Maybe the funniest aspect of Bukowsical is its perversely good-natured, sunny tone. It's not Bat Boy or Urinetown. It's Anything Goes and No, No, Nanette. But with the irony turned up to eleven.
The musical comedy has always had this kinetic tension, but it used to lean more toward the innocence and idealism, and now it leans more toward the irony and cynicism. Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen wrote in her book, Directors and the New Musical Drama, "Rather than finding order through chaos, or offering the sense of resolution that even the more political Broadway musicals often give their audiences, some newer shows imply that emotional confusion is a reasonable response to the contemporary world. Just as social playwrights have been doing for years, today's musical writers choose to raise more questions than they answer, and to reflect the world around them rather than trying to interpret it through a simplistic lens."
There is a self-awareness and a defiance about the neo musical comedy. Broadway composer-lyricist William Finn says, "Musicalizing something inherently nonmusical seems a very dramatic action -- arrogant, humorous, whimsical, yet serious. It says, 'We are in the business of making the world sing.' It's almost revolutionary."
You mean, maybe something like an arteriovenous malformation, Bill...?
One of the differences between the classic musical comedy and the neo musical comedy is that the new form quite often uses funny music. That's not something Cole Porter or Jerry Herman even tried to do. Traditionally, the music has always done the emotional work, but today it does more. And it takes a special kind of composer -- and maybe a special kind of lyricist -- to make the music itself funny. Bat Boy does it a lot, toying with the musical devices of horror movies and thrillers, so in tune with its mock serious tone. Shows like Urinetown and Cry-Baby use music comically, mostly in the dissonance between style and content -- in other words, Cry-Baby's mash-up of John Waters craziness with old-school musical comedy music, or Urinetown's mash-up of its silly story with agitprop music in the style of Kurt Weill.
Bukowsical does get many of its laugh from that kind of stylistic dissonance -- the perky musical comedy style matched to Bukowski's dark, vulgar, freaky life story. But Bukowsical goes further and finds small moments in which the music references something outside the world of the show, to reveal an ironic dissonance, to establish the ever shifting style of the show as the story races through the 20th century, and to connect the bizarre experiment that is Bukowsical to other iconic works of musical theatre. That last use of music does two things -- it makes a meta-joke about the intentional, faux cluelessness of the show itself, and it also comments on the history of the art form that Bukowsical is deconstructing in front of our very eyes.
Here are some examples...
In the opening number and also in its reprise at the end, the narrator leads us into the final chorus with the words, "Come on now, everybody..." in the same rhythm, in the same structural place, and with almost the same accompaniment as a similar moment in the song "Side by Side by Side" in Company. It's a funny reference for those who catch it, but it also suggests a comically presumptuous parallel between Bukowsical and Sondheim's masterwork of concept musicals. But this meta-self-awareness is part of the joke too.
Later, in the middle of the song, "The Derelict Trail," composer Gary Stockdale uses some faux Aaron Copland in brief instrumental sections, for this fucked up American travelogue, but when the third instrumental comes up, it's the theme from the classic western The Magnificent Seven -- which was also the the theme for the "Marlboro Man" cigarette commercials in the 1960s, featuring the solitary "quiet man" cowboy. It's a perverse and funny choice for a dance break after the Indian's solo verse...
The wacky, vaudevillian "Get Down, Get Dark, Get Dirty," cribs its intro from "Gee, Officer Krupke" from West Side Story, ending on a "wrong" note (the tritone) that holds, while a conventional accompaniment foxtrots beneath it. It invokes vaudeville and musical comedy, but it also tells us there's something wrong here. It's a fun choice because it's a similar kind of song -- a bunch of guys fucking around, being funny about pretty dark shit. Also, biographically, this is the 1950s, the decade in which West Side Story was taking the Broadway musical back into the darkness, leading to Cabaret, Man of La Mancha, Fiddler on the Roof, and other dark shows
There's also a tribute, if not a quote, from West Side Story's "Cool," in the vocal lines of the song "Bitches/Bestsellers."
The gleefully disgusting love duet, "Chaser of My Heart" starts with an almost direct quotation of the intro to The Carpenters' "Close to You." Once again, the mash-up is so much fun, matching the saccharine sound of 70s soft pop with lyrics like:
You're more than just a fuckhole,
You're a different breed.
You drink more than I do;
That is very rare indeed.
Though I'm covered in scabs,
And I think I've got crabs,
We're a match like rosé and chablis,
The chaser of my heart.
In the rousing number "Slippery Slope," set to a jaunty Italian tarantella, mid-century TV star and creepy moral arbiter Bishop Fulton J. Sheen scolds us about our sins and our failings -- in comic opposition to the opening number, which celebrates and accepts our sins and failings. Not only is Sheen presented as a cultural obstacle (standing in for the whole of conformist 1950s America) that Bukowski must overcome, but also as the yang to Bukowski's yin. We see in this very clever lyric that Sheen (and by extension, religion) is about control, repression, censorship; while Buk is about honesty, openness, complete freedom of expression.
This juxtaposition is announced ironically in Sheen's entrance music, the famous hymn, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." Where Bukowsical's opening number encourages us to make peace with our dark side, this hymn tells us to run from our dark side. (We don't actually hear the lyric in the show, but it's such a famous hymn that many in the audience will register its content anyway.) While Bukowski accepts what life throws at him, Sheen tells us our inherent badness brings on life's obstacles. It's Zen versus the Old Testament. Like Cry-Baby, this show's villain wears the costume of Good, while our real Hero wears the costume of Bad -- outcast, rebel, despoiler. In another context, this intro music might suggest goodness or hope, but in this context, it suggests hypocrisy and artistic peril.
About halfway through the show, a lawyer shows up to stop the show. After his scene, as he leaves, he tells the company that this show will never make it on Broadway, and that people in Los Angeles don't know anything. Of course, he's just saying what everyone in the audience has been thinking all night -- this crazy, vulgar show could never get a commercial run. But that's also a big part of its subversion. Like Bukowski, this show just doesn't give a shit.
In reply to the lawyer's put-down, the cast sings the slyly ironic "That's Los Angeles," a very funny anthem, full of mock solemnity and comically dubious claims of L.A. pride, set to martial music that just begs for the Les Miz march. (And we answer that demand.) It's a song of pride and defiance, with more than a modicum of pop opera pomposity thrown in for fun. It's "One Day More" from Les Misérables, without the class. The music takes itself so seriously -- too seriously -- while elevating the intentionally trivial, dubious content. And it's really funny.
There are even more bits of funny music, but you get the idea.
This is a show that started as nothing but a joke, but perhaps even despite themselves, Stockdale and Green have written a musical with lots of truth, occasional depth, real wit, and a score that's far more sophisticated than it seems. It's not just funny; it's really good theatre.
Yes, there is method in their madness.
We've finished staging the show and now we just run it. This is the fun part!
Long Live the Musical!