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Bands, Bars, and Bass

How Dave Malloy and Pigpen Theatre Co. Are Playing with Music

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One of the most loaded ways to describe a piece of theatre nowadays, aside from “Multimedia Experience” and “Brechtian,” is “A Play With Music.” I don’t really know what a play with music is, but I definitely know what it’s not. It’s not a heartwarming story of love and laughter punctuated by belting sopranos and up-tempo tap numbers. It’s not a feel-good stroll down memory lane. It’s not covered in sequins or bedazzled in rhinestones or decked out in its Sunday best. It is, pointedly, aggressively, not a musical.

The distinction has always seemed like semantics to me, but more and more theatre artists are using the “Play With Music” label to add intellectual credence to their work, to distance themselves from the happy-go-lucky vapidity of yesteryear. We want to put music in our plays, but worry that audiences will come in expecting a certain jazz hands quota to be filled. “A Play With Music,” then, is a way we rationalize loving the thing we love while disavowing the maligned public perception of that thing—the “Freedom Fry,” (the political euphemism French fries were referred to in response to France’s opposition to the Iraq War) of the theatre world. We like musicals, we want more of them, but expressing unironically our love for Rodgers and Hammerstein or West Side Story would put our carefully constructed hipness in grave danger. Nobody wants to be a fossil.

Right now, the conventional role of music in a theatrical narrative is in flux. The song-scene-song-scene-lather-rinse-repeat structure of the traditional Broadway musical is being replaced by more freeform explorations of how music can inform a story, and vice versa. Between the growing popularity of actor-musicians, the increasingly central role of alcohol, and a new crop of sound designers willing to pump up the volume, the contemporary musical is being defined more and more by bands, bars, and bass. The upshot of this is that the act of performing music live becomes central to the theatrical experience, and the line between theatrical play and musical concert becomes blurry.

Take, for instance, Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet. Described by its author, the acclaimed scribe of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, as a “theatrical performance of a concept album,” the piece features four performers who play myriad instruments and dozens of characters as they weave together several interconnected ghost stories into a dizzying, whiskey-fueled experience. Ghost Quartet is structured as a double album, divided into tracks rather than scenes and sides rather than acts. An album, though, can't pass around a bottle of Evan Williams, or hand you an autoharp and ask you to play along, as the cast of Ghost Quartet does. What we have, then, is a band writing stage directions into its set list, a record that leaps off the vinyl and looks you in the eye. Ghost Quartet isn't a play with music, it is music with a play.

Dave Malloy as Pierre in Great Comet (Credit: Broadway.com).

But still, we're talking about plays and music as if there is an intrinsic difference between the two. The musical concert and the theatrical play may operate under different dramaturgical conventions, but that doesn't make them separate art forms. They are two approaches to the same thing: live performance. Perhaps the best evidence of this is PigPen Theatre Company, the ragtag group of Carnegie Mellon alumni whose inventive uses of puppetry, folk music, and irreverent humor have gained them enormous popularity in the New York theatre scene. PigPen identifies themselves, according to their web site, as “A theatre company. And a band.” They don’t let one or the other dominate their identity. The music and the theatre are on equal footing.

Ghost Quartet was the first time that I felt like we were working as a band first,” Dave Malloy told me. “I was the writer, but the band was creating the piece together.” Similarly to PigPen, Ghost Quartet blurs the line between theatre company and band, and by extension between play and album. Part of the aim of this, Malloy said, was “To allow people to turn off the narrative part of their brain.” With a story that spans centuries and purposefully confuses the barrier between life and death, the concept album structure allowed for a certain suspension of rationality, creating thematic links between the ghost stories rather than literal ones. “We had this really sprawling mess of material that we didn’t want to shape or flatten out too much… Narratively they’re somewhat linked, but we leave a lot ambiguous. The concept album seems to do that, like Pink Floyd’s The Wall or Ziggy Stardust. We know there’s a narrative in there, but we’re not overly concerned with connecting all the dots in the story.” In borrowing structural devices from the concept album form, Ghost Quartet uses music to subvert audience expectations of narrative.

The song-scene-song-scene-lather-rinse-repeat structure of the traditional Broadway musical is being replaced by more freeform explorations of how music can inform a story, and vice versa.

One of the first things Arya Shahi of PigPen Theatre Company told me when I asked about the group’s dual identity was that labeling themselves as “A theatre company. And a band,” was chiefly a branding move. “If we’re going to grow and do both [music and theatre] as much as we want to, we have to make sure our messaging is clear without changing our name.” As an ensemble, however, the PigPen boys very much remain actors when performing music, and bandmates when doing a play. “One thing we hear all the time is we’re a very talkative band. When music industry people come they say ‘this is ridiculous, you have seven frontmen.’” And as in Ghost Quartet, having both band and theatre company as part of their identity gives their work its unique flair. And ultimately in both situations, as Shahi put it, “There’s seven of us in a room full of strangers trying to communicate something.”

People playing in a band
PigPen Theatre Co. in performance. Photo courtsey of PigPen Theater Co. 

But theatre companies and bands play very different rooms, and when we blur the line between these two artistic identities, we have to reckon with the dramaturgy of the venue. Just to state the obvious, audience expectations are heavily influenced by the room. People behave very differently watching a play in a huge Broadway house than they do while listening to a blues band in the corner of a dive bar (although maybe they shouldn’t—Phantom of the Opera could be really fun if the actors lived in constant fear of being pelted with beer nuts). “We experience big differences as a band depending on whether we’re playing in a seated room versus a standing room venue,” Shahi said. “When you’re seated it’s much more of a listening experience.” The biggest distinction PigPen found between theatrical performances and musical ones was that “The reaction from your audience is immediate at concerts whereas there is a certain decorum or way people are expected to act in a theatre.” In identifying both as a band and a theatre company, whether they mean to or not, PigPen draws attention to that implicit decorum, and calls its legitimacy into question.

Engaging with the venue is second nature to Dave Malloy, and is a major dramaturgical tool in the performance of Ghost Quartet. “Very often my experience of going to the theatre is a bit of a stuffy one,” he said. “The architecture of the lobbies and the price of concessions and the crowd that I’m around…everything about it I find very antiseptic.” He clarified that he doesn’t shun the traditional theatre setup, and has created shows meant for that style of venue, but that often his work takes place in a more communal, party-like setting because, “I just think it’s more fun.” Before moving to the McKittrick Hotel, where the venue is a restaurant and the performers are flanked by an open bar, Ghost Quartet began in the slightly more traditionally theatrical space at the Bushwick Starr. Even there, however, Malloy and director Annie Tippe emphasized the presence of the bar, taking an entire number of the show to pass a bottle of whiskey around the audience. “The liquor’s not just fun,” Malloy said. “It’s about making sure we’re all in the room together, sharing something communally… They have to figure out the mechanics of it. “Am I going to pass the bottle? Am I going to pass the cups? Who hasn’t gotten it yet? They have to talk to their neighbors.” This act of giving the audience permission to speak creates a room that feels much more like a coffee shop, open mic night, or bar. And, according to Malloy, that’s a fun atmosphere to perform in. “People are cool. We could never cast extras as cool as the audiences we actually get.”

Two women on stage
Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell, performing in Ghost Quartet at the McKittrick Hotel  Photo by Exeunt Magazine. 

As more contemporary music has been incorporated into musical theatre, it has presented a sonic challenge to composers and sound designers. Hip-hop, rock, punk, even folk music in the right context, all of these can be abrasive, thumping, and very, very loud. This can be an issue when you’re trying to keep an audience engaged with a narrative story. In a purely musical venue, it’s okay to leave with pounding eardrums having basically heard none of the words. But in a theatrical play, if the music is too loud and bass-heavy, an audience can easily miss things and start to disengage. Dave Malloy, who began his theatrical life as a sound designer, is always conscious of this tension. “If they [the audience] feel like they can’t hear the words and they’re missing things, that’s going to frustrate people. But I also feel like if you go so far in that direction that the music becomes limp, people aren’t going to be as engaged musically, on a subconscious level, as you’d want them to be… It’s very rare that I see a Broadway show dealing with rock or contemporary music that actually sounds like rock or contemporary music.”

The musical concert and the theatrical play may operate under different dramaturgical conventions, but that doesn't make them separate art forms. They are two approaches to the same thing: live performance.

Blending the concert with the play creates a unique problem—you have to balance the music with the story so that both are given their due. “You have to really, really work on it,” Malloy told me, but “It can be done.”

The most surprising thing to me in talking with Dave Malloy and Arya Shahi was that neither of them were at all dismissive of traditional musical theatre. For them, messing with form, challenging audience preconceptions and using contemporary music are actually honoring musical theatre tradition rather than expunging it. Malloy went so far as to say, “When I hear musicians who want to do theatre railing against musical theatre, I’m like, ‘Well maybe you shouldn’t be doing this.’” He referenced the prologue of Great Comet, an introduction to the setting and characters in the vein of Fiddler on the Roof’s “Tradition” or the title song from Oklahoma. “For the longest time that wasn’t there,” he said, as he was initially opposed to relying on what could be considered a hackneyed musical theatre device. “It was a moment of letting go and saying, ‘How would Rodgers and Hammerstein have solved this problem?’”

Shahi concurred. “The idea of theatre and music coming together in a way that incorporates more of a contemporary music sound, that’s what musicals of the past were. That’s why the Golden Age [of the Broadway musical] was so amazing; they sounded like songs people were playing on the radio. Then we moved away from it, and now I think we’re moving back to it.” In trying to distance ourselves from musical theatre tropes with phrases like “A Play With Music,” we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Dave Malloy, PigPen, and the dozens of other artists finding new ways of blending plays and concerts are not radically departing from the tradition of musical theatre, they are the natural next link in a very, very long chain.

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