Tuning in: music's influence on theatre
This article is from 2009.
There’s a rockin’, poppin’, boppin’ lot of music in the theatre these days. Miles Fielder asks what inspires theatre-makers to create plays based on popular music
The Fringe always arrives with a ready-made soundtrack composed of musicals, opera and gigs as well as the tuneful accompaniments to theatre shows, to say nothing of the raucous racket generated morning, noon and night by street performers. This year, however, there’s a cluster of theatre shows that take the lives of musicians as a starting point and add to that a biographical narrative to create dramas with music.
While it’s possible that the ongoing popularity of the conventional stage musical has provided an appetite for this music-themed theatre, these shows are doing something different from productions of traditional West End musicals such as Buddy, Oliver! and Sweeney Todd – also being staged at this year’s Fringe.
Woody Sez, for instance, combines the music and lyrics of the politically engaged American folk legend Woody Guthrie with excerpts from the articles he wrote for a leftist newspaper to create a portrait of the man whose opinions still resonate today. Elsewhere, Almost Like a Virgin tells the life story, not of Madonna Ciccone, but of Madge mimic Evelyne Brink, while The Rex Roman Pink Floyd Show attempts to overturn the prog-rock band’s enduring uncool status. With air guitars.
Meanwhile, German pop-punk/electro-clash sensation Die Roten Punkte make their Edinburgh premiere on the UK leg of their Robot-Lion Tour, although, as this is actually a comedy show about dysfunctional siblings Otto and Astrid Rot, the music is mashed up with outrageous autobiographical asides. All of these shows feature music, but they also come cut with a good deal more than show tunes.
‘I have called our show for a long time a “concert narrative” or a “theatrical concert”,’ says David Lutken, the veteran Broadway performer who conceived and stars in Woody Sez and who brought it to Edinburgh for its world debut in 2007. ‘I’ve made my living for a long time in the US in a form that has the loose title “guitar theatre”. This became quite popular in the 1980s and 90s, because of the popularity of musicals and also their high cost. That created a lot of opportunities for fellas like me, who are actors who also play musical instruments. There are just four of us in the play and we have a total of 16 instruments on stage with us – guitar, mandolin, banjo, violin, fiddle, harmonica, auto-harp, all kinds of things that go with this style of American folk music – so we are, effectively, the orchestra.’
Aside from the differences in the staging between what Lutken calls a ‘concert narrative’ and a stage musical, Woody Sez also has a lot more going on in terms of content than the relatively straightforward stringing together of tunes. That’s reflected in the show’s complex history. ‘It’s a biographical show all about Woody’s life,’ Lutken says, ‘but also his music and his politics, the dustbowl, the labour movement, those kinds of things, and it was originally inspired by two things. First, a tribute concert to Woody, a combination of music and prose that Woody had written that was performed in New York City in 1956. Woody’s manager thought it was a great thing, so he published it under the title California to the New York Island, and it rumbled around for a number of years before it eventually went out of print.’
Woody Sez has the added inspiration of Woody’s newspaper columns from the late 30s and early 40s called ‘Woody Sez’, which appeared in The People’s Daily World, a communist newspaper on the West Coast of the US. Those columns, too, were published by Woody’s manager.
Lutken continues: ‘I took three elements of Woody’s life – his autobiography, Bound for Glory, California to the New York Island and Woody Sez – and put them together to make a show that features as many elements of Woody’s life as we can cram in there.’
Where Lutken’s show is based squarely on the life of its famous subject, Almost Like a Virgin and The Rex Roman Pink Floyd Show tackle theirs tangentially. ‘I work as a Madonna impersonator around the world,’ says Evelyne Brink, who conceived and performs Almost Like A Virgin, ‘but my background is actually cabaret. I was born in Germany and I grew up with that kind of scene. I left for the big, wide world at the age of 22, and after travelling all over it I ended up doing Madonna shows. This show is about how that happened. It reveals the extraordinary life of a Madonna impersonator, and the music is a mix of Madonna hits, German comedy songs and songs that I have written.’
‘I’ve always been a lifelong Pink Floyd fan,’ says Simon Ash, who has adapted his own book Chapters in the Life of Rex Roman for the stage, ‘and I got caught up in the rush when the band reformed for Live Aid. It turned out to be the only time they got back together again. So I used that pivotal moment for the book I wrote, upon which the show is based.
‘I wanted to make a hybrid between music and comedy. So the songs I’ve chosen all drive along the story of air guitar hero Rex Roman. I’ve always been a recruiting agent for Pink Floyd, because all through my life people have said, “They’re so boring.” I hope this show will convert those people.’
Taking the idea of musical theatre to its (il)logical extreme, Die Roten Punkte features a fake band playing a real gig that’s framed by a knockabout comic storyline. Not that the punkers are admitting to that fiction; as Otto Rot says: ‘Our manager, Rodney, keeps booking us concerts in comedy and fringe theatre festivals all over the world, which is a little bit weird because we are a rock’n’roll band. And we hear a lot of people laughing at our shows.
Almost Like a Virgin, Pleasance Dome, 556 6550, 8–31 Aug (not 12, 19), 7.50pm, £9–£10 (£8–£9). Previews until 7 Aug, £5; The Rex Roman Pink Floyd Show, Udderbelly’s Pasture, 08445 458 252, 8–23 Aug (not 12, 19), 10.15pm, £12.50–£14 (£11.50–£12). Preview 7 Aug, £7; Woody Sez, Udderbelly’s Pasture, 08445 458 252, 8–31 Aug (not 17), 2.30pm, £10–£12.50 (£8–£11). Previews 6 & 7 Aug, £6.