A Tragicomedy for Music Theater
Libretto, drawings, and direction by Ben Katchor, music by Mark Mulcahy.
Variously described in the press as an opera, an operetta, and a sung-through pop musical, this is the third work of cartoonist Ben Katchor's to be adapted for musical theater (See 1999's The Carbon Copy Building and 2002's There Was a Building,
or, The 58th Street Broiler). It features his drawings projected and animated on three scrims as backdrops to the singers. The story originally appeared as a one page "Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer" story in Metropolis magazine, and can be found in his collection, The Beauty Supply District.
The slugs referred to in the title are not mollusks but lead weights added to manufactured consumer goods to increase the feeling of solidness. In Katchor's world, robots mine the lead, but stevedores must carry these slugs "from dock to inland rail" (a distance of about twenty feet), a task for which they are paid in date nut leaves.
The plot: A New York electrolysist/philanthropist, Dr. Rushower, sends his daughter Gingin and her suitor Immanuel Lubang, to Kayrol Island ("where one sixth of the world's cheap consumer goods are produced") to provide solace to the exploited workers, by introducing them to "consumer fiction," found poetry of instruction manuals and pamphlets of the very appliances that the weights will be added to. Gingin falls in love with Samson, a slugbearer, and decides to stay.
Mark Mulcahy, former lead singer for Miracle Legion, had never written an opera before. And while he is a solo recording artist, and has scored film and television projects, he never learned to write music. Mulcahy set Katchor's words to music in his head, scribbling notes to himself in a notebook, but had to play and sing all the parts into a tape recorder in order to teach the musicians and the singers their parts.
Katchor described his efforts as akin to the 17th century tradition of the "picture reciter" in India-- where a storyteller would hang a painted banner in the street, gather a crowd, and tell the story of the pictures, selling prints afterwards.
After workshop productions at Mass MoCA in Massachusetts in January 2003 and The Kitchen in New York in June 2003, the show premiered at The Kitchen March 19, 2004. Joshua Bishoff, Tom Buckland, Mark Mulcahy, Ryan Toomire, Mollie Weaver and Michael Wiener were the singers, supported by a four piece band: Ken Maiuri on keyboard, mandolin, and accordion, Brian Machese on drums and saxophone, bassist Dave Dreiwitz, and guitar from Chris Harfold.
Photographs from the production are available online at Indy Magazine: http://www.indyworld.com/indy/spring_2004/katchor_kayrol/index.html
Alex Abramovich. "Beware of Islanders Bearing Slugs." New York Times. 15 March 2004. <http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/14/theater/14ABRA.html> (20 August 2004)
Ed Park. "The Joy of Operating Manuals." The Village Voice. 23 March 2004. <http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0412/park.php> (20 August 2004)
Seth Rogovoy. "Ben Katchor’s ‘Slugs’ bear life at Mass MoCA." Berkshire Eagle. 17 January 2003. <http://www.rogovoy.com/362.shtml> (20 August 2004)
"People We Like: Ben Katchor." The Morning News. 8 January 2004. <http://www.themorningnews.org/archives/people/ben_katchor.php> (20 August 2004)