Every so often I check Amazon to see if new musical theatre books or recordings are being released in the coming months. One of my favorite things about Amazon is that I can pre-order most things, and when they're released, they're just delivered to my mailbox. But also, I can find things on Amazon that my local music store would never carry. Things like Bukowsical.
From the moment I heard the first lines of the first song, I knew I wanted to work on this show:
What’s the feeling you get
When you’re down on your luck
And you’re too drunk to fuck?
What's the feeling you get
When you're scratching your crotch
And you've run out of scotch?
Never writes about trees.
How he elevates sleaze!
Every woman’s a hole
Out to swallow his soul.
Yes, I'll admit it, hearing the word fuck in the first few lines delighted me. I love transgressive, rule-busting theatre. But also, quite frankly, the use of that word in a musical also says something else -- that this is a contemporary, adult musical. After all, the majority of musicals New Line produces have that word in them. Not for shock, not for laughs, but just because it's real. People use that word. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals used to present an idealized America (or idealized Americans abroad), with a clear, traditional morality. But we don't live in that America today, if we ever did. Since the 1960s, Americans have wanted authenticity and truthful complexity in their art, not just pretty fictions.
Poet and novelist Charles Bukowski was a part of that change. He became an important literary figure in the 1970s for his raw, honest, spare writing about the dark side of the American experience. I had read some of his poetry when we were working on Hair, and though I'm not a big poetry fan, I loved it! Now, because of Bukowsical, I've just finished his first novel Post Office and have started Ham on Rye. And I love his novels too.
On the surface Bukowsical seems to be one of those silly, shallow musical parodies, like Silence! or Evil Dead. But it's so much more than that. Despite the surface silliness, there is real meat in this show, not just a fairly accurate portrait of the forces that formed Bukowski the artist, but also a chronicle of the shifting American culture against which he was straining. I sat down with the script and this great documentary called Bukowski: Born Into This, full of interviews with Bukowski, his friends and family, and other writers. And I discovered that this script gets much of the biographical information right -- it plays with time a little, it combines characters, and yes, it creates some complete fictions, but it largely gets it right.
And in doing that, this musical becomes the analog to Bukowski's own work. Bukowski's novels are autobiographical fiction -- recounting his own life experiences through his barely disguised hero Henry Chinaski. (Bukowski's real first name is Henry.) As Bukowski famously said, "Hey baby, when I write, I'm the hero of my own shit." And so too, this musical is biographical fiction, much like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. The story may not always be biographically accurate, but it is emotionally authentic.
Through the silliness of this earnest troupe of players putting on a high-energy, old-school musical comedy about the life of Bukowski, we actually do see how the relentless darkness of Bukowski's life led him to make great art. And the repeated comic statement by the cast that we can be (or are) "Bukowsical" too, has a serious streak running through it. The writers have invented this word that at first seems like a one-word musical comedy joke, combining Bukowski with musical. But it's more than that. When they tell us we can be Bukowsical, we realize it's also an adjective, presumably meaning like Bukowski. Notice that much of the lyric quoted above is in the second person. They're singing about us, the audience. And later in the song, they pull "us" into the song using the first person plural...
He brings a vital message for our time --
He said that being human's not a crime.
'Cause all of us are rude and smutty,
(Oh, yes we are!)
Obscene and crude and lewd and slutty.
(You bet we are!)
We're filthy, and we're grimy,
Corruptible and slimy, too,
Yes, even YOU!
It's true. We are all Bukowsical. We're all flawed. We're all worse than the world knows. We all revert to our primal, selfish, animal selves sometimes, as we stumble through life. We understand Bukowski. We suffer the same bullshit, make the same bad choices, encounter the same obstacles, and feel the same destructive emotions, just not to that extreme degree. And yet like Bukowski, we all survive. But it's that extremity, especially as it's presented comically in the musical, that lets us look at that darkness close up and maybe understand it a little better.
The first song (quoted above) asks us what's the feeling we get when we're repeatedly weighed down by life's little horror shows, and the answer is that the feeling is Bukowiscal. We feel Bukowsical. The poets of the Fifties used the word Beat to mean the same thing. Unlike Bukowski and the Beat writers, we don't all make great art out of that feeling, but we all know what it is to continually work at surviving the interminable bullshit of life. They get your order wrong at the drive-through. You wait on hold for a half hour then get disconnected. You get down-sized. You get dumped. As Bukowski himself wrote in his Barfly screenplay, "Endurance is more important than truth."
Notice that the lyric equates "being human" with being "rude and smutty... obscene and crude and lewd and slutty... filthy... grimy, corruptible and silmy." Yikes. But I daresay Bukowski would agree. As Bukowski did with his writing, this show gives us permission to acknowledge our animal side, our primitive "dark passenger," and to embrace it all as part of who we are. Maybe the lyric exaggerates the case for comic effect, but we really are all Bukowsical in one way or another. We are the hero here. The show's creators, Gary Stockdale and Spencer Green, have given us a Hero Myth story (just like our last five shows, now that I think about it). It's ironic and smartass and silly, but it's still a real Hero Myth story.
At the end of this first song, they sing...
It’s in me
It’s in you
You can be
Not only is it something we are, it's also something to aspire to...? Are we aspiring to Bukowski's excess and hedonism or to his honesty and his art? Well, that's part of the joke...
I think the thing that so attracted me to this show is that it works on several levels at once. It has the obvious comic dissonance of treating this man's dark, damaged life as a perky musical comedy. But it also makes a smart, insightful statement about the relationship between an artist's life and his art, in a wacky parallel to Sunday in the Park with George, Passing Strange, and 8 1/2.
We see the events of Bukowski's life as they form his artistic self, explicitly in "Art is Pain," but this idea runs throughout the entire show. The influence of other great writers on him comes to life here in the funny but pointed song, "Get Down, Get Dark, Get Dirty." The constriction of mid-century American culture that Bukowski rebelled against comes to life in the song "Slippery Slope." Yes, the songs are silly and perky, and yes, they also offer up smart, insightful commentary for those who are looking for it.
The show satirizes old-fashioned musical comedy, but that's not all it does -- it also paints a portrait of Bukowski that is emotionally and existentially authentic. We actually understand Bukowski and his work better at the end of the show.
Bukowsical has been produced twice so far, once in Los Angeles and once at the New York Fringe Festival, where it won the Best Musical award. Both productions were very bare-bones. New Line's will be the first fully produced production. In its original incarnation, the show was in the form of a backer's audition, performed by a comically clueless theatre company. I asked the writers if we could jettison that idea, and they agreed.
The backer's audition was a device to set up for the audience the comic disconnect between content and form, but I don't think audiences in 2013 need that set-up. One of the central jokes of the show is that it shatters the Sondheim Rule, that Content Dictates Form, in other words, that the story you're telling will dictate the form of the storytelling. Most great musicals follow that rule. But here, the writers are intentionally breaking that rule, repeatedly and gleefully throughout the show, partly because it's really funny and partly because that's Bukowski.
He arguably changed the face of American poetry with his work, ignoring almost all the "rules" of poetry. He once famously said, "It appears that certain people think that poetry should be a certain way. For these, there will be nothing but troubled years. More and more people will come along to break their concepts. It's hard I know, like having somebody fuck your wife while you are at work, but life, as they say, goes on." The same thing could be said about the American musical theatre right now.
The audience doesn't need a justification or explanation or introduction to the show's subversion; they will discover that as they watch. It's always more fun for an audience to discover things on their own than for the writers to hand it to them. After seeing shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Passing Strange, Bat Boy, High Fidelity, Next to Normal, bare, and other rule-busting musicals, our audiences don't need their hands held.
Still, even though we're cutting the backer's audition, it's important for us to remember that the show's double-reality is the key. This dark life story "inside" the show chafes against the meta-reality of this cheerful company of players and their wrong-headed -- but often strangely insightful -- approach to the storytelling "outside" the show. And though the writers' point here is that Content Doesn't Dictate Form in Bukowsical, they slyly double-cross us. This dissonant, subversive, rule-breaking storytelling is exactly the way -- maybe the only way -- to write a musical about Charles Bukowski.
In other words, Content Does Dictate Form here -- by refusing to let Content Dictate Form. It's like the Mobius strip of concept musicals. In making fun of the worst habits of old-school musical comedy, the show is both parody of musical theatre and also a perfect example of the latest evolution of the art form, the neo musical comedy. It both mocks the art form's past and looks forward to its future. It uses the devices of George M. Cohan and the ironic self-awareness of American culture in this new century.
It's like our 21st-century culture is having a conversation with the early 20th-century roots of this indigenous American art form, embracing many things, adding new things, reinventing others, but unmistakably returning to our roots. This art form of ours was born around the tumultuous turning of the last century -- "an era exploding, a century spinning," as Ragtime puts it. It was reborn during the tumultuous 1960s and 70s. And it's being reborn again around the tumultuous turn of this century. And Bukowski is part of that.
Lois Spangler wrote in a review of the New York Fringe Festival production, "By adhering so closely to the tropes of the American musical, and treating its sordid subject with such earnest glee, Bukowsical manages to be both a satire and a real musical. Pure mockery is just drivel; it sounds shrill and empty when dropped on stage. The folks who have worked so hard on Bukowsical, however, have a real love for the musical art form, its charms and its foibles, and it shows in some of the truly outrageous—and outrageously funny—moments in the show."
Everything old is new again. We start work in a week.
Long Live the Musical!