by John Patrick Shanley
Paragon Theatre Company
Phoenix Theatre, Denver
“This play is all about savoring the moonlit moment of romantic choice—that place on the dance floor of the heart when two people could kiss but they haven’t yet…Everything is on the move and yet, paradoxically, time has ceased its forward motion. And this liquid pulsing photograph of possibilities is placed side by side in this play with mortality, with the certainty of death, with the brevity of youth, and with the importance of now. So Sailor’s Song is about the almost unbearable beauty of choosing to love in the face of death. Love is the most essential act of courage…Will you choose to love before you are swept away by oblivion?…” –John Patrick Shanley
“Why you living? To get from here to there? What’s the point of that? Is your life just a hurricane and everything behind you wrecked real estate? Your days are nothing till you go back. Significance. You gotta return, under the sun, and find the significance.” –Uncle John in Sailor’s Song
Sailor’s Song is most definitely a memory play in the vein of Glass Menagerie or Dancing at Lughnasa. Through Rich’s remembering we are transported to a place and time of searching and significance in Rich’s life at a critical moment when Rich was forced to evaluate his life and the meaning of his choices. Sailor’s Song is full of juxtaposition—charm versus grit, romance versus death, order versus chaos and most importantly, reality versus fantasy.
In all aspects of the production, we need to evoke the tension and seamless transitions between reality versus fantasy. As the play is taking place in Rich’s memory, there should be a nostalgic quality to all things that he romanticizes—the women should be especially stunning and beautiful, the backdrop/setting should be vaguely enchanting and wistful, and every character (especially Rich and the sisters) should dance better than they probably did in real life. Like Don Quixote, Rich tends to see life not as it is, but as he thinks it ought to be. Women are idealized and dreams are of more interest to him than the reality of the real people right in front of him.
“If you could dance with the days of your life, if you could take life by the wrist and dance, I think it would be a waltz. Forward and back, sad and happy, high and low…” –Rich in Sailor’s Song
The dances in Sailor’s Song are the meat of the fantasy in the show. While there should be a smooth, seamless transition from the regular action of the play into the dances, it should be clear that these dances are not taking place in reality—they are wonderful, perfect, idealized visions of how the characters are feeling. Just like in good musicals, the characters break into dance only when the emotions are so strong that they must use dance to communicate their feelings in ways words can’t express. Each dance needs to be its own scene that helps to move the story forward so that the characters (and in turn the audience) are in a different place with a different perspective when the dance ends than they were when the dance began. As complete scenes, each dance needs to have a beginning, and middle and an end and every movement must have a purpose. This sense of purpose in the movement-as-storytelling will help connect the dances to the rest of the action of the play.
Unlike all of the partner dances in the show, which take place in Rich’s imagination, Carla’s dance takes place vividly in John’s memory and imagination. John is reliving the moment he met his wife, when he was traveling down the Danube and saw Carla at an Otis Redding concert, dancing by herself, full of life, desire and fury. Just as Rich’s memories are fantasized and exaggerated, so, too, should John’s memory of Carla dancing be painfully vivid, intoxicatingly hypnotic and evocative. The difference is that while Rich idealizes in a way that probably softens the edges and flatters, John visualizes both the beauty and the blood and guts—John accepts reality and hence, his imaginings are ultra-real and very visceral and Carla’s dance should reflect that.
Dance Sequences Brief
Characters: Rich and Lucy
Song: TALES FROM THE VIENNA WOODS
Pages: 18 to middle of page 20
Playwright’s notes: “They are dancing a romantic moonlit walk”
This dance piece will happen simultaneously with the dialogue on the indicated pages and will need to be a lush, romantic waltz—very “Fred and Ginger-style.”
Characters: Rich, Lucy and Joan
Song: [LONELY IS A] MAN WITHOUT LOVE
Playwright’s notes: “The three of them dance a balletic waltz expressing romance among three.”
During this dance number we need to include a moment with Rich and Joan, during which Lucy runs away and Joan pursues her, Lucy indicates “no” and then relents. The sisters reconcile and rejoin Rich in the dance. Then each woman in turn bids Rich a romantic adieu, and are gone.
Characters: Carla (and John—small part)
Song: Otis Redding’s TRY A LITTLE TENDERNESS from his Live in Europe album
Playwright’s notes: “The song gains momentum. Carla arises, dressed in white. It is her spirit, free of burden. She dances in the white sheet. First, she’s a girl holding her father’s hand, then a tomboy, then a young woman feeling attractive for the first time, then wildly sexual and free, free! Then in rebellion! She has torn off the sheet. She’s in a short dress. John approaches her, attracted, tries to embrace her. She shoves him violently away. He tries again, with the same result. Then she goes to him in simple surrender. He kisses her. She collapses…”
This dance should be modern and visceral—VERY earthy, connected and honest.
Characters: John and Carla, then Rich and Lucy as John and Carla contiue, then Joan with Rich
Song: an attenuated version of the BLUE DANUBE
Playwright’s notes: “The meat of the waltz begins. John and Carla waltz. Lucy comes back and starts to waltz with Rich. Joan reenters at a run, taps Lucy on the shoulder, cutting in. Joan and Rich waltz as Lucy walks away…”
The action is light as helium, dizzy as the Viennese waltzes to which the characters periodically dance, delicious as a peach soufflé, and a constant tease at the border separating reality and fantasy. But there’s a serious core to the work that asks how to live with integrity, what it means to make choices and — given the inevitability of death — just what an individual life adds up to.
Best Set Design, OutFront Magazine‘s Marlowe Awards: David Lafont
Best Lighting Design, OutFront Magazine‘s Marlowe Awards: Jacob Welch
Most Auspicious Debut, OutFront Magazine‘s Marlowe Awards: Jeremy Make
Best Lighting Design, Colorado Backstage Spotlight Awards: Jacob Welch