What do legendary filmmaker John Carpenter, 90s cartoon Hey Arnold!, and a brand new musical from the Independent Shakespeare Co. (ISC) called Anita Berber is Dead! based on a true story about a burlesque star have in common? It’s composer Jim Lang who helped create the music for all that and more.
Anita Berber is Dead! is a story written by Melissa Chalsma, and David Melville which tells the tale of a German dancer trying to push the envelope of artistic expression during the chaos of World War I. As described by the production, “Defiant and extreme, Anita’s work reached its apotheosis in the stunning, strange, and ultimately doomed creation: “Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy.”
PopAxiom spoke with Jim Lang, Melissa Chalsma, and David Melville about creating a scintillating story about one of history’s most compelling characters for Anita Berber is Dead!.
Having grown up with the funky theme to Hey Arnold!, I ask Jim to describe the major difference in the process for that project versus Anita Berber Is Dead!. “The subject matter is entirely different.”
He elaborates, first in regards to making music for TV and film: “That being said… I think as a composer, you’re asked to be a little bit circumspect. You don’t want to be, what do they call it in animation, too much on the nose. You don’t want to be telling people exactly what to think.”
In a musical like Anita Berber Is Dead!, the goal changes a bit. “… you really are telling the emotional journey and being more direct.”
About Anita Berber Is Dead!
As with many stories, it all starts with a spark that, according to David, “… naturally lead to Wikipedia.” After some reading, he thought, “I couldn’t believe she had been forgotten.”
The whole idea and history of Anita Berber, to David, “… seemed like a natural fit for a musical.”
Travel back about a year in time. “Jim and I play in a band at a Vaudeville show ever year.”
The star of the show was actress and burlesque superstar Tonya Kay.”… Backstage I said to Tonya, ‘Have you ever heard of Anita Berber? Look her up. I think we should do a show.”
David recalls telling Melissa, “Let’s do a show about an erotic, provocative, drug-addled, dancer who is a queer and feminist icon.”
Melissa’s answer: “Yes, I want to do that show!”
For Melissa, she explains, “I was drawn to that it’s a kind of world that we think about this sort of dance from a male, sexual perspective. This was a possibility of telling a story about a woman who was very much about sexuality and your body but told from her perspective. The male gaze is something we play with.”
For audience members, nudity is often shocking. But in Anita Berber is Dead!, Melissa says, “By the end, the nudity is just nudity. It’s not about titillation anymore.”
David co-wrote Anita Berber is Dead! With no intention of acting in it. However, late in the game, he joined the cast. “The part I’m playing called Mr. Jolly is based on a real person from that era who was a ‘starvation artist’ that lived in a glass box in a restaurant. People would come in and eat, and he’d sit in there smoking while wasting away. People would be told to pay respect to Mr. Jolly’s art and not offer him any food or drink.”
David and Melissa created the story of Anita Berber together. The pair joined forces with Jim for the music. And it all came together at the same time. “David did the first pass at the story where he created an outline. We stuck pretty closely to it. We wanted the structure. There were maybe one or two instances where we inserted a song here or removed a song there.”
Song & Dance
Melissa talks about the musical aspect of Anita Berber is Dead! “There’s a lot of singing. And what I was hoping for was to make the play dance-driven. It’s the story of a dancer, so we created sections where it focused on the dancing.
In roughly a year, the trio hit the ground running while putting the performance together. As David and Melissa put the story together, they also worked on music with Jim. David says, “He didn’t really know where it was going.” Rewrites and updates were happening on the fly.
As storytellers, what film remake would each want to be a part of. Melissa jokes, “I’m going to guess that David will say Casablanca. Though he’d be horrified if anyone tried to remake it.”
David answers, “I always thought you should do a TV version with James Bond and do the Ian Fleming stories set in the period in which they were written.”
Jim’s answer: “I would like to see somebody make a version of Spirited Away, the Miyazaki film, that wasn’t set in Japan. It’s an incredible film, and if someone could do that film and translate that message of spirituality to another culture. It could be amazing.” It seems like a job for the Wachowskis.
Melissa takes the question to a whole new, sci-fi level. “I’m changing your question to where would I want to travel back in time to work on a movie. I would travel back to be a part of the original Star Wars.”
Anita Berber Is Dead! played before audiences in Los Angeles in November. So, what’s next for Melissa and David? “David and I run ISC together, so we’ve got things coming up. We’re doing an experimental version of Macbeth at our indoor space. In the summer we do our outdoor Shakespeare festival. We’re already working on that. We get about 45,000 people over the course of the festival. It’s at Griffith Park. Two full productions of Shakespeare plays, bands, and dance companies.”
Making Anita Berber Is Dead! was a non-stop, year-long process. Jim’s plans? “I’m looking forward to getting some good sleep. And taking long walks with my wife and dog.”
Fans of Hey Arnold! will love what they are about to read. Jim says, “There is a very good chance that in the first quarter of the year, we’re releasing an album of the original score from Hey Arnold!”
Thanks to Jim Lang, David Melville, Melissa Chalsma, and Impact24 PR for making this interview possible.
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