David Cale has a new story to tell: His own

Through decades of musicals and plays, he disguised these events, rewrote the characters, tore up his autobiography and scattered its details — confetti-like and not always consciously.

David Cale has a new story to tell: His own [Lifestyles]

In “We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time,” a solo music-theater piece that runs at the Public Theater through July 14, Cale is finally telling this story, although arguably it’s the story he has been telling his whole career, from his first major piece, “The Redthroats,” in 1986, through 2017’s “Harry Clarke,” in which a misunderstood boy flees an abusive childhood and remakes himself in Manhattan.

Through decades of musicals and plays, he disguised these events, rewrote the characters, tore up his autobiography and scattered its details — confetti-like and not always consciously.

“I was very, very private about it for many years,” Cale, 60, said on a recent afternoon, slouched in the first row of the Public’s Anspacher Theater. “I didn’t tell anybody.” When he arrived in New York, in 1979, with $400 and vague dreams of making it as a musician, no one knew him as the son of a murderer, the son of a victim. He intended to keep it that way. “I didn’t want to be defined by this,” he said.

In “The Redthroats,” a surrealistic vision of the murder that The New York Times called “a fanciful flight into a world above the clouds of reality” (whoops), Steven, the character modeled on Cale, says that he wants to take his life in his hands and shake it until all the bad parts fall away.

“No past,” he says. “I’ll shake off the past. Let the past get past.” Which is what Cale did.

But a few years ago, he began to wonder how it would feel to put his mother (he calls her by her maiden name, Barbara Arnold) onstage. “I didn’t need to tell my story,” he came to realize. “I needed to tell her story.”

In his dressing room at the Public, he keeps the card, unsigned and printed with a picture of Liza Minnelli, that his mother bought in advance of his 17th birthday. That and a few photos are all he has left.

Since the mid-1980s, Cale has racked up a couple of Obie awards, a stint as a “Law & Order” judge, an HBO special, a “This American Life” episode and some songs for Deborah Harry. A lot of critics consider “Harry Clarke” his breakout, but as Robert Falls, who directs “We’re Only Alive,” noted, critics say that about all of his shows. (Jesse Green, in The New York Times, called the new one “a transformation and culmination of Mr. Cale’s many dark, downtown works,” while Sara Holdren, in New York magazine, dubbed it a “delicate, funny, heart-twistingly generous combination of eulogy, séance, and exorcism.”)

In person, Cale presents as friendly, gangly, at 60 still a naïf. He is, as Falls said, “so open, so vulnerable.” His hair — a monk’s tonsure — circles his head and his beaky nose and bright eyes seem lifted from one of the birds he writes about, a finch maybe. He grins more than most performance artists.

He began working on “We’re Only Alive” in 2015, at the Space on Ryder Farm, an artists’ residency in upstate New York. His process was slow, occasionally tearful, although Emily Simoness, Ryder Farm’s executive director, remembered him as a “relentlessly buoyant” presence, “just sort of ferociously alive.”

When the summer ended, he told her that he needed more time and she arranged for him to stay on the farm. He finished the first draft that December.

The following spring he met composer Matthew Dean Marsh. Together they originated an evening called “More Songs for Charming Strangers” which they performed at the East Village restaurant Pangea, then began to work on music for “We’re Only Alive,” creating a lush, romantic score to counterbalance the anguish, making of grief a gift.

Cale told me how, in 1978, he had seen Bette Midler at the London Palladium and how her show had made him feel connected to life again in a way he hadn’t thought was possible. That is what he wants “We’re Only Alive” to do, to show an audience that he survived. That anyone can survive. (Although the show doesn’t discuss it, the catastrophe of his parents’ marriage has never barred him from writing feelingly about love and sex. He and his longtime boyfriend are broken up at the moment, but he’s pretty sure they’ll get back together.)

“Watching him, it’s still really inspiring,” his collaborator, Marsh, said, speaking by telephone. “In a way it’s a feel-good show.” He paused. “In a way, it’s just not,” he said.

In 2017, Cale performed a work-in-progress version at the New Stages festival at Chicago’s Goodman Theater. He imagined audience members saying, “Why did you put us through that? We don’t go to the theater to be tortured.” But no one complained. Instead Falls, the Goodman Theater’s artistic director, came to him, in tears, and asked to direct it, aiming it for the Goodman’s main stage, where it opened in September, after a quick run at the Public’s Under the Radar Festival.

In telling the truth of his parents’ marriage and his own mangled adolescence, Cale has left some things out, like the way the tabloids savaged his mother after her death, like his father’s subsequent criminality. And he has allowed himself a few inventions.

The extraordinary stuff? It all happened. The murder, the trial, the hundreds of birds kept in aviaries in the backyard. But other sections are imagined, like the love interest he supplies for his mother and a thrilling ride on the back of that man’s motorbike. He figured his mother deserved some joy. Some good songs, too.

Cale sings all those songs and he plays all the parts. If you’re new to his world, that might seem unlikely. That afternoon at the Public, Cale wore a version of his costume, a collared shirt in some inconsequential shade and skinny jeans that he was possibly too skinny for. He didn’t look like anyone’s mother. But onstage, when he becomes Barbara — or his father, his grandfather, his younger brother — his face and body recede. Another person seems to stand there.

Falls compared this onstage experience to an “odd séance.” Cale didn’t exactly disagree. If he thinks that channeling is too pretentious a word for what he does, he doesn’t have a better one.

He knows that “We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time” can’t bring his mother back, can’t right the wrongs done to her, can’t wrest the hammer from his father’s hand. He knows it eight shows a week. But on a good night, he senses his mother in the room, or even closer. “It does just feel like she’s inside me,” he said. “It’s quite, quite a wild feeling.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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