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Sometimes Too Many Cooks Is Just What It Takes

January 7, 2008

There's a ghoulish little musical by the name of "Sweetie" Tanya: The Demon Barista of Valencia Street playing at The Dark Room in San Francisco's Mission District and it's terrific black-box stuff for all kinds of reasons.

This musical is a spoof of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, involving an unhappy San Francisco barista's bloodthirsty way of coping with difficult customers. But it takes on such a life of its own, that the relationship with the source material feels more like the seed of inspiration for the show than its overbearing shadow. The musical draws on the main thrust of Sondheim's revenge plot (thankfully leaving out the sappy subplot about the love affair between Judge Turpin and the protagonist's daughter) and hints at Sweeney Todd's musical style explicitly in the opening and closing numbers. But beyond that, all the connections with Sondheim are clever ironic twists rather than simple pastiches, one of my favorites being the wacky appearance of country rock musician Lyle Lovett in place of Sondheim's pie shop owner, Mrs. Lovett. Many of the characters -- especially the narrator, a personable homeless guy with Tourette's syndrome and scorched red eyes by the name of Mad Biscuit, and Sweetie Tanya herself -- are sharply drawn and caustically brought to life by Bryce Byerley and Kate Austin-Groen respectively. And the whole thing has an intensely local flavor, from the description of the different types of people who call the Mission District home to the idea that a corpse can be dumped in West Oakland (or, rather, "West Uh-Oh-Kland") and escape suspicion.

But here's what's really intriguing about Sweetie Tanya: It features the combined work of no less than 10 songwriters. The musical involves the efforts of such local compositional luminaries as Rachel Ephron, Dave Malloy and Arwen Anderson, each of whom contributed anything between one and three songs. That a musical can be so musically varied and yet feel so seamless is remarkable. Theatre pieces with many collaborators can often go badly wrong. They can end up being a hotch-potch of ideas with little unity. But Sweetie Tanya only seems to benefit from having multiple composers involved.

I asked the show's author and director, Dan Wilson, to explain why he decided to work with this many collaborators. Here's what Dan told me, via email:

The decision to use multiple songwriters was based on my last attempt at a musical. I conceived of it with a single songwriter, but it took me a couple of years to get the script into working order. By that point, he had begun a family and it's been three years now and there's been no progress. I felt that I might have better luck hitting up people for a single song, rather than a whole show's worth. I began asking almost every songwriter I knew, and they all were into it. My inspiration was purely practical, but I seem to have hit on something truly unique. I met a songwriter from Nashville this summer, and he said that I may have stumbled on the only way to prevent a musical from sounding like the same damn song over and over again. Once I made the decision, though, it made the piece more fun to write. I would get to a song, think of who would have fun with it, and then wrote my template lyrics in that artist's style. I must have been fairly accurate, since many of the songs represent only minor variations of my lyrics. Should I attempt another musical, I think I'll do the same for music. It provides a really fun variety of styles, I think.

I started this blog post with a title based on a riff on an old saying ("too many cooks spoil the broth") and now feel an urge to end with another: "necessity is the mother of invention."

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