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Under the hood of "Under Milkwood": musician's cut

the Valparaiso Men’s Chorus.

the Valparaiso Men’s Chorus.

EDITOR"S NOTE: Shows often have a seasonal run -- a string of four-day weekends over a six- to eight-week period. But peering out from under the heap of rubble that is the New Orleans Fringe Fest, the local Cripple Creek Theatre Company has officially wrapped its fall production of "Possum Kingdom" for a two-night only showing of "Under Milk Wood: In the Walking Haze." Slated as an immersive aural experience, this is a rendition of the 1954 radio drama by poet Dylan Thomas. The evening is made up of  a three-course maritime-inspired meal and all you can drink "Buggerall" cocktails to enjoy during the musical performance, which includes an original soundscape by New Orleans favorite Alex McMurray, of the Valparaiso Men’s Chorus.

This week, we'll hear from the source of each of the production elements: Monday  featured  director Emilie Whelan on this collaborative and interactive vision; yesterday featured Chef Jessie Wightkin and Kristen Gremillion on the food and drink prepared for "Under Milk Wood.;" and today,  Alex McMurray talks the beginnings of his Valparaiso Men's Chorus (VMC) and diving head first into the radio genre through soundscapes and sea shanty- mashups.

Here is Alex McMurray on the music composed for "Under Milk Wood."

Alex McMurray

Alex McMurray

I was approached a few years back by Chris Lane and, later, Emilie Whelan about doing a production of "Under Milk Wood." I had never heard of it and was curious. They said they wanted the spirit of The Valparaiso Men's Chorus in the thing, since the setting is an imaginary Welsh fishing village. There are several songs in the piece, and they wanted to put a shanty-ish spin on them.

The Valparaiso Men's Chorus came together as a one-off session at the now defunct Mermaid Lounge to perform and record some of the sailor songs, which I had learned working at Tokyo Disney Sea, in 2002. We decided to give the music a New Orleans spin, hence the brass and bass drum, but still had the traditional tin whistle and fiddle, with accordion filling in for the concertina. This was in November of 2004, and The Mermaid was, for all intents and purposes, closed for good, so we managed to finish off the last of the liquor in the place as well as the last of the 1-inch tapes available in Orleans Parish.

The recordings had a strange magic to them, and we decided to go ahead and mix it and put it out. Before that process could really get going, however, the events of August 2005 intervened, so the CD did not get released until 2007. Up until this time we had never played in public -- just that one night at the Mermaid. So we booked a night at the Saturn Bar, collected as many people from the original recording as we could, found some extra muscle, and threw a CD release party.

valparaiso-mens-chorus-the-straits-of-st-claude (1)The crowd’s response was pretty intense -- visceral. The back room of the Saturn was somehow transformed into the hold of a ship; you could feel the rocking in your knees. The crowd swayed and bellowed mightily in unison. The VMC show at the Saturn is a very intense experience. We do it two or three times a year -- any more than that probably wouldn't be healthy.

Emilie Whelan came to one of these performances, which is how I ended up here ...

THE MUSIC 

With Polly Garter's song there was one main directive: that this song mark the end of the first act, since we wanted to transition into the intermission on a high. No gloomy Suzies. We want people clapping, stomping, and singing along. This is a bawdy bar room song of the type that have been around since the dawn of time. The text is so rhythmic, all I had to do was assign a suitable melody and stay out of the way. With the full band and chorus this one should be quite the show-stopper.

Mr. Waldo's song, a jig, I thought would be a breeze. I found, however, that the melodies I was writing kept slipping into the groove of the great sailor song Paddy West. Moreover, the strange third section of my song sounded tacked on the score’s end, like some weird coda, which is highly unusual of sea shanties. I went through about 10 versions of this song. My method was to work on it until it sounded like Paddy West. I began each revision by building from the demo two versions prior. The coda problem only resolved itself (I hope) very late in the game. Again, we are at the end of the show by now and want to get the energy back up. The song is about sex, so how can it miss?

By far the knottiest puzzle was the duet between Captain Cat and long lost Rosie Probert, “the one love [of] his sea-life that was sardined with women.”

There is not much in the way of rhyme in the song -- almost none, in fact -- so I decided to slow it down and build from the rhythm of the line up, keeping the melodies absolutely simple, especially in the second and third "sections." The song goes through a couple of time changes and the final verse spoken by Rosie seems to me to be out of time entirely, adding to the eeriness of the moment as Rosie Probert goes into the "darkness of the darkness forever."

"Under Milk Wood" can be seen this upcoming weekend only (Dec 21-22). Experience a three-course maritime meal, themed cocktails, live music, and a radio-play performance. Buy tickets here.