Step right up
Hey, Tom Waits songs might work as vaudeville. Ya think?
Talk amongst yourselves. Here’s a topic: Inside a Broken Clock: A Tom Waits Peepshow is neither inside a broken clock nor performed by Tom Waits. Nor, in fact, is it a peep show. Discuss.
When parsed, the show’s title almost makes sense: Inside a Broken Clock quotes the first line of the classic Waits track “Rain Dogs,” and the revue does indeed include up to 17 songs by everyone’s favorite gravel-throated bard. Whether or not there’s any “peeping” involved is open to interpretation: Nobody’s naked, but T&A is not in short supply. As far as conventional things like plot and character development, well, you could always read a book. Really, all this variety-show- cum-burlesque- cum-cabaret- cum-melodrama lacks is subtlety. The main draw would seem to amount to this: There’s all kinds of crazy crap going on, while a band plays Tom Waits songs! Frankly, that should be all you need to know.
Broken Clock, which has played in Austin, Texas, for two years, is the brainchild of choreographer Ellen Stader and musician Rick McNulty, who share a love of Tom Waits (duh) and of the carnivalesque (um, again, duh). The show is loosely based not so much on the content of Waits’ songs—if it’s “about” anything, that would be a lecherous ringmaster who, between introducing a variety of vaudeville acts, tries to seduce showgirls and/or performing bears—as it is obedient to their down-and-dirty, shambling song-and-dance aesthetic.
“Taken all together, Tom Waits’ songs form a universe whose landscape and population are very clear and familiar to me when I hear them,” Stader says via e-mail. “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.”
With audiences so consistently going ga-ga over the music and the corny bestiality jokes, Stader and McNulty elected to take their debauched extravaganza on the road. This week’s round of Northern California shows, including Wednesday’s at the Palms, is the pair’s first test run outside their hometown—and near the hometown of their patron saint. (Mr. Waits resides in Sonoma County.) So, is this “tour” actually some kind of pilgrimage? Might the man himself—a notorious curmudgeon about others using his songs, who has, nevertheless, allowed this show to go on—be tempted to check things out for himself?
“I think it’s one of the dumbest things we’ve ever done,” McNulty writes, emoticon tongue probably in cheek. “I can’t think of anything more disheartening than pissing off Waits and [Kathleen] Brennan [Waits’ wife and co-songwriter]. I’ve heard stories about how some of his fans make him really uncomfortable. If that’s true, imagine you’re Tom Waits for a minute: A traveling show of your music is setting up shop in your area code where a large number of the rabid fans who irritate you are gathering in your honor.”
McNulty doesn’t shy away from words like “uncomfortable” and “irritate,” probably because the show’s creators intentionally have chosen to emphasize the grotesquerie in Waits’ catalogue—rather than the misery and nostalgia that exists there in equal measure. Alice’s “Table Top Joe,” is easily exploitable—it’s about a dude with no legs, who (naturally) appears on stage. But what about the melancholy of that album’s “Lost in the Harbor?” Where’s the heart-rending sadness?
Stader’s answer: “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.”
In other words, Waits devotees, if you want weepy, you sit at home and drink Makers Mark from the bottle while listening to Real Gone and clutching a picture of your high-school sweetheart. Otherwise, you maybe go to a peep show. Whatever that is.