I love a spooky story—but I love a spooky story by Ryan Scott Oliver even more.
RSO has been a collaborator of mine for over a decade now, beginning with the earliest incarnations of his show Darling and continuing with 35mm: A Musical Exhibition, and most recently with Three Points of Contact. In 2012, we formed the company Actor Therapy, which has expanded to include seasonal intensives and now, online master classes. But, the most rewarding aspect of our partnership is how we interact with new art together, regardless of whether we make it together or apart.
And so, it was my pleasure to offer RSO some consulting on the lyrics of Future Demons, from giving feedback on “The Story We Used to Tell” to throwing out an idea of a narrative progression in “James Harris.” While most contemporary musical theatre seems to make something extraordinary out of the ordinary (a life-changing encounter on the streets of Manhattan or a mid-life crisis on the subway, perhaps), RSO has always seemed most at home turning the extra-ordinary (the supernatural, the horrific, the operatic) into just another day at the office. From nightmare worlds like “Crazytown,” gothic narratives like “Leave, Luanne,” and his musical We Foxes, he was primed to invite us to the diabolical department store of “My Life with R. H. Macy” and the celebration of a kleptomaniac in “Family Treasures.”
In a time where the world seems scarier than ever, these five tracks are a welcome escape this fall. And, since they’re songs by RSO, they’re a hell of a lot of fun.
Future Demons is a collaboration between RSO and writer Shirley Jackson, of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. The album features Jay Armstrong Johnson (“I Put a Spell On You”, On The Town), Heathcliff Saunders (The Great Comet), Britney Coleman (Wicked), Kerstin Anderson (My Fair Lady), and more.You can hear all of Future Demons on Spotify, Apple Music or anywhere you stream music.
Article by Ryan Scott Oliver
1. “My Life With R. H. Macy”
In this tale (originally alongside Shirley Jackson’s iconic short story “The Lottery”) a pliable young woman is brought onto the sales team of a dystopian Macy’s, where everyone is called Miss Cooper, and she’s assigned a dozen ID numbers to remember. In this Macy’s, people seem to go missing all the time.
From the original story “My Life with R. H. Macy” by Shirley Jackson:
And they would say (“They” all this time being startlingly beautiful young women in tailored suits and with short-clipped hair), “Go with Miss Cooper, here. She’ll tell you what to do.” All the women I met my first day were named Miss Cooper. And Miss Cooper would say to me: “What are you in?” and I had learned by that time to say, “Books,” and she would say, “Oh, well, then, you belong with Miss Cooper here,” and then she would call “Miss Cooper?” and another young woman would come and the first one would say, “13-3138 here belongs with you”
I have been obsessed with song moments set in hellish factories ever since I witnessed Tori Amos’s “The Happy Worker” featured in the Robin Williams flop Toys. The audience is lambasted with an eye-widening sense of almost joyful misery, supported by a pounding beat and cold, electronic synthesizers (suggesting robots, not people, run the show). Fans of my musical with Hunter Foster, Jasper in Deadland, can hear an earlier factory I set to music in “Beat and Broken Spirits.”
My co-producer on Future Demons and frequent musical collaborator, Joshua Zecher-Ross, had quite a task co-arranging the “nightmare-scape.” We began with a timpani fit for a march to the gallows (thank you, Róisín Murphy) that would immediately evoke impending doom, and drew in strident harpsichord and electric guitar against a lush string ensemble. The vocal ensemble was inspired by “This is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas, where altos sing like basses, basses get the solos, tenors sing higher than the sopranos, and the sopranos must be sacrificed to shrieking coloratura nonsense.
In my old age, a hopeless situation leaves my heart wanting a hero, and I turned to my dear Kerstin Anderson (who can also be heard in the title role on two of my albums, Darling: Live in Concert and Three Points of Contact). Her crystal-sharp voice was polished for the role of the everygirl in “13:3138,” but her commanding mix-belt ensured she would not be a protagonist to trifle with.
2. “James Harris”
Unlike the other four tracks on Future Demons, “James Harris” wasn’t based directly on one of SJ’s stories, but rather the collision of a folk legend and the several appearances of said legend peppered throughout many of SJ’s short tales. Sometimes referred to as the “House Carpenter” or the “Daemon Lover,” James Harris comes to us from British-Scottish lore, and his deeds—where the demon Mr. Harris lures happily married women to abandon their lives in favor of sailing to great riches across the sea, only to drown them—have been sung by the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Nickel Creek, and many others.
James is a bit of a shapeshifter throughout the SJ stories, appearing in a variety of roles but always imbuing the proceedings with an eerie tension and certainty that something is not-quite-right. In “The Intoxicated,” he’s dressed in a fine blue suit and chatting up the lady of the house; in “The Daemon Lover,” a young woman awaits him as her writer-fiancé, but he never comes; in “The Witch” he terrorizes a child and his mother on a train with morbid fairytales; elsewhere he’s a shady bookseller, a strange man on a bus, a rude woman’s husband …
But it’s actually in the back pages of The Lottery and Other Stories that SJ includes “Child Ballad No. 243,” which features James’s story via folky, rhyming quatrains like this:
She had not sailed a league, a league,
A league but barely three,
When dismal grew his countenance,
And drumlie grew his ee.
Musically, the driving, witchy guitar jams of Laura Marling and The Decemberists offered a color palette, and I quickly secured Heath Saunders, whom I had first seen as Jack Skellington in a concert version of (here we are again) The Nightmare Before Christmas at Feinstein’s/54 Below, to tell James’ tale as the Balladeer.
But perhaps the most important contribution I had to offer Mr. Harris’ legacy is the power reversal at the end of the song, where the women’s chorus that has served anemically (his victims, perhaps?) gains increasing power until, at last, they commandeer the song and demand that such misogynistic demons be damned. While the idea wasn’t with me when I first set out to write the song, it quickly became clear that such a statement was truly the only reason to resurrect James Harris for today’s audience. Girl power, yo.
3. “The Story We Used to Tell”
One of SJ’s more abstract pieces, this esoteric tale took a couple reads to fully absorb, possibly because this account of two women entrapped in a photograph was painted so precisely that it’s easy to pause and admire each conjured image rather than to propel through the narrative. There is something so intensely unstable, intentionally uneven about this one that reality feels constantly in question.
While streamlining the story for a musical theatre adaptation meant simplifying it, I hoped to maintain SJ’s ethereal, eerie atmosphere in my song setting, which was inspired by the work of great mid-twentieth century singer-songwriters, in particular, Joni Mitchell and her Blue album. There is also mention of the “new house” (the real world) and the “old house” (the old world captured in the photograph), and I thought the switch-over of piano to harmonium—two instruments that would be welcomed for entertainment in new (piano) and old (harmonium) houses—could aid the time travel. The middle section has a decidedly different feel, arriving from Joni-esque brooding to a blustering organ waltz, and plenty of dramatic chordal shifts to keep us on our toes, entreating us to dance against our will at grandpop’s ball.
The singers, Britney Coleman and Tori Huston-Elem, have been collaborators for years (find them performing work from virtually every single one of my musicals on YouTube) and felt perfectly suited to tell the tale through their tender, adaptable voices and their fine-point storytelling.
4. “What a Thought”
I found the original text of “What a Thought” to be SJ at her most viciously humorous, as the author was forever at home satirizing the quaint nature of domestic bliss. Here, a housewife enjoys the evening with her husband when the nagging idea she must murder her husband with a large glass ashtray invades her mind until it’s all she can think about.
Excerpt from “What a Thought” by Shirley Jackson
The idea of smashing the glass ashtray over her husband’s head had never occurred to Margaret, but now it would not leave her mind. She stirred uneasily in her chair, thinking: what a terrible thought to have, whatever made me think of such a thing?
In updating SJ’s stories for a contemporary audience, I decided to convert the straight 1950s couple into a gay couple set in the present; after all, culturally we might now view same-sex relationships with the same quaint rose-colored perfection as mid-last-century marriage. Not to mention it was a way to mock the sorts of fights that a pair of husbands might have; like say, on the street in front of a moderately priced furniture store, or over a mortal offense when one’s favorite diva goes unappreciated by his partner.
For the relentless thought of homicide, I utilized the idea of a thematic earworm. The motif—beginning on the first scale degree, rising up a whole step, then down a half step and then down one more to repeat itself in a miserable 3/4 time —carries forth in permutations throughout almost the entire piece. The song is pattery and deluged in psychosis; the Sondheim influence is hard to miss.
Jay Armstrong Johnson was the perfect choice to portray the would-be husband-killer Mark, for reasons anyone who knows Jay intimately will understand.
5. “Family Treasures”
This story focuses on a seemingly pathetic young student, Anne White, who systematically steals cherished items from the other girls at her boarding school. Unable to accept that quiet and friendless Anne could ever do such a thing, they suspect each other until the delicate fabric of their cliquedom is ripped apart. Meanwhile, our lady klepto gets away with it all, packing away their treasures and running off into the night.
In my setting, I reversed the narrative focus to Anne’s victims singing about her after-the-fact, sounding almost impressed by her deception. The girl group concept immediately evoked “Lady Marmalade” and “Bang Bang,” opportunities for high belting ladies to go to town, and even the chance for me to write (baby’s first) rap.
Though the song is decidedly set in the present, I just couldn’t let go of the antiquated names and objects—a carbon copy of a sonnet? Come on! And who wouldn’t love a rapper named Barbra? In casting, I was thrilled to bring together seven powerhouse ladies with whom I’ve worked at various times throughout my career, Catherine Ricafort, Gerianne Pèrez, and Jessie Hooker-Bailey (each of whom I worked with on versions of my show Darling), plus Caitlin Doak, Alina Fontanilla, Kim Onah, and Nicole Zelka.