Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Doctor Faustus, the Musical

I was thinking about what books might make good musicals, and I thought of one that I'm surprised to find hasn't been musicalized already: Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann. (Alex Ross refers extensively to this novel in "The Rest is Noise, since it's about the combined crises of music and politics in the 20th century.) As a novel about a composer who may or may not have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for creative brilliance, it is a "novel of music" and certainly has a lot of opportunities for ambitious music. Maybe, being about a serious and advanced composer who writes difficult music, it would be more appropriate as an opera -- but I can't help thinking that it could be a musical. After all, Cabaret already proved there's a market for musicals about the warning signs of Naziism in pre-Nazi Germany, which is part of what Faustus is about.

After I thought of that, I tried writing a lyric for a scene in Doctor Faustus as a writing exercise, specifically, looking for a moment in the novel that could be a comedy song (musicals, especially dark/serious musicals, need comedy songs to lighten the mood in spots). I decided to write something for "Esmeralda," the prostitute that the main character, Adrian Leverkuhn, sleeps with specifically because she has syphillis (believing that the disease will make him brilliant before it finally makes him insane). We don't see the scene first-hand in the novel, but I thought it would be funny to have the character of Esmeralda react as a real person might react to such a request -- namely, bafflement.

Of course a real, faithful musical adaptation of Faustus wouldn't have room for such a goofy song, but I wasn't necessarily talking about a faithful adaptation. Anyway when I write one of these exercises I'm always inclined to make it a very loose adaptation of the source material.

I maybe shoudln't post this here, but I liked some of the lines I came up with, so I will post it here as part of my irregular "stuff I wrote and can't use anywhere else" series.


There Are Other Girls


You'd risk your health,
Even after you've heard me confess?
You'd trade your health
For an hour or possibly less?
I tell you "no"
And you tell me it's got to be "yes?"
Well, then, let's go,
If I'm all that you long to possess.
But can't you tell me why?
Or help me guess?

Refrain 1

There are other girls
With better complexions.
There are other girls
With better connections.
There are other girls
With fewer infections.
If you prefer me,
I have to disagree.

Find some Russian girls
And pretty Parisians.
Maybe Prussian girls,
Perhaps Polynesians.
All those other girls
Won't leave you with lesions.
So if I'm your pick,
Which one of us is sick?

You're an artsy type
And your tastes are odd,
You don't talk about fun,
Only bar-lines and God.
But before this is done --
And don't call me a cynic --
You won't look for God,
You'll just look for a clinic.

I should scoff at you
And tell you to shove it.
But I cough at you
And somehow you love it.
There are other girls
Who have less to give.
There are other girls
Who will let you live,
You'd be better off
With a relative.
There are other girls.
Any other girls.


If you read "The Sick Rose" by William Blake,
My reasons will be divined.

The sick what? William who?

Never mind.

I don't know if I should trust you.
I've the feeling I disgust you.
Maybe it's just me.


It's just you.

May I mention something?


Must you?

Refrain 2

There are other girls.
I've got to remind you
There are other girls
Who'd just love to find you,
There are other girls
Less likely to blind you,
And plenty of whores
Who haven't any sores.

Every time I point
To another splotch,
You just hum a strange song
And you look at your watch.
Then you say: come along,
What I said hasn't mattered.
You're crazy, you're wrong,
You're a fool, and I'm flattered.

Your request of me,
So weird and outrageous,
Gets the best of me,
You're kind of contagious.
Still, there's other girls,
And I do mean lots,
There are other girls
Who have not got spots,
There are other girls
Who have had their shots.

It is getting late.
Kindly cease debate.

I suppose we will.
I suppose it's fate.
Well, if you fall ill,
There's a discount rate.


Anonymous said...

Back in college I tried writing a rock-opera version of Goethe's Faust. Never got very far--only laid down one track to tape, which mercifully I have since lost--but it was fun to try.

What version of the Faust tale is the Randy Newman musical based on?

Anthony Strand said...


That's very funny. Good work.

Anthony said...

They did try mounting a musical version of Faust. It closed out of town and they rewrote the show to include a clever number about triplets and a hillbilly number starring nanette fabray...

Michael Jones said...

Very amusing. As an alternative, I'd recommend Chapman/Idle's "Medical Love Song."

EffySawyer said...

As a big Mannian who loves this novel, I've got to say that you should definitely pursue this and try to make something of it; I've also felt that "Faustus" would be an interesting musical, though it's such a dense book of ideas that I wonder if its themes - some of which are to me still unresolved - could be licked in a theatrical format; I don't even know if Mann licked it in his novel (it's sort of the literary equivalent to "Apocalypse Now"). But this little scene that you've written is quite wonderful.