By MARK BLANKENSHIP
If you said the new musical Bloodsong of Love was created by a pack of outlaws, then you wouldn’t exactly be wrong. In writer-composer Joe Iconis’ rock-inflected homage to spaghetti westerns, now playing at Ars Nova, “outlaw” is a label for anyone cockeyed enough to become an artist.
As it spoofs the shoot-outs of Sergio Leone’s iconic films, the show also makes a bigger statement about what it means to survive in the arts. The central character, for instance, is called The Musician, and while he journeys to rescue his wife from an evil kazoo player (yes, kazoo player) he meets a host of creative rebels.
“In one way or another, these characters are all outlaws,” Iconis says. “We’re defining that as people who are outcasts from strait-laced society. It’s people who can’t live their lives in a nine-to-five job. It’s people who are following their hearts and their guts instead of following their wallets.”
If that sounds like an apt description of Iconis himself, well… it is. He’s worked on a few musicals, and he’s also known for quirky stand-alone songs with titles like “Helen’s in Skin Flicks (Now.)” His work straddles musical theatre and rock---Bloodsong throws in mariachi for good measure---and it’s often performed by the same, close-knit group of collaborators.
This artistic posse is occasionally called The Family. “Some people find it weird, and some people think we make too a big a deal about this silly musical theatre thing,” Iconis says. “But we really believe that what we’re doing matters. I love musicals, and despite the fact that a lot of my work is on the fringes, it’s also coming from a place of celebrating musical theatre. ”
Much of Bloodsong of Love was written specifically for The Family, and that pushed Iconis to make the show more than a collection of film references and cowboy gags. Take The Musician, who’s played by Eric William Morris. Iconis initially wrote the character as a Clint Eastwood-style man of few words. “He was very broody and very dark, and then Eric read it for the first time,” he recalls. “It was clear that he could also have a personality and humor and be a real person.”
Similarly, the show reaches a turning point with the ballad “Last on Land,” in which a character called The Strange Man tells The Musician that he doesn’t need a guitar to be a musician, since music comes from the inside.
It’s an emotional moment, and Iconis wrote it for his friend and cohort Jason “SweetTooth” Williams. “The song is about the specifics of the plot, but it’s also about this artistic family that I’m part of,” Iconis explains. “Thinking about that and who would sing it, I wrote a song that was far more personal than I would have written if I was just thinking about a goofy character in the middle of the desert. It set the tone for the entire show, because it was one of the first songs I wrote.”
Iconis’ collaborators tend to return his dedication. He served as composer-in-residence at Ars Nova, and artistic director Jason Eagan quickly committed to producing Bloodsong, even though he wasn’t certain how it would fit inside his 99-seat space. He says, “I love that he’s telling a huge, epic story, and he developed it for our jewelbox theatre. It’s forced us to be creative. How do you fit six actors and five musicians on a stage that’s twelve by fifteen? How do you show travel and movement and time passing in a tiny space? How do you make sure the story’s coming through, even when there’s a lot happening?’
Eagan won’t say how Ars Nova solved those problems---he wants the audience to be surprised---but like any good outlaw, he’s pleased with his exploits. “Finding the solutions to this show’s questions has been really inspiring,” he says. “It’s pushed everyone to see what we can do.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor