Imagine the struggle I faced while trying to tell my parents where I was going last night. "Hey Mom, Dad? So, I'm driving up to Lexington (yes, that town thats an hour away? you know, that place where the American Revolution began?) to see this musical based on this CD that I really like, Neutral Milk Hotel's "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea". Yeah, the one with the guy who sounds like he's dying. Anyway, I won't be home until late."
It's a struggle those who are familiar with that CD know all too well. People can try all they want to explain the "cult" that has formed around that album, what the album is actually about, or how an entire spring musical can be based on it's story; but it's pointless. The cult is just a bunch of people who have been exposed, though minimally, to the depths of Jeff Mangum's (that's NMH's lead guy) brain; those who have followed the documentation of his psyche after reading Anne Frank's journal. Luckily for those who struggle with loving this album like I do, there are people like Amanda Palmer and Stephen Bogart; people who have the resources, musical and theatrical skill, and appreciation for Neutral Milk Hotel's music. People who can approach whoever it is that funds Lexington High Schools theatre program and say, "Hey. Were doing an original adaptation of this album for our spring musical. It's sorta about Anne Frank and the struggle of the Jews during WWII. Ok?"
Well, three nights of sold out shows later, I would say whoever that person is is glad that they trusted Amanda Palmer, a Lexington High grad who sings in the band The Dresden Dolls, and her longtime friend and Lexington High's theatre director, Stephen Bogart. Their combined effort resulted in the most gut-wrenchingly astounding production I have ever seen,"With the Needle that Sings in Her Heart."
It was a show that was purposefully undefinable, which was to be expected. The near-fifteen minute introduction consisted of the cast members frolicking around the theatre, screaming various phrases which ended up getting jumbled together, setting the stage for what would be explained to the audience as "the end of the world."
Eventually, we got introduced to the play's main parts; a guy who was both the "ringmaster" and the Jeff Mangum character, played by Alex Parrish, and Anne Frank. The rest of the show dealt with the experience of Anne and her sister during their time of captivity. In what I found to be the most interesting aspect of the musical,there was a muse-the "ghost", or perhaps more accurately, "idea"-of Anne, which slowly made its way across a tightrope from top left stage onto top right stage- where Jeff's room was.
Present on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea are sound clips and lyrics which relate to very youthful concepts, such as the first words of the CD,"When you were young you were the king of carrot flowers", and the multiple instances of carnival imagery. This was present in the musical as well, as the show presented scenes from the concentration camp as they would have been seen by a young girl, who, in an attempt to at least mentally escape, had begun to create her own forms of entertainment.
One of the most memorable scenes dealt with a fight between the gods Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades over which one of them was the best. This happened after a fellow inmate attempted to push her atheism onto Anne,which led her to begin to question why this was happening. There were times when both the audience and Anne were brought back into reality from the fantasy world, and it was in these time that Jeff would begin to sing songs from the album from his perch atop the stage. The kid who sang was brilliantly talented, as one must be in order to get those songs across to people. I talked to him in passing after the show. His eyes (along with everyone else exiting the theatre, including my own) were watering.
How could anyones eyes not water, though, after watching this injustice unfold in front of your eyes? From the opening scene of the play, with the kids running around throwing a ball while King of Carrot Flowers pt. I played in the background, the audience was engaged. We saw the procession of the inmates as the funeral dirge, The Fool, played. We were there when the psychotic ringmaster argued silently with Amanda Palmers character over a skeleton, as Two Headed Boy was introduced. We wondered alongside the characters who our enemies are during Oh Comley. In the closing scene, we saw Anne's body- the body of the Communist Daughter- getting thrown into the heaping pile of her friends and her sister, with Two Headed Boy pt. II being bellowed out by Alex Parrish.
Again, how could anyone not cry after watching the end of the world?
I'm not going to put any tracks up on here from the album. I spent too long years ago listening to only a few tracks, never taking it in as a whole. I won't let that happen to you. What I can give you, however, is a link to the webcast from last night's performance- http://www.partyontheinternet.com/.
(all photos courtesy of Amanda Palmers flikr account)
While were at it, I might as well help Jeff Mangum in his advertising for American Express' "Partners in Preservation" campaigning in the Greater Boston area. It's a grant thats up for a number of local, historically significant landmarks, one of which is the Paragon Park Carousel in Hull, Massachusetts. I honestly can't count how many times I've been there, nor can I explain how significant that particular carousel is to me (my mom used to bring me up there all the time, partly because any kid loves carousels, and partly because she used to go to what was then Paragon Park back in the seventies.) Vote here.