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George Saunders. Photo/Getty Images

The George Saunders-inspired musical with songs by Bret McKenzie

George Saunders and Bret McKenzie tell Russell Baillie about a new musical that’s making its stage debut at the New Zealand Festival of the Arts.

George Saunders has one word for his novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, being turned into a musical by, among others, Bret McKenzie, Flight of the Conchord and Muppet music master.

The reason he has only one word, he tells the Listener, via email from his creative writing professor desk at Syracuse University, is that he’s busy adding to the pile of stories in which The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil resides, somewhere near where the pile first started. The pile now teeters and it is topped by Lincoln in the Bardo, which was his first novel after many years of novellas. And which won him the Man Booker Prize in 2017 after many years of winning awards and fellowships not quite as important for stories not quite as long.

Before he offers the one word, he is apologetic that he’s unable or unwilling to give more. He blames that novel.

“I owe Random House three (3!) books and did so much yapping for almost two years re Lincoln and found it was starting to erode my intelligence – so I’m sorry to not be able to oblige,” he writes obligingly. “I’ve been in this mode for about three months now and it is really helping – it’s somewhat akin to being, as we say here, ‘in the woodshed’. That is, getting out of ‘here’s how I feel’ mode and into ‘how do I feel’ mode.”

When Saunders appears “Live from New York” at the New Zealand Festival of the Arts next month – where The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, the musical by, among others, Bret McKenzie, is having a live debut – presumably, he will be out of the woodshed. Or perhaps they will be running a cable into it.

Bret McKenzie. Photo/Getty Images

Fortunately, he has written before about writing The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, a parable that seems partly Orwellian and partly Dr Seuss-ian, before. The story is a tale of two countries, Outer Horner and Inner Horner. The latter is surrounded by the former. The latter has a population of seven. But, as it’s such a tiny territory, not everybody fits into Inner Horner at the same time. This leads to border disputes with Outer Horner, where, soon, a guy named Phil, who, like all Horner-ites is composed of flesh and machine parts and vegetative portions, takes charge.

The story, wrote Saunders, became “that rare and not-so-sought-after thing, a kids’ story about genocide … Needless to say, all hope for marketing tie-ins vanished.”

That may be so. But now there is hope for The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’s 130 pages to become, well, almost the first George Saunders story to become anything else. There have been some short films based on his work and an Amazon pilot, Sea Oak, starring, among others, Oscar nominee Glenn Close as a woman back from the dead to annoy her relatives. It wasn’t picked up for a series, disappointing only those hoping to write “fatal attraction” headlines for a show about Close playing a zombie.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’s adaptation for the stage by, among others, Oscar and Grammy winner Bret McKenzie, is a musical. That’s possibly funny because Saunders’ prose already sings. So does he. He once sang a song on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, entitled, possibly, “It’s a beautiful day but not for you”, done as a duet with the host and inspired by his first children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. It was funny in a Flight of the Conchordian way.

Making The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil funny in a Flight of the Conchordian way was the idea of prominent English theatre director Lyndsey Turner and rising Welsh playwright Tim Price. They have the backing of Britain’s National Theatre to develop the production. They got in touch with Bret McKenzie some years before Lincoln in the Bardo shone a new light on George Saunders’ tall pile of short stories.

McKenzie said yes and started writing songs. Now, as one of three curators at the New Zealand Festival, he’s staging a work-in-progress version with a local cast before it progresses, hopefully all the way to the UK.

Tim Price. Photo/Warren Orchard/Supplied
McKenzie says the production has its challenges, among them that, in the book, Phil’s brain falls out regularly. Other characters will need to have body parts that fall off, too.

“It’s a dream gig for actors with prosthetics,” he says, not seriously. It’s also a nice change from his previous efforts. “I was just excited by how different it is and how political it is. And, weirdly, it was written more than 10 years ago. But it’s just so eerily relevant to current politics and I love that it’s something a lot darker than the stuff I’ve done in the past.”

It’s Price’s job to make “the book” (the musical’s script) out of a book that seems more resonant today than it might have in 2005.

“Like all great stories, it feels eternally relevant and applicable to all sorts of current events,” Price emails from somewhere in Wales, “from Trump, to Brexit, to Boris. But I’m sure people living in countries I’ve never heard of will also read this book and roll their eyes with recognition. Mediocre men failing upwards seems to be a pretty universal problem.”

Unlike McKenzie, Price’s previous work has been strenuously political, with works on Bradley Manning, Scottish independence and the Occupy movement. So it’s a nice change from his previous efforts, too.

“Who wouldn’t want to want to play around in George Saunders’ mind for a few years?” he asks. Which brings us back to asking the reluctant author for one word about what he thinks of The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil being turned into a musical.

The one word is: dreamy.

New Zealand Festival of the Arts, Wellington: The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, March 10-14; George Saunders Live from New York, March 12.

This article was first published in the February 8, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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