His warped chamber musical about two sisters, a subway murder, a treehouse astronomer, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and a lazy, evil bear might lead one to drink. And the American playwright Dave Malloy would be just fine with that. The melodious creator of Ghost Quartet, playing in Toronto at Streetcar Crowsnest, spoke to The Globe and Mail recently about that show and adult beverages, as well as his coming musical adaptation of Moby-Dick, set to land at the American Repertory Theater in Massachusetts this winter.
For your show Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 you served vodka to the audience, and for Ghost Quartet, whiskey is involved. Are imbibed audiences a trademark of yours?
It actually started with a show I did some 10 years ago called Three Pianos, which was about Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise. We passed out red wine to the audience. It’s all about community. One of the ways you commune with people is that you eat and drink with them. For me, theatre is such a sacred space. It’s a unique art form, in that there is a real connection between the performers and the audience. You’re all there together and you’re making something together. Drinking is an extension of that. What better way to welcome someone into your home than to offer them a drink?
I have to say, after reading a synopsis of Ghost Quartet, I feel like I a need a drink to understand it. It looks fascinating, but complicated.
I think we call it a song cycle about love, murder and whiskey. It’s essentially a puzzle. There are four interwoven plots that keep intersecting but are told out of sequence. The intention is that by a third of the way through the show you should feel a little overwhelmed and lost plot-wise. Hopefully at that moment you let go and allow yourself to experience the show emotionally. It’s confusing intentionally, in order to allow people to say, ‘Ah, you know what, I’m just going to sit here and enjoy the music and enjoy the feeling of ghostliness that’s around me.’
Do we want that feeling? Most people are scared of ghosts.
I’ve been asked if I believe in ghosts, and I don’t have a simple answer for that. The show is my answer. I think for most people there is some sense there are things in the world we can’t completely explain with reason and rationality. I think that people love those things. And I think love is another great example of that.
You’re working on your next project, Moby-Dick, which is creating a lot of buzz. Where are you at with it?
We start rehearsals in three weeks. We’re frantically doing our final revisions for the show. Then I have to finish orchestrating the thing. So, I’m in full Moby-Dick mode right now.
I read an interview from 2013 in which you said you were speaking with Stephen Sondheim about Moby-Dick. Was it all his idea?
Oh, no, I read Moby-Dick in college, and it became one of my favourite books of all time. Later, when I was writing Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, which was based on War and Peace, seeing that a great epic novel was working as a musical on so many levels was so satisfying. So that was clicking, and I wondered if I were ever to do it again, which novel would it be? The immediate answer in my head was Moby-Dick. Both Moby-Dick and War and Peace go off on incredible tangents. There’s so much playfulness with the novel form and such audacity with it.
Will there be rum served for Moby-Dick?
In the book they drink grog, which I think is very, very, cheap and bad rum. I don’t know if I’ll [impose] that on the audience. But I’m sure at the bar in the lobby there’ll be some sort of seafaring beverages.
So, after War and Peace and Moby-Dick, what’s next? What’s your white whale, as it were?
Well, Moby-Dick is the white whale. But I joked in the past that the next part in the impossible-novels trilogy will be James Joyce’s Ulysses. I do love that book. But, for now, Moby-Dick is so gigantic that I’m not really thinking of much else. Ask me again in January, when that’s up and running.
The Crow’s Theatre and Eclipse Theatre Company production of Ghost Quartet runs to Nov. 3 at Streetcar Crowsnest.