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'Stay Awake' gets star-studded 20th anniversary revival

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The Orange County Register (MCT) - I know it's a cliche to be stunned by the mere passing of time, but I still find it hard to believe it's been two decades since eccentric, visionary producer Hal Willner put together his dark, captivating, richly detailed Disney tribute "Stay Awake," perhaps because that album has been a constant in my life ever since it appeared to critical huzzahs in 1988.

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By Ben Wener
McClatchy Newspapers (
10/13/2008 (1 decade ago)

Published in Music

Not a Halloween passes without me playing Tom Waits' creepy recasting of "Heigh-Ho (The Dwarf's Marching Song)," the sound of a demented mine-cart ride to hell. When I'm down, Los Lobos' version of The Jungle Book's "I Wanna Be Like You (The Monkey Song)" or Sun Ra & His Arkestra's playful rendition of Dumbo's "Pink Elephants on Parade" or the Replacements' cheeky take on 101 Dalmatians' "Cruella de Ville" can always lift my mood. And when it's late and I can't get little Sam to go to sleep, I find myself trying to remember the words to the Mary Poppins-derived title tune and singing it with the same placid, drowsy tone as Suzanne Vega.

It's an endlessly fascinating recording; listening to it from start to finish is like entering a secret world, or going on a very long Fantasyland ride, one designed for adults that uncovers as many murky aspects of the Disney canon as it does the sweet and pretty.

Or, as Stephen Holden put it in the New York Times when the album was released, "(Willner) has created a psychologically ambiguous soundtrack for grownups of music that was created for children. The record swirls with emotional crosscurrents, as mature artists with strong musical personalities revisit the childhood world of Disney songs and in many instances discover the darker sides of material that has traditionally epitomized lighthearted pop innocence."

"It affected people who became criminals, it affected people who became like Mother Teresa," says Willner, who over the years has given similarly out-there all-star treatment to the works of Kurt Weill, jazz figures Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk, folk archivist Harry Smith, Leonard Cohen and Edgar Allen Poe. "It had a big impact. Why was that? We were exploring the joy of the music and the total darkness of the music. We learned that in any good story there's a bad guy."

Now, to celebrate Stay Awake's 20th anniversary, Willner is re-staging the entire opus at UCLA'S Royce Hall, on Oct. 30.

Several of the original album's participants will perform, including "word jazz" innovator Ken Nordine (who will revive his spooky "Hi Diddle Dee Dee" invocation), NRBQ's Terry Adams ("Whistle While You Work"), David Johansen ("Castle in Spain" in Buster Poindexter guise), Van Dyke Parks (re-creating his arrangement of "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah") and Sun Ra cohort Marshall Allen for "Pink Elephants."

Also joining in will be Petra Haden, Shannon McNally and actor-singers John C. Reilly and Maya Rudolph. Other special guests are planned, including more of the album's cast. (Might Vega or Los Lobos or Bonnie Raitt or James Taylor or Natalie Merchant turn up? Could Tom Waits himself actually surface? Or Sinead O'Connor to sing "Someday My Prince Will Come"? Or Ringo Starr to coo "When You Wish Upon a Star"? We shall see.)

"Stay Awake" has previously been attempted on stage only twice before, at last year's Meltdown Festival in London, curated by Pulp fixture Jarvis Cocker, and earlier this year at a benefit for St. Ann's Warehouse in New York. Before the London presentation, Cocker said, "If you leave the theater without having shed a tear, you're something less than human."

My dilemma: Neil Young plays in Los Angeles that same night. But this special event may be too much to pass up.

"The number of shows we've done under the auspices of UCLA, it's amazing how many people will come without us even announcing the artists," Willner says. "And they kick themselves the next day if they don't."


Ben Wener:


© 2008, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).

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