BOSTON: What do you get when you combine Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Hellraiser? Well, for one, you get a show that may not be not safe for children under 12. But that’s just fine with Walter Sickert, the composer/bandleader who’s behind a new staging of the macabre musical Shockheaded Peter, now at Company One through April 4.
“I would say that this is the biggest dose of grotesque gorgeousness that Boston has ever had,” say Sickert without a hint of irony. Based on a Victorian-era book of cautionary tales for children by German psychiatrist Heinrich Hoffmann, Shockheaded Peter features savage punishments for such childlike quirks as thumb-sucking, playing with matches and picky eating. As strung together by the show’s original authors—the band the Tiger Lillies did the music, and a large ensemble of puppeteers and performers created the staging—these scary vignettes are told within the overarching story of a boy named Peter whose parents lock him up in the basement (and you thought Harry Potter had it bad).
Suffice to say, the villains in the story are not the monsters under the bed.
“The original story is very bizarre and very messed up, and kind of traumatizing to the kids who read it,” says Sickert. As if Hoffmann’s original tales weren’t bleak enough, they were further darkened for the stage version; as Sickert explains, “In the original, a few of the kids die. In the Tiger Lillies version, every single child dies! So who are the monsters? Are the monsters the creatures in the show, or are they the parents who are trying to control their children and ultimately force them into these boxes that kill them?”
It was the show’s mix of darkness and haunting beauty that first attracted Sickert, who saw the show Off-Broadway in 2001. (It debuted in London in 1998, and later toured the U.S.) With the piercing falsetto of the Tiger Lillies’ lead singer, Martyn Jacques, and the Grand Guignol-style puppets, the show was the stuff of childhood nightmares.
“I happened to see Shockheaded Peter right at the beginning of when I decided that I was going to dedicate my life to music and art,” Sickert recalls. He says he felt as if the show were saying to him, “Yes, Walter, you’re a weirdo, and there are other weirdos, and you can kind of make a living off of being a weirdo.”
That led in part to his forming his band, the Army of Broken Toys. The band has shared the bill with the Tiger Lillies, recorded their own albums and made a foray into theatre with the musical 28 Seeds. But as his band’s sound is harder-rocking than the Tiger Lillies’ spiky, Weimar-esque trio of accordion, drums and bass, Sickert had to do some reorchestration.
“The Tiger Lillies are a three-piece band, we’re a seven-piece band. Martyn sings in a beautiful falsetto, and I don’t sing in a falsetto ever,” says Sickert with a chuckle. For his arrangements, Sickert is using some traditional instruments—accordion, guitar, cello—as well as non-traditional ones (toy piano, hamster bells). He’s also turning up the volume considerably, so that the result, while still haunting, sounds less like Kurt Weill and more like Nine Inch Nails.
What do the Tiger Lillies think of it? “They’re very excited,” says Sickert. “Martyn has heard the music and loved it. I believe he’s going to come to one of the shows.”
Giving this Shockheaded Peter, with its unsettling themes, an additional personal resonance, Sickert himself is a new father. Just 11 days ago, his wife (and Army of Toys cofounder) Edrie gave birth to a girl who is named Wednesday Alice. His new baby has been to all the rehearsals, both in utero and in person. How does she like it?
“As far as I’m concerned, the first critic is really enjoying it. She only pooped a little bit during the finale.”
Below, have an exclusive listen to three songs from Shockheaded Peter, as performed by Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys. The cast album will be released on iTunes and on Bandcamp April 4. A new adaptation of the Shockheaded Peter book, adapted by Edrie and illustrated by Sickert, is available for sale at Company One.