A GUEST POSTING FROM DAVE GLICKMAN
The Cultural Revolution – Broadway Edition
This story starts back around the turn of the century, when my pre-teenage daughter, a self-professed theatre geek, spent many an evening downtown going to see whatever Broadway show was playing and waiting at stage doors in dark back alleyways for her favorite actors to emerge. Needless to say, Mrs. G and I weren’t about to let her do this alone or with similarly aged friends, so over the years each of us attended many shows with her. To be honest, I actually didn’t mind going and ended up seeing many entertaining productions. However, the average ten year old child doesn’t make for the most discerning critic, and thus I occasionally spent a couple hours crammed into a seat with little legroom, cringing at what I was watching.
The worst of these experiences occurred at what is generally considered to be one of the more popular, crowd pleasing shows in the history of musical theatre. Nominated for five Tony awards, this show has been seen by over 54 million people worldwide and has grossed over $2B since its debut in 1999. According to the wiki, “On any given day, there are at least seven performances of [this musical] being performed around the globe.” The original Broadway production, which just ended on September 12th after almost fourteen years, is now the 8th longest-running Broadway musical of all time. All these awards, accolades and success aside, I’m sorry to say, that the show is simply a piece of garbage.
By now, theatre aficionados surely know what production I’m talking about. However, I’m guessing that there aren’t too many of those around this fine music blog. So, I’ll use a paragraph from the wiki for the reveal:
Mamma Mia! is a jukebox musical written by British playwright Catherine Johnson, based on the songs of ABBA, composed by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, former members of the band. The title of the musical is taken from the group’s 1975 chart-topper “Mamma Mia”. Ulvaeus and Andersson, who composed the original music for ABBA, were involved in the development of the show from the beginning. Anni-Frid Lyngstad has been involved financially in the production and she has also been present at many of the premieres around the world. The musical includes such hits as “Super Trouper”, “Lay All Your Love on Me”, “Dancing Queen”, “Knowing Me, Knowing You”, “Take a Chance on Me”, “Thank You for the Music”, “Money, Money, Money”, “The Winner Takes It All”, “Voulez Vous”, “SOS” and the title track.
Well, of course I didn’t like it. I mean, what post-punk, indie kid has a soft spot for the music of ABBA? But actually, that wasn’t it all. In fact, I thought the songs themselves were the best thing in the show. My complaints were fundamentally about the writing – a plot as thin as gruel, no consistent themes or messages across the book and music, song lyrics forced into the scenes whether they made any sense at all in the context of what little story there was and finally, just complete capitulation as the show devolves into a greatest hits sing-along which has no connection whatsoever to the first two hours of the production.
I’m no playwright of course, but as I suffered through this experience, I thought to myself that I could surely create something better than this. After all, the bar was set so awfully low. It wouldn’t need to be a masterpiece, maybe just some semblance of a plot, songs whose lyrics actually made some sense in the context of the action on the stage, and perhaps a theme or two to run through the show from beginning to end. All I needed was a band or musician with a set of songs which had a clear and consistent perspective on the human condition around which to write a story.
There are, undoubtedly, many good options among the types of music that feature here at T(n)VV and it wouldn’t surprise me if you’ve already thought of a few. Even before the show was over, I had mine – Gang of Four, and most especially their 1979 debut album Entertainment! with its themes of the futility of love, work, marriage and distraction.
Now, on the off chance that we actually have a non-indie music listening, theatre buff reading, I’ll defer to the wiki again for some background:
Gang of Four are an English post-punk group, formed in 1977 in Leeds. The original members were singer Jon King, guitarist Andy Gill, bass guitarist Dave Allen and drummer Hugo Burnham. There have been many different line-ups including, among other notable musicians, Sara Lee and Gail Ann Dorsey.
The band plays a stripped-down mix of punk rock, funk and dub, with an emphasis on the social and political ills of society. Gang of Four [is] widely considered one of the leading bands of the late 1970s/early 1980s post-punk movement. Their later albums [of that period] (Songs of the Free and Hard) found them softening some of their more jarring qualities, and drifting towards dance-punk and disco. Their debut album, Entertainment!, ranked at Number 483 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and is listed by Pitchfork Media as the 8th best album of the 1970s. David Fricke of Rolling Stone described Gang of Four as “probably the best politically motivated band in rock & roll.”
Let’s be perfectly honest, who in their right mind would put up real money for a musical written by a non-writer with no track record containing popular crowd pleasers and sing-a-longs like “Love is like Anthrax.” It’s certainly not a marketer’s dream. So, only in my imagination did I ever run home, write the book, get permission to use the songs, find a producer, do a series of regional previews and then triumphantly open up on the Great White Way. Instead, over many years, I would frequently listen to the songs and think about how they might be ordered and structured into a coherent storyline – which songs to use and which to lose, and perhaps other tunes from their discography, at least a few. While the ideas evolved, nothing ever made it onto paper … until now. How else to avoid yet another deathbed regret?
What follows is a rough, bare bones outline of a show, nothing more, nor will it ever be. My advice is to listen to each song before moving on to the next scene as the story is contained in the lyrics as much as in my quick synopses. As a reminder, my objective was to create something that could be better than the god-awful Mama Mia!. Such a low bar, that I hope you won’t be too critical of the obvious flaws in what is to come.
One more thing – several Gang of Four songs cover the topic of sex, as does this imaginary musical, right off the top and several times thereafter. If you think you might be offended by my awkwardly written prose describing sexual activity, then this might be a good time to take your leave. E. L. James has nothing to worry about from me.
And now, without further ado, Entertainment! – The Musical, a show never coming to a theatre near you.
Setting: The late 20th century, any urban/suburban location in a first world country
K. – Our protagonist, a Kafkaesque character whose life to date has followed the traditional, established norms of modern western society
Mrs. K. – K.’s wife
Michael – K.’s friend and co-worker
Jane – Mrs. K.’s friend
Susan – One of the girls at the bar who spend their evenings hoping to snag a husband on his way up the corporate ladder
Music: All songs by Gang of Four, from their 1979 debut album Entertainment!, unless otherwise noted
Scene 1 – Contract
The same again, another disappointment
We couldn’t perform in the way the other wanted
Is this really the way it is or a contract in our mutual interest?
As the show opens, it is early morning. K. and Mrs. K are in bed having less than impassioned sex. The kind long time married people might have on occasion, where he closes his eyes trying to imagine that he is sleeping with the attractive woman he saw on yesterday’s train, while she desperately tries to think about what she could whisper in his ear to bring things to a merciful end. They finish and shoot each other disappointing glances as Mrs. K. heads to the shower. K. sits at the end of the bed and vacantly staring out, he begins to sing.
mp3 : Gang Of Four – Contract
Scene 2 – Glass
I’m so restless
I’m as bored as a cat
We talk about this and we talk about that
As K. gets in the shower, Mrs. K. gets dressed and heads to the kitchen to start breakfast. She looks out the window pondering the morning’s events, lights herself up a cigarette (naturally!) and begins to sing.
mp3 : Gang Of Four – Glass
Scene 3 – At Home He’s A Tourist
At home he feels like a tourist
At home she’s looking for interest
She said she was ambitious
So she accepts the process
Michael and Jane are walking towards the K.’s house and notice Mrs. K. staring out the window. Jane mentions her concern that Mrs. K. seems particularly unhappy as of late and that the K.’s marriage may be in trouble. Michael mentions that K. feels that the two have been growing distant as well. While outwardly they seem to be living successful lives, it doesn’t seem to be making either one of them happy. Michael sings about how K. feels like a tourist at home, while Jane interjects that Mrs. K. is looking for interest.
mp3 : Gang Of Four – At Home He’s A Tourist
They even find a way to turn “two steps forward (six steps back)” into a short dance number as the song ends and they enter the K.’s house.
Scene 4 – It’s Her Factory (from the untitled Yellow EP, 1980)
Housewife heroines, addicts to their homes
It’s her factory, it’s her duty
In a man’s world because they’re not men
The guys leave for work. Mrs. K. and Jane remain at the house and engage in some inconsequential chit chat – they talk about this; they talk about that. Mrs. K. then says she has a few quick things to get done before they head out and she heads to the kitchen. Jane sings the song with Mrs. K. looking back to interject with the backing vocals.
mp3 : Gang Of Four – It’s Her Factory
Scene 5 – Outside The Trains Don’t Run On Time (from the untitled Yellow EP, 1980)
Discipline is his passion
Order his obsession
K. and Michael arrive at the factory where they work. K.’s secretary tells K. that the boss wants to see him first thing. Michael makes an offhand remark about what a stickler the boss is and K. says that the guy has always been on his ass since K. was promoted to his executive job. Cue the music.
mp3 : Gang Of Four – Outside The Trains Don’t Run On Time
As K. and Michael sing the song, the workers get up from their stations and turn this into a big production number (Ok, I know this is kind of a rip-off from a scene in The Producers). At the end of the song, K. heads off to see the boss.
Scene 6 – Natural’s Not In It
The problem of leisure, what to do for pleasure?
This heaven gives me migraine
Now out shopping, Mrs. K. is talking with her friend Jane and discussing how she bought into marriage with a successful man and the trappings of money and status. But honestly, she’s now just a bored housewife with a husband who treats her as a sex object more than anything else. As the music starts, she says, “I’m just getting a headache thinking about it.”
mp3 : Gang Of Four – Natural’s Not In It
Scene 7 – What We All Want (from the album Solid Gold, 1981)
Could I be happy with something else?
I need something to fill my time
Could I be happy with something else?
I need someone to fill my time
K. and Michael meet in K.’s office later that day, after K.’s talk with the boss. “Can you believe he fired me?! I’m gone at the end of the week. A small drop in production last month and that’s it, after everything I’ve done for this company. What am I going to do now? Start over from the bottom at another firm? And, oh god, my wife is probably going to throw me out of the house.” Cue the music; K. sings “This wheel spins letting me off…”
mp3 : Gang Of Four – What We All Want
After the song finishes, Michael tries to console K. They agree to go out for drinks with everyone else and talk more.
Scene 8 – Return The Gift
Please send me evenings and weekends
K. and Michael meet up with the boys from work to head over to the local club. While K. is subdued, the rest are having the usual male testosterone-driven banter about how drunk they plan to get and who’s going to get laid tonight. As they head out, you can hear them singing “Please send me evenings and weekends.”
mp3 : Gang Of Four – Return The Gift
Scene 9 – I Love A Man In A Uniform (from the album Songs Of The Free, 1982)
I love a man in a uniform
The girls they love to see you shoot
To have ambitions was my ambition
But I had nothing to show for my dreams
K., Michael and the boys enter the local watering hole each wearing similar blue suits, white shirts and red ties (dare I call them corporate “uniforms”). They head to the bar, get drinks and start chatting it up with a group of gold digging girls. Susan, the queen bee of the group, is showing particular interest in K. and Michael. Susan tells them that the girls really like hanging out with the up and coming business executives – the whole money, power, status thing. While Michael soaks up the adoration and pulls Susan closer to him, K. laments that he himself isn’t much of a catch, “being married and recently unemployed, after all.” Cue the music.
mp3 : Gang Of Four – I Love A Man In Uniform
K. sings “Time with my girl…” with all the girls jumping in for “You must be joking…” Michael interjects with “The girls they love to see you shoot” and then the girls form a dance line for the title chorus. By the end of the song, all the guys and girls are dancing together and singing the repeating choruses of “I love a man in the uniform. The girls they love to see you shoot…” And, as the number ends, Susan falls into Michael’s arms, whispers in his ear and they begin to head for the door. “See you tomorrow?” Michael smiles at K. “Guess it’s time for me to head home and face the music,” K. replies.
Scene 10 – Is It Love? (from the album Hard, 1983)
Is it love?
Love that’s on your mind
Is it love?
Not just of a certain kind
Back at Susan’s apartment – As the music starts, Michael and Susan are in bed having sex, both on their knees looking straight out into the audience (use your imagination). Their lovemaking is everything that the K.’s weren’t – hot, passionate, sweaty and loud. “Is it love?” Susan asks (hopes). The song plays out as a duet, the same as the album track. At 4:03 of the song, Susan and the scene come to a climax. Both she and Michael fall to the bed in exhaustion.
mp3 : Gang Of Four – Is It Love?
Scene 11 – Not Great Men
No weak men in the books at home
The strong men who have made the world
The poor still weak, the rich still rule
K. returns home, a bit disheveled and clearly depressed. He whispers something to Mrs. K. at which point she collapses into a nearby chair crying softly. “Not everyone is destined to be a winner in our economy,” he says, “But I thought for sure, that I could be one.” K. sits on the couch, across from his wife and begins to sing. When the song finishes, Mrs. K., now in better control of her emotions, takes his hand and leads him to the bedroom.
mp3 : Gang Of Four – Not Great Men
Scene 12 – Anthrax
Love’ll get you like a case of anthrax
And that’s something I don’t want to catch
Back at Susan’s apartment, it is a few hours later as Michael, hung over, begins to stir. The feedback at the beginning of the song, along with rapid bright white strobe lights, simulates Michael’s pounding headache and general disorientation.
mp3 : Gang Of Four – Anthrax
As he starts to regain his senses, he sees Susan, still sleeping, recalls the earlier events and remembers her desperate plea, “Is it Love?” This song is his response, “Love is like Anthrax”. As the song ends, Michael gets dressed and leaves.
Scene 13 – Damaged Goods
Sometimes I’m thinking that I love you, but I know it’s only lust
The change will do you good
Send them back
I can’t work
I can’t achieve
Send me back
I’m kissing you goodbye
Back at the K.’s house, in the bedroom, Mrs. K. tries to help K. drown his sorrows in sex. She’s on top, working hard to make him happy and there does seem to be some cooperative passion initially. She starts singing the first verse. He takes over at the first repeat of “The kiss so sweet” and she takes over the next time that line is sung. Then suddenly he rolls her off him and the music stops.
mp3 : Gang Of Four – Damaged Goods
K. says he just can’t do it anymore, he knows he is a failure at work and pretending that there is still love in their marriage isn’t good for either of them. Mrs. K. acknowledges that everything he said is true and honestly she has had it with him as well. The music restarts with K. singing “Damaged Goods, Send Them Back”; she takes over at “The kiss so sweet” and with K sitting on the bed, head in his hands, she gets up, stands over him and finishes with the “I’m kissing you goodbye” chorus.
Scene 14 – Paralysed (from the album Solid Gold, 1981)
My ambitions come to nothing
What I wanted now just seems a waste of time
I can’t make out what has gone wrong
It is the next morning and with K. sitting on the couch in the living room looking forlorn and defeated, Mrs. K. walks by with her luggage, kisses him goodbye and leaves. Devastated and in complete despair, K. gets a bed sheet, fashions a noose and hangs it from a beam in the house. He stands on a chair, puts the noose around his neck, but then just stands there for several moments doing nothing. He’s unable to summon up the energy for this final act. Cue the music as K. sings “Blinkered. Paralysed. Flat on my back…”
mp3 : Gang Of Four – Paralysed
When the song ends, Mrs. K. re-enters the house and halfway through saying, “I forgot to take my…”, she sees K., walks over to him and exclaims, “Oh god! Can’t you do anything right!” She kicks the chair out from beneath his legs just as the stage goes completely dark.
Last January, I was talking with a friend. While our conversations are usually restricted to politics, legal matters (his business) or the financial markets (mine), for whatever reason we found ourselves on the topic of theatre. He mentioned that he had recently seen a show, Mama Mia!.
“Really,” I said, “I have a great story about that.”
He then went on to tell me that while he’d never had much interest in musical theatre, this show – Mama Mia! – had been a transformative experience for him. He loved every minute of it, gained a new found appreciation for musicals, and thought that it must represent a pinnacle for the genre.
“What was your story?” he asked.
“Oh, never mind.”