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background and analysis by Scott Miller
The Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals used to present an idealized America (or idealized Americans abroad), with a clear, traditional morality. It served well as a very liberal cultural snapshot of the mid-twentieth century. But we don’t live in that America today, if it ever actually existed as it did in R&H musicals. Since the 1960s, Americans have wanted authenticity and truthful complexity in their art, not just pretty fictions. Poet and novelist Charles Bukowski was a part of that change. He became an important American literary figure for his raw, honest, spare writing about the dark side of the American experience.
On the surface Bukowsical seems to be one of those silly, shallow musical parodies, like Silence! or Evil Dead. But it’s so much more than that. Despite the surface silliness, there is real meat in this show; not just an accurate (though sometimes fictionalized) portrait of the forces that formed Bukowski the artist, but also a chronicle of the shifting American culture against which he was straining. Bukowsical gets much of the biographical information right – it plays with time a little, it combines characters, and yes, it creates a few complete fictions, but it largely gets it right.
And in doing that, this musical becomes an analog to Bukowski’s own work. His novels are autobiographical fiction, recounting his own life experiences through his barely disguised hero Henry Chinaski. (Bukowski’s real first name is Henry.) As Bukowski famously said, "Hey baby, when I write, I’m the hero of my own shit." And so too, this musical is biographical fiction, much like Evita and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, in which all the Big Stuff is true, though details may be fudged for dramatic or comic purposes. And while the story may not always be biographically accurate, it is emotionally authentic.
Through the silliness of this earnest troupe of players putting on a high-energy, old-school musical comedy about the life of Bukowski, we actually do see how the relentless darkness of Bukowski’s life led him to make great art. And the repeated comic statement by the cast that we can be (or are) "Bukowsical" too, has a serious streak running through it. The writers have invented this word that at first seems like a one-word musical comedy joke, combining Bukowski with musical. But it’s more than that. When they tell us we can be Bukowsical, we realize it’s also an adjective, presumably meaning like Bukowski. Notice that much of the lyric in the opening number is in the second person. They’re singing about us, the audience:
What’s the feeling you get
When you’re down on your luck
And you’re too drunk to fuck?
What’s the feeling you get
When you’re scratching your crotch
And you’ve run out of scotch?
Never writes about trees.
How he elevates sleaze!
Every woman’s a hole
Out to swallow his soul.
And later in the song, they pull "us" into the song using the first person plural...
He brings a vital message for our time --
He said that being human’s not a crime.
‘Cause all of us are rude and smutty,
(Oh, yes we are!)
Obscene and crude and lewd and slutty.
(You bet we are!)
We’re filthy, and we’re grimy,
Corruptible and slimy, too,
Yes, even YOU!
It’s true. We are all Bukowsical. We’re all flawed. We’re all worse than the rest of the world knows. We all revert to our primal, selfish, animal selves sometimes, as we stumble through life. We understand Bukowski. We suffer the same bullshit, make the same bad choices, encounter the same obstacles, and feel the same destructive emotions, just not to that extreme degree. And yet like Bukowski, we all survive. But it’s that extremity, especially as it’s presented comically in the musical, that lets us look at that darkness close up and maybe understand it a little better.
This first song asks us to recognize the feeling of being repeatedly weighed down by life’s little horror shows, and the conclusion is that this feeling is "Bukowsical." We feel Bukowsical. The poets of the Fifties used the word Beat to mean the same thing. Unlike Bukowski and the Beat writers, we don’t all make great art out of that feeling, but we all know what it is to continually work at surviving the interminable crap of life. They get your order wrong at the drive-through. You wait on hold for a half hour then get disconnected. You get down-sized. You get dumped. As Bukowski himself wrote in his Barfly screenplay, "Endurance is more important than truth."
Notice that the lyric equates "being human" with being "rude and smutty... obscene and crude and lewd and slutty... filthy... grimy, corruptible and slimy." Yikes. But Bukowski would clearly agree. As Bukowski did with his writing, this show gives us permission to acknowledge our animal side, our primitive "dark passenger," and to embrace it all as part of who we are. Maybe the lyric exaggerates the case for comic effect, but we really are all Bukowsical in one way or another. We are the hero in this story. The show’s creators, Gary Stockdale and Spencer Green, have given us a Hero Myth story. It’s ironic and smartass and silly, but it’s still a real Hero Myth story.
At the end of this first song, they sing...
It’s in me
It’s in you
You can be
Not only is it something we are, it’s also something to aspire to...? Are we aspiring to Bukowski’s excess and hedonism or to his honesty and his art? Well, that’s part of the joke...
This show works on several levels at once. It has the obvious comic dissonance of treating this man’s dark, damaged life as a perky musical comedy. But it also makes a smart, insightful statement about the relationship between an artist’s life and his art, in a wacky parallel to Sunday in the Park with George, Passing Strange, and 8 1/2.
We see the events of Bukowski’s life as they form his artistic self, most explicitly in "Art is Pain," but this idea runs throughout the entire show. The influence of other great writers on him comes to life here in the funny but pointed song, "Get Down, Get Dark, Get Dirty." The constriction of mid-century American morality that Bukowski rebelled against comes to life in the song "Slippery Slope." Yes, the songs are silly and perky, and yes, they also offer up smart, insightful commentary for those who are looking for it.
The show satirizes old-fashioned musical comedy, but that’s not all it does – it also paints a portrait of Bukowski that is emotionally and existentially authentic. We actually understand Bukowski and his work better at the end of the show.
Birth of the Buk
Bukowsical has been produced just a few times so far, in Los Angeles, at the Revolutions Theatre Festival in Albuquerque, at the New York Fringe Festival, where it won the Best Musical award, and in St. Louis at New Line Theatre. The original productions were very bare-bones, while New Line’s was more fully produced. In its original incarnation, the show was in the form of a backer’s audition, but for the New Line production, the writers agreed to jettison that idea and present the show as a straightforward, postmodern, concept musical.
Originally, that framing device introduced us to this misguided, mediocre theatre company holding a backer’s audition to raise money for their new show Bukowsical. But the frame made the show seem more like sketch comedy than the smart, Brechtian theatre that it actually is. (The fake theatre company was called The Sacred Angel Fist Circle of Note Gang Theatre.) The framing device took the audience off the hook by putting up a wall of "We Don’t Really Mean It" between them and the story – so the audience didn’t have to grapple earnestly with any of what’s onstage because it was just some silly musical worthy of mockery.
The problem was the comparative dishonesty of that frame, in what is otherwise a weirdly honest show. It seemed that the writers were giving themselves an "excuse" for writing this vulgar, fearless show, by putting its creation in the fictional hands of the clueless, nameless egotist, "The Founder," and his merry band of players. It felt like a cop out. Why not just dive in? Today, there’s no need for excuse or explanation. Audiences can handle pretty much anything we throw at them.
Bukowski arguably changed the face of American poetry with his work, ignoring almost all the "rules" of poetry. He once famously said, "It appears that certain people think that poetry should be a certain way. For these, there will be nothing but troubled years. More and more people will come along to break their concepts. It’s hard I know, like having somebody fuck your wife while you are at work, but life, as they say, goes on." The same thing could be said about the American musical theatre in the 21st century.
The audience doesn’t need a justification or explanation or introduction to Bukowsical’s subversion; they will discover that as they watch. It’s always more fun for an audience to discover things on their own than for the writers to hand it to them. After seeing shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Passing Strange, Bat Boy, High Fidelity, Next to Normal, bare, and other rule-busting musicals, today’s audiences don’t need their hands held.
Even though the backer’s audition was cut, the show’s double-reality, its framing device, is still the key. This dark life story "inside" the show chafes against the meta-reality of this cheerful company of players and their wrong-headed – but often strangely insightful – approach to the storytelling "outside" the story.
One of the central jokes of the show is that it shatters the Sondheim Rule, that Content Dictates Form, in other words, that the story you’re telling will dictate the form of the storytelling. Most great musicals follow that rule. But here, the writers are intentionally breaking that rule, repeatedly and gleefully throughout the show, partly because it’s really funny and partly because that’s Bukowski. And though the writers’ point here is that Content Doesn’t Dictate Form in Bukowsical, they slyly double-cross us. This dissonant, subversive, rule-breaking storytelling is exactly the way – maybe the only way – to write a musical about Charles Bukowski.
In other words, Content Does Dictate Form here – by refusing to let Content Dictate Form. It’s like the Mobius strip of concept musicals. In making fun of the worst habits of old-school musical comedy, the show is both parody of musical theatre and also a perfect example of the latest evolution of the art form, the neo musical comedy. It both mocks the art form’s past and looks forward to its future. It uses the devices of George M. Cohan and the ironic self-awareness of American culture in this new century.
It’s like our 21st-century culture is having a conversation with the early 20th-century roots of this indigenous American art form, embracing many things, adding new things, reinventing others, but unmistakably returning to our roots. The American musical theatre was born around the tumultuous turning of the last century – "an era exploding, a century spinning," as Ragtime puts it. It was reborn during the tumultuous 1960s and 70s. And it’s being reborn again around the tumultuous turn of this century. And Bukowski is part of that.
Lois Spangler wrote in a review of the New York Fringe Festival production, "By adhering so closely to the tropes of the American musical, and treating its sordid subject with such earnest glee, Bukowsical manages to be both a satire and a real musical. Pure mockery is just drivel; it sounds shrill and empty when dropped on stage. The folks who have worked so hard on Bukowsical, however, have a real love for the musical art form, its charms and its foibles, and it shows in some of the truly outrageous—and outrageously funny—moments in the show."
Everything old is new again.
Oh, Goddamn Motherfucking Fuck!
Though Bukowsical is about fairly big, serious themes ultimately, about the intersection of life and art, about why artists are often very damaged people, about conceptions of good and bad art, about obscenity, about what kind of dark societal brew could create an artist like Charles Bukowski. But it’s also a classic misfit tale, with Bukowski as the archetypal misfit, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or Bat Boy or the guys who work at Championship Vinyl in High Fidelity. Bukowsical is about a misfit who, despite massive obstacles, finds his place in the world doing what he loves most. People love misfit stories because almost everyone secretly considers themselves a misfit. And seeing that part of themselves portrayed tells them that others feel the same way, that their damage and neurosis is not unique, or as Sondheim would put it, that no one is alone.
Twenty-five years ago, it was rare to hear the word fuck in a musical, but not anymore. Today, many new musicals have that word in them. Not for shock, not for laughs, but just because it’s real. People use that word. But the Culture War (and its imaginary red-headed stepchild, the War on Christmas) isn’t about ideas or rationality. It’s about emotion. It’s about fear. (For more on that, see the brilliant book, The Republican Brain.) Statistics and science and reasoned arguments won’t change anyone’s mind about this stuff. Why shouldn’t we say the word fuck? Because it’s bad. Why is it bad? Because it means sexual intercourse. Actually, most of the time it doesn’t mean that. Much of the time it’s just an intensifier. And when it’s not, fuck can mean so many different things in its various forms today, very few of those meanings related to sex.
And really, so what if it means sexual intercourse...? Why do we persist in thinking this fundamental biological function is "dirty" – or really, that it has any moral component at all? Perhaps it’s because it reminds us of our animal nature, and we fear our animal nature. Bukowski accepted his animal nature without judgment, and that made people uncomfortable. Organized religion is on the decline in America, so maybe there’s still hope that we’ll find our way out of this forest of moral hypocrisy and the pathological need to control others. The truth is that fuck is a bad word because it’s a bad word. No other reason.
According to the documentary Fuck, the word’s origins go back further than recorded history. It’s literally one of humanity’s oldest words. And really, it’s only a word. Just a sound to which we’ve assigned meaning. The intent behind this word can be playful, awestruck, angry, dismissive, resigned, violent, amused, impressed... It has almost limitless uses and literally limitless meanings. Why on earth would we want to fence this word off from all the others? Is it that dangerous? That appalling? When someone says, "Oh fudge!", isn’t that a difference without a distinction? Doesn’t she mean the same thing someone else means when they say, "Oh fuck!"? In other words, shouldn’t we be focused more on meaning and intent?
Or as the legendary George Carlin put it:
There are some people that aren’t into all the words. There are some people who would have you not use certain words. There are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven of them that you can’t say on television. What a ratio that is. 399,993 to seven. They must really be bad. They’d have to be outrageous, to be separated from a group that large. All of you, over here. You seven – bad words! That’s what they told us they were, remember? "That’s a bad word." There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad Intentions.
One of the things that was so subversive about Bukowski was his "obscene" language. But today, when lots of literature and other storytelling forms regularly use that kind of language – and yes, musicals too – it feels less subversive. How do you give an audience the same feeling encountering his work in the context of today’s culture?
Put it in an old-fashioned musical comedy, that’s how. George M. Cohan probably would have loved this show. He would love its rowdy, aggressive, smartass tone. He would love the big laughs and the energy of it. Musical comedy has been satirically commenting on American culture and values as far back as No, No, Nanette in 1925 (our relationship with money), Of Thee I Sing in 1931 (political populism), Anything Goes in 1935 (our celebrity gangster culture), Finian’s Rainbow in 1947 (economic justice), and lots of others.
Though we are in a new Golden Age of musical theatre, the age of the neo rock musical and the neo musical comedy, too many people still think of musicals as either Oklahoma! or Hello, Dolly! So by choosing what is so widely perceived as an innocent art form for their vehicle, Stockdale and Green are doing with Bukowsical what Bukowski did with his writing – challenging ideas of "acceptable," "appropriate," "good taste." If it’s truthful, if it’s authentic, then how can it be inappropriate or unacceptable? Should artists and storytellers wall off parts of reality in the name of good taste?
Many scholars say that Bukowski changed American poetry, both in his rejection of strict form and also in his "adult" language and content. Though Stockdale and Green are not the first to the neo musical comedy party, it’s still early and they’ve contributed something quite wonderful to the movement with Bukowsical.
The story of Bukowsical is about survival – like any Hero Myth story. But it’s also about ambiguity, which was the hallmark of Bukowski’s own work. He knew that people are neither good or bad, wrong or right, mean or nice, happy or sad. Most of us live in the gray areas. While a lot of storytelling simplifies characters and stories down to their essence – often for legitimate reasons – Bukowski was a different kind of writer. He said in one interview, in the documentary Bukowski: Born Into This, that he really had wanted to be a journalist, and if he could have gotten hired anywhere, he would’ve been one. And you can see that in his writing – it’s almost like he’s a reporter covering his own life.
And that life included lots of alcohol, lots of sex, lots of violence, and lots of four-letter words.
In the song "Get Down, Get Dark, Get Dirty," four famous writers, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, William S. Burroughs, and Sylvia Plath, tell Bukowski to embrace sex and obscenity in his writing. It’s a very funny, very raunchy song. But what they’re really telling him is to be authentic. To write in his true voice. To tell the truth about his life. It’s a funny way of getting at a very serious truth. And really, "Get Down, Get Dark, Get Dirty" would be a pretty accurate label for the American musical theatre in this new century, shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bat Boy, Urinetown, American Idiot, Next to Normal, bare, Love Kills, Passing Strange, The Wild Party, and lots of others. Dark times call for dark art, to make sense of it all.
Bukowsical‘s superficially silly storytelling is a smart, serious-minded approach to telling a really interesting story in a way that’s relevant to our ironic, Stephen Colbert, meta culture today. Sure, Bukowski’s life could have been told in a dark Sondheim musical or a dark Kander & Ebb musical. But Bukowski didn’t have a dark heart – he just led a dark life. He may have said fuck a lot, but he also fell in love and got his heart broken. We think of Bukowski as really damaged, but he wasn’t Sweeney Todd. He’s more the Elephant Man, and it’s that fragile, frequently broken heart at the center of his writing that draws us in, both into his writing and into this show. When he lets us get a glimpse inside, we see how much we are like him. We see the ordinary in the extraordinary.
Just as Company forces us to look at marriage honestly, just as Next to Normal forces us to look at mental illness honestly, just as Spelling Bee forces us to look at our culture of competition honestly, so too does Bukowsical force us to look at language honestly. Like all good stories, Bukowsical isn’t about Bukowski as much as it’s about us, individually and collectively, a cultural bull in a china shop, shattering biases, fears, judgments, norms, and preconceptions.
The Amends Justify the Means
The show’s greatest asset is the hipster intellectualism at the heart of its central joke. What better – or funnier – form to tell the story of Bukowski’s fucked-up life onstage than an ironic, postmodern musical comedy? The sheer intellectual audacity of it all is mind-blowing. Each of Bukowski’s autobiographical novels is represented by a song in the show, and like his novels, Bukowsical is a series of somewhat disconnected episodes that, taken together, paint a bigger picture.
Bukowski’s novel Ham on Rye becomes the song "Art is Pain." Factotum becomes "The Derelict Trail." The novel Women becomes the song "Love is a Dog from Hell" (which is also the title of a Bukowski poem and a collection of his poems). His first novel Post Office becomes the song "Postal." And Hollywood, about the making of the film Barfly, becomes "Through a Glass, Barfly" in the show.
(This last song title is a joke on the famous Biblical phrase, "For now we see through a glass, darkly," meaning that humans can’t fully understand the Big Picture while on earth. Though glass means mirror or lens in the Bible, here it means a bar glass, and the Biblical meaning of the phrase becomes a joke about Bukowski’s alcoholism – which is the subject of Barfly. See how smart this show is?)
You might even argue that Bukowski’s collection of magazine columns, Notes of a Dirty Old Man is represented in the show by the song "Get Down, Get Dark, Get Dirty."
Bukowsical celebrates everything our culture of Ironic Detachment embodies, from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to Scream and The Onion. And it’s that meta irony that allows us to observe the horrors of Bukowski’s life without getting emotionally caught up in them. But even so, the audience finds the humanity in Bukowski and they find themselves caring for him anyway, despite the seemingly bullet-proof layer of irony, just like they do for Edgar in Bat Boy, Barfée in Spelling Bee, and Queenie in The Wild Party.
That’s because there’s truth behind all that irony. As Al Capone says in The Untouchables, "We laugh because it’s funny, and we laugh because it’s true." And once we see the truth, we also feel a connection.
If you just listen to the Bukowsical cast album, you’ll miss some of what’s really wonderful about the show – the way it’s presented, the innocence of musical comedy. The form of the show and its crazy high spirits throw you off kilter, so that instead of condemning Bukowski’s hedonism right away, as many people might, this approach knocks down your defenses and your judgment, and you meet Bukowski on his own terms.
He’s vulgar, often disgusting, but also smart, vulnerable, deep, romantic, urban, even kind of Zen-like. He’s a real artist, maybe even a genius, who experienced life in a way few of us have to; but our everyday failures and humiliations are washed away by Bukowski’s far worse, far darker episodes. He’s a Christ figure for anyone who ever got picked on, laughed at, or ignored. He takes our horrors on himself and as we read his books – or watch this show – we feel better. Not because he had it worse than any of us did, but because we understand that even our worst experiences are essentially universal. We are all the victims of our own fears and expectations, and we all have to learn the lesson Spelling Bee brought us – "Life is random and unfair." Life’s not out to get us. It just doesn’t give a shit.
And while that might sound depressing, it’s actually oddly comforting. We’re all in the same boat, just trying to get through to tomorrow.
In his life and in his art, Bukowski knew the great lesson of the Hero Myth: You just have to stay on the road and keep moving forward. Bukowski had a much harder road than most of us, but he just kept plugging along and writing it all down. Like Bukowski, all we really need to know is to stay on the road. We each have our roadblocks and potholes, but we each learn to navigate around them as we continue on our journey. Just like Bukowski did.
We are all Bukowsical.
Art is Pain
A big part of the fun of Bukowsical is the whimsical, cartoony way Stockdale and Green approach each of the relentlessly dark episodes in Bukowski’s life, always in the "inappropriate" language of high-energy musical comedy. Even for those who know nothing about Charles Bukowski, this dissonance is really obvious and really entertaining. For Bukowski fans, there’s even more fun, as they’ll realize we’re essentially telling the truth about his sordid life. And that’s what makes this deeply ironic musical so special – it’s both "wrong" and "right" at the same time.
In the show’s second song, "Art is Pain," we get a glimpse into Bukowski’s torturous childhood as an outcast in the 1930s, a period he wrote about in his novel Ham on Rye. As the song begins, a grade school teacher is asking the class about the Alien and Sedition Act, as a not-so-subtle reminder to young Bukowski that he is "foreign" (having been born in Germany) and therefore Other. The actual text of the act reads, "That it shall be lawful for the President of the United States at any time during the continuance of this act, to order all such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States, or shall have reasonable grounds to suspect are concerned in any treasonable or secret machinations against the government thereof, to depart out of the territory of the United States." In other words, we can get rid of you anytime we want.
The structure of the song is interesting – first the teacher’s abuse, then the kids’ abuse, then the father’s abuse, then all three at once. This is Bukowski’s hell.
With this song, the writers establish their pattern for the evening of using music ironically, here portraying Bukowski’s youthful hellscape in the form of a children’s song – as Sondheim preaches, Content Dictates Form – a very simple melody with a very small range, short percussive words, and lots of repetition. And it’s really nothing more than mean, random, childish insults:
You’re stupid, gross and ugly and we hate you.
You’re always at the bottom of the class.
We all wish we could find some kind of way to
Push you off a freeway overpass.
We don’t think you’re very nice.
And we’re sure that you have lice.
It’s time for someone to step up now
And kindly kick his fucking ass.
There are even some nyah, nyah nyah’s. The extra horror here is that the teacher starts the torment, and later in the song, Bukowski’s father invites the kids to help him physically beat Bukowski. It’s both darkly funny and really brutal, and as you watch it, you wonder how he turned out as an artist instead of Norman Bates. This horror scene/song offers up the real-life truth about Bukowski’s early years – and probably invokes awful memories from many in the audience – but it also trades in wacky, comic exaggeration. We laugh even though we’re horrified. Just like Bukowski’s writing.
But the song also has important structural significance. The opening number sets up the show’s unique brand of humor and its perverse obscenity, but "Art is Pain" sets up the show’s darkness and its central through-line. From this point forward, no matter how mean or vulgar Bukowski gets, we understand the psychic damage that got him here. This song acts as an explanation – even an excuse? – for Bukowski’s behavior as an adult. For the rest of the show, we not only accept him, we’re on his side.
In the show’s next song, the hilarious "Take Me," a teenaged Bukowski is introduced to alcohol by a waltzing, singing bottle of booze...
There’s a secret world
In the heart of a real poet,
But unless you get shitfaced,
You’ll never know it.
Take me, Take me,
Quaff and boilermake me,
Take me, I’m yours!
Take a little drink,
Take a little drink,
It will help you more than you know --
You’ll be like Poe.
Sooner than you think,
You’ll be on the brink,
Like Steinbeck and Papa and so,
Onward you go.
You’ll be more adored than
Shelley, Keats or Byron.
Can’t you hear me calling to you
Like a siren...?
What’s so wonderful about this song is that it works as a traditional "Boy Gets Girl" musical comedy seduction number, like "Make Believe" in Show Boat, "I Could Write a Book" in Pal Joey, "They Say It’s Wonderful" in Annie Get Your Gun, "I’ll Know" in Guys and Dolls, "Metaphor" in The Fantasticks, and lots of others. This is the song in which the Hero convinces his Love that they belong together, and often they end up dancing (or at least, harmonizing) to show us how clearly they belong together. In Bukowsical, the writers subvert this standard song type in two ways, first, by having the woman sing it to the man (Gypsy also did this, with "Small World" and "You’ll Never Get Away from Me"), and second, by making that woman into a waltzing, singing bottle of booze (I don’t think any other show ever did that).
And even beyond the deconstruction of the song form, they’ve chosen standard 1930s musical comedy tools to tell this part of the story that takes place in the 1930s.
Sondheim deconstructed this song type with "Lovely" in Forum, and weirdly, because there have been so many rewrites of Anything Goes, there are three songs that function this way in that iconic show – "All Through the Night" in the original 1934 production, replaced by "It’s De-Lovely" in the 1962 off Broadway revival, and replaced again by "Easy to Love" (the first song originally written for the spot) in the 1987 and 2011 Broadway revivals. But they all work the same way. We see this song type less often these days, because more new musicals are telling Hero Myth stories rather than love stories. Here, with "Take Me," Bukowsical is operating both as a traditional musical comedy as an ironic, postmodern, neo musical comedy. That’s some great writing.
Just a few songs later, we’ll get another "Boy Gets Girl" song – this time with an actual woman – the Carpenters-inspired "Chaser of My Heart," almost exactly quoting the introduction to "Close to You." No musical has two of these songs, but in this case it points up the central conflict of Bukowski’s personal life, the battle between booze and everything else. Plus, he’ll soon learn that he writes better drunk, so that will tip the scales. In Bukowsical, Boy gets two Girls (and even more later in "Love is a Dog from Hell"), but we can all see how badly that will turn out...
During the 1940s Bukowski traveled, living hand-to-mouth, living the life of a "hobo." His novel about this time, Factotum, is translated for the stage into the song "Derelict Trail," a classic musical comedy "traveling" song, like "Getting Out of Town" in 42nd Street or "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" in Hello, Dolly! This big, upbeat, company number turns hobos, hookers, and Native Americans into cardboard caricatures out of a 1940s Broadway revue or Ziegfeld Follies, nothing more than travelogue props. America’s very real economic woes (homelessness, unemployment, etc.) are presented as the charming, romanticized "subculture" that 1940s Hollywood films traded in, specifically the 1941 movie Sullivan’s Travels.
In its meta-layer, the song makes us a little uncomfortable, reminding us that until a couple decades ago, no one even thought about the homeless, other than as punchlines and clowns. Some folks might remember comedian Red Skelton’s hobo character Freddy the Freeloader, a name that makes most of us cringe in a time when the Republican party has divided us into "makers and takers," and "the forty-seven percent." People used to call them hobos and bums, dismissing them as somehow less than "normal" people. "Derelict Trail" takes on that shallow, midcentury social myopia, and the show’s very politically incorrect presentation takes on an uncomfortable dissonance with the way we talk and think about this problem today.
Interestingly, when we hear the reprise of "The Derelict Trail" later in the show, the title phrase subtly changes its meaning. In the earlier song, the phrase means life on the road; in the later song, as Bukowski finally finds early commercial success, the phrase now refers to the life path Bukowski (the self-styled derelict) has chosen for himself, a path that will take him where he wants to go. In the earlier song, it’s other people’s path, which he joins; in the later song, it’s his path.
Even Willy Shakespeare Liked to Tongue Some Tail
Most of us would recognize the intro to "Gee, Officer Krupke," from West Side Story (1957) – it starts with a short, quick little four-note run down to a "wrong" note (the tritone, known as "the Devil in music") that rings underneath a fun but dissonant vaudeville accompaniment (remember that in the 1950s, vaudeville wasn’t all that long ago). That tritone pedal note also makes the key ambiguous. Long before the neo musical comedy emerged, this song worked the same way – dark, ironic lyrics set to perky, subtly altered, old-fashioned music – always with that "wrong" note starting every verse, telling us, Something’s not right here...
Bukowsical’s "Get Down, Get Dark, Get Dirty" borrows that wrong note and the older song’s split personality, as it portrays Bukowski’s evolution as a writer in the late 1950s. With everything in American culture changing rapidly and fundamentally (rock and roll, sex, drugs, movies, TV, the Beats), Bukowski finds himself visited by four great American writers – Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, William S. Burroughs, and Sylvia Plath. These four fearless, groundbreaking iconoclasts offer Bukowski a lesson: if he wants to be successful, he must "Get Down, Get Dark, Get Dirty" –
Don’t huddle in some hovel,
Trying to write the perfect novel.
Like some loser with a useless Ph.D.
Hit below the belt and you can never fail --
Get down, get dark, get dirty.
Don’t be shy, the world is waiting --
Writing’s like ejaculating.
Get down, get dark, get dirty.
Face the truth, you crazy bastard --
You write better when you’re plastered!
Get down, get dark, get dirty.
Don’t sweat commas and conjunctions;
It’s your scatologic functions
That will guarantee your place in history.
Even Willy Shakespeare liked to tongue some tail...
Get down, get dark, get dirty.
It’s such a fun lyric, partly because it takes these great writers down off the pedestal, and partly because they’re right – Shakespeare wrote tons of dirty jokes into his plays, because audiences love that. Most of what our culture calls "dirty" is really just human and natural, but it’s treated as perverse and dangerous, thanks to our Puritan roots – and never more so than in the pre-HBO 1950s. (For more on this, see the documentary Fuck.) But behind the comedy here is some serious truth – great artists become great when they are freed from constraint. Which is why HBO shows are so much better than broadcast TV. This song is about freeing Bukowski to write about what he wants to write about. This is the moment when Bukowski becomes an artist.
The four writers hammer home their lesson toward the end of the song:
Burroughs: With gluttonous voracity!
Faulkner: Sing of violence and pugnacity!
Plath: I wrote my stuff sardonic.
Burroughs: I wrote mine catatonic.
Williams: I liked my sex symbolic.
All: And we all were alcoholic.
That last line is funny but it also implies a question that pervades Bukowsical. Why are all these great writers so damaged? Is it the same thing that makes them great writers and also makes them fucked up? Would they be great writers if they weren’t fucked up?
"Get Down, Get Dark, Get Dirty" ends with some playful rhymes that reveal genuine truth:
With candor and sagacity,
With fervor and tenacity,
We’ll drink to our capacity,
But please, sir… No mendacity!
Get down, get dark, and just get dirty...
Yes, they are all alcoholics, but they are serious about their work and they cannot stomach less than the truth. Williams’ line is a comic reference to Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but it also speaks to these writers’ artistic integrity. No mendacity. No lies. Fictions, sure, but not lies.
This is a song about artistic – and spiritual? – freedom, fearlessness, honesty. These four famous writers (as Stockdale and Green have incarnated them, at least) make the argument for telling the truth even when it’s ugly, even when it’s controversial, even when it’s dangerous, even when it’s about sex. The last line of this song is, "Jerk it while you work it, baby, dirty it up!"
This show is about the relationship between an artist’s life and his work – in this case, a really fucked-up artist and his really fucked-up work – a show about what it’s like to be an artist. And right at the center of the evening is this song, which gets to the heart of the show. As rowdy and raunchy as it is – and it really is – this is a song about the moment when an artist learns to free himself, to reject the conventions and expectations of others, and to find his true voice, his authenticity.
This scene is more sophisticated than it might appear, with its old-fashioned vaudevillian style, and it’s potty-mouthed lyric. It does some important storytelling. In Assassins, all the American assassins from throughout history all converge on the Texas Book Depository in 1963 to convince Oswald to shoot Kennedy. It’s a brilliant, chilling scene. But it doesn’t suggest that Oswald was delusional; it’s a dramatic representation of the influence on Oswald of those assassins who had gone before him. Suddenly, instead of a crazy loner, Oswald becomes part of a force of history, and that gives him the courage to shoot Kennedy. Likewise, in Bukowsical, in order to dramatize the influence of the other great American writers on Bukowski, Stockdale and Green present those writers in the flesh, to have a conversation (well, a vaudeville number) with Bukowski. It’s a revealing way to get at a somewhat abstract point, and it’s utterly organic to the rest of the show. And it’s really funny.
And We All Are Alcoholics.
It’s a pretty potent group of ghosts who show up here. Williams S. Burroughs, one of the founders of the Beat movement, was one of the most politically and culturally influential, and most innovative artists of the 20th century, writing about drugs, homosexuality, and other controversial topics. Like other writers discussed here, Burroughs wrote a lot of autobiographical fiction. His most controversial work was his novel Naked Lunch in 1959, which included a talking anus. According to Wikipedia:
Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the "greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift," a reputation he owes to his "lifelong subversion" of the moral, political and economic systems of modern American society, articulated in often darkly humorous sardonicism. J. G. Ballard considered Burroughs to be "the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War," while Norman Mailer declared him "the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius."
Burroughs shot his wife Joan in 1951, playing drunken games, and he later wrote:
I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.
Kinda sounds like something Bukowski might have written.
We think of Tennessee Williams plays as "classics" today, but many of them were extremely controversial when he wrote them – the prominent sexual content of many of his works, the only barely veiled homosexuality at the center of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer, the domestic abuse and sexual content of A Streetcar Named Desire, and of course, his works of dark autobiographical fiction, most notably, The Glass Menagerie. His plays were R-rated enough that most of them had to be substantially rewritten for film. Like Bukowski, Williams suffered from depression throughout his life.
William Faulkner is considered one of the greatest of American writers. Like most of these other writers, Faulkner wrote in many forms, novels, poetry, plays, short stories, screenplays. To quote Wikipedia again:
Faulkner was known for his experimental style with meticulous attention to diction and cadence. In contrast to the minimalist understatement of his contemporary Ernest Hemingway, Faulkner made frequent use of "stream of consciousness" in his writing, and wrote often highly emotional, subtle, cerebral, complex, and sometimes Gothic or grotesque stories of a wide variety of characters including former slaves or descendants of slaves, poor white, agrarian, or working-class Southerners, and Southern aristocrats.
Like Bukowski and Burroughs, Faulkner was fascinated by the American underclass.
Sylvia Plath is such an interesting choice to put in this group. Like Bukowski, she was very controversial, writing about the straitjacket of mid-century Western civilization for women – from the inside – in what was called "confessional poetry." Honor Moore of Boston Review wrote: "When Sylvia Plath’s Ariel was published in the United States in 1966, American women noticed. Not only women who ordinarily read poems, but housewives and mothers whose ambitions had awakened. Here was a woman, superbly trained in her craft, whose final poems uncompromisingly charted female rage, ambivalence, and grief, in a voice with which many women identified." Like Bukowski, she also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel. And as Bukowski did, Plath and her husband traveled across the country. She later said that was when she learned "to be true to my own weirdnesses."
In the book Morbid Curiosity: The Disturbing Demises of the Famous and Infamous, Alan Petrucelli titles one section Easy Off(ed) and writes:
"Mother knows best. When noted bipolar poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) decided to take the final path, she made sure her two children would be safe. Before turning on the gas jets in her London kitchen, she left them bread and milk, cracked open a window in their bedroom, and placed wet towels at the foot of their door to prevent the toxic fumes from reaching them. Then Path, depressed over her husband’s infidelities, stuck her head deep into the bowels of the oven. The Plath passings didn’t end there: On March 16, 2009, Path’s forty-seven-year-old son Nicholas Hughes hanged himself in his Alaska home – forty six years after his mother’s suicide and almost forty years to the day after his father’s mistress, poet Assia Wevill , killed herself and her four-year old daughter Shura in a copycat suicide. Assia gave her daughter some sleeping pills, popped some herself, sealed off the kitchen windows and door, and turned on the gas."
Plath seems right at home among these others.
And even more writers get shout-outs over the course of the show – Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Norman Mailer, Malcolm Lowry, Herman Melville, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Lord Byron, Tom Wolfe, Rod McKuen, Erich Segal, Gore Vidal, and others. Not only are the literary references fun for those who catch them, they also subtly place Bukowski among the great writers of the 20th century.
And not just great writers, but great rebels. Shelley was an artistic, political, and social radical, so much so that publishers were afraid to publish his work for fear of being arrested themselves for blasphemy or sedition. Lord Byron was a bipolar hedonist, not unlike Bukowski in some ways. Keats was a sensualist, like Bukowski. Melville was a modernist. Hemingway was a hard-living, hard-drinking, ground-breaking minimalist. Steinbeck was the chronicler of the American underclass. According to Wikipedia, "Mailer is considered an innovator of creative nonfiction, a genre sometimes called New Journalism, which superimposes the style and devices of literary fiction onto fact-based journalism." Bukowski would take that experiment and make it even more personal with his autobiographical fiction. Malcolm Lowry also wrote autobiographical fiction, was an alcoholic, and may have killed himself with a barbiturate overdose. You can see how much all these writers have in common. Bukowski would be right at home among them.
Stockdale and Green have dramatized the influence other writers’ work had on Bukowski by physically placing four of them onstage with him, offering advice. But the larger point is not lost in all the laughs – the times were changing and Bukowski was right in the middle of the revolution. He started writing poetry right around this time, in the mid-1950s, and his first poetry collection was published in 1960.
But Bukowsical’s story stays in the 1950s and early 1960s for a while, as we move on to the cultural response to the revolution those great writers were leading...
A Flood of Bile and Blood and Sulphurous Air
The song "Slippery Slope" gives us a classic Disney villain’s song, a companion piece to "Poor Unfortunate Souls," "Cruella DeVil," and of course "Hellfire" from The Hunchback of Notre Dame; but here the Disney villain is the real-world television star, Bishop Fulton Sheen, the 1950s version of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Because Bukowsical is such a weird and unconventional Hero Myth story, it’s hard to identify one antagonist – this is more of a Man vs. Society story than a Man vs. Man story. Here, mainstream society is the antagonist, and in this song, Bishop Sheen represents the repressive 1950s culture that Bukowski, Williams, Faulkner, Burroughs, and Plath were raging against, the cultivation of a homogenous, even bland, national culture. And TV was a huge part of that effort.
So to musicalize that idea, Stockdale and Green give us Sheen’s telecast in the form of an Italian tarantella, the perfect ironic musical form for America’s ultimate Roman Catholic. And as fundamentalist Christians often do, Bukowsical’s Sheen seems to get perverse pleasure in cataloguing all our sins in lurid detail, which makes it all even funnier. And here’s the weird part – probably unintended by the writers – the Italian tarantella was originally a frantic "medicinal" dance, once thought to be the only treatment for a tarantula bite, to literally dance the poison out of your system. How funny that this musical form becomes Bishop Sheen’s apocalyptic warning of America’s demise, as he tries to preach the poison out of the American culture, and as his singing turns the ever-so-earnest bishop into an Italian comic opera villain from a 50s TV variety show. The whole score is built with this kind of wit and deft touch.
The song "Postal," about Bukowski’s soul-crushing time working for the Post Office in the 1960s, is rendered as a driving, anxious, dissonant piece of music – constantly setting two eighth notes in the vocal line against five sixteenth notes (on every beat) in the accompaniment. That gives the music a feeling of wrongness, of not fitting, of discomfort, a musical equivalent to Bukowski’s struggle to fit in and conform (if only for a paycheck) versus his hunger for freedom.
The schizoid number "Through a Glass, Barfly" gives us a comic (and madly exaggerated) behind-the-scenes glimpse into the casting of Bukowski’s 1987 film Barfly. To dramatize French director Barbet Schroeder choosing between his two possible leads, Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke, Bukowsical’s writers give Schroeder a European waltz – a French chanson, worthy of Maurice Chevalier or Charles Aznavour – alternating with Rourke and Penn’s aggressive 1980s rock and roll verses.
There’s also another sideways reference to West Side Story late in the show, when the Bitch Goddess of Fame and the Bitch Goddess of Fortune get a twisted jazz vocal line in the song "Bitches" that’s gotta be a nod to West Side Story’s "Cool." It’s a whole score full of funny music, something you don’t always get in a musical comedy.
You’ve Got Sondheim, But We’ve Got Charlie Sheen
About halfway through Bukowsical, a lawyer enters and stops the show dead in its tracks. He says, "I represent the estate of Charles Bukowski and have been retained to halt this unauthorized production. There can be no fictional or non-fictional representations of Charles Bukowski and/or the events of his life, nor can there be any discussions or references to his novels, poems, short stories, songs, slogans, or screenplays based on or inspired by the events of his life." It’s a really weird meta-moment in the middle of an already weird meta-musical.
The conversation goes on. The narrator says to the lawyer, "But we’re not representing his life so much as capturing the essence of his being." That sounds comically pretentious, but it’s also true. That is what this show is doing. The lawyer responds, "There can be no fictional or non-fictional representations of the essence of the being of Charles Bukowski and/or the events of his life, nor can there be any discussions or references to his… all right, let’s cut to the chase. This performance must stop now or you will all face legal ramifications."
It’s such an interesting moment on several levels. First of all, it brings up the issue of art made from other art, and the rights of artists to control their work. Should hip-hop artists be free to sample other artists’ work in their own work? Should visual artists be able to use Disney images in their work, without the Disney legal department descending upon them? Should video artists be able to use other people’s film and video clips to create new work, a question brought to the fore in recent years by YouTube? Where do the First Amendment and "intellectual property" law collide? In this new millennium, do we have to completely rethink ideas of copyright, intellectual property, and the "ownership" of ideas and art?
Also we realize, as we listen to this conversation between the lawyer and the narrator, that this show hasn’t quoted any of Bukowski’s work. The closest it comes is the song "Love is a Dog from Hell," which takes the phrase from one of Bukowski’s titles. And presumably, the Bukowsical writers know you can’t copyright a title. What’s fun about all this is it’s both fictional and real at the same time. This lawyer is just one of the actors and the audience knows that. But it’s also true that Stockdale and Green don’t have the rights to Bukowski’s work.
Bukowsical works on two (or occasionally more) levels of reality. The actors onstage are playing a troupe of actors in Los Angeles, who are playing the people in Bukowski’s life (very much like Man of La Mancha and Pippin). Without the show’s original framing device of the backer’s audition, this idea is more subtle during the first part of the show, but it becomes more explicit when the "performance" is interrupted by the lawyer. When this New York lawyer takes a swipe at people in Los Angeles, the "Los Angeles actors" respond with the song "That’s Los Angeles," a charmingly clueless tribute to the city of angels, chock full of very funny back-handed compliments. The audience knows this song is scripted, that it’s been rehearsed and staged, but it’s also "spontaneous" within the world of Bukowsical. If the audience hasn’t consciously registered this double layer of reality before, they do now. And it will pay off at the end of the show, after the song "Twelve Steps of Love."
The show’s writers help the audience with this double-reality by mentioning two other fictitious musicals this troupe is working on, and letting us hear songs from both of them – "an all-African-American musical version of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters set during the Watts Riots of 1965" and a show called Rootin’ Tootin’ Ramparts. We get just a taste of the black Three Sisters with a fragment of the wacky, gospel-flavored "Sistah Sistah Sistah," and then we’re told that the next song, "That’s Los Angeles," was cut from Rootin’ Tootin’ Ramparts (about which we find out nothing more), giving this troupe of players a little more backstory, a little more reality. But just for a second, before this freight train of a show barrels on, we wonder what on earth Rootin’ Tootin’ Ramparts might be about, and how on earth "That’s Los Angeles" would fit in a show with a title like that.
The central joke of this song is the dubious, questionable things they’re bragging about, set to this proud, defiant music.
Maybe you’ve got Sardi’s
And Tavern on the Green,
And maybe you’ve got restaurants
That don’t close at 10:15.
Maybe you’ve got Sondheim,
But we’ve got Charlie Sheen.
And baby, that’s Los Angeles to me.
. . .
We’ve learned to feel,
Not merely think;
And we’ve got Dianetics,
So we never need a shrink.
The song is presented to us as not a part of Bukowski’s story, but the authors are pulling a double-fake on us (again), because it really is. In the midst of all this craziness and double-realities, this song gets at something fundamentally truthful about Bukowski’s work – almost all of it is set in Los Angeles, where he lived most of his life. But it’s not the Los Angles we see in movies. Bukowski’s L.A. is dark and seedy and dangerous. So here’s this anthem to Los Angeles, but everything in the lyric undercuts itself --
Maybe you’ve got concerts
At Alice Tully Hall,
And other high-class venues packed with
Snobs from wall to wall.
Well, we’ve got sitcom tapings,
And they’re absolutely free!
And baby, that’s Los Angeles to me.
Not only are they comparing Lincoln Center’s classical music venue to sitcom tapings, but the big selling point here is not that they’re good, but that they’re free. It’s a reminder that this is a city not of culture but of commerce, at least according to this song. It’s a comically cynical (and arguably accurate) picture of Los Angeles that Bukowski would have appreciated, but it’s delivered with such aggressive sincerity that it becomes even funnier.
Before the cast sings "That’s Los Angeles," the lawyer says, "I’m a lawyer, I’m from New York, I’m a Jew. I know musical theatre. And there’s no way that this is ever going to make it on Broadway." The lawyer lives inside a false reality but he’s getting at a real truth – Bukowsical, even as clever and funny as it is, could never be produced on Broadway, where audiences aren’t always eager to be challenged and almost never ready to be offended, both reasons why Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson couldn’t survive in New York. The Bukowsical writers are acknowledging what everyone in the audience is thinking.
But it also brings up – if only subliminally – a more interesting point. No, Bukowsical could not survive the commercial theatre, but commercial theatre isn’t the only game anymore. Since the early 1990s, there has been a growing nonprofit musical theatre movement across America, an alternative to the commercial musical theatre of New York and Broadway tours. Musicals no longer have to be designed for the (often non-English-speaking) tourists and families who go to Broadway shows.
Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen writes in her book Directors and the New Musical Drama, "After the pioneering efforts of theatres such as the Public Theater and Playwrights Horizons in New York, the idea of the serious nonprofit musical spread to theatres across America during the 1990s. While these shows met with varying levels of economic and critical success, the very existence of this alternative home for the art form began to redefine the musical, offering an alternative to both the traditional Broadway musical and the new West End shows. As the economics of the commercial theatre became increasingly forbidding, the nonprofit theatre became vital incubators for musical drama and nurtured a new generation of musical theatre writers."
Just Pull Your Nuts Out
The ending of Bukowsical is as unconventional as the rest of Bukowsical. The last big number is "Twelve Steps of Love," in which Bukowski goes to an AA meeting and is convinced to turn his life around. Except that never happened. There is a grain of truth here – after treating a bleeding ulcer, Bukowski’s doctor did tell him he’d die if he didn’t give up alcohol. But he didn’t, and he didn’t.
So why this AA number? Probably mostly because it’s a giant Fuck You to narrative convention and structure, and also to the recent string of bio-musicals. Bukowski wasn’t interested in narrative structure and neither is Bukowsical. You could argue that narrative is far less important in Bukowsical than the act of storytelling itself. Like Bukowski himself would, this show and this song both sneer at the kind of happy resolution classic musical comedies required. Bukowsical gives the audience a musical comedy ending, then immediately takes it back – right after "Twelve Steps," the narrator says, "This didn’t really happen to Charles Bukowski." And then they finish the show with a reprise of the uber-vulgar, confrontational opening number.
As the American novelist Willa Cather said, "The end is nothing; the road is all."
But this song does represent a kernel of truth, that the mainstream world was applying its worldview and values to Bukowski’s life and pushing him toward the safe and conventional. Like Assassins, Bukowsical doesn’t get historical fact right (and isn’t trying to), but it does get essence right (just as the Founder told the New York lawyer). It’s a representation of how Bukowski perceived the world around him. "Twelve Steps of Love" presupposes that alcohol is a problem for Bukowski that must be solved, to "save" him. But none of that was actually true, as far as he was concerned. And Bukowski didn’t stop drinking.
Both Bukowski and Bukowsical up-end our traditional ideas of morality, health, culture. ambition. The lesson we get from Bukowski’s life and his work – and his musical – is that you can do everything "wrong" and still succeed. He might even argue you must do everything "wrong." He wrote, "The way to create art is to burn and destroy ordinary concepts and to substitute them with new truths that run down from the top of the head and out of the heart." In other words, be yourself and follow your instinct.
But like the rest of the show, this song works on two levels at once. There’s the surface level, the clueless earnestness of the do-gooders who think they know Bukowski’s road better than he does. And there’s also the meta-layer that comments on that surface sincerity, opening up an ironic distance between us and this AA meeting. It’s a great lyric, that does more than it appears. It starts off innocuous enough, pretty much what you’d expect, though it drops a shit pretty early on...
Twelve Steps of Love,
Twelve Steps of Love.
First admit your life is shit,
And you know you just can’t quit
Without the Man above.
Twelve Steps of Love – 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9...
Twelve Steps of Love.
Give your name and tell your story;
Make that moral inventory
Of all you’re guilty of.
Suddenly it’s sounding a bit oppressive. And there’s something a little off kilter here, like not having time to count all the way to twelve. Now it gets a little less sweet, a little more vulgar, a little more Bukowsical...
This is what it will take
To make you spill the beans.
Don’t make the same mistake
As Elvis and James Dean.
Don’t just puke your silly guts out;
Come on, Buk, just pull your nuts out --
The amends justify the means!
That last line is one of the best and most subversive jokes in the show. And really, how often do you get a good AA joke in a musical, anyway? Then it gets a little more aggressive, skewering the idea of "tough love," and we get an even funnier rhyme in the next verse, also subtly subverting AA’s central tenet, "Let go and let God," with the satirical punch of replacing God with the name of AA’s founder.
Twelve Steps of Love.
It’s a hug, then a fucking shove.
Although booze and drugs still trouble you,
Just let go and let Bill W.
What to do!
Let those Twelve Steps of Love.
Twelve Steps of Love,
Twelve Steps of Love,
Step all over you!
And we end with this ironic punchline – this love and support will trample you! Or maybe more in tune with Bukowski’s fears, it will trample his artistic output. His process is a completely organic one, so adding an outside, arbitrary control will likely strangle it. And if he’s enjoying all this success, writing while he’s drunk, why would he want to change that? We see by the end of the song how wrong this advice is for him. Bukowski and the audience can see this isn’t his road.
And maybe all this is a self-reflexive comment on how bad an idea it is to make a musical comedy out of Bukowski’s story, how impossible it seems to musicalize his life, how much his story does not conform to musical comedy conventions. Then again, Bukowsical itself argues the same thing for its entire running time. That’s the whole point. The fact that this show shouldn’t exist to begin with is the whole reason it exists. If it had sounded like a good idea, Stockdale and Green probably wouldn’t have been interested. It’s the dissonance, the irony, the mismatch between story and storytelling, that’s interesting and fun here.
We live in a world of The Daily Show and Robot Chicken now. Our culture has changed. And despite the wails of the traditionalists clinging to their vinyl cast albums, our art form is changing with the times. The American musical comedy is evolving, and that’s really exciting.
Bukowsical is something of a Rorschach Test. Some people who see it will love it merely for the defiant way it hurls obscenities at its audience. They’ll love the sheer moral and artistic anarchy of it, the same reason many of us first fell in love with Rocky Horror and Grease. Others will love this show for its pointed irony. Lots of new musicals today are ironic, but this one is dripping with it. Probably both these groups will love the joy and rowdy chaos of it all. And some will probably love it precisely because it is on some level an old-fashioned musical comedy – it both challenges us and comforts us. It’s a neo musical comedy.
Bukowsical has ancestors in The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Laugh-In. It’s dick jokes and fart jokes, but also politics, literature, psychology, and existentialism. Cheap laughs that raise interesting questions. Childish jokes that get at the nature of art and the relationship between an artist’s life and his work. And also the word "fuckhole."It’s a very dark piece of theatre. But these are dark times. And what better way to fight the darkness than to face it and laugh at it?
I Think I’ve Got Crabs
There are a lot of very funny musicals, even more now that we’ve moved away from the bombast of the musical theatre’s British Invasion and back toward the original form of the American musical, the musical comedy. These neo musical comedies (Cry-Baby, Spelling Bee, Shrek, Lysistrata Jones) are more self-aware, more political, more ironic, and more vulgar, but they capture the joy, the chaos, and the muscle of classic musical comedies. It’s a perfect blend – a uniquely American blend – of innocence and irony, idealism and cynicism.
Maybe the funniest aspect of Bukowsical is its perversely good-natured, sunny tone. It’s not Bat Boy or Urinetown. It’s Anything Goes and No, No, Nanette. But with the irony turned up to eleven.
The musical comedy has always had this kinetic tension, but it used to lean more toward the innocence and idealism, and now it leans more toward the irony and cynicism. Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen wrote in Directors and the New Musical Drama, "Rather than finding order through chaos, or offering the sense of resolution that even the more political Broadway musicals often give their audiences, some newer shows imply that emotional confusion is a reasonable response to the contemporary world. Just as social playwrights have been doing for years, today’s musical writers choose to raise more questions than they answer, and to reflect the world around them rather than trying to interpret it through a simplistic lens."
There is a self-awareness and a defiance about the neo musical comedy. Broadway composer-lyricist William Finn says, "Musicalizing something inherently nonmusical seems a very dramatic action – arrogant, humorous, whimsical, yet serious. It says, ‘We are in the business of making the world sing.’ It’s almost revolutionary."
One of the differences between the classic musical comedy and the neo musical comedy is that the new form quite often uses funny music. That’s not something Cole Porter or Jerry Herman even tried to do. Traditionally, the music has always done the emotional work, but today it does more. And it takes a special kind of composer – and maybe a special kind of lyricist – to make the music itself funny. Bat Boy does it a lot, toying with the musical devices of horror movies and thrillers, so in tune with its mock serious tone. Shows like Urinetown and Cry-Baby use music comically, mostly in the dissonance between style and content – in other words, Cry-Baby’s mash-up of John Waters craziness with old-school musical comedy music, or Urinetown’s mash-up of its silly story with agitprop music in the style of Kurt Weill.
Bukowsical does get many of its laugh from that kind of stylistic dissonance – the perky musical comedy style matched to Bukowski’s dark, vulgar, freaky life story. But Bukowsical goes further and finds small moments in which the music references something outside the world of the show, to reveal an ironic dissonance, to establish the ever shifting style of the show as the story races through the 20th century, and to connect the bizarre experiment that is Bukowsical to other iconic works of musical theatre. That last use of music does two things – it makes a meta-joke about the intentional, faux cluelessness of the show itself, and it also comments on the history of the art form that Bukowsical is deconstructing in front of our very eyes.
In the opening number and also in its reprise at the end, the narrator leads us into the final chorus with the words, "Come on now, everybody..." in the same rhythm, in the same structural place, and with almost the same accompaniment as a similar moment in the song "Side by Side by Side" in Company. It’s a funny reference for those who catch it, but it also suggests a comically presumptuous parallel between Bukowsical and Sondheim’s masterwork of concept musicals. And this meta-self-awareness is part of the joke too.
Later, in the middle of the song, "The Derelict Trail," composer Gary Stockdale uses some faux Aaron Copland in brief instrumental sections, for this funhouse mirror of a travelogue, but when the third instrumental comes up, it’s the theme from the classic western The Magnificent Seven – which was also the theme for the "Marlboro Man" cigarette commercials in the 1960s, featuring the solitary "quiet man" cowboy. It’s a perverse and funny choice for a dance break after the Indian’s solo verse.
Before "Slippery Slope," Bishop Sheen is introduced ironically by the famous hymn, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." Where Bukowsical’s opening number encourages us to make peace with our dark side, this hymn tells us to run from our dark side. (We don’t actually hear the lyric in the show, but it’s such a famous hymn that many in the audience will register its content anyway.) While Bukowski accepts what life throws at him, Sheen tells us our inherent badness brings on life’s obstacles. It’s Zen versus the Old Testament. Like Cry-Baby, this show’s villain wears the costume of Good, while our real Hero wears the costume of Bad – outcast, rebel, despoiler. In another context, this intro music might suggest goodness or hope, but in this context, it suggests hypocrisy and artistic peril.
This is a show that started as nothing but a joke, but perhaps even despite themselves, Stockdale and Green have written a musical with lots of truth, occasional depth, real wit, and a score that’s far more sophisticated than it seems. It’s not just funny; it’s really good theatre.
Yes, there is method in their madness.
This show is fearless. And for a neo musical comedy, there’s nothing more important than fearless. The show only works if it’s fearless. Any skittishness kills it. Audiences are like dogs – they can smell fear.
Bukowsical is about balls. Bukowski faced down the very worst life has to offer, over and over again, all his life, the really dark shit that most of us manage to escape, and he stared that motherfucker down every time. A Hero Myth story is usually a story about survival – because that’s the journey of a human life – and Bukowski was a black-belt in survival. And also a brilliant, prolific, insightful artist at the same time. There’s a line in the show that’s very funny, but it’s also really true about Bukowski’s work --
You’re like a modern-day Dostoyevsky, updating the primary tenets of existentialism and probing the conflicted psychological abyss of the disenfranchised in a blunt prose style that combines ego, self-loathing, and a profound sensitivity to mankind and all its failings.
It’s funny because it exposes the "lie" of the show’s faux simplistic musical comedy style, but it’s also funny because it’s unexpectedly true. And it’s moments of truth like this that raise this show far above the mindless parody musicals that have invaded the bloodstream of off Broadway and off off Broadway.
In a weird and exciting way, this is the future of the art form. God help us.
Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.