An Undo-sical

If the musical is “a play or movie in which singing and dancing play an essential part,” then writer/theater-maker Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, University of Chicago scholar David Levin, and musician/writer/producer Erin McKeown are making an ‘undo-sical,’ where song and dance don't play a conventional role. Through a series of workshops with Chicago-based musicians, sound-makers, and actors starting in Fall 2022, complemented by a student seminar, The Undo-sical Project unsettles, recomposes and experiments with a musical experience of/with/against a script written by one of the collaborators.

If the musical is “a play or movie in which singing and dancing play an essential part,” then writer/theater-maker Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, University of Chicago scholar David Levin, and musician/writer/producer Erin McKeown are making an ‘undo-sical’, where song and dance hardly play a conventional role, but rather serve as an adventitious disruption. The Undo-sical Project unsettles its composite forms as a means to render the unsettling of a nuclear family and as a formal correlative of that dissolution: here, the recomposition of the family is indexed by the recomposition of dramatic form. The Undo-sical Project proposes to experiment with a musical experience of/with/against a work-in-progress script that has been written by one of the core collaborators.

"Our starting point is the script, which is about the unmaking and remaking of a family, told through the unmaking and remaking of theatrical form. The piece stages a tale of dissolution and reconsolidation while its characters – necessarily bewildered – query the very terms of dissolution and reconsolidation. The piece’s account of the queering of a heteronormative family generates a number of formal equivalences: thus, its characters seek to interrogate the means of their own production and reproduction, asking, with increasing urgency, who bears responsibility for their role, their situation, and their story. The precarity of each of these constructs – role, situation, story – is especially palpable in a breakup. But that precarity is also fundamental to the theater, where role, situation and story are posited and contingent. This precarious sense of construction and dissolution, of stolidity and fragility is figured through the stability and instability of a house at center stage, what transpires in and around the house, and how it relates to other spaces, onstage, offstage, in the auditorium, and in the lobby. And at the risk of pointing out the obvious, we are keen to explore the relationship between the house in the theater and the theater as house, the ways in which theater structurally arranges belonging and can then go about rearranging and restructuring that arrangement.

Music is one of the modes to capture the dynamism and unpredictability of the process. This is all the more exciting – but of necessity, all the more experimental – since there already exists, in the context of (North) American musical theater, a codified rhetoric for the operations of music within a play. It is a rhetoric that we are keen to ignore. That is, rather than turning to music to expand emotional states in an epiphanic moment of reflection and emotional amplification, we are keen for the music to play a playful, unpredictable, experimental, and formally inventive role. Which is not to say that the music must not express emotion, but to say that it must not be relegated to that role or must not assume it simply because that is its conventional assignment. Rather, insofar as the piece posits a dizzying and comical play of registers, such that everyone and everything gets in on the act of dissolution and reconstruction, asking after the part that they play in a dissolution and reconstruction that they have not chosen, while also playing that part – music too has an important, generative, and expressive part to play in the play of registers.

Though we don’t have a finished work in mind, we are curious to explore what a theater piece with music but not musical music – where music’s expressive affordances play a formative and consequential role – would look and sound like, and how it would work. Not a sung-through opera. Not a play with music. A piece where music has arisen out of and reflects an expressive urgency and particularity, but where that expression is more likely to reflect a formal predicament than an emotional state. (As such, we anticipate that the music may well be contingent and comical.) We seek a process and a piece where the expressive material, including especially the musical components, remains open and flexible for as long as possible (which is decidedly not what happens in conventional musical theater creation processes, which lock in and repeat). To cite some role models: we imagine a piece that has the expressive urgency and unpredictability of Ornette Coleman (or for that matter, Erin McKeown), the comedic sensibility of John Cleese, and the formal inventiveness of Young Jean Lee."


Writer/theater-maker Leslie Buxbaum Danzig brings to this project: 
• 25 years of experience leading creative rehearsal processes that generate unexpected theatrical material in different combinations of performance languages 
• a distinct lack of experience working in musical theater 
• a conviction from years of clown work that the good (and funny) material is always in the accidental and that play goes a long way in making a play; and, more practically, 
• a draft of a script she has been working on for the past 2+ years.

Musican/writer/producer Erin McKeown brings to this project: 
• a fresh curiosity for her disinterest in musicals, driven by her experience making them commercially 
• mad music-making skills in a range of idioms, as evidenced by 11 albums released since 1999 
• a fascination with how to unmake and remake expressive norms (e.g., of music, of musical theater) in dialogue with the script that Leslie has drafted; and more practically, 
• a developing experimental practice in corporeal musical composition that is designed to enable individual actors and the ensemble to develop music for the piece in the course of rehearsals on the basis of improvised musical building blocks (e.g., rhythms to be generated by hands and bodies; harmonic structures as well as thematic and melodic material to be developed in improvisational dialogues between voices, bodies, and instrument[s]) that will both anchor and launch our work.

Scholar David Levin brings to this project: 
• a longstanding interest in the relationship of theatrical forms to dramaturgical contents 
• almost 40 years of work in experimental stage production (all of it involving either opera or dance; very little of it in North America, and none of it in theater)
• a newfound preoccupation with the operations of spectatorial identification in relation to traditions and practices of theatrical illusion, and 
• a cheerful yet severe allergy to sentimentality. (Which seems odd given that musical theater, like opera, is a vacation spot for sentimentality.)


Spring Quarter 2023, Wednesdays 9:30a – 12:30p in the Gray Center Lab, Midway Studios

 (re)Queering the American Musical

In this combined studio and seminar course, we explore a selection of musicals (tentatively including Fun Home, Falsettos, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, A Strange Loop, and Indecent) considering their dramatic structure, character construction, performance norms, and musical conventions. In what sense(s) are these works “queer”? Students will investigate course materials through readings, discussions, staging experiments, and a choice of either a final paper or an artistic project. Open to advanced undergraduates and graduate students. Previous experience in theater, music, and/or film analysis or production is preferred but not required; an interest in detailed textual analysis, rigorous discussion, and focused creative engagement is essential. Team-taught by Leslie Buxbaum (Professor of Practice in TAPS), Erin McKeown (Visiting Gray Center Fellow and composer of the musical Miss You Like Hell), and David Levin (Professor in TAPS, CMS, Germanics, and Sr Advisor to the Provost for Arts) as part of their collaborative Gray Center fellowship “An Un-dosical” which seeks to explore the norms of the American musical.