Marissa Skudlarek, la-la-la!
Since Theater Pub’s January show consists of short plays inspired by indie-rock artist Morrissey’s songs, I thought I’d flip that idea around and share some indie-rock songs inspired by theater.
“I Was Meant for the Stage” by the Decemberists
A lovely and tender ballad about feeling like you’ve found your home in the theater, though not without some wry touches. “Mother, please be proud / Father, be forgiving / Even though you told me, ‘Son / You’ll never make a living,’” Colin Meloy begs, and the joke is all the funnier because you can hear it coming. The chorus also acknowledges the darker side of finding your calling as an actor: you might start to feel like you’re superior to the hoi polloi. “You will resume your callow ways / But I was meant for the stage!” Meloy sings – and, responding to his pretentiousness, the band finishes off the track with some parodically self-indulgent noodling.
“Promises of Eternity” by the Magnetic Fields
Stephin Merritt, frontman and songwriter of the Magnetic Fields, is known for his odd lyrical conceits, but even by his standards, “Promises of Eternity” is pretty kooky. The premise of the song is that if he and his lover broke up, it would be as awful as if “no show ever happened again,” as if there were never any more theater in the world! Perhaps to match the drama-themed subject matter, Merritt sings this song in a much more melodramatic style than his typical deadpan vocals. My favorite line, both in terms of the wordplay and his vocal delivery: “What if the clowns couldn’t be clooowns / And all those painted smiles gave in to plaintive frowns?” (And is this possibly an allusion to Sondheim’s “Send In the Clowns?”)
“Actor Out of Work” by St. Vincent
The people on Genius.com posit this as a song about a woman who’s learned to see through her boyfriend’s lies, but you can also read it as just what the title says: the internal monologue of an out-of-work actor. There’s plenty of self-loathing – “You’re an actor out of work / You’re a liar and that’s the truth / You’re an extra lost in the scene” – mixed with the kinds of mantras you might say to psych yourself up before an audition: “You’re a boxer in the ring / With brass knuckles underneath.” The music is appropriately anxious and jittery, though when the soaring backing vocals come in, sounding like something from an old Broadway musical, it lends a nice theatrical touch.
“Benediction” by the Weakerthans
Songwriters continue to exploit “all the world’s a stage,” theater-as-a-metaphor-for-life imagery hundreds of years after Shakespeare did it. The lovely middle verse of this song begins “All the actors broke their legs” and goes on to describe a failing stage production, but it isn’t meant to be taken literally — as a whole, the song seems to be about either a breakup or a death. So it’s a song about theater, but you don’t have to be a theater person to relate to it. That slide-guitar, alt-country sound is so early-2000s-indie that it kind of hurts, and “Let the rain be your applause” is a line that Morrissey himself would be proud to have written.
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer with a terrible weakness for any pop music that is described as “wry” or “literate.” Find her at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.