Check back later today for a commentary by musician/composer Andy Paley.
I do not like musicals. I find them hard to sit through. While the songs are often great, they do little more than interrupt the featherweight plot. The classic musicals never quite come together for me. There are, however, two that I can get behind. One is the Wizard of Oz. But, nostalgia aside, what works in Oz are the driving plot and the introduction of each character via a song. I know this happens in other musicals but never so well as in the Wizard of Oz. And, still, there are some really draggy parts. The only musical that works for me (almost) top to bottom is “Once More with Feeling,” the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The songs are great, they move the episode forward, there is justification for the music, there is real emotional heft to the episode, and it the characters do not remain stagnant—they come out of their musical experience changed.
When Acker and I approached doing a musical episode, those notions were foremost in my mind. We were helped somewhat by the fact that Sparks Nevada is a space-western, so we knew the flavor of the songs we’re be writing with Andy Paley.
I believe the notion of a Sparks musical had been floating around for some time between us, though it was Acker who first suggested it. (He likes musicals). As we did the first few years of the show, it became apparent that all of our actors can sing. And really like singing. Not content to be brilliant comic and dramatic actors, I suppose.
The plot to the episode started to take shape as we plotted out the “season” of Sparks (unlike the other pieces of the show, we tend to plan out the Sparks episodes about a year at a time. Often this is because of the need for recurring characters such as Cactoid Jim or Rebecca Rose Rushmore; we wouldn’t want anyone but Nathan or Linda to play these parts if we can avoid it, so we want to give them plenty of notice for scheduling. Which reminds me that I owe Linda an email). We knew that the musical Sparks would be the culmination of Sparks’ nearly year-long romance with Miss Rushmore. That was the big emotional pay-off that was a hold-over from the first time we performed the show at M Bar five years ago.
At Largo, we had such fun with our cast of players—Nathan Fillion as Cactoid Jim, Busy Philipps as the Red Plains Rider—that we beefed up their roles over the course of Sparks’ second season. So we added in the Cactoid/Red wedding as another big emotional beat of the episode. (By this time the episode was swelling to squeeze out a middle part of that month’s show anyway). Acker had the idea of doing a medley in the middle, based around the wedding, and (like Andy) I was dubious. But Jonathan Dinerstein put together this absolutely lovely (and tremendously complicated) piece of music and I have never been prouder of our actors than when they performed this on stage. It was fascinating seeing it come together—everyone gathered around the piano at Andy’s place where we rehearsed—the piece gradually taking shape. I hope it comes across in the podcast as beautifully as it did on stage.
We gave a LOT of work to our director Aaron Ginsburg and he delivered (as he always does). He brought out often unexpected performances and moments in our actors, encouraged everyone to dig deep in a way that it’s easy not to do in our show. Not to mention maneuvering the movements of over a dozen actors at only six microphone positions.
I cannot overstate how hard everyone worked on this episode. Certainly this is the script that Acker and I wrote and rewrote more than any other. Andy and Jonathan created charts, rehearsed the hell out of an already crack team of musicians (see Andy’s notes below for a peek inside the process). We usually have one rehearsal preceding a show; for this episode we had three or four, and Josh Malina was the first to arrive every time. It shows in the confidence of his performances in this piece. I will never forget watching Josh and Craig Cackowski (who had performed these songs back at M Bar and is among the most adept at performing our sometimes difficult dialogue, no less difficult in melodic incarnation!), the first at bat, finding their footing and swinging for the fences with each run-through. It was exhilarating, and the energy they brought to even those first attempts set the tone for everyone.
Having seen Dr. Horrible, we knew that Nathan Fillion could carry a tune. And, like everyone, he put in 100%, working around his Castle schedule to come to rehearsal and learn some very complicated pieces. We also knew that Busy Philippscould really, really sing (though we hadn’t seen anything quite like what she did here). What we didn’t anticipate was the emotion that both would bring to their love-song duet and the chemistry they’d have doing it. It’s a testament to these two actors—singing almost completely in metaphor—that you believe that they’re falling in love. Busy just kills me with the spin she puts on the line “The way you say ‘howdy’ makes me rowdy” in the medley.
Marc Evan Jackson and Linda Cardellini also brought a beautiful chemistry to both the scenes and songs that would spell the demise for their characters’ relationship. Sparks has always been a little emotionally oblivious and playing that against Rebecca’s self-awareness (and ability to read Sparks) made things really hit home. Linda was very nervous about singing—she’s a perfectionist as a performer—and I think she really knocked it out of the park.
To up the emotional stakes of the episode, we decided that this would also be the time that Croach fulfills his onus to Sparks. We love spending the year building up Sparks’ world only to strip things away from him. We’d already taken his Marshalhood (in his showdown with Techs, last month) and now not only were we having Rebecca dump him but Croach was, in essence, doing the same. There’s not much I can say about Mark Gagliardi‘s Croach that I haven’t already. Mark brilliantly performs anything we throw at him. It was a lot of fun making Croach express himself metaphorically through song, something a Martian would never do. Gags walks this hilarious line between embracing it and utter embarrassment.
We had the most over-qualified Banditos Mutantes in Grant-Lee Phillips, David Fury (both unbelievable, basso voices), John DiMaggio, Autumn Reeser, Emma Danoff (whose parents wrote the hit 70s song “Afternoon Delight”), and Elin Hampton (who wrote a damned opera last year!). They threw themselves into the parts—Fury and Elin brough the sombreros that you see in the photos, and be sure to check out Autumn in full costume! Andy’s arrangement of the Banditos’ theme is the icing on the cake.
When we cast Garret Dillahunt as Techs a few months prior to this, we made sure that he could sing. We did not make sure that he wouldn’t be in New York shooting a movie when we did this show. Marc Evan Jackson has done a series of Farmer’s Insurance ads with JK Simmons and pitched him to fill in for Garret in this episode, knowing that JK has a musical background. Acker did his homework on JK and found that he was in the early 90’s cast of Guys and Dolls on Broadway. JK is the real thing. He was able to attend one rehearsal, and when he showed up I asked him if he’d had a chance to listen to the demos I’d sent. “No,” JK said. “But do you have the charts?” We gave him the charts and he proceeded to cold-sing “I’m Gonna Kill You Someday” in the same powerful, beautiful voice that you hear on the podcast. Having JK on board raised the game for everyone.
I listened to the podcast again yesterday, and I immediately emailed Annie Savage to tell her that her singing—particularly the verse of “Poor Me (Pour Me Another)”—gave me chills, just as it did in the live performance. There is a longing and emotion that Annie can convey when she sings which is a direct line to the heartstrings. We have a studio version of Annie singing “Poor Me” (with somewhat different lyrics) as a country ballad. Hopefully it will someday see the light of day. It is, in my opinion, the best song that the Acker & Blacker/Paley team have written.
Finally, when we found out that our friend John Hodgman would be in town the weekend of this show, there was no question that he should play the “villain” of the piece. John brings such a lovely pathos to his performance as a robot(ish) full of unrequited love. Plus, John finds the comedy in the sadness—or perhaps the humanity in the comedy—of every performance he gives.
I could not be prouder of this episode of the show. It really was a great accomplishment, hard earned, and I think the work everyone put in comes across in this podcast. Andy and Barre Duryea worked hard on the recording as well to make it sound so great. We hope to someday offer you an “original cast recording” of the Sparks musical (as well as the other great songs we’ve written with Andy). Is that something you guys would be interested in?
Most of cast performing the Sparks Nevada theme: “POW!”
That is Autumn Reeser in the mustache. With David Fury and John DiMaggio.
JK Simmons. The best.
Meeting John Hodgman in the space-saloon. Josh Malina, Mark Gagliardi, Marc Evan Jackson, and Linda Cardellini.