Song Cycles and Concept Albums That Deserve Staging PART I
In 2014, the ever-reclusive Kate Bush staged a multimedia performance Before the Dawn, a 22 show residency at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, and her first “tour” since the 1979 Tour of Life. It was divided into two acts, one of which depicting The Ninth Wave suite (the b-side of the House of Love album), and the second “act” being A Sky of Honey, the second disc of her Aerial album. Before the Dawn featured conceptual staging, animation, illusions, costumes and dancers--a spookier version of The Lion King, if you will. Bush had once described The Ninth Wave suite as "About a person who is alone in the water for the night. It's about their past, present and future coming to keep them awake, to stop them drowning, to stop them going to sleep until the morning comes." Twenty-nine years later, this concept was gloriously realized on stage for a few very, very lucky audiences.
Many musicals had origins as concept recordings or song cycles, such as Jesus Christ Superstar, The Who’s Tommy, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and American Idiot. Inspired by the success of the Before the Dawn performances, here are just a few other concept albums that have potential or are deserving of the staging treatment:
Jump!- Van Dyke Parks.
Van Dyke Parks arose to fame in the late 1960’s with the release of his brilliant debut album, Song Cycle (1967) (ironically not on this list). He has gone on to release his own recordings, contribute to other artists’ records as diverse as Joanna Newsom and Skrillex, and score for film and television. Many of Parks’ albums would be comfortably suited to the stage; Tokyo Rose is a reflection of the intersection between the culture of America and Japan, whereas Orange Crate Art is a nostalgic reflection on the history of California. In 1984, Parks released a baroque pop record to accompany the Jump! book series (Jump, Jump on Over, and Jump Again), retellings of the Uncle Remus stories.
Why it should be staged: Parks knows the power of storytelling through song, as evident in his solo work, but also in his contributions to soundtracks, such as Popeye and The Brave Little Toaster. Jump! is no exception. It incorporates the styles of The Great Depression-era Broadway musicals and Tin Pan Alley. Jump! even features an Overture and an Entr'acte; it’s practically gift wrapped for the stage. Parks is utterly brilliant, and the music itself is lyrical, lushly orchestrated in detail. This would be a great stage show for children. Brer Rabbit/ Rabbit is a traditional hero for both African American and Native people, occasionally morally ambiguous, full of antics and spirit, and wholly likeable-- all of which has been captured superbly by Parks.
(Side Note: the author of this piece would like to make it clear it is well-understood the problematic elements of White authors retelling traditionally African American- Native stories. However, if put into the proper hands, with an appropriate director, this could be an excellent opportunity for a reclaiming of heritage and responsible depiction of narrative.)
Two Tori Amos albums make this list, Scarlet’s Walk and Night of Hunters. Over the past 30 years, Amos has forged a prolific and distinguished career, and recently completed a run of her musical The Light Princess over in London, which is seeing the release of a cast recording this fall. It was too hard to choose between these excellent choices, so I’ve included both.
Scarlet’s Walk- Tori Amos.
In the fall of 2002, Tori Amos released the expansive 18-song concept album in the one-year wake of the September 11th attacks, as a reflection on what was happening to America in relation to the history of Native America. It features the (often misinterpreted) hit single ‘a sorta fairytale.’ As the character Scarlet, she forges a journey across all 50 states, visiting sites of historical significance, following in the ancient tradition of Native sonic maps (songs that correspond to locations). It tackles such themes as pornography, the Trail of Tears, various massacres throughout the United States, and the status of Native people in the United States today.
Why it should staged: Amos has a gift for storytelling, combined with some of the most beautiful and powerful pieces she’s ever written, would bring and much-needed presence of Native actors to Broadway. The character Scarlet, like Amos, is also Native, but sports red hair, and would open the discussion of diversity in the Native community ( and no Redface, for the love of all that is good). It would also be a great introduction to traditional, non-Westernized storytelling and give traditional Native stories their proper dues, on par with Eurocentric themes which dominate Broadway. To see ‘Gold Dust’ realized with an orchestral and theatrical setting would be worth the price of admission alone.
Night of Hunters- Tori Amos.
Taking variations on classical compositions to create new songs, Night of Hunters is, as Amos describes it, “a 21st century song cycle inspired by classical music themes spanning over 400 years." Using her classical training, she crafts the story of a woman at the end of a relationship (so we think), combining the aspects of the hunter and hunted, light and darkness in all of us. Full, haunting orchestrations and a dash Celtic mysticism pepper this piece, refined in the process of her composing The Light Princess. The narrative in Night of Hunters takes place over the course of one night, from dusk and the meeting of the shapeshifter, to dawn, with renewal and appreciation.
Why it should be staged: Much like Before the Dawn, Night of Hunters has limitless potential for the use of puppetry, shadows, projections, killer sets, magic. It also has a great score, and makes an ample source material. ‘Shattering Sea,’ ‘Fearlessness,’ ‘Carry,’ and ‘Edge of the Moon,’ in the right hands (or with the right voice, I should say), coupled with a classically trained voice would be killer.
Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)- The Kinks
Originally written as a score for a television special that never saw the light of day, Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) tells the story of the plight of a post-war England, in all its austerity and effects it had on the already-poor of England.
Why it should be staged: It’s been described as “less ambitious than Tommy,” and “more musical.” It has all of the right elements of musicals, as well as rock of the late 1960’s. It was written as a rock opera, after all. It’s a rather complete score and its lyrics are very evocative. If nothing else, Matt Golden of Stylus hailed it as "the best rock opera ever." That’s pretty convincing.
Hand. Cannot. Erase.- Steven Wilson
Joyce Vincent disappeared without a trace. She had been very active and was a hugely popular person. She died mysteriously in 2003, and no one thought to check in on her in London apartment. Her body was found, sitting on her couch, in 2006. What happened to her? Why did no one think to check in on her? No one knows. Steven Wilson wrote a record about it, from her perspective, with her as the main character.
Why it should be staged: This is perhaps Steven Wilson’s smartest piece of work; it’s unapologetically complex, in subject matter, lyrics and composition. It’s really masterful work on Wilson’s part. It’s a different kind of story, with no smiley ending or neatly tied loose ends. It has a multiracial woman as the leading figure. It’s a haunting, captivating, enigmatic stranger-than-fiction story we can’t shrug off: if she was beautiful, brilliant, popular and was surrounded by family and friends, why did nobody think to check in on her... for three years? They’ll leave the theatre talking about it, and continue to talk about it for years.