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The Overcoat: A Musical

"the endless hum of the insomniac streets"

The freeform melodies and shifting energies of jazz make it the perfect soundtrack to Nikolai Gogol's St Petersburg, writes Michael Costi.

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Category: Musical
Company: Belvoir 25A
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The Overcoat: Nikolai Gogol and all that Jazz

Date: 7 Nov 2018

Adapting Gogol has been less like working with a text, and more like leading an excavation into a deep and dark underground mine.

It’s surprising, full of mystery, and if you make an error there’s a slight chance you could be attacked by bats.

The Overcoat, one of the eccentric Russian author Nikolai Gogol’s best known short stories, is seemingly simple. A bureaucrat toiling away in an unnamed Saint Petersburg government department decides to sell everything he owns to buy an overcoat to escape the dreaded winter and seek acceptance from an unforgiving city.

But the further you dig, the less simple this story becomes.

With every read of the text you realise each line carries multiple layers. Comedic, political, and surreal messages are all buried beneath the author’s absurd characters and imagery. Much of this has to do with Gogol’s use of the Russian skaz mode of storytelling. This folk story style involves the narrator deviating and rambling from the main plot line, and, instead, choosing to focus on seemingly irrelevant details. Entire passages of The Overcoat are devoted to the drawings on dusty old snuffboxes, and the daily habits of extremely minor characters. This leaves the reader with the impression that the world is being made up on the spot.

And yet, there is something so appealing about following an unreliable narrator – an almost relatable fallibility. Like when you try to remember an old anecdote but get the facts mixed up – making it far more interesting than if you remembered the original story in the first place. Much of the reason why we chose to adapt The Overcoat was to capture this sense of surprise for the audience. To have them look through different keyholes of offices and side streets and untidy apartments only to have you move on as quickly as you entered – being both entirely captivated but equally unsure of why you were there in the first place.

The next step was applying this style of storytelling to music.

Jazz is an urban sound. Its freeform melodies and shifting energies evoke both the sights and rhythms of a bustling metropolis and the twists and turns of a skaz narrator. In our case, Gogol’s Saint Petersburg is a crowded city populated by lonely souls. Jazz is a form that captures both the stifled cry of the melancholy, and the endless hum of the insomniac streets. Typewriters, shredded paper, and buzzers are all used in our production as a kind of bureaucratic soundtrack that cuts through each scene. We also decided to employ suspended and unresolved chords in the music to create a sense of tension and ongoing struggle which mirrors the plight of our protagonist.

On top of this, we have taken inspiration from old Ukrainian and Russian folk songs. Tales of fallen heroes and long forgotten battles. The lyrics often painting ballads of glory and ruin with grave moral warnings attached for both children and adults alike. We have tried to capture a conversational tone masked in an eerie feeling of prophecy found in these haunting old tunes.

Gogol also has a particular fondness for exposing the beautifully mundane quality of the spoken word, something that we have incorporated both in the lyrics and the script. The Overcoat is rife with paradoxes and tautologies. The comically serious world of the Russian office worker and their hopeless jargon is laid bare. Ironically, we discovered in our research that there were so many rules in the Tsarist bureaucratic system that often the only way a bureaucrat could actually get anything done was to break those same rules.

The more we worked on the production the more complex the story became. And as we mined deeper, we eventually hit a bedrock. How do you capture the absurdity of Gogol in a way that encompasses all the different layers of the surreal? We found that, rather than try to heighten aspects of the story, each absurd thread had one simple thing in common: a conceivable exaggeration.

When Gogol attended the premiere of his well-known play The Government Inspector he was shocked to see the director had decided to give his characters oversized bellies in the hope it would heighten their absurdity. Gogol lambasted the director and insisted they be given believably enormous stomachs instead. His reason being that the bellies should be big – but familiar, as to show the audience a real world with real absurd stakes that inevitably spin out of control.

The message being that there is nothing more absurd than the truth.

Gogol’s characters are not technicolour cartoons – they are the rough doodles you make in pencil while absentmindedly talking on the phone. And though they may look bizarre, they often strangely relate to what you were taking about – or may even be about a dream you had last night but don’t remember. You may not be sure, but in their own way, they are more real than you think.

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