Art is Pain

A big part of the fun of Bukowsical is the whimsical, cartoony way Stockdale and Green approach each of the relentlessly dark episodes in Bukowski's life, always in the "inappropriate" language of high-energy musical comedy.

Even for those who know nothing about Charles Bukowski, this dissonance is really obvious and really entertaining. For Bukowski fans, there's even more fun, as they'll realize we're essentially telling the truth about his sordid life. And that's what makes this deeply ironic musical so special -- it's both "wrong" and "right" at the same time.

In the show's second song, "Art is Pain," we get a glimpse into Bukowski's torturous childhood as an outcast in the 1930s, a period he wrote about in his novel Ham on Rye. As the song begins, a grade school teacher is asking the class about the Alien and Sedition Act, as a not-so-subtle reminder to young Bukowski that he is "foreign" (having been born in Germany) and therefore Other. The actual text of the act reads, "That it shall be lawful for the President of the United States at any time during the continuance of this act, to order all such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States, or shall have reasonable grounds to suspect are concerned in any treasonable or secret machinations against the government thereof, to depart out of the territory of the United States." In other words, we can get rid of you anytime we want.

The structure of the song is interesting -- first the teacher's abuse, then the kids' abuse, then the father's abuse, then all three at once. This is Bukowski's hell.

With this song, the writers establish their pattern for the evening of using music ironically, here portraying Buk's youthful hellscape in the form of a children's song -- as Sondheim preaches, Content Dictates Form -- a very simple melody with a very small range, short percussive words, and lots of repetition. And it's really nothing more than mean, random, childish insults:
You're stupid, gross and ugly and we hate you.
You’re always at the bottom of the class.
We all wish we could find some kind of way to
Push you off a freeway overpass.
We don’t think you’re very nice.
And we’re sure that you have lice.
It’s time for someone to step up now
And kindly kick his fucking ass.

There are even some nyah, nyah nyah's. The extra horror here is that the teacher starts the torment, and later in the song, Buk's father invites the kids to help him physically beat Bukowski. It's both darkly funny and really brutal, and as you watch it, you wonder how he turned out as an artist instead of Norman Bates. This horror scene/song offers up the real-life truth about Buk's early years -- and probably invokes awful memories from many in the audience -- but it also trades in wacky, comic exaggeration. We laugh even though we're horrified. Just like Bukowski's writing.

But the song also has important structural significance. The opening number sets up the show's unique brand of humor and its perverse obscenity, but "Art is Pain" sets up the show's darkness and its central through-line. From this point forward, no matter how mean or vulgar Bukowski gets, we understand the psychic damage that got him here. This song acts as an explanation -- even an excuse? -- for Bukowski's behavior as an adult. For the rest of the show, we not only accept his assholery, we're on his side.

In the next song, the hilarious "Take Me," a teenaged Bukowski is introduced to alcohol by a waltzing, singing bottle of booze...
There’s a secret world
In the heart of a real poet,
But unless you get shitfaced,
You'll never know it.
Take me, Take me,
Quaff and boilermake me,
Take me, I'm yours!
Take a little drink,
Take a little drink,
It will help you more than you know --
You'll be like Poe.
Sooner than you think,
You'll be on the brink,
Like Steinbeck and Papa and so,
Onward you go.
You'll be more adored than
Shelley, Keats or Byron.
Can't you hear me calling to you
Like a siren...?

What's so wonderful about this song is that it works as a traditional "Boy Gets Girl" musical comedy seduction number, like "Make Believe" in Show Boat, "I Could Write a Book" in Pal Joey, "They Say It's Wonderful" in Annie Get Your Gun, "I'll Know" in Guys and Dolls, "Metaphor" in The Fantasticks, and lots of others. This is the song in which the Hero convinces his Love that they belong together, and often they end up dancing (or at least, harmonizing) to show us how clearly they belong together. In Bukowsical, the writers subvert this standard song type in two ways, first, by having the woman sing it to the man (Gypsy also did this, with "Small World" and "You'll Never Get Away from Me"), and second, by making that woman into a waltzing, singing bottle of booze (I don't think any other show ever did that).

And even beyond the deconstruction of the song form, they've chosen standard 1930s musical comedy tools to tell this part of the story that takes place in the 1930s.

Sondheim deconstructed this song type with "Lovely" in Forum, and weirdly, because there have been so many rewrites of Anything Goes, there are three songs that function this way in that iconic show -- "All Through the Night" in the original 1934 production, replaced by "It's De-Lovely" in the 1962 off Broadway revival, and replaced again by "Easy to Love" (the first song originally written for the spot) in the 1987 and 2011 Broadway revivals. But they all work the same way. We see this song type less often these days, because more new musicals are telling Hero Myth stories rather than love stories. Here, with "Take Me," Bukowsical is operating both as a traditional musical comedy as an ironic, postmodern, neo musical comedy. That's some great writing.

Just a few songs later, we'll get another "Boy Gets Girl" song -- this time with an actual woman -- the Carpenters' inspired "Chaser of My Heart," almost exactly quoting the introduction to "Close to You." No musical has two of these songs, but in this case it points up the central conflict of Bukowski's personal life, the battle between booze and everything else. Plus, he'll soon learn that he writes better drunk, so that will tip the scales. In Bukowsical, Boy gets two Girls (and even more later in "Love is a Dog from Hell"), but we can all see how badly that will turn out...

Though I think you'll be surprised -- and amused -- at just how badly it will turn out...

During the 1940s Bukowski traveled, living hand-to-mouth, living the life of a "hobo." His novel about this time, Factotum, is translated for the stage into the song "Derelict Trail," a classic musical comedy "traveling" song, like "Getting Out of Town" in 42nd Street or "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" in Hello, Dolly! This big, upbeat, company number turns hobos, hookers, and Native Americans into cardboard characters out of a 1940s Broadway revue or Ziegfeld Follies, nothing more than sanitized travelogue props. America's very real economic woes (homelessness, unemployment, etc.) are presented as this charming, romanticized "subculture" that 1940s Hollywood films traded in, specifically the 1941 movie Sullivan's Travels.

In its meta-layer, the song makes us a little uncomfortable, reminding us that until a couple decades ago, no one even thought about the homeless, other than as punchlines and clowns. My older readers will remember comedian Red Skelton's hobo character Freddy the Freeloader, a name that makes most of us cringe in a time when the Republican party has divided us into "makers and takers," and "the forty-seven percent." People used to call them hobos and bums, dismissing them as somehow less than "normal" people. "Derelict Trail" takes on that shallow, midcentury social myopia, and the show's very politically incorrect presentation takes on an uncomfortable dissonance with the way we talk and think about this problem today.

Interestingly, when we hear the reprise of "The Derelict Trail" later in the show, the title phrase subtly changes its meaning. In the earlier song, the phrase means life on the road; in the later song, as Bukowski finally finds early commercial success, the phrase now refers to the life path Bukowski (the self-styled derelict) has chosen for himself, a path that will take him where he wants to go. In the earlier song, it's other people's path, which he joins; in the later song, it's his path.

Most of us would recognize the intro to "Gee, Officer Krupke," from West Side Story (1957) -- it starts with a short, quick little four-note run down to a "wrong" note (the tritone, known as "the Devil in music") that rings underneath a fun but dissonant vaudeville accompaniment (remember that in the 1950s, vaudeville wasn't all that long ago). That tritone pedal note also makes the key ambiguous. Long before the neo musical comedy emerged, this song worked the same way -- dark, ironic lyrics set to perky, subtly altered, old-fashioned music -- always with that "wrong" note starting every verse... Something's not right here...

Bukowsical's "Get Down, Get Dark, Get Dirty" borrows that wrong note and the older song's split personality, as it portrays Bukowski's evolution as a writer in the late 1950s. With everything in American culture changing rapidly and fundamentally (rock and roll, sex, drugs, movies, TV, the Beats), Bukowski finds himself visited by four great American writers -- Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, William S. Burroughs, and Sylvia Plath. These four fearless, groundbreaking iconoclasts offer Bukowski a lesson: if he wants to be successful, he must "Get Down, Get Dark, Get Dirty" --
Don't huddle in some hovel,
Trying to write the perfect novel.
Like some loser with a useless Ph.D.
Hit below the belt and you can never fail --
Get down, get dark, get dirty.
Don't be shy, the world is waiting --
Writing's like ejaculating.
Get down, get dark, get dirty.
Face the truth, you crazy bastard --
You write better when you're plastered!
Get down, get dark, get dirty.
Don’t sweat commas and conjunctions;
It’s your scatologic functions
That will guarantee your place in history.
Even Willy Shakespeare liked to tongue some tail...
Get down, get dark, get dirty.

It's such a fun lyric, partly because it takes these great writers down off the pedestal, and partly because they're right -- Shakespeare wrote tons of dirty jokes into his plays, because audiences love it. Most of what our culture calls "dirty" is really just human and natural, but it's treated as perverse and dangerous, thanks to our Puritan roots -- and never more so than in the pre-HBO 1950s. (I highly recommend the documentary Fuck.) But behind the comedy here is some serious truth -- great artists become great when they are freed from constraint. Which is why HBO shows are so much better than broadcast TV. This song is about freeing Bukowski to write about what he wants to write about. This is the moment when Bukowski becomes an artist.

Bukowsical's writers have dramatized the influence other writers' work had on Bukowski by physically placing four of them onstage with him, offering advice. But the larger point is not lost in all the laughs -- the times were changing and Bukowski was right in the middle of the revolution. He started writing poetry right around this time, in the mid-1950s, and his first poetry collection was published in 1960.

But Bukowsical's story stays in the 1950s and early 1960s for a while, as we move on to the cultural response to the revolution those great writers were leading...

The song "Slippery Slope" gives us a classic Disney villain's song, a companion piece to "Poor Unfortunate Souls," "Cruella DeVil," and of course "Hellfire" from The Hunchback of Notre Dame; but here the Disney villain is the real-world television personality, Bishop Fulton Sheen, the 1950s version of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Because Bukowsical is such a weird and unconventional Hero Myth story, it's hard to identify one antagonist -- this is more of a Man vs. Society story than a Man vs. Man story. In this song, Bishop Sheen represents the repressive 1950s culture that Bukowski, Williams, Faulkner, Burroughs, and Plath were raging against, the cultivation of a homogenous, even bland, national culture. And TV was a huge part of that effort.

So to musicalize that idea, the show's writers give us Sheen's telecast in the form of an Italian tarantella, the perfect ironic musical form for America's ultimate Roman Catholic. And as fundamentalist Christians often do, Bukowsical's Sheen seems to get perverse pleasure in cataloguing all our sins in lurid detail, which makes it all even funnier. And here's the weird part -- probably unintended by the writers -- the Italian tarantella was originally a frantic "medicinal" dance, once thought to be the only treatment for a tarantula bite, to literally dance the poison out of your system. How funny that this musical form becomes Bishop Sheen's apocalyptic warning of America's demise, as he tries to preach the poison out of the American culture, and as his singing turns the ever-so-earnest bishop into an Italian comic opera villain from a 50s TV variety show.

The whole score is built with this kind of wit and deft touch.

The song "Postal," about Bukowski's soul-crushing time working for the Post Office in the 1960s, is rendered as a driving, anxious, dissonant piece of music -- constantly setting two eighth notes in the vocal line against five sixteenth notes (on every beat) in the accompaniment. That gives the music a feeling of wrongness, of not fitting, of discomfort, a musical equivalent to Bukowski's struggle to fit in and conform (if only for a paycheck) versus his hunger for freedom.

The schizoid number "Through a Glass, Barfly" gives us a comic (and madly exaggerated) behind-the-scenes glimpse into the casting of Bukowski's 1987 film Barfly. To dramatize French director Barbet Schroeder choosing between his two possible leads, Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke, Bukowsical's writers give Schroeder a European waltz -- a French chanson, worthy of Maurice Chevalier or Charles Aznavour -- alternating with Rourke and Penn's aggressive 1980s rock and roll verses.

I think there's also another sideways reference to West Side Story late in the show, when the Bitch Goddess of Fame and the Bitch Goddess of Fortune get a twisted jazz vocal line in the song "Bitches" that's gotta be a nod to West Side Story's "Cool."

It's a whole score full of funny music, something you don't always get in a musical comedy...

And then there's the operatic "Elegy," but I don't want to ruin that surprise for you...

Maybe the biggest musical surprise (at least to me) is the song "That's Los Angeles to Me," a weird, comic interruption in the show that sounds a lot like "Look for the Union Label," both songs about pride and community and a demand for respect.

The central joke of the Bukowsical song is the dubious, questionable things they're bragging about, set to this proud, defiant music.
Maybe you've got Sardi's
And Tavern on the Green,
And maybe you've got restaurants
That don't close at 10:15.
Maybe you’ve got Sondheim,
But we’ve got Charlie Sheen.
And baby, that's Los Angeles to me.
. . .
We’ve learned to feel,
Not merely think;
And we’ve got Dianetics,
So we never need a shrink.

But even though "Los Angeles" interrupts the story, even though it seems like it doesn't "belong" in the show, the truth is that it gets at something fundamental about Bukowski's life and work -- Los Angeles is at the heart of everything for Bukowski (which is why it will be the central image in our Bukowsical set). The song is presented to us as not a part of Bukowski's story, but the authors are pulling a double-fake on us, because it really is.

This score is so smart, so clever, so subtle in such unexpected ways, and we're having such a blast digging into it.

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!