Did You Hear? Hot Knife

This week’s Did You Hear? is special. Following our selected song, contributor @david_rochefort — who you may remember from the spirited Sex and the City flame war with New Yorker writer Emily Nussbaum — explains why he thinks the songs of Fiona Apple should be adapted for Broadway production. He even outlines the song choices and plot structure. The way we see it, it’s the only production that could potentially lead to more pre-debut injuries than Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark.  

Feel Everything

Billy Joel. ABBA. Green Day. And now we learn that Alanis Morrisette’s “Jagged Little Pill” is going to get the “jukebox musical” treatment. This no doubt will consist of a flimsy story stringing together songs from the best-selling album. Tourists fresh off the bus from Altoona can sing along on their way to the Hershey’s Store and Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar.

I’d like to make a plea for common sense and decency: If you’re going to make a musical based on a ’90s pop singer, please let that singer be Fiona Apple.

Here’s why: 

It would work! Apple’s songs are basically showtunes anyway. They should be sung in smoky rooms accompanied by a piano, an upright bass, and a high hat. (This seems to be roughly the vibe at Largo, her haunt in L.A., though I regret I’ve never been there.) They’d work perfectly at, say, Studio 54, or maybe the Carlyle.

Her lyrics are rife with witty turns of phrase, which puts her more in the company of Cole Porter than Taylor Swift. For example, one of her favorite lyrical tricks is turning disappointment at a lover into tongue-in-cheek self-blame. In “Parting Gift,” as she draws out each word of the line “oh… you… silly…. stupid… pastime of mine,” it is only at the last moment that she pulls the switch, and we realize “silly” and “stupid” are not modifying the object of her affection but her own susceptibility to him. On “Werewolf,” she gives us one of the more insightful takes on the vampires ‘n’ friends spooky monster model so saturating TV and movies: “I could liken you to a werewolf the way you left me for dead / Though I admit I provided a full moon.” She is one of a very few pop singers with a serious aversion to cliché. On “Hot Knife,” a new love doesn’t just make her heart flutter; he makes her heart “a CinemaScope screen showing a dancing bird of paradise.”

The narrative would come naturally. Apple’s entire oeuvre is a story about a relationship, with each song a point on an arc from longing to passion to disappointment to regret to acceptance. “Anything We Want” is early, unadulterated joy; “Oh Well,” dysfunction and disappointment; “Parting Gift,” retrospective gratitude for a relationship’s successes as well as its failures.

Maybe Apple’s songs, though popular, never reached Alanis Morrisette levels of ubiquity. But if ever there were a cultural moment for a Fiona Apple musical, it’s now. The hottest comedian in America is Louis C.K., famous for (among other things) railing against the numbing effects of technology and celebrating the joys of “feeling everything,” as Apple would say. C.K.’s most recent viral hit was a bit on Conan that begins as an explanation of why he doesn’t let his kids have cell phones and veers into a tour de force on the perils of distraction, as opposed to the merits of allowing ourselves to have the occasional moment of anger or sadness, not only for its cathartic effect but also because there is joy to be found in feeling any emotion deeply. His epic and intensely felt affair with Parker Posey on Louie was a Fiona Apple story through and through.

“And I could liken you to a shark the way you bit off my head.”

One theme Apple returns to again and again is that it’s better to have loved and lost than never loved at all. (She’d hate that cliché, I know.) On her 2012 album, “The Idler Wheel…,” the chorus of the opening track is the plea “I just wanna feel everything.” (The line was memorably tweeted by Lena Dunham not long after the album came out.) The chorus of the song, to the extent you can call it that, is just that line, three times over. Left hanging is the suggestion, “Is that so much to ask?” That theme pervades Apple’s work, in particular the idea that there is value to be gained even from the pain and agony of relationships gone awry. It’s there in “Parting Gift” (“It ended bad but I love that we started”) and “Werewolf” (“Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key”). The latter ties together two of Apple’s favorite ideas: finding value in negative emotions and the failure of her contemporaries, those who get more radio play, to recognize that value. (“Please please please, no more melodies / they lack impact, they’re petty / they’ve been made up already…. Give us something familiar / something similar / to what we know already / that will keep us steady, steady / steady going nowhere.”)

Perhaps the best reason to bring Apple to Broadway is that her songs deserve an audience, but her performances are notoriously uneven. As she told Marc Maron on his “WTF” podcast, Apple initially approached a record producer with tracks from her debut album, Tidal, expecting to be a writer rather than a performer. Because I’m so enamored of Apple as a songwriter, I was devastated when she turned out to be so disappointing on stage. Maybe it’s my fault for seeing her at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, New Jersey, where the crowd was indifferent and restless, though Apple must take some of the blame for putting on a show like a jam band and veering into uninspired, interminable improvisations. She has her moments, as she showed on Fallon last year. But her songs deserve to be treated like new American standards. They would benefit from alternative arrangements and interpretation by other artists (and not just Elvis Costello).

Some of my favorite Apple songs wouldn’t work in the clean narrative arc a Broadway production demands. Plus, you’ve got to get the hits in there somehow. And because many tracks suffer from epically unnecessary preludes, they’d have to be edited into medleys like the ones I suggest below. But when the Fiona Apple musical, Feel Everything, opens at Studio 54, here’s what it should look like:

a. Act I, Scene i: Longing: “Criminal” / “Paper Bag” (“Hunger hurts, and I want him so bad oh it kills, but I know I’m a mess he don’t want to clean up”)
b. Act I, Scene ii: Passion: “Anything We Want” / “The First Taste” / “Pale September” (“All my armor falling down”)
c. Act I, Scene iii: Conflict: “Love Ridden” (“No not baby anymore / If I need you I’ll just use your simple name”) / “Get Gone” / “Fast As You Can” (“Scratch me out, free yourself”) / “Oh Well” (“What wasted unconditional love on somebody who doesn’t believe in the stuff”)
d. Act II, Scene i: Moving On: “Extraordinary Machine” / “Waltz (Better Than Fine)” (“If you don’t have a date, celebrate! / Go out and sit on the lawn and do nothing”) / “Shadowboxer” (“Well you know I’d be insane to ever let that dirty game recapture me”)
e. Act II, Scene ii: Get Him Back: “Parting Gift” (“It ended bad but I love that we started”) / “Get Him Back”
f. Act II, scene iii: Happy Ending: “Anything We Want” (reprise) / “Hot Knife”

– @david_rochefort is a former television writer.

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