THE CAUSTIC wit, high times, eventful life, and inner shadows of writer Dorothy Parker are all evoked in The Whistling Girl, a new musical show featuring the combined talents of composer Trevor Knight and actor/singer Honor Heffernan.
The show features Knight’s terrific settings of Parker’s poetry, transporting it to the 21st century and giving it a sonic face-lift with an imaginative array of musical genres. Each song is infused with a unique ‘voice’, creating individual tableaux or dream moments from Parker’s psyche, conjuring up images from her tempestuous life of outrageous celebrity - founding member of the celebrated Algonquin set in New York and as a civil rights activist in America and Spain during the Spanish Civil War.
Honor Heffernan explains how the show came about; “Trevor Knight told me he had written music to the poetry of Dorothy Parker and asked would I like to listen to it so I did and immediately thought ‘Oh my God, this is amazing, I really want to do this!’ So we started rehearsing and working on the material. Her work was so incredible, the lyrics are amazing; they are up to the minute, everything she is saying is just as relevant today as when she wrote them. We’ve called the show The Whistling Girl,which is one of her poems. It was a derogatory term for women who whistled or were badly-behaved, so the title plays on the quirkiness of Parker’s nature.”
While Knight is a long-time fan of Parker’s work, Heffernan was largely unfamiliar with it before doing the show. “All I knew about Dorothy Parker before I met Trevor were the quotes and quips and sarcastic humour,” she reveals. “Since then I’ve discovered a real life human being there who had a lot of problems, she suffered from depression, she had suicide attempts. She felt she never fitted in. She had bad relationships. For all the exterior personality and traits that we know of her, inside there was a lot of turmoil. She was at a party one night and went to the bar and the bartender asked her ‘What are you having?’ and she replied ‘Not much fun!’ and that was the truth of her. She could be the life and soul of the party but inside she was quite unhappy.
"Yet she was also a great human rights activist, she left all her money to the Martin Luther King Foundation. She was an animal rights activist, she was boycotted during the McCarthy era, in the 1930s she raised €1.25 million dollars for the children of the Spanish Civil War. She was also a critic and she could be very cutting, she said of Katherine Hepburn in her first film that ‘She ran the full gamut of emotions from A to B’ but if she liked someone she would be full of praise for them. She was quite a woman.”
“We bring out all those aspects of her personality,” Heffernan continues, "and while parts of her life were sad, the music is fantastic and very uplifting and some of her poetry is so funny and she was often making fun of herself. We also have a recording of Parker herself reciting one of her poems, and we use one of her prose pieces which she wrote from Spain, which we do as a monologue, everything else is in the show is her poetry.”
Heffernan shares her thoughts on Parker’s verse. “One of the poems we do is 'Resumé'," she says, "which goes ‘Razors pain you/Rivers are damp;/Acids stain you;/And drugs cause cramp./Guns aren’t lawful;/Nooses give;/Gas smells awful;/You might as well live.’ Someone who can write that has really experienced an awful lot yet a lot of the poems are throwaway and funny and airy and light. Then there is 'August' which has the most beautiful melody Trevor has written. It is haunting and I feel that poem is really the core of her and her feelings, there is sadness in it and a craving for eternity. So there are places in the show where you really feel exactly what she might have felt then the rest of it is her playfulness with words, still going into her stuff but in a very funny light-hearted way.”
While Heffernan is a jazz singer, she stresses that The Whistling Girl is not a jazz performance. “There is nothing jazzy about the show," she says. "It takes in rock, vaudeville, dirty cabaret, sleazy, Brechtian music, Leonard Cohen-y sounds. I really don’t want people thinking they are coming to a jazz gig. It’s much more theatrical, there is drama we have a stage set, you’re in Dorothy Parker’s world for an hour and a quarter.”
Accompanying Heffernan is a band of top Irish musicians, including composer Trevor Knight (keyboards ), Garvan Gallagher (bass ), Tom Jamieson (drums ) and Ed Deane, (guitar ).
With The Whistling Girl, Dorothy Parker’s poetry and prose will be opened anew to a wide audience through exciting musical idioms that will breathe new life into the work of this great American literary icon. It plays the Town Hall Theatre on Thursday September 24 at 8pm. Tickets are €18/16 through 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie