Remember December 2012, when Beck released Song Reader? The album’s unusual format caused quite a bit of confusion and speculation within the music industry.
The reception ranged from glowing to contemptuous, with the majority falling into a middle-of-the-road approach. It was meant to be “more than just a funny provocation,” as McSweeney’s editor Jordan Bass put it, but wasn’t meant as a comprehensive manifesto.
Song Reader was not really an album at all. Rather, Beck released an 108-page compilation of visual art, including 20 songs in sheet-music form that he left “open to artist interpretation.” The only way fans could hear it was to learn to play the music themselves, or scour through the subsequent flood of YouTube renditions uploaded on Songreader.net. The results included a few stunning renditions, along with a crop of painful attempts by amateurs.
Despite Song Reader‘s popularity—Rolling Stone named it one of its top albums for 2013—a year after its release, no one had thought to look at the music as a platform for a comprehensive story narrative until a couple of DC nerds read the sheet music. Daniel Hornal, a consumer-rights attorney, and his friend, Harvey Droke, read Beck’s lyrics and studied the accompanying artwork and realized there was a story in there.
An accountant by trade, Droke had studied musical composition in school and regularly composes for local ensembles including the orchestra at the Latter-Day Saints temple in Montgomery County. He had also previously worked on a musical adaptation of the 1991 film Oscar.
“Daniel came to me knowing I’d composed and written shows and said ‘we should write a musical.’ And I said, ‘no we shouldn’t,’ because I knew how much time things like this take,” Droke says. Ultimately, after a bit of brainstorming, they decided to move forward with it.
“No one is going to believe an accountant and an attorney wrote this show,” Droke says.
Hornal and Droke reached out to Beck’s manager, the publishing company, and the owner’s of the music rights, and asked if they could make it into a rock opera.
“All three of them totally green-lit the project,” Droke says. They began working on a libretto adaptation, meaning the entire storyline of the play would be sung all the way through, with everything rhyming, including the dialogue. But their efforts were not without challenges. “Beck uses a lot of synthesizers and guitar, and nothing of his sounds like show tunes, so to do that kind of music was challenging.”
Then, there was the issue of the plot: “I remember thinking, what kind of plot would Beck want to see? But eventually I just stopped trying to connect them so much,” Droke says.
Song Reader: The Musical, is finally premiering during this month’s Capital Fringe Festival. The plot follows a soldier who falls in love with an exotic dancer, Ziz, shortly before being deployed to a war zone. The storyline was purposefully designed to be somewhat generic, as a low-budget, black-box performance. But it was also designed as such in order to be adaptable. Just as Beck’s “album” was intended to give power back to musicians, Song Reader: The Musical is meant to give the director full creative control.
“It’s not in a particular time frame or a particular location, and all of the characters are very generic,” Droke says. “It could be any war the soldier is deployed to. This director chose to make it relevant with the Iraq War.”
Droke found most of the cast from the Keegan Theatre’s production of American Idiot, Green Day’s rock opera about George W. Bush-era foreign policy, and the show is performed with a live band, conducted by Droke. Hornal and Droke were able to include the entirety of Song Reader in the musical score, down to the curtain call at the very end, which is taken to “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard,” the only song that didn’t quite fit with the plot.
“There’s not a single note in the entire song reader package we didn’t use,” Droke says. “And we didn’t touch Beck’s lyrics.”