's something so binary about it. But there is a post-genderness about Joan.
Byrne: There's "Dear God," where she's imprisoned in a tower and leaps. She has a reverie in talking to God that's borderline sexual.
Lampert: You've said before that God is Joan's boyfriend! (Laughter.) In so many different aspects, he's the love interest in the show.
This article originally appeared in the March 18 issue of Billboard.