What could sum up the spirit of Pavement’s music better than seven tap-dancing Santas stepping to the guitar break from “Gold Soundz”? Or a team of theater kids giving jazz hands while they all sing “Shady Lane”? Or “AT&T” turned into a boot-scootin’ line dance, complete with cowboy hats and yeee-haws? Slanted! Enchanted!: A Pavement Musical is all these things and more.
The whole idea of turning the Pavement songbook into a jukebox musical might sound crazy, but nothing could prepare you for how utterly bonkers this show is. Seeing Broadway actors belt Wowee Zowee deep cuts with a straight face is the ultimate absurdist theater experience. It’s a bold new breakthrough for the indie-rock musical, an idea whose time has finally come.
Pavement had a massive 2022, as the Nineties art-punk pranksters did their triumphant reunion tour. But the word broke about Slanted! Enchanted! just a few weeks ago, when the band’s label Matador announced “the majesty and mystery of Pavement brought to life on the stage for an abbreviated, unforgettable stand.” This was a three-day workshop at New York’s Sheen Center in NoHo, but let’s hope it comes back to the stage soon, because this deserves to run onstage for years to come. It should sweep the Tony Awards, especially if they create a new category for “Best Musical To Namecheck Geddy Lee and Donna Del Verona.” It’s Mamma Mia! for people who have a favorite Polvo record. It makes you impatient for jukebox musicals based on the songs of Chavez, Cat Power, or Strapping Fieldhands.
It’s directed by Alex Ross Perry, who is in the midst of making a movie about Pavement, after recently directing the music video for “Harness Your Hopes,” with Yellowjackets star Sophie Thatcher. Back in September, when Pavement took their reunion tour to NYC for a four-night stand at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre, Perry curated a pop-up Pavement Museum in Tribeca. “Pavements 1933-2022” (“New York—London—Tokyo—Stockton”) was a comically ingenious fan tribute, mixing up authentic artifacts with totally fake ones. It displayed vintage posters and artwork, but also fictional items like an “Absolut Pavement” vodka ad, the drummer’s toenail, and a playbill for the musical Slanted! Enchanted! Except now the musical turns out to be real.
There’s no dialogue, no characters, no plot to speak of, just a couple dozen Pavement tunes packed into an hour. It stars Michael Esper (Frances Ha), Zoe Lister-Jones (Life in Pieces), and Kathryn Gallagher (the Alanis Morrissette musical Jagged Little Pill), with an ensemble of dancers bringing manic drama-club enthusiasm to choreography by Angela Trimbur and assistant Tenaya Kelleher.
It’s set in a rec-room basement with wood paneling, a couch, Pavement gig fliers on the walls. The cast is dressed in 1990s Record-Store Geek Couture—Esper wears flannel and sneakers, while Gallagher rocks black leather and blue denim. Lister-Jones works the same black baby-doll dress that Courtney Love wore on the cover of Spin in 1994.
But it’s the choreography that nails it—the dancers really commit to the bit, with their sheer determination to turn this indie slop into show biz. The dancers look like a touring company of Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, or Pippin that got stranded at an I-95 truck stop circa 1976, with their gung-ho smiles and happy feet.
The show begins with a boy jumping on the couch, playing guitar and singing “You’re Killing Me” (the first song on Pavement’s 1989 debut 7-inch Slay Tracks), while a girl paints at her easel. But as soon as the hoofers swoop in to shimmy to “Box Elder,” complete with spirit fingers, all bets are off. In the fantastic climax, everyone joins in a medley of “Major Leagues,” “You’re Killing Me,” “Fight This Generation,” “AT&T,” “Starlings in the Slipstream,” and more.
No idea is too crazy for these songs. There’s a romantic lap dance set to “In the Mouth a Desert.” (She: “It’s what I want!” He: “What I want!”) There’s also “Date With Ikea,” sung from blue Ikea shopping carts. “We Dance” becomes a sentimental pas a deux. An estranged couple sit on the couch singing “Range Life” to each other, throwing in the “coo-coo-coo”’s from “Cut Your Hair.”
Torn between two women, the leading man sings “Fillmore Jive” as a dramatic monologue—“Why won’t you let me sleeeep?”—while roaming between their beds. Kathryn Gallagher has the giant voice here—she really does it to death belting “Give It A Day” into a pay phone. Esper is a veteran of rock musicals—Green Day’s American Idiot, Sting’s The Last Ship, Bowie’s Lazarus—but looks endearingly baffled to find himself sitting at the top of a ladder, gazing down into his lover’s eyes and crooning, “Relationships, hey hey hey.”
Slanted! Enchanted! ends as it should, with “Harness Your Hopes,” Pavement’s surprise posthumous hit—a 1999 B-side that languished in obscurity for 20 years before suddenly blowing up into a viral sensation. (“Nobody told us that song was good in, like, 2010,” Stephen Malkmus explained at one of the October reunion shows in Brooklyn.) The ensemble dances off stage, while a movie screen starts playing a “Harness Your Hopes” karaoke video, and the audience feels like we’ve all learned something special.
It’s a beautifully symbolic ending—the way Pavement’s music, or any kind of art, begins in a basement, with bored kids having pretentious tantrums, but then evolves into public property, and ends as a karaoke artifact that replaces the artists who created it. Most of the audience hung around to sing, too. A perfect finale—the harness made of hopes, the lovers on the ropes. Bravo.