Just Pull Your Nuts Out

The ending of Bukowsical is as unconventional as the rest of Bukowsical.

The last big number is "Twelve Steps of Love," in which Bukowski goes to an AA meeting and is convinced to turn his life around. Except that never happened. There is a grain of truth here -- after treating a bleeding ulcer, Bukowski's doctor did tell him he'd die if he didn't give up alcohol. But he didn't, and he didn't.

So why this AA number? Probably mostly because it's a giant Fuck You to narrative convention and structure, and also to the recent string of bio-musicals. Bukowski wasn't interested in narrative structure and neither is Bukowsical. You could argue that narrative is far less important in Bukowsical than the act of storytelling itself. Like Bukowski himself would, this show and this song both sneer at the kind of happy resolution classic musical comedies required. Bukowsical gives the audience a musical comedy ending, then immediately takes it back -- right after "Twelve Steps," the narrator says, "This didn’t really happen to Charles Bukowski." And then they finish the show with a reprise of the uber-vulgar, confrontational opening number.

As the American novelist Willa Cather said, "The end is nothing; the road is all."

But this song does represent a kernel of truth, that the mainstream world was applying its worldview and values to Bukowski's life and pushing him toward the safe and conventional. Like Assassins, Bukowsical doesn't get historical fact right (and isn't trying to), but it does get essence right. It's a representation of how Bukowski perceived the world around him. "Twelve Steps of Love" presupposes that alcohol is a problem for Bukowski that must be solved, to "save" him. But none of that was actually true, as far as he was concerned. And Bukowski didn't stop drinking.

Both Bukowski and Bukowsical up-end our traditional ideas of morality, health, culture. ambition. The lesson we get from Bukowski's life and his work -- and his musical -- is that you can do everything "wrong" and still succeed. He might argue you must do everything "wrong." He wrote, "The way to create art is to burn and destroy ordinary concepts and to substitute them with new truths that run down from the top of the head and out of the heart." In other words, fuck the rules; follow your instinct.

But like the rest of the show, this song works on two levels at once. There's the surface level, the clueless earnestness of the do-gooders who think they know Bukowski's road better than he does. And there's also the meta-layer that comments on that surface sincerity, opening up an ironic distance between us and this AA meeting. It's a great lyric, that does more than it appears.

It starts off innocuous enough, pretty much what you'd expect, though it drops a shit pretty early on...
It takes
Twelve Steps of Love,
Twelve Steps of Love.
First admit your life is shit,
And you know you just can’t quit
Without the Man above.
You need
Twelve Steps of Love -- 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9...
Twelve Steps of Love.
Give your name and tell your story;
Make that moral inventory
Of all you’re guilty of.

Suddenly it's sounding a bit oppressive. And there's something a little off, like not having time to count all the way to twelve. Now it gets a little less sweet, a little more vulgar... dare I say, a little more Bukowsical...?
This is what it will take
To make you spill the beans.
Don’t make the same mistake
As Elvis and James Dean.
Don’t just puke your silly guts out;
Come on, Buk, just pull your nuts out --
The amends justify the means!

That last line is one of my favorite jokes in the show. And really, how often do you get a good AA joke in a musical, anyway? Then it gets a little more aggressive, and we get an even funnier rhyme in the next verse, which also subtly subverts AA's central tenet, "Let go and let God," with the sairical punch of replacing God with  the name of AA's founder.
It takes
Twelve Steps of Love.
It’s a hug, then a fucking shove.
Although booze and drugs still trouble you,
Just let go and let Bill W.
Show you
What to do!
Let those Twelve Steps of Love.
Twelve Steps of Love,
Twelve Steps of Love,
Step all over you!

And we end with this ironic punchline -- this love and support will trample you! Or maybe more in tune with Buk's fears, it will trample his artistic output. His process is a completely organic one, so adding an outside, arbitrary control might strangle it, right? And if he's enjoying all this success, writing while he's drunk, why would he want to change that? We see by the end of the song how wrong this advice is for him. Buk and the audience can see this isn't his road.

It'd be like someone telling me to write my blog posts without smoking weed first...! Can you imagine...???

And maybe all this is a self-reflexive comment on how bad an idea it is to make a musical comedy out of Bukowski's story, how impossible it seems to musicalize his life, how much his story does not conform to musical comedy conventions. Then again, Bukowsical itself argues the same thing for its entire running time. That's the whole point. The fact that this show shouldn't exist to begin with is the whole reason it exists. If it had sounded like a good idea, Stockdale and Green probably wouldn't have been interested. It's the dissonance, the irony, the mismatch between story and storytelling, that's interesting and fun here.

We live in a world of The Daily Show and Robot Chicken now. Our culture has changed. And despite the wails of the traditionalists clinging to their vinyl cast albums, our art form is changing with the times. The American musical comedy is evolving, and that's really exciting.

Bukowsical is something of a Rorschach Test. Some people who see it will love it merely for the defiant way it hurls obscenities at its audience. They'll love the sheer moral and artistic anarchy of it, the same reason I first fell in love with Rocky Horror and Grease. Others will love it for its pointed irony. Lots of new musicals today are ironic, but this one is dripping with it. Probably both these groups will love the joy and rowdy chaos of it all. And some will probably love it precisely because it is on some level an old-fashioned musical comedy -- it both challenges us and comforts us. It's a neo musical comedy.

After I first listened to the LA cast album and after I first read the script, it really stayed with me, and I wasn't exactly sure why. Yes, I love four-letter words; I use them regularly and enthusiastically. But I don't like four-letter words in a musical just for the shock value (I'm looking at you, Silence!). So yes, Bukowsical is raunchy and R-rated, but that wasn't what I loved.

Having worked on it now for several weeks, having seen the whole show for the first time at our last rehearsal, I think I know why I love it. Bukowsical is a perfect example of what I call Stupid Humor for Smart People, a category which also includes The Daily Show, South Park, The Ricky Gervais Show, Robot Chicken, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, you get the idea... It's the best of both worlds, and I think it has ancestors in The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Laugh-In. It's dick jokes and fart jokes, but also politics, literature, psychology, and existentialism.

Cheap laughs that raise interesting questions. Childish jokes that get at the nature of art and the relationship between an artist's life and his work.

And also the word "fuckhole."

It's a very dark piece of theatre. But these are dark times. And what better way to fight the darkness than to face it and laugh at it?

I can't wait to share this show with our audiences!

Long Live the Musical (Comedy)!