Two Different Stage Events With Great Songs At Their Heart

Lately, I’ve been to a few non rock and roll events, both held in soft-seat theatres and both concerned the use of music in another medium.

Two weeks ago, Liza and I attended a performance of Girlfriend a new musical based on the 1991 Matthew Sweet album Girlfriend (with a couple of songs added from 100% Fun and Altered Beast) at Berkeley Rep Theatre. Now, I’ve been a massive fan of Matthew Sweet and the Girlfriend album since its release so I was dubious and skeptical about seeing the album I loved (and still love) adapted to the dreaded musical stage. I’ll cut the suspense and first tell you that I loved the musical, but let’s go back to why I was dubious. To say that one likes a musical theatre stage adaptation of rock and roll music isn’t to say that they are the same beast. Even if you saw a rock video by Matthew, your experience of the album would depend entirely on the handmade sound of the recording and the intrinsically personal qualities of Mr. Sweet’s intimate and compressed lead vocals. Rock and roll isn’t theatre. Theatre isn’t rock and roll. So the best we can hope for is an original work that merely begins with the songs but goes to the sorts of places that theatre does well and which rock and roll generally does not. (As theatrical as Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell album was, it was not a musical play, it could be adapted as one but that’s not the same thing.) I had this epiphany when I saw Berkeley Rep’s other musical adaptation, Green Day’s American Idiot, in Berkeley last year (it’s now on Broadway). The feeling was that this was a collection of songs – luckily pre-tied together as Billy Joe Armstrong had written it as a concept album in the first place – that were being elaborated upon with an exuberant cast of young adults, kind of a post-millennial, slacker Hair for the era when the M in MTV no longer stood for Music (I think it stands for Montag now). But back to their current musical production, Girlfriend, directed by Les Waters.

Scenes from the merch table at Girlfriend.

I’ll tell you why it doesn’t matter that it isn’t the same experience as the album (which we listened to full blast the next day, reaffirming its greatness!). Music is a mirror. A songwriter can begin writing from whatever their own perspective and life experience is but after the song is complete, the best ones are open to your own interpretation. Archetypes and other imagery of the collective unconscious are one thing but in most pop songs the main images are negotiable in value. Thus I will give away, if you haven’t already heard it, the central awesome thing about Girlfriend, the play, written by former Nebraskan Todd Almond is the pivotal paradigm shift; he’s taken songs into which I’d always insinuated my own heterosexual experiences and transformed them into songs of yearning between two young gay men in the wilderness of a small Nebraska town called Alliance (not entirely coincidentally as Mr. Sweet is himself a transplanted son of Lincoln, Nebraska). So now these songs of youthful longing add up to more than a coming of age story, it’s also a coming out story.

Ryder Bach (in foreground in left picture) and Jason Hite in Girlfriend.

The alienation that infects the best Matthew Sweet songs now seems perfect for a life in the closeted shadows where songs like “I’ve Been Waiting” or “Sick Of Myself” become diary-like confessions from from Will (played with puckish animation by Ryder Bach) and “We’re The Same” becomes a tentative duet between Will and his reluctant baseball jock boyfriend Mike (enacted with believable anguish by Jason Hite). Since the songs aren’t written as dialogue, they are used more like a greek chorus to explain the interior feelings the boys experience in their journey out of the closet and out of Alliance, Nebraska itself. Band leader Julie Wolf’s live four piece, all women ensemble rocks out at the back of the stage for the entire show and their arrangements stick very close to the two guitars, bass and drums rock sound on the Sweet albums.  It shouldn’t work for me, but damn if I didn’t smile when they finally hook up. My only niggling complaint is that they have split the piece into two acts, but most of the tension builds to the two-thirds moment in the play, then after a brief and needless intermission, it’s back for a short second act in which very  little new happens. Maybe it should have been either one long act or they could have had something else happen in the last section (perhaps one of the boys could have been sent to one of those “pray-away-the-gay” camps and sing “Divine Intervention.” Still, I’d recommend the show, just remember, it’s not the same as the album – it’s an altered beast.

Next, on Saturday April 24th, Liza and I went down to the Kabuki Sundance Cinema to see songwriter/producer and music supervisor T-Bone Burnett in conversation with film critic (and general pop culture commentator) Elvis Mitchell as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

It was a relaxed but lively discussion, touching on the motivations and thought processes involved in many of Burnett’s best known and best loved film soundtracks and scores from his very first, The Big Lebowski for the Coen Brothers, up through his other Coen soundtracks including O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Ladykillers as well as other memorable films he’s done like the Johnny Cash/June Carter biopic Walk the Line, the Lennon/McCartney fantasia Across the Universe, Anthony Minghella’s U.S. Civil War drama Cold Mountain up to his recent Academy Award winning work on the Jeff Bridges film, Crazy Heart for which he also produced the Best Song, “The Weary Kind.”

He also talked working with Wim Wenders on the film Until The End oOf The World. One of the things that made the event so special, besides the exceptional hosting job from Mitchell, who kept the whole thing moving nicely and never seemed to not know what was being discussed, was the use of selected “film clip package breaks” illustrating certain score moments from Burnett’s projects. There was this gospel chorale scene from The Coen’s O Brother Where Art Thou:

And this scene from Julie Taymor’s film, Across The Universe featuring Jim Sturgess singing “Strawberry Fields Forever”:

He talked about how The Coen’s approached to work on the very first film he worked on with them, The Big Lebowski.

The Dude (Jeff Bridges) gets his milk on in The Big Lebowski, Burnett's first gig as music supervisor.

One package was devoted to a few clips of films that had influenced Burnett – for good or ill – in his work. Among these the 1957  Elvis Presley jukebox film Loving You, for the kinetic use of realistic performance on film in the song “Got A Lot O’ Livin’ To Do”:

Rita Hayworth faking the guitar (badly) on “Put The Blame On Mame” in the 1946 film Gilda:

and Lauren Bacall “singing” along with Hoagy Carmichael in the 1944 film To Have And Have Not.

Forgive me, but I was sort of proud of myself that during the Q&A portion, I asked T-Bone if the 1967 film Bonnie & Clyde, with its bluegrass Flatt & Scruggs soundtrack, had influenced him in his own soundtrack choices.

T-Bone seemed genuinely caught off guard by the question, but Elvis Mitchell perked up and jumped on it, explaining the rural music connection and why my question made sense. After that, T-Bone “got it” and I sensed that he’d forgotten just how much he had in fact been influenced by Arthur Penn’s  gangster film until that very moment. Like I said, forgive me for making this about me, but I left the theatre a little proud to have helped Mr. Burnett remember that. It was a great seminar and both he and Mr. Mitchell made the time fly by. Thank you San Francisco International Film Festival for making it happen.

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