We Interrupt This Broadcast

When I first heard the music for Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith's Night of the Living Dead, it was such a wonderful surprise, and when I played it for the New Liners, they were thrilled by it. This is not a conventional score by any definition. It's not avant garde or atonal – in fact, I'm not sure audiences will even be fully conscious of how unconventional it is, because it's also exceptionally strong, emotional storytelling. But rather than a series of  self-contained "songs," this score is a series of mood pieces, musical monologues, even musical radio broadcasts...

We just started music rehearsals for the show last week, but we're having such fun learning this score. The music is really beautiful. The choral arrangements are gorgeous. And it's chock full of earworms. We're all getting these weirdly catchy, beautiful melodies stuck in our heads for days on end. Several people have asked me what kind of music this is, and I've been stumbling over how to describe it. I guess I'd say it's a quirky but emotionally potent blend of American pop, opera, and film scoring. Mary Beth, who plays Judy in our production, dubbed this music "Creepy Pop." It's a very American sound, sometimes very horror-gothic, sometimes vaguely reminiscent of the work of Brain Wilson (genius) and Burt Bacharach (genius), maybe a touch of Philip Glass, but using structural devices from the world of opera, and a musical language that sometimes sounds like a Bernard Hermann score for a film thriller.

Significantly, many of the songs don't have a "button" at the end, a clear ending that cues applause. And short-circuiting the applause works to increase and sustain the tension that would normally be released through applause or laughter.

None of that here.

This isn't a show about falling in love or finding your path in life or making a place for yourself. This is a show about surviving till morning. Like many New Line shows, this is a musical for people who think they don't like musicals. There are no love songs. No dancing. (And definitely no dancing zombies!) This is a scary, suspenseful thriller, like Sweeney Todd and The Wild Party, but without the laughs...

If ever a show followed the Sondheim Rule, that Content Dictates Form, it's this one. The writers never compromise mood or tone or the show's palpable sense of suspense for a pretty song. Sondheim also believed that the more intelligent and present of mind a character is, the more they will rhyme when they sing, while the less intelligent or less rational a character is, the less they will rhyme. In Night of the Living Dead, all these characters are terrified, even panicked – Barbara is essentially catatonic – and so there's virtually no rhyme anywhere in the show. It's not about that.

In fact, several songs in the show take dialogue directly out of the film and set it to music, with minimal alternations. They don't clean it up, refine it, make it rhyme, make it scan – they fit the music to the words. They don't compromise the tone of the film, but they add so much to it, by musicalizing it and cranking the emotional quotient up to eleven.

There's a scene in the film in which Barbara finds a music box and starts it playing. Composer Matt Conner has taken that beautifully weird melody intact, with its odd harmonic progressions and half-measures, and turned it into a song for Barbara in the show – really just disconnected fragments of thoughts, emotions, fear, the blocked memory of the zombie who killed her brother Johnny. The strange music of the music box captures exactly her mental state, and while other lesser teams would have just set lyrics to that melody, Conner and Smith go further and even better explore Barbara's mental breakdown by giving her an equally disorienting counter-melody. It becomes a soulless duet between the catatonic Barbara and the mysterious music box. Just as its musical phrases are truncated, interrupted, unfinished, mechanical, so are Barbara's thoughts:
Where is Johnny?
2, 3...
I ran...
I ran...
I ran...
I didn’t see you...
I ran...
Where is Johnny?
Was the car…?
Where am I...?
The candy…
1, 2...
I want to go home.
Where is Johnny?
2, 3...
I want to know why
Is this happening?
I want to know
Where did you go, Johnny?
Are you all alone?
I want to go home.

There's no way anything in this song should rhyme, considering her mental state, but most songwriters would have been tempted. Notice that at the end, she begins to make complete sentences. Is she coming back to reality? Has the music reached into that dark corner of the mind where she was hiding?

Another musical device the writers use is for the radio and TV broadcasts that happen periodically throughout the story, as the characters wait and wait for information about rescue. These broadcasts are set to strange but also beautiful arrangements for the full cast -- sometimes sung, sometimes spoken, sometimes whispered; sometimes in harmony, sometimes in unison, sometimes in rich, rhythmic counterpoint. A fragment of this is the very last thing we hear in the show.

There are musical and textual motifs that recur throughout the score, which both give unity to the score and also reinforce the idea of dramatic stagnation, the waiting, the living inside a moment that seems never to change or end, like Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot or Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit. There is no tomorrow here. There isn't really even a yesterday. There's just now. Waiting.

It's not a hard score to play, but it's extremely challenging for the actors, with vocals often intentionally at harmonic and rhythmic odds with the accompaniment, to create the tension that drives this thriller. The show's only been done so far in a reading and community theatre production, and both times with just two keyboards, but with New Line's resources, the writers are re-orchestrating the score for us, for two keyboards, bass, drums, violin, and cello. (The Cry-Baby writers also re-orchestrated their show for New Line, two seasons ago.)

My bet is that audiences won't notice that the lyrics almost never rhyme and they won't consciously recognize how harmonically strange the music is – they'll just register the incredible power of this score. It is everything this incredibly intense story deserves.

The adventure is underway...

Long Live the Musical!