I came up with the idea for “Speakeasy” while strolling in Prospect Park with Ed six or seven years ago. But I had the ideas that would lead to the idea for Speakeasy many years, even decades before that moment.
By which I mean before I had that incisive moment in the park that crystallized what Speakeasy would be, I had a whole bunch of primordial ideas: melodies that begged for an outlet, a staging concept that needed a story, and a strong passion to create a powerful Queer musical.
Like most songwriters I have an archive of unfinished songs, from melody snippets to nearly complete songs, sometimes with some lyrics attached, maybe just a title phrase, but usually without any words. I call them “Orphan Songs” or “Orphan Melodies”, musical ideas that are still looking for “placement” in a musical or project, still needing an outlet to be shared. Some of these Orphan Melodies get written down and archived and then forgotten until I look them up again. Some “haunt” me by sticking in my memory, a tune I will hum to myself again and again, feeling its emotional content even if I didn’t yet know its actual lyrical content. Those songs especially nag at me, tugging at a subconscious sleeve, looking to be fully composed and performed somehow. Once they are “placed” in a show and are performed, they tend to stop tugging at that subconscious sleeve, no longer “haunting” me.
I noticed years ago that a lot of my orphan melodies felt like songs written in the 1920’s or 1930’s. And with that realization I started imagining a musical set in a nightclub, or rather that the nightclub was the staging area for a story set in the 1920’s and/or 1930’s: not necessarily every scene took place in a nightclub, but the nightclub “presented” every scene. That was all fine and well, but I still had no idea what the actual story might be for this possible musical using all those 1920’s /1930’s song ideas.
And then the masterful “Brokeback Mountain” lost to the deeply uneven “Crash” at the 2005 Academy Awards. Besides the relative merits of the two movies, media reports would detail how the “homo-ick” factor had kept too many Academy members from even seeing the Gay Cowboy Movie, let alone voting for it in the category that mattered most. To me Hollywood Homophobia was writ large in the moment Jack Nicholson read “Crash” off the Best Picture envelope and within moments I shouted at my TV screen: “You fucking homophobes. I’ll show you. I’ll write “Gay Sex, the Musical” and shove it down your throats!”
OK, “Speakeasy” is not “Gay Sex, the Musical”, although there is non-heterosexual sex in it. But a line can be drawn from that petulant outburst during the Oscar telecast to the musical “Speakeasy”. I started working on ideas for a musical trilogy on modern LGBTQ life, from 1945 – today. That is still in the works. Yet I also remembered my idea for the 1920’s/1930’s nightclub musical that had no story or even a theme beyond its era and setting. I wondered if there could be a “prequel” to the contemporary Gay Musical trilogy. What was the queer “prehistory” before modern Gay history? Obviously there was Gay life in the USA before World War 2 (often described as the inciting event in modern Gay history, by allowing so many gay people to find each other in large numbers in the Army), but what did we know about this pre WW2 Gay history? It felt like so far back in an unknowable past as to be fantastical. And so I thought, if the post-WW2 Gay era gets a documentary approach in the musical trilogy, how about the musical set earlier is allowed to be depicted more like a dream, in a fantastical, more magical realist fashion? And maybe the nightclub setting which functions as the playing area for the story also lends itself to a fantastical musical that toys with ideas of time and place and reality? (I have since done my research into the era, and Gay life in the 1920’s and 1930’s is as real to me now as any other era of the 20th century; yet the freedom of a dreamlike narrative has allowed me to thread more historical facts into “Speakeasy” than a more straight-forward approach might have.)
So I was thinking about these primordial ideas for a musical, ideas which were still not quite meeting up properly to allow me to start “putting it together”, to quote the Master. I had a trunk of song ideas that belonged to a specific era, I had a setting that was also a rich staging concept, and I had a theme – Gay life in the 1920’s / 1930’s, and I knew I wanted it to be magical realist, fantastical. But what was my story? Or what would be the story idea that could get me started? I kept thinking of The Wizard of Oz and a 1920’s Dorothy making her way through New York Queer subculture, and that may have worked well, but it didn’t feel quite right to me.
That is what I was discussing with my husband Ed while we were taking a walk in Prospect Park six or seven years ago. When suddenly I remembered Lewis Carroll and the Alice books. It occurred to me that with Alice we not only had Alice in Wonderland but also Alice Through the Looking Glass. And these two books could be the template not just for one Roaring Twenties Alice, but two. A married couple: John and Jane Allison. Young newlyweds who both explore their sexuality through the course of two simultaneous and intertwining magical adventures. And her story would be inspired by Alice in Wonderland, and his story by Alice Through the Looking Glass. Now finally I had the incisive idea that would allow me to start seriously writing my 1920/30’s Gay magical realist musical.
What followed however would be at least one year of doing research into the history of Gay life in the USA and New York from the 19th century through the 1930’s, while simultaneously reading and breaking down and thinking about the Alice books and playing and reimagining all those 1920/30’s orphan melodies of mine. It would be at least a year of research and thought before the structure of Speakeasy would be clear enough to actually start writing in earnest.
So much more to say about Speakeasy of course, and we’ll come back to it as well as skip around to some other topics in the next few posts. Meanwhile, give a listen to “Dance into the Light”, the song Chet Cheshire sings while couples dance at the Wonderland nightclub, the chorus of which basically holds the moral of the musical: “Dance into the light, let love have her way…”