Ghost Quartet — Dave Malloy’s new show about love, whiskey, regret and hope


Photo credit: James Monaco

Dave Malloy doesn’t believe in ghosts. Not the traditional kind. Yet, he created a show called Ghost Quartet, which opens this Wednesday at The Bushwick Starr. For Malloy, these ghosts are “about regret, looking back on the past and who you used to be,” he says.

As a kid, Malloy was obsessed with sci-fi, fantasy and horror. Stephen King was the first author he fell in love with—particularly the epic Dark Tower series. When Malloy got to college and realized fantasy wasn’t particularly hip, he moved away from genre fiction, busy “listening to cool music and studying literature,” Malloy says.

In 2009, Malloy’s move from San Francisco to New York prompted him to “seek comfort” in his childhood pastime of supernatural fiction. “I realized I actually really loved this stuff, it’s a part of who I am.”

Malloy seems to be reconciling multiple identities with Ghost Quartet—the nerdy child, the lit major, the rock musician and the theater artist. Ghost Quartet is a live performance of a concept album, and as such, doesn’t follow the rules of a traditional play.

“Rather than being so concerned about telling a story from beginning to end, we can hit on various themes and have recurring characters, more in the way that pop lyrics do. Whether people piece together the exact story we are telling is secondary to evoking a mood,” Malloy says. “A lot of it is just a concert.”

Ghost Quartet is both the name of the show and the ensemble. Gelsey Bell, Brittain Ashford, and Brent Arnold, veterans of Malloy’s 2013 Obie Award-winning musical, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, join Malloy again to as members of the ensemble Ghost Quartet. Annie Tippe, a frequent collaborator of The TEAM’s Rachel Chavkin, directs.

Initially, Malloy sought any tale with two central female characters for Gelsey and Brittain to play— “mothers, sisters, lovers… I think I even Facebooked ‘Any stories with two lead women characters?’” His search brought his stories as recent as 2013’s Frozen and as far back as Arabian Nights.

This past July, Malloy brought a freshly-written, “unwieldy script”, as he puts it, to Ghost Quartet’s ​Ground Floor ​residency at Berkeley Rep. “The four of us talked together; we had a big bulletin board with all the characters and the scenes mapped out.”

In the end, they settled on four storylines: Scherezade and Dunyazad, Rose Red and Snow White, The Fall of the House of Usher, and a story lifted from a haunting New York Post photo in which a woman is about to be hit by a subway car.

The music of Ghost Quartet emerged through a highly collaborative process as well. The cast, or perhaps more appropriately, band, are all excellent musicians. While Malloy orchestrated Great Comet’s ten piece musical section on his own, this time, he simply brought in lead sheets with melodies, chord changes and basic structure. The ensemble arranged the various instrumental parts while in rehearsal. “It’s more like how a band works,” Malloy says. “With The Beatles, they just came out with the song and then Ringo developed the drum part and Paul developed the bass part…”

In addition to vocalizing and playing percussion, each ensemble member plays multiple instruments: Gelsey is on the celtic harp, metallophone and accordion. Brittain plays autoharp and keyboard. Brent holds down cello, guitar, dulcimer, and the erhu, aka the “Chinese two-stringed fiddle.” Dave acts as conductor, live mixer, pianist and ukelelist.

Ghost Quartet draws musical influence from murder ballads, horror movies and the sounds of the supernatural. Malloy was particularly inspired by composers like Bernard Herrmann, who scored Psycho and Taxi Driver, George Crumb and Harry Partch, among others. Ghost Quartet is dropping their album on October 25th immediately after the show at The Bushwick Starr. Release party tickets are $10-50, sliding scale, at the door.

In the performance of the album, scenes progress like tracks on a record player, punctuated by actors saying “Side One, Track Three,” for example. The musicians switch in and out of multiple characters as the record spins.

“I’m the subway driver and the astronomer and the piano player who’s obsessed with Thelonious Monk and I’m Edgar Allan Poe. But they’re all versions of me. I think all four of us are playing versions of ourselves,” Malloy says.

Malloy described Ghost Quartet’s journey as letting go of “the ghost of yourself in order to evolve into something new, different.”

I asked Malloy if he had experienced that letting go.

“In small ways. Right now I feel quite ok. I just got married so that was a big change, but one I feel really good about.”

There is so much loneliness in the play’s text, juxtaposed with the communal concert Ghost Quartet creates. The audience will be seated around the band, invited to participate with tambourines and offered free whiskey.

Malloy explores a sense of public isolation, “Sometimes I feel very alone on a subway, which is an interesting feeling; to feel very detached from everyone around you when you’re in a crowded space. I’ve been thinking of people on the subway as ghosts or myself on the subway as a ghost.”

Malloy is a self-described skeptic and agnostic. “I don’t believe or disbelieve in ghosts. I feel the same way about God. There are really great stories about God, and great stories about a world without God. Neither can really be proven and I am content to live my life not knowing.” Artistically, Malloy delves into the imaginative possibilities of both scenarios.

There are many portals to enter this concept album/play. There’s an exciting boldness in making a band, in breaking the rules of a what constitutes a play, and in fully relishing one’s childhood obsessions. There’s something dissonant in writing a play named after ghosts when you don’t believe in them. This tension creates some beautiful music and an evening (ghost free or not, your choice) suspended in the right here, right now. And there’s free whiskey as you watch it all unfold.

Ghost Quartet plays at The Bushwick Starr from October 8-November 1, tickets available here.
Written and composed by Dave Malloy
Developed, arranged and performed by the ensemble: Gelsey Bell, Brittain Ashford, Brent Arnold and Dave Malloy
Directed by Annie Tippe
Dramaturgy by James Monaco
Design by Christopher Bowser

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