Thrilling Adventure Hour #70: Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars, “The Piano Has Been Thinking”
By Katie Levine on May 7, 2012
Starring Marc Evan Jackson as Sparks Nevada and Mark Gagliardi as his faithful Martian companion, Croach the Tracker. Also starring Linda Cardellini, Joshua Malina, Annie Savage, David Fury, Elin Hampton, Autumn Reeser, Emma Danoff, John DiMaggio, Grant-Lee Phillips, Craig Cackowski, Busy Philipps, Nathan Fillion, JK Simmons, and John Hodgman.
Recorded November 5, 2011.
I do not like musicals. I find them hard to sit through. While the songs are often great, they do little more than interrupt the featherweight plot. The classic musicals never quite come together for me. There are, however, two that I can get behind. One is The Wizard of Oz. But, nostalgia aside, what works in Oz are the driving plot and the introduction of each character via a song. I know this happens in other musicals but never so well as in The Wizard of Oz. And, still, there are some really draggy parts. The only musical that works for me (almost) top to bottom is “Once More with Feeling,” the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The songs are great, they move the episode forward, there is justification for the music, there is real emotional heft to the episode, and it the characters do not remain stagnant — they come out of their musical experience changed.
When Acker and I approached doing a musical episode, those notions were foremost in my mind. We were helped somewhat by the fact that Sparks Nevada is a space-western, so we knew the flavor of the songs we’re be writing with Andy Paley.
I believe the notion of a Sparks musical had been floating around for some time between us, though it was Acker who first suggested it. (He likes musicals). As we did the first few years of the show, it became apparent that all of our actors can sing. And really like singing. Not content to be brilliant comic and dramatic actors, I suppose.
The plot to the episode started to take shape as we plotted out the “season” of Sparks (unlike the other pieces of the show, we tend to plan out the Sparks episodes about a year at a time. Often this is because of the need for recurring characters such as Cactoid Jim or Rebecca Rose Rushmore; we wouldn’t want anyone but Nathan or Linda to play these parts if we can avoid it, so we want to give them plenty of notice for scheduling. Which reminds me that I owe Linda an email). We knew that the musical Sparks would be the culmination of Sparks’ nearly year-long romance with Miss Rushmore. That was the big emotional pay-off that was a hold-over from the first time we performed the show at M Bar five years ago.
At Largo, we had such fun with our cast of players — Nathan Fillion as Cactoid Jim, Busy Philipps as the Red Plains Rider — that we beefed up their roles over the course of Sparks’ second season. So we added in the Cactoid/Red wedding as another big emotional beat of the episode. (By this time the episode was swelling to squeeze out a middle part of that month’s show anyway) Acker had the idea of doing a medley in the middle, based around the wedding, and (like Andy) I was dubious. But Jonathan Dinerstein put together this absolutely lovely (and tremendously complicated) piece of music and I have never been prouder of our actors than when they performed this on stage. It was fascinating seeing it come together — everyone gathered around the piano at Andy’s place where we rehearsed, the piece gradually taking shape. I hope it comes across in the podcast as beautifully as it did on stage.
We gave a LOT of work to our director Aaron Ginsburg and he delivered (as he always does). He brought out often unexpected performances and moments in our actors, encouraged everyone to dig deep in a way that it’s easy not to do in our show. Not to mention maneuvering the movements of over a dozen actors at only six microphone positions.
I cannot overstate how hard everyone worked on this episode. Certainly this is the script that Acker and I wrote and rewrote more than any other. Andy and Jonathan created charts, and rehearsed the hell out of an already crack team of musicians (see Andy’s notes below for a peek inside the process). We usually have one rehearsal preceding a show; for this episode we had three or four, and Josh Malina was the first to arrive every time. It shows in the confidence of his performances in this piece. I will never forget watching Josh and Craig Cackowski (who had performed these songs back at M Bar and is among the most adept at performing our sometimes difficult dialogue, no less difficult in melodic incarnation!), the first at bat, finding their footing and swinging for the fences with each run-through. It was exhilarating, and the energy they brought to even those first attempts set the tone for everyone.
Having seen Dr. Horrible, we knew that Nathan Fillion could carry a tune. And, like everyone, he put in 100%, working around his Castle schedule to come to rehearsal and learn some very complicated pieces. We also knew that Busy Philipps could really, really sing (though we hadn’t seen anything quite like what she did here). What we didn’t anticipate was the emotion that both would bring to their love-song duet and the chemistry they’d have doing it. It’s a testament to these two actors—singing almost completely in metaphor — that you believe that they’re falling in love. Busy just kills me with the spin she puts on the line “The way you say ‘howdy’ makes me rowdy” in the medley.
Marc Evan Jackson and Linda Cardellini also brought a beautiful chemistry to both the scenes and songs that would spell the demise for their characters’ relationship. Sparks has always been a little emotionally oblivious and playing that against Rebecca’s self-awareness (and ability to read Sparks) made things really hit home. Linda was very nervous about singing — she’s a perfectionist as a performer — and I think she really knocked it out of the park.
To up the emotional stakes of the episode, we decided that this would also be the time that Croach fulfills his onus to Sparks. We love spending the year building up Sparks’ world only to strip things away from him. We’d already taken his Marshalhood (in his showdown with Techs, last month) and now not only were we having Rebecca dump him but Croach was, in essence, doing the same. There’s not much I can say about Mark Gagliardi‘s Croach that I haven’t already. Mark brilliantly performs anything we throw at him. It was a lot of fun making Croach express himself metaphorically through song, something a Martian would never do. Gags walks this hilarious line between embracing it and utter embarrassment.
We had the most over-qualified Banditos Mutantes in Grant-Lee Phillips, David Fury (both unbelievable, basso voices), John DiMaggio, Autumn Reeser, Emma Danoff (whose parents wrote the hit 70s song “Afternoon Delight”), and Elin Hampton (who wrote a damned opera last year!). They threw themselves into the parts — Fury and Elin brought the sombreros that you see in the photos, and be sure to check out Autumn in full costume! Andy’s arrangement of the Banditos’ theme is the icing on the cake.
When we cast Garret Dillahunt as Techs a few months prior to this, we made sure that he could sing. We did not make sure that he wouldn’t be in New York shooting a movie when we did this show. Marc Evan Jackson has done a series of Farmer’s Insurance ads with JK Simmons and pitched him to fill in for Garret in this episode, knowing that JK has a musical background. Acker did his homework on JK and found that he was in the early 80’s cast of Guys and Dolls on Broadway. JK is the real thing. He was able to attend one rehearsal, and when he showed up I asked him if he’d had a chance to listen to the demos I’d sent. “No,” JK said. “But do you have the charts?” We gave him the charts and he proceeded to cold-sing “I’m Gonna Kill You Someday” in the same powerful, beautiful voice that you hear on the podcast. Having JK on board raised the game for everyone.
I listened to the podcast again yesterday, and I immediately emailed Annie Savage to tell her that her singing — particularly the verse of “Poor Me (Pour Me Another)” — gave me chills, just as it did in the live performance. There is a longing and emotion that Annie can convey when she sings which is a direct line to the heartstrings. We have a studio version of Annie singing “Poor Me” (with somewhat different lyrics) as a country ballad. Hopefully it will someday see the light of day. It is, in my opinion, the best song that the Acker & Blacker/Paley team have written.
Finally, when we found out that our friend John Hodgman would be in town the weekend of this show, there was no question that he should play the “villain” of the piece. John brings such a lovely pathos to his performance as a robot(ish) full of unrequited love. Plus, John finds the comedy in the sadness — or perhaps the humanity in the comedy — of every performance he gives.
I could not be prouder of this episode of the show. It really was a great accomplishment, hard earned, and I think the work everyone put in comes across in this podcast. Andy and Barre Duryea worked hard on the recording as well to make it sound so great. We hope to someday offer you an “original cast recording” of the Sparks musical (as well as the other great songs we’ve written with Andy). Is that something you guys would be interested in?
Musician and composer Andy Paley:
A lot of hard work goes into making one of these monthly performances. Certain aspects of the process are like a well-oiled machine because we’ve been doing it so long, but every month there are new bits, songs, characters, etc which we have to incorporate so they fit in just right. This week’s podcast, “The Piano Has Been Thinking” is our first big musical episode. Acker and Blacker and I have always talked about doing an episode like this where characters burst into song. So what you hear in this particular episode are some new songs, bits of music, and some songs you’ve heard in previous episodes — but you’ve never heard them like this before.
The Andy Paley Orchestra consists of a rotating cast of characters with some hard-core regulars.
At a typical show, we’ll have 4 musicians on the stage. We’re able to call that an orchestra without being disingenuous because most of the players play a number of instruments, therefore we’re able to add more depth and color to our music. I try to find musicians who can double, triple or quadruple on instruments.
For instance, Mike Bolger, one of our regulars, plays trumpet, melophone, tuba, accordion, organ and piano. He can even play the trumpet and the accordion at the same time. Mike Uhler joins us fairly regularly and plays bass, cello, melodica, guitar and trumpet. Two years ago Mike picked up the musical saw, which is exactly what it sounds like. The only difference between a musical saw and a regular saw is that the musical saw has no teeth and is played with a violin bow by bending the saw while you’re bowing it. As you bend it the notes get higher. Also you cannot cut a 2 x 4 with it. In the Thrilling Adventure Hour, whenever you hear eerie sounding ethereal “oohs,” that’s not a Theremin, it’s either Mike Uhler playing the saw or Annie Savage in her highest register.
I play various keyboards, guitar, harmonica, castanets and autoharp in the show. I seem to always be there (unless I’m cruising the Bahamas or the Italian Rivera with SpongeBob & the Hi-Seas). Jonathan Dinerstein and Becky Ward are nearly always there, although they did miss a show to go on their honeymoon (selfish). Jonathan does the charts for the show, plays the piano and writes out the cue sheets so the musicians know where and what to play in the show. Becky is a brilliant violinist who also sings beautifully and doubles on glockenspiel, which comes up more than you might think.
Ben Jaffe, who you may know as half of the power-pop, heart-throb duo Honeyhoney, has been a fairly constant member of our ensemble. Ben is a great guy to have on hand because he’s a really solid drummer who also plays guitar and keyboards and sings. Jordan Katz plays trumpet and banjo and is one of our regulars. Other members include Jillinda Palmer, Brittney Westover, Jeff Lass, Charles Burns, James King (when he’s not on tour with Fitz and the Tantrums), and Scott Healey and Mark Pender of Conan O’Brien’s Basic Cable Band.
When Honeyhoney is on the road, our friend Barre Duryea fills in on drums and percussion. Barre is also a great guy to have around when there’s a loose wire or a broken guitar string. He helps us put this podcast together too.
“Andy Paley Orchestra Fanfare” and “Buddies”
The first thing you hear in this week’s podcast (and in every podcast) is the “Andy Paley Orchestra Fanfare.” While Brian Stack introduces the show and the players, Mike Bolger and Mike Uhler play the horn lines, Ben Jaffe does a timpani roll and the rest of the band joins in. We segue into an instrumental version of “Buddies,” a song which longtime Thrilling Adventure fans will recognize from our earlier shows when it was sung as a duet by Annie and Hal.
“Red Planet Rodeo” and “Sparks Nevada”
The next instrumental music you hear is called “Red Planet Rodeo.” That’s me playing the tremolo (spaghetti western guitar) and Mike Uhler and Jordan Katz playing mariachi trumpets on the bridge. This segues into the “Sparks Nevada” theme, which was written by Eben Schletter, featuring Marc Evan Jackson’s lead vocal and Annie Savage doing her best Theremin imitation.
During the next narration, we do a very slow, rubato version of “Red Planet Rodeo.” We use this theme a lot under the narration.
“Haunted Saloon Piano”
The first scene takes place in the saloon. It’s lucky for us that Largo’s piano is an old upright which happens to have a fairly rare attachment which is sometimes referred to as a mandolin bar. This is basically a strip of metal which can be lowered with a lever to rest across the strings, thus giving the piano a metallic, tinny, saloon-like sound. We use this whenever the action takes place in a saloon. That’s Jonathan Dinerstein playing.
“I Don’t Want No Trouble In My Place”
This song addresses the barkeep’s primary concern. The title is self explanatory. Josh Malina as our worry-wart barkeep sells the song beautifully. You can hear me playing harmonica and Drew Taubenfeld playing dobro guitar pretty clearly on this recording.
“Haaaaalp!” (Not to be confused with The Beatles song with a similar title)
It’s great to hear Craig Cackowski’s panic-stricken, scaredy-cat reading of this Thrilling Adventure Show classic.
John DiMaggio, Autumn Reeser, Ellin Hampton, David Fury, Grant Lee Phillips, and Emma Danoff take over the stage as Los Banditos Mutantes. Their presence is intimidating and their resonant pipes are enough to fill the theater with a sense of impending doom. You can almost see the goose bumps on the first few rows every time they walk on stage. Mike Uhler and Jordan “Fur Face” Katz are playing those mariachi trumpets and that’s Ben Jaffe on the castanets.
“I’m Gonna Kill You Someday”
Ben Acker called and said that he wanted to collaborate with me on a “big ballad” in the style of “Somewhere Out There.” I said, “Is it okay if I write something that I’m going to like?” This is typical of our collaborative process. The title he gave me was “I’m Gonna Kill You Someday” and it was to be a duet between Sparks and the one who’s gunning for him, Techs, sung as though it were on a split screen. When Acker came over a few days later, I already had the skeleton of the song done. After 2 or 3 hours we almost had the rest of it. Let me give you an illustration of why Ben Acker is a great collaborator: at one point, we were stuck on how to end the bridge. I asked “Is it too stupid to say ‘if killing you is right, then how can killing you be wrong?’” Ben said “Not only is it stupid, it’s sooo stupid that I’m putting it in right now.” This is why you want to write songs with Ben Acker. We had the song almost finished. But we still needed a two-syllable word ending with the long “a” sound for the opening of the song. One option: “Where are you hiding today?” (Boring.) Another option: “Where are you hiding, Jose?” (Not his name.) But we really couldn’t find the right word. “Where are you hiding, Hombre?” occurred to me at 3 in the morning. I emailed Blacker. He said, “That’s perfect.”
It’s really gratifying to hear the audience reaction on this recording. Whenever you get to hear Marc Evan Jackson singing as Sparks, it’s a treat, and J.K. Simmons, with his seasoned Broadway chops, really hits it out of the park.
“Written in the Stars”
“Written in the Stars” is a song I had partially written many years ago which was lying around collecting dust. Ben Blacker and Ben Acker wanted something romantic and sentimental for the show and I was reminded of this song. I always intended for it to be in the vein of “The Three Bells” which was sung by Jim Ed, Bonnie and Maxine Brown (The Browns), or “The Orphan’s Lament” which is an old country/folk song. I’m really proud of what the three of us came up with. Where else in 2012 are you going to hear lyrics like “though hoary snow and wind did blow / their hearts knew not the storm”? You can hear me on the autoharp and Mike Uhler on the church bells, Becky on the glockenspiel and Drew playing steel guitar on this sentimental ballad. Busy and Nathan do a super job putting this one across.
“Poor Me (Pour Me Another)”
This is another great Ben Acker title. We’ve written a few drinking songs together, most notably “Here’s To Us” for Paul F. Tompkins and Paget Brewster to sing as Frank and Sadie Doyle. This is the first country drinking song we ever wrote. I was happy to get the word “botheration” into a song. In the original version, Annie Savage sang this all the way through with her sad, sweet country twang, but as scripts change and storylines shift, it was necessary to have this version split between 3 actors: Mark Gagliardi, Josh Malina and Annie Savage. (Annie Savage groupies can scour the internet looking for her version — I’m not sure it’s out there but it should be and someday it will be, I promise.) You can hear Becky on the fiddle and some pretty steel guitar by Drew.
“Cantinela Peligrosa Numero Dos”
Los Banditos Mutantes re-enter the scene for an encore of the ever-popular “Cantinela Peligrosa.”
“Getting Nowhere Fast”
In the 1970s, I wrote “Getting Nowhere Fast” for The Charmettes, a girl group of four teenagers from Roxbury, Massachusetts. I later worked on it with The Shangri-Las. Neither version was ever released. Ben Blacker and Ben Acker needed a romantic song for the show and when they described the emotion that they were trying to convey, I offered the title to them. So the three of us re-wrote my old song to be sung as a duet. Linda Cardellini and Marc Evan Jackson do a bang-up job in this rendition.
Broadway style medley reprise
Since this episode was like a Broadway show, Acker and Blacker asked me for a big overture/finale. Although I’m a fan of many songs from Broadway shows, I’ve never been a big fan of overtures or any medleys or, as they’re called now, mash-ups. I also was very worried about performing anything complicated. Broadway shows have weeks of rehearsal leading up to their performance. We only had time to do three rehearsals: two at my house and one at Largo on the day of the show, and not all of the actors could attend every rehearsal. Coward that I am, I handed the arrangement duties over to Jonathan Dinerstein, who did a mind-blowingly great job, and even though I’m still not a fan of medleys, I can honestly say that I almost like the end result.
“Cantinela Peligrosa Numero Tres”
Los Banditos Mutantes are back yet again.
“Poor Me (Pour Me Another)”
“Poor Me (Pour Me Another)” comes up a couple more times. One version is sung by John Hodgman as the saloon piano dying. Hodgman breaks your heart in this touching death scene. The next and final version is by Annie as the saloon doors. I love how she milks it.
“Red Planet Rodeo” and “WorkJuice Anthem”
We play a little bit of “Red Planet Rodeo” which segues into an instrumental version of the “WorkJuice Anthem.”
I hope these notes have given you some insight into the creative process that we go through to write and perform this show.
I had a blast doing it!