When I wrote this cover story for American Theatre, about how the presence of composer/musicians within their own theater pieces showed hope of changing and revivifying musical theater, I was thinking of largely narrative pieces like Passing Strange or Striking 12 or Futurity or even Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812--most of which could be done, and some of which have been done, without their songwriters/creators at the center of them. (I was also thinking about the way Once seemed to blur the exegetic/diegetic musical-theater lines--its creators weren't literally onstage performing the songs, but its actor/musician hybrid was built into the show's DNA, not grafted on a la John Doyle.)
What I didn't foresee was that some of the form's most venturesome songwriters would go even further and deeper into the notion of the rock-album-as-theater, musicians-as-performers. I've just seen two that will stay with me in two very different ways, though their surface similarities are striking. First was Dave Malloy's transporting chamber show at the Bushwick Starr, Ghost Quartet, which confirmed his status as a sui generis--I don't even know what label to apply to him. Event-maker? Music-theater-sound-space artist? Maybe "theater composer" comes close, as what Dave seems to be doing is composing the entire theatrical experience as he would a piece of music--which it also is. Indeed, though I had my quibbles with some of it, Ghost Quartet worked the margins of indie rock and indie theater, of what makes a concert and what makes a play, in a way I've never felt a piece do before--and I emphasize felt, as it was a deeply sensory experience, with the band members arrayed around the space, at one point memorably in total darkness. (The director was Annie Tippe.) Though the work cited Poe and Monk, photojournalism and taxidermy, its unique spectral glow put me in mind of W.G. Sebald's haunted, ruminative novel Austerlitz, in which the present is an endless, unentangle-able palimpsest of past sins and missteps, an accordion of grief wheezing backward and forward. It makes some lovely music as it resonates, but it still squeezes and pinches. (UPDATE: I just learned that Ghost Quartet will return to the McKittrick Hotel, the NY home of Sleep No More, next. Jan. 5-18. Tickets here.)
Then last night I saw Gabriel Kahane's The Ambassador at BAM. The show is based on his album of the same name, although it may be just as accurate to say that the album was shaped to support the show. In any case, like Ghost Quartet, The Ambassador has been staged as a kind of performative meditation for (in this case) seven musicians, not including the impish, barefooted composer/lyricist Kahane, arrayed around a pack-rat set of stacked books, LP records, videocassettes and other 20th-century detritus, as if Krapp's basement exploded. As with Malloy's piece, there wasn't a piece of sheet music in sight--no small feat, given that Kahane's work is complicated, infinitesimally shaded, almost prog-rock-ish neo-classical pop/rock--and all of the musicians were, if not quite equally involved, then universally called on to perform non-musical movement and gestures as well as the daunting score. (The director is John Tiffany, who brought in his usual movement-director sidekick, Steven Hoggett, for an assist.) In all, it's a gorgeous, elegantly humanized piece of music-theater that entirely transcends the notion of concert. It certainly doesn't hurt that it happens to be a piece about the complexities of a city I consider my adult hometown, Los Angeles, and that, eerily, it was the second piece I'd seen on the same Brooklyn block in a week about L.A. that made the shooting death of Latasha Harlins a dramatic centerpiece (the other was Roger Guenveur Smith's beautiful, unsettling Rodney King at BRIC Arts).
Though Kahane's is more lavishly appointed than Malloy's work, both were lovingly crafted, with an eye for detail, sonic as well as visual and mimetic. And both feel entirely of a piece with what looks to me like a newish and entirely welcome trend, even a new form: staged albums, conceived by music-theater artists as full performance pieces rather than simply as adjuncts of recordings (though with albums as their dramaturgical template, if you will), and performed not by jobbed-in hired hands at music stands but by fully committed musician/actors who convincingly straddle the line between theater ensemble and band.