Back in 1998, I saw a poster taped to a lamp poll for a play called Balm in Gilead. I was intrigued by the black and white image: a shadowy figure (maybe two) at the top of a staircase. The play was being performed at the Magic Theatre, and I made plans to see it. Going to Ft. Mason on the bus, and walking into the space, I clearly remember the stage: a run-down coffee-shop on the Upper West Side, full of colorful and burnt-out figures coming out of the shadows. The cast was huge. I loved the world that was created in that theater, and how the actors were so believable and good.
The one thing that I’ve always remembered about the show was a specific moment and song that made it come alive.
The play takes place in Frank’s Cafe. The principal character, Joe, owes money to a drug dealer, Chuckles. Joe has just met Darlene, and they’ve spent the night together. Joe nearly gives up his drug dealing and starts over with Darlene, but he’s killed by the dealer’s thugs. The play ends with the occupants of the Cafe, repeating their lines from the first scene, implying that they’re stuck in a rut they can’t get out of.
In the moment we learn of Joe’s murder, there was a light transition into the final scene with The Rolling Stones’ “Let It Loose” – which knocked me out. I haven’t forgotten about that moment: the visual of an actor in a solitary light with that music playing over the transition. It really hit me.
I wanted to use this song in Black River Falls to acknowledge that production I saw, and of the moment the character of Craig gets his comeuppance at the hands of Dabney, instigated by Laurie.
Music in this production was really important to me to get right. Putting the music together and getting the tone of every scene and transition was so much fun to do.
Here’s the playlist of music from the show. Enjoy.
The first seven songs are the pre-show music – just personal favorites from my childhood, but also of the time this play takes place in – 1978.
• “Who Are You” : That’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it? If you know this song, then that’s all you need to know about Gary’s motivation.
• “White Rabbit” / “Far Away Eyes” / “Walk On The Wild Side” – underlying music to introduce us to Dabney, and the environment of The Lighthouse, the local bar. “Far Away Eyes” is not only a great bar song, but a under-handed reference to Dabney’s extended monologue about Grace Slick and ‘those shotgun eyes.’
• I wanted to include “Sundown” because of this specific lyric: “Sundown ya better take care/If I find you been creepin’ ’round my back stairs” – this refers to the character of Craig, who is upstairs with Laurie at the top of the show.
• “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” : The scene in Colleen’s bedroom really is about the awkwardness of new love between someone who has more experience vs. the other person’s inexperience. But the music was important because as teenagers, we all had music playing in the background that was perfect for make-out sessions.
• “Let It Loose” – a shout-out to Balm In Gilead.
• “Time For Me To Fly” – it was a choice between this song for the final picture of Gary and Colleen, or the pulsating rhythm of “Anytime” by Journey. I opted for this because it gives me (and hopefully the audience) a sense of Gary’s new direction and new love with Colleen.
Black River Falls by Bryn Magnus runs from 10/29 – 11/20 in San Francisco at The Mojo Theatre.