Eric Salzman: Composer, Author, Music Theater Innovator



On the Making of Jukebox in the Tavern of Love

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The Western Wind production of “Jukebox in the Tavern of Love” by Valeria Vasilevski and Eric Salzman at The Flea Theatre in downtown Manhattan, May/June 2008 (Valeria Vasilevski directing) // Eliot Levine (the Rabbi), Todd Frizzell (the poet), William Zukof (the Bartender), Kristina Boerger (the Nun), Laura Christian (the Dancer) and Richard Slade (the Utility Worker)

From a conversation held at the Arsenal, Central Park, New York, on the occasion of the first performance of “All That is Left of Me”, the first completed number from “Jukebox”.

Valeria Vasilevski: Bill Zukof and Elliot Levine of the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble met with Eric Salzman and me to talk about the possibility of a commission for a new piece. The question was simple: “What do we write?” Eric, who has at least one million ideas, thoughts and back-up material on just about any subject you can bring forth, immediately said:

Eric Salzman: Why don’t we write a madrigal comedy? Something like Banchieri’s “Boatride from Venice to Padua.” That was in 1605 and there hasn’t been much work done on the Madrigal Comedy since then. But instead of a boatride from Venice to Padua we can set it on the #7 from Manhattan to Astoria!

VV: Who else thinks like that?

Bill said “That’s terrific!”
Eliot said “Great idea!”
VV said: “What’s a madrigal Comedy?”

VV: In the meantime, the Ensemble allowed us sit in on rehearsals so we could get a sense of how they worked together and what their needs are as individual singers and as a group. Actually I was there for a third and secret purpose: to take notes on their interactions and banter and personal style so their ‘characters’ could evolve from something ever so slight in their real selves…

We soon realized that, although they are a very handsome ensemble, they really don’t look like a cross section of New Yorkers on the #7!

ES: It doesn’t matter where you set it, Valeria, but it must have dramatic purpose and distinctive characters in a situation.

VV: So I said, Eric, why don’t we set the piece in an Italian bar in a New York neighborhood, the night of the great storm when all the electricity goes out and people who normally might never enter a bar, come in to find shelter. This also allows them all to tell their own personal love stories by candlelight!

ES: So we could have a candlelight concert?

VV: Swell idea!

ES: And it’s just like the Decameron of Boccaccio: Tales of Love in a Time of Plague!

VV: The characters enter, find relief, talk about love and then bond as a community as their songs move from love on the material plane to love in the mystical sense of union with the Beloved. Here we can quote Rumi. In the Sufi tradition, intoxication with wine is a metaphor for the intoxication of spiritual Love. So it’s Jukebox in the Tavern of Love.

ES: I love the title!

VV: I wanted to make sure that each character has his or her own language—so we can work with the language of tap dancing, the language of James Joyce when we deal with the poet, the false Italian of the bartender (which is actually based on Banchieri), the pretend Yiddish of the rabbi, the Victorian dignity of an old letter, and so on. All slightly exaggerated. And it’d be fun to add another kind of language, a meta-language of gestures based on a book of Italian gestures called “La Mimica degli antichi, investigata nel gestire napoletano” or “Ancient mimicry in the gestures of Naples.” There are some wonderful gestures in this book that are even used today in southern Italy. My favorite is the gesture to express anger which is called “to bite one’s elbow!”

Can we incorporate the gestures right into the score?

ES: Sure! Sing and bite your elbow at the same time. Only the Western Wind could manage to do that!

VV: I have to interrupt to say that Eric is every theater artist’s ideal composer because he does not keep his head in the sands of music but thinks in terms of theater, of movement, of lighting possibilities, of character and conflict and leaves no detail unnoticed because he is a brilliant man of the theater and its always a joy to collaborate with him.

ES: Did somebody ask what is a Madrigal Comedy? I guess it’s something like a Renaissance vaudeville. What they used to call an ‘oleo’—a bunch of routines and songs for the ensemble on a more-or-less dramatic subject. A Renaissance vaudeville. A vocal storm. Love in a Blackout. Earthly love and drinking wine in a bar. Spiritual love according to the great Persian poet Rumi.

VV: Vocal Storm, Blackout, Brush Shuffle Chug, The Jesuit Rabbi, Not Porcelain Dolls, Toast Love, Quodlibet (whatever that is). At the end: All that is Left of Me, our take on Rumi.

ES: You see why it’s always a joy to collaborate with her!

VV: What’s a Quodlibet?

ES: Quodlibet is when everyone sings their own tune at the same time as the lights come back on.

VV: They all leave and go back to their lives but their voices linger on.