Rich ‘n’ grimy

SN&R contributor Joel Hartse talks to Inside a Broken Clock founders Ellen Stader and Rick McNulty about why Tom Waits is a cabaret no-brainer

SN&R: This has already been covered, I think, but why Tom Waits specifically-and solely?

ES: Taken all together, Tom Waits’ songs form a universe whose landscape and population are very clear and familiar to me when I hear them-and I think a lot of his fans share that sensation. There are just so many rich and grimy images in every song, it was a natural choice to want to put them onstage.

RM: We focus on the songs he has written with his wife, Kathleen Brennan. Many of their themes alternate between bleak, tragic, affectionate, or are filled with black humor-sometimes within the same song. No one is writing songs like them with such consistency, and the fact that it is part of a new “underground” American songbook makes it all the more appealing.

SN&R: How did you get Mr. Waits-a notorious curmudgeon when it comes to his music being used commercially-to allow the use of his songs?

ES: We feel unreasonably lucky to have been allowed to use his songs. We’re a tiny little self-funded troupe doing what we do for the pure love of the material. When we began working on this two years ago, our budget was in the low three-figures.

RM: His publishing company understood it as a very different case from a schmaltzy Andrew Lloyd Webber production or a mega-corporation using one of his songs to hawk chips.

SN&R: Of course I haven’t seen the show in person, but from the video I’ve seen, it seems that melodrama and utterly over-the-top cheesiness is a big part of the show. What inspired you to go this way-is that just the nature of cabaret? I was just thinking that one could equally get quite serious and melancholy working with Waits’ songs.

ES: The “grand weepers” can definitely make you somber, but then, who would pay to see a show about that? For this show I cottoned more to all the crazy rhumbas and mazurkas and marches and tarantellas, and I built most of the choreography around the upbeat songs. The cheesy vaudeville part just came naturally after a while.

RM: And by cheese, I assume you mean the beggar’s pageantry feel of the show. Our most ambitious number features Table Top Joe, a carnival attraction with half a body who can play a toy piano, getting pushed around on a cart by a couple of showgirls. They perform a chorus line, which isn’t easy when you’re on wheels. So, yeah, you might call that over the top. There’s no message or dramatic element to the show, just lots of risqué humor, pretty dancing girls, a little lasciviousness-an ideal cabaret experience.

SN&R: Why do you think there has been a recent resurgence in the popularity of burlesque and variety-show-style entertainment in the U.S. in recent years?

ES: Maybe it was the only phenomenon existing in show business that hasn’t already been rehashed? And everybody likes skin.

RM: You could use big sociological words like “empowerment” and “nostalgia.” I’m more prone to use words like “cleavage” and “laugh your ass off.” Part of the variety-show revival might be due to people wanting a little more bang for their buck. Rather than seeing another band in another club, they might want to see a live music show with a lot of moving parts. We offer girls, ill-humored puppets, a dancing bear, and a guy in drag along with some great music-and it won’t cost half your paycheck.

SN&R: What kind of person is your ideal audience member? Least ideal? Ever get heckled?

ES: Best: Smart, drunk, Waits fan. Worst: Children. Heckled: Only during rehearsals.

RM: I’m the one who does the heckling. Really, anyone who digs Tom Waits will like this show. I don’t know that there’s such a thing as a casual Tom Waits fan, so it makes our jobs easier in that they "get it" the moment the show starts. And there’s always people who know nothing of him or his music, but still love the performances and debauchery. It’s the kind of home-made show that you never forget.