The Amends Justify the Means

Why Bukowsical...?

Lots of reasons. It seemed like such a good fit for this season -- three really dark Hero Myth stories. It continues a theme I love exploring -- the relationship between an artist's life and his work -- in shows like Passing Strange, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Man of La Mancha, and Sunday in the Park with George.

One of the big reasons I wanted to do this show is the answer to a question I often ask myself when I'm thinking about producing a less mainstream show: If not us, then who...? Granted, not every show deserves producing. Still, there are a lot of shows that are really wonderful, but there's something about them that scares the people who produce musicals -- language, sexual content, moral ambiguity, stories about drugs or politics or religion. But the shows that fit that description are usually the best, most interesting, most exciting shows. Because those are the stories the best writers are drawn to.

I've already written here about why the adult language and the sexual content in Bukowsical are organic to the storytelling and not just there for shock value. This show follows the Sondheim Rule, that Content Dictates Form. But that language will keep many folks from producing the show.

So really, if not us, then who?

Maybe the biggest reason I wanted to do the show is the hipster intellectualism at the heart of the show's central joke. What better -- or funnier -- form to tell the story of Bukowski's fucked-up life onstage than an ironic, postmodern musical comedy? I think he would have found the idea both annoying and delightful. He'd rail against it, but with that big, sly smile that told you he couldn't help but appreciate the balls it takes.

The sheer intellectual audacity of it all blows me away. Each of Bukowski's autobiographical novels is represented by a song in the show, and like his novels, Bukowsical is a series of somewhat disconnected episodes that, taken together, paint a bigger picture. Bukowski's novel Ham on Rye becomes the song "Art is Pain." Factotum becomes "The Derelict Trail." The novel Women becomes the song "Love is a Dog from Hell" (which is also the title of a Bukowski poem and a collection of his poems). His first novel Post Office becomes the song "Postal." And Hollywood, about the making of the film Barfly, becomes "Through a Glass, Barfly" in the show.

(This last title is a joke on the famous Biblical phrase, "For now we see through a glass, darkly," meaning that humans can't fully understand the Big Picture while on earth. Though glass means mirror or lens in the Bible, here it means a bar glass, and the Biblical meaning of the phrase becomes a joke about Bukowski's alcoholism -- which is the subject of Barfly. See how smart this show is?)

You might even argue that Bukowski's collection of magazine columns, Notes of a Dirty Old Man is represented in the show by the song "Get Down, Get Dark, Get Dirty."

Bukowsical celebrates everything our culture of Ironic Detachment embodies, from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to Scream and The Onion. And I think it's that meta irony that allows us to observe the horrors of Bukowski's life without getting emotionally caught up in them. But if we New Liners do our job right, the audience will find the humanity in Bukowski and they'll find themselves caring for him anyway, despite the seemingly bullet-proof layer of irony, just like they did for Edgar in Bat Boy, BarfĂ©e in Spelling Bee, and Queenie in The Wild Party.

That's because there's truth behind all that irony. As Al Capone says in The Untouchables, "We laugh because it's funny, and we laugh because it's true." And once we see the truth, we also feel a connection. The secret to Bukowski's success as a writer is that he is all of us. He was a genuine Everyman. And he spilled all his pain and addiction and fear and insecurity onto the page and when we read it, we know we're not alone. We are like him, more than most of us would admit.

Or in other words, we are all Bukowsical.

My favorite kind of show is the outrageous, crazy, even offensive comedies that have a really big heart --  Bat Boy, Urinetown, Cry-Baby, HIgh Fidelity...

Bukowsical is one of those. If you just listen to the cast album, you miss some of what's really wonderful about the show -- the way it's presented, the innocence of musical comedy. The form of the show and its crazy high spirits throw you off kilter, so that instead of condemning Bukowski's hedonism right away, as many people might, this approach knocks down your defenses and your judgment, and you meet Bukowski on his own terms.

Vulgar yes, often disgusting yes, but also smart, vulnerable, deep, romantic, urban, even kind of Zen-like. And a real artist, maybe even a genius, who experienced life in a way few of us have to; but our everyday failures and humiliations are washed away by Bukowski's far worse, far darker episodes. He's a Christ figure for anyone who ever got picked on, laughed at, or ignored. He takes our horrors on himself and as we read his books -- or watch this show -- we feel better. Not because he had it worse than any of us did, but because we understand that even our worst experiences are essentially universal. We are all the victims of our own fears and expectations, and we all have to learn the lesson Spelling Bee brought us -- "Life is random and unfair." Life's not out to get us. It just doesn't give a shit.

And while that might sound depressing, it's actually oddly comforting. We're all in the same boat, just trying to get through to tomorrow.

In his life and in his art, Bukowski knew the great lesson of the Hero Myth: You just have to stay on the road and keep moving forward. Bukowski had a much harder road than most of us, but he just kept plugging along and writing it all down. Like Bukowski, all we really need to know is to stay on the road. We each have our roadblocks and potholes, but we each learn to navigate around them as we continue on our journey. Just like Bukowski did.

We are all Bukowsical.

Long Live the Musical!