Hello there, Green Room readers! Happy to be back with “Song Spotlights” after a brief hiatus.

Last time I was here, I spent a lot of time gushing about Natasha, Pierre and my lingering fascination with War and Peace, and very little time on my usual shtick—that shtick being, Everything Old is New Again, or, How I Learned To Stop Being A Golden Age Snob and Love Today we are going to be looking at Ryan Scott Oliver’s song “Crazytown,” from 35mm: A Musical Exhibition.

Let’s start with the concept musical. This vaguely defined term is not one that’s thrown around often anymore, but it represents a category of musical theatre which dominated in the 1970s—the work of Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince, Bob Fosse, and Michael Bennett. For my purposes, I am going to define a concept musical as a piece of musical theatre that sacrifices traditional narrative and character for the sake of an overarching theme or concept*. The play-within-a-play defines Pippin, not Pippin’s journey. The struggles of intimacy and loneliness define Company, not which girl Bobby ends up with.

And Follies, despite being a concept musical bogged down by its plot, is ultimately defined by the showgirls, young and old, performing in a demolished theater—an image of the past being relegated to something decayed and ghostly. And that image wasn’t conjured up by Sondheim and Prince all on their own—they had a little help from Life magazine and Gloria Swanson.

Gloria Swanson, standing in the ruins of the Roxy Theatre in 1960. The Roxy was a legendary movie palace in New York City.

Gloria Swanson, standing in the ruins of the Roxy Theatre in 1960. The Roxy was a legendary movie palace in New York City.

Just as Follies tells that photograph’s surrounding story, the 22 songs in 35mm do so for 22 different photographs by Matthew Murphy. It’s the concept—creating backstories for these images—that ties the songs together rather than a specific theme. This is made explicit in live performances, where a backdrop displays each song’s accompanying photo, inviting the audience to make connections between the image and the sung-through story.

So I think it’s fitting for me to show you the photograph attached to “Crazytown” before diving right into the song.

Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Our narrator is The Idle Boy, and his destination is, surprise surprise, Crazytown. We are told, repeatedly, that Crazytown “ain’t no [insert beloved children’s fantasy land here].” Oz it’s not, and Neverland it will never be. But if the destination isn’t similar, it’s certain that the journey is. The lyrics tell us that the Idle Boy still has to “twist there like Dorothy” or go “through the wardrobe like Lucy.”

Oliver takes the Idle Boy through the familiar framework of a child’s metaphorical coming-of-age fantasy, from obvious doubles (“There’s a jeering jackal much like my mother,”) to symbolic locales (“a Tower of Doors!!!”). But the Idle Boy’s hopes and fears are more that of a teen or young adult, and it shows in Crazytown’s metaphors. Take this stanza:

I escape from the dog as I dive through a stream of sea snakes
And I realize that this river is what separates the East from the West
And I’m bitten from the East (Which is present)
To the West (Which is past and future)

Portion of the map of the Kingdom of Wisdom from Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tolbooth, illustrating some rather obvious symbolism.

Portion of the map of the Kingdom of Wisdom from Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tolbooth, illustrating some rather obvious symbolism.

The Idle Boy must be old enough to have a meaningful past as well as anxiety about the future. He’s also trying to escape from under his mother’s watchful eye. His age becomes more explicit when he stumbles upon an orgy specializing in erotic asphyxiation (“All those fuckers I have fondled in my fantasies, turning blue”).

We also get to know something about the Idle Boy’s character from the way the music switches during this section. The accompaniment that was earlier described as “biting” and “agitated” gives way to a “beautifully” sung set of chords on the line “choking orgy.” The music becomes even tenderer (aided by a slew of naturals) once the Idle Boy begins participating. However, once he’s on the brink of orgasm (and possibly death), the music becomes “nasty” and he returns to the road.

What I’d say separates “Crazytown” from “Alice in Wonderland” or “Peter Pan” isn’t so much the protagonist’s maturity as it is the narrative’s overall tone. Oliver’s lyrics are almost always self-aware, and lines like “It’s a Christ-like allegory” after a “Chronicles of Narnia” allusion make me chuckle. But levity is scarce—the meta language feels like a defense mechanism for the narrator, because the outcome of his journey is just plain mean:

And I watch from a window and I witness the town on fire
Everybody from the jackal to the orgiastic mass expire
And the Tower explodes, ripping me apart
Head to heel to heart, till I wake at the start
And see…me.

When the Idle Boy says he wakes at the start, he means it literally: we return to the beginning of the song, which opened with syncopated percussive nonsense sounds…some of which we now realize are ding-dong’s that evoke a clock striking midnight. The noise’s repetitive motion reminds one of gears turning…turning back time. And once again, the Idle Boy finds himself running from the jackal.

Think Lola Rennt, but really depressing.

Think Lola Rennt, but really depressing.

It’s a rather horrifying note to end on. For while deep down children know that Neverland and Wonderland are just names for the way they choose to look at the world, that world is still a place where what they do is important. They’ve learned and earned something on the journey. The Idle Boy, true to his name, remains unchanged and doomed to a Promethean existence. He clings to the patterns of childhood fantasy, but they prove as futile a comfort as the patterns of Ziegfeldian theatre do for the characters in Follies.

I have my own personal interpretation of how Murphy’s striking photo relates to this song. Obviously Oliver has his. Look at the picture again. What do you see?


*(There’s another category, the song cycle, which has some overlap with the concept musical. I view them as nearly identical—the difference being the latter has dialogue. 35mm is technically the former.)

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