From book to music
Joseph Daniel Fielder Illustration
When Hurricane Katrina hit, a writer named Dan Baum from New York made New Orleans his dateline with a series of textured pieces on the New Orleans Police Department, the 9th Ward and then some. Baum landed a book contract and stayed around long after the national media lost interest in the recovery.
Published in 2009, Baum’s Nine Lives bore scant resemblance to his magazine pieces or his blogs for the New Yorker while living here. (Baum, who makes his home in Boulder, Colo., later left the magazine.) The narrative follows nine New Orleanians whose lives mirror the city’s baroque social layers: Joyce Montana, the widow of Yellow Pocahontas Big Chief Tootie Montana; corporate lawyer Billy Grace, a Rex of recent vintage; coroner Dr. Frank Minyard; hard-bitten cop Tim Bruneau; and ex-con Anthony Wells, among others. Some of the characters never intersect. The narrative melds short bursts and long episodes in a looping plot similar to Robert Altman’s film, Nashville. The book is two-thirds done when Katrina hits and we realize that the story is about how a complex society holds together, despite racial divisions and backwater politics, with people determined to reclaim their terrain. Flood coverage is minimal.
Music is a leitmotif in the chapters. New Orleans composer Paul Sanchez and Los Angeles screenwriter Colman deKay “discovered that the book was singing to us,” they explain in liner notes to Nine Lives: A Musical Adaptation. “Its epic sweep is so comically, tragically human, that it yelled out to the two of us to be adapted to another medium.” Imagining Baum’s ranging plot lines as a Broadway musical, deKay and Sanchez spent a year writing 39 songs that were then recorded by some of the city’s best musicians. “Almost every one of the book’s chapters struck us as a great song premise.” With the CD as an opening shot in the hopes of landing budget for the stage musical, they remind us that Jesus Christ Superstar and Les Misérables began as musicals.
The recording is a release of the new Santa Monica-based Mystery Street Records, an offshoot of Threadhead Records Foundation, which has been a rejuvenating force for the New Orleans music culture post-Katrina.
Because the Nine Lives songs were written for the stage, it takes a certain factual grasp of the social dynamics to appreciate how book-into-musical becomes a comedy; even for the cognoscenti, you have to do some careful listening.
The first song, “Fine in the Lower Nine,” with Treme’s John Boutté and Wendell Pierce sharing vocals, positions Pierce as Ronald Lewis, a streetcar worker and folk-culture advocate in the book, now an Everyman singing tender tone poems of “when the banana boats rolled in and the streets smelled so sweet.” The song is a paean to the 9th Ward of a generation ago. When I did oral histories in the early 1980s, the Big Nine had a pronounced local flavor, befitting Pierce’s chuckling take of working folks toward “Creoles in the city dressed up for a parade.”
By 1990, crack was king, kids were buying weapons and slaughtering one another as the violence spread to Tremé and other enclaves. Stage musicals can treat the hard hits of life, as Threepenny Opera did in giving us the fabled ballad on a serial killer, “Mack the Knife.” I have to wonder if that’s possible with today’s grotesque drug violence.
“How Very Sweet Like Anne” is a take on how corporate lawyer Billy Grace courted his bride-to-be, Anne Montgomery, many years ago. The lyrics are enriched by Harry Shearer’s vocals as her daddy, George Montgomery, giving the suitor cameos of her family history, “kings and queens who mask with proud decorum.”
This may be the wittiest tune of a bravura production, though the chorus at times overpowers the individual voices.
In “Blow My Own Horn,” we get the story of Dr. Frank Minyard’s work in the late 1960s with a nun, trying to help female addicts in prison. This led him to a collision with then-coroner Dr. Carl Rabin. In the song, the trumpet-playing Ob/Gyn, who has no thought of public office, fumes when Rabin stiff-arms his plan for methadone to help addicts in the slammer get clean. Years ago, Minyard told me how he told Rabin, “Fuck you, I’m gonna run against you.” He did; he won; he has been coroner ever since. In the rocking song he calls the incumbent a “son of a bitch” on an up-tempo pulse – like a young politician getting set to finish off an older one. This is better than the dirtiest attack ads on TV.
All this social and political lore, packed into music, could be a showstopper on the big stage. Paul and Colman, here’s hoping you guys make it.