What could be better than watching “Blue Velvet”’s iconic scene of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” sedating and riling up Frank Booth into mad mania? Watching it live, of course! Such may be the case for local theatre goers in Wilmington, as folks on the scene are working day and night to see its musical debut hopefully by summer of 2012. Better yet, they’re bringing it as a work-in-progress to Cucalorus 17, as all of its details are hashed out from casting to production, musical score to scenery and everything between.
The idea to animate the David Lynch classic live began six years ago when Steve Fox (who’s heading a 25-year celebration in honor of “Blue Velvet”’s filming along port city streets; read page 15) was speaking to a budding filmmaker who attended Cucalorus. As fate would have it, the filmmaker had no idea he was standing on the streets of Frank Booth’s roustabout shenanigns.
“I was telling Jonathan Caouette a little of Wilmington’s film history,” Fox remembers, “and [when I] mentioned ‘Blue Velvet’ had been filmed here, Jonathan was taken aback. ‘Blue Velvet’ was his all time favorite film, and he was unaware that it had been filmed in Wilmington. So here’s this young filmmaker, his life is film, and he’s standing not three blocks from the Deep River (Carolina) Apartments, where Dorothy Vallens lived in ‘Blue Velvet.’ That was the moment I bagan to understand that we had this wonderful gem in our film history that we needed to be better associated with.”
As Caouette (“Tarnation,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties”) continued talking, Fox learned about his immense love for the film. As a high-school student, Caouette even wrote a musical of the movie and performed it.
“On what level isn’t that strange?” Fox asks rhetorically. “A high school student writes a musical version of ‘Blue Velvet,’ and gets to perform it, in a high school in Texas! It boggles the mind.”
Fast-forward a few years later, when Fox was sitting in Folk’s Cafe, talking with Paul Obernesser. A joke about “Blue Velvet: The Musical” came up in conversation. Upon hearing of Fox’s real interest in producing this caliber of work, Obernesser found the one person he knew would make it happen: local thespian, director and theatre guru Alisa Harris.
“Not two hours [after our talk,] I got a call from Paul and his roommate, Alisa,” Fox says. “I went over and talked to them that afternoon, and it was on. Phone calls were going out, plans were being made. I got Alisa in touch with Jonathan, and he gave his blessing.”
Harris’ professional career on the local theatre scene spawned from a very creative and talented family. Her mother, MC Erney, was a staple on the scene and left endowments to local arts institutions after her death in 2010. Harris already had plans to create her own theatre company, TheatreNOW, when approached about “Blue Velvet: The Musical.” “With my background and involvement in the local theatre scene, it made perfect sense to give it a whirl,” she says. Harris will debut the musical at her space, which is breaking ground at Dock and 10th streets hopefully in the spring.
She immediately brought on the help of Bryan Putnam to create the musical score for the show. Wilmingtonian and creator of “The Toymaker,” Putnam moved to NY to progress his work and perform with Broadway stars, while also making appearances at the Fringe festival and beyond. “I knew his haunting compositional style would be a perfect match for this piece,” Harris says. “His experience and talent has been invaluable. Most of the production is all original compositions and underscoring created expressly for this piece.”
Harris also contacted local writer, thespian and massive David Lynch fan Anthony David Lawson to help hash out the script. “I’ve known and worked with Anthony for years in stage productions around town,” Harris continues. “Last fall [when I] saw his first original piece, ‘The Title of the Play,’ at Brown Coat [Pub and Theatre, I] knew he was going to make a really good playwright.”
While a musical of this style could easily run amuck in the sense of being campy and sensationalized, Harris and her team are carefully paying it due respect for the quality and craft Lynch infused. “Noir is probably the best word to describe it,” Harris says. “As with the movie, the juxtaposition of youthful innocence and pure evil may lend itself to camp, a la ‘The Rocky Horror Show,’ but the movie (and our musical) takes innocence and rams it right up inside that seedy underbelly in a very real and terrifying way.”
The team’s lawyers have been in touch with Lynch’s council team, too; yet, no word has come of the contact as of press time. They sent a rough draft of the scripts, along with some of Putnam’s music files, for feedback. Though their hopes are high in moving forward, it isn’t without the reality of the piece’s affect on its filmmaker.
“We know ‘Blue Velvet’ is a very personal and signature production to [Lynch,]” Harris says. “We feel that we’ve done no demerit to the piece and hope it satisfies fans and finds a new audience in this format.”
At Cucalorus 17, Harris, Lawson and Putnam, along with the select few casting choices they have made, will have a read-through of the material. There will not be a set and minimal costuming, if any. However, there will be a full orchestra. The cast read-through will consist of Gray Hawks as Jeffrey Beaumont, Madison Weidberg as Sandy Williams, Zach Hanner as Frank Booth, Newlin Parker as Ben and Bradley Evans as The Man in the Yellow Jacket, among others. “We have an offer out to Traci Dinwiddie to play Dorothy Vellens,” Harris says, “and she is getting back to us if it works with her schedule.”
The audience will be able to watch their run-through as if seeing the show’s inaugural dress rehearsal. Afterward, there will be response cards for the audience to fill out so the team can survey the production.
“If there is time, we might also have a Q&A session immediately following,” she continues. “We will then take those suggestions and go back to polish the piece for an extended full production sometime in the future.”
The slated date hasn’t been revealed, but the summer of 2012 seems to be the goal of taking “Blue Velvet: The Musical” live. Harris imparts sound judgement in her outlook, refusing to make it another shadow cast of the movie.
“Moving one small but memorable character from the shadows into the spotlight is one way that delineates the musical from movie,” she says. “And putting some of the more salacious scenes to music makes it bit more palatable but no less disturbing.” In the end, she promises a piece that will honor the movie, remain entertaining, and all the while find its own voice along the way.
As part of the 25th anniversary for the making of “Blue Velvet” in Wilmington, along with the many Cucalorus events taking place in its honor, the bare-bones workshop of the musical will take place on Saturday, November 12th at 1 p.m. Tickets are $15 for the public and free for Pegasorus pass holders. Harris iterates this is not appropriate for children, as the show includes explicit language, nudity and sexuality.