Making Gentlemen Songsters: The Show (Part 1)

Tyrone’s recently been described as “…like Leunig with a ukulele.” That’s well and truly alright by me. Right now I’m creating a show for him and his faithful companion Lesley titled Gentlemen Songsters. It’s for the Brisbane Powerhouse’s Queensland Cabaret Festival. It opens and closes on June 13th. In three parts (probably) I’m going to write about the loops,  eddies, currents and flow underneath the research, writing and rehearsal of this piece.  The long way round.

Cabaret is only ever defined loosely: it’s characterised by music and performance, (songs, accompaniment, dance, drama and more – or less) in a venue where you can sit at a table and consume a drink as well as a show. It’s less fascistic than the ‘sit down and shut up’ expected of a theatre audience. Tyrone and Lesley GS 2014

Leafing through the festival’s brochure you can get a sense of the field: there’s virtuosity and a kind of star power from the international guests, performance concepts derived from aspects of celebrity or well-known performance culture such as pop songs from a particular era, exploration of issues or themes (comedic or serious) and more outré stuff like the atmospheric queer-scapes of silver sircus. There also seem to be a lot of skimpy white outfits.

It’s a cosmopolitan collection and Tyrone and Lesley are glad to be part of it. We have a strong reputation for bringing a kind of theatricality to the music venues we play, and a musicality to the theatrical venues we play. We’re writing the best songs we ever have right now.  Kellee Green is adding her music too. What else shall we bring to a space that welcomes both Theatricality and Musicality?

scan cropHaving just released our third album of original music, we’re spoilt for choice in terms of strong musical material: we have the option of playing covers but it’s not an angle we’ll chase.

Tyrone lives only on the stage. There’s no backstory, so what we do is unlikely to be structured biographically. We’re not a celebrity drawcard. The performance won’t be centred around our ‘greatest hits’. So what will it be?

The Very Thought of You

Al BowllyFor a while there I was working on a script for a musical presentation about Al Bowlly,  1930’s crooner who could be considered one of the first pop stars. A pitch for this show was selected as a finalist in the Inscriptions Edward Albee Scholarship, which potentially involved a trip to New York to work on the piece and work the scene in the big apple. I didn’t ‘win’, but kept working on it, researching music, background and biography.

After a while I put that project on the backburner. Those kind of staged musical biographies actually depend on the punters knowing who the heck it is the show is about. Al Bowlly’s story is fascinating, but it’s not ‘neat’. To slam it into the tedious narrative trajectory we’re taught to expect would take away from the story (and the music), not add to it. I love Al and wouldn’t want him to die in captivity. Besides: even if I was half the singer he was, I’d be less than three feet tall.

However, there are themes and formal concerns that emerged out of that piece I’ll pursue in Gentlemen Songsters: Al Bowlly was an enigma: the truth of him is to be found in the music, not any bland biography.

For Al, the song is a gorgeous shell, a display and a place to live within. An intricate construction, a projection into the world, as well as a kind of protection from it. His best songs (and their performance) track relationships: romantic AND musical.

How to write this?

Like the drinks that the audience imbibes, a cabaret should be tasty, intoxicating, curious, disinhibiting and fun. Each song should beckon another. It should also be virtuosic. How to write that?

The first step is to get clear about what this actually is: to frame the piece. Tyrone and Lesley have been doing their thing for 14 years, but have developed organically: not contrived for some extrinsic purpose. They began as performers, and are now principally songwriters.  To build a show around them I need to provisionally clarify what they ARE.

…the best of each has a bit of both

I know I’m uninterested in building up a classic ‘fictional context’ around them. So it won’t be ‘theatre’ but it won’t be ‘performance’ either. In my opinion the best of each has a bit of both. Whatever happens, I need to be thinking about actual reality as well as any action that might be ‘rehearsable’.

frame_analysisHere I’m guided by famous sociologist Ervin Goffman’s frame analysis. Goffman’s stuff is cool, clever, and cuts through: he’s able to describe in detached, sometimes humorous ways, some of the understandings we all share about our social interactions, but rarely talk about. He sometimes uses theatrical metaphors to capture the performance of the interpersonal. For Goffman the self “is not an entity half-concealed behind events, but a changeable formula for managing oneself during them” (573) Because I’m not working in psychological realism, character is replaced by persona in performance, and narrative is in a state of flux, so ‘framing’ is a useful process to delineate the layers of who is doing what and why.

These foundational understandings that may seem utterly borne of common sense, However the ‘frames’ a punter perceives as they enter a performance space and suss out what’s going on and make sense of it, are especially relevant when you’re not pretending to do anything. When you’re really doing it.

Without going into detail, I fill in some of the gaps offered by Goffman’s theories and I’m on a stronger footing: I’ve a clearer sense of what my starting point is as a writer/composer/performer.

This is theory. It sounds heavy. It’s not. I’m no theoretician, I’m an artist. Theory’s OK. As long as it’s useful. You don’t need to believe in a hammer to use it, though it’s handy to know which end to grasp.

Setlist: Sorting songs

The second step is to get familiar with, sort and group the material (for us, original songs) so that together they make some kind of sense. If this was a simple gig in a music venue, I’d write a setlist. I tailor-make these for every gig I do – and it’s not fixed. It’s responsive to the anticipated (and actual) conditions of performance, but guided by a few principles.

Setlist written by John Lennon on hotel Stationery  for  their first US concert February 11, 1964, show at the Washington Coliseum

Setlist written by John Lennon on hotel Stationery for their first US concert February 11, 1964, show at the Washington Coliseum

You have a sense of the strength of the songs: this could be about how ‘good’ the songs are (how well they go over with audiences), but also may be to do with how well you play them. Some may be newer and fresher than others. Sometimes tempo and key are important. We’re not in a position to ‘play the hits’ and that’s very liberating. Having decided to de-emphasise cover-songs, we don’t need to be concerned about the balance of known and unknown material. We’ll have ‘fans’ there, sure but for the most part, these songs are ‘new’.

If it was just a 45 minute set in a music venue,  maybe we’d open with something strong and uptempo,  shift gear a few times during the set, link the pieces with patter and bring it home with three or four of our most energetic and impactful tunes. Songs we know ‘work’. It sounds simple. It’s not.

And this Cabaret gig is something different:  it’s longer in duration and there’s the expectation that it will be something more profound than ‘just’ musicians performing songs. Well,  I have that expectation.

Writing a setlist, the songs talk to each other. They do. Like kids in a classroom, some need to be ‘separated’ for the whole thing to work, or juxtaposed, or put into teams. What’s the point in following up your best love ballad with a song about farts?

Bass and MicWhat’s implied here is a journey: you’re taking the audience from one point to another, even if it’s just 7pm on Friday June 13th to 8:10 pm on the same night. You want each step of that journey to build on the last. And though these songs Tyrone and Lesley have made were designed to stand on their own, once they’re all standing next to each other, they start to say something different. I just have to work out how to frame them, what ‘key’ they’re in.

I take almost every song we’ve written and sort them in various ways: I try musical ‘feel’ and ‘form’ (‘genre’ is only intermittently relevant) and technicalities such as tempo. I omit some, but not all of the songs we’ve written for Bear with Me, a show for family audiences: not because the songs are no good, but because they function better in a different performative context.

As I sort through the music we’ve made over the last four years, themes emerge. Amongst all the bittersweet and absurd pieces are the very themes of romantic and musical companionship and separation I was seeking to discover in the Al Bowlly show.

A ridiculous optimism.

Images come. Circular. A moon. The soundhole of a ukulele. A glass half full.

Yet I’m not going to turn these into a story. I’m going to turn them into a show. A performance where the principal action is going to be musical. With undercurrents. Alongside my playwriting instincts, in this writing process I’m making overtures towards compositional thinking. Stay tuned.

Don’t miss your chance to experience the show. http://brisbanepowerhouse.org/events/2014/06/13/gentlemen-songsters/

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