Giants of Iron and Steam

Back around 2008, when I first learned that the weird westerns and alternate history I had been writing overlapped with steampunk, I decided to see if I could find some music to put me in a good frame of mind for writing. I tend to prefer instrumental music while I write, but I’m happy to have music with lyrics while I’m getting settled into write. I remember naively typing the phrase “steampunk music” into Google just to see what would come up. I found several discussion boards talking about a band called Abney Park and their album Lost Horizons, which was brand new around that time. I bought a copy of the album and fell in love with the music written by the band’s lead singer Robert Brown. Over the years, I’ve snapped up pretty much every album they’ve produced as they’ve been released. I have especially appreciated that Brown has released purely instrumental versions of some of the albums, and yes, they do work as great background when I’m writing.

As time went on, I discovered that Brown is not only a talented songwriter, but a capable storyteller. He’s written three novels set in the world he’s developed through the songs. In 2020, Brown even recorded an audio version of his novel The Toyshop at the End of the World. Given that he performs all the time as lead singer of a band, it should come as no surprise that he performed the book well. So, I was excited to hear that Robert Brown had brought his storytelling and musical talents together into a musical called Giants of Iron and Steam. I gather Brown had hoped to debut this as a live musical, but logistics have not worked out. So, he decided to release it as an album and I recently gave it a listen.

The musical opens in the distant future of his novel series. Two men enter the laboratory of Dr. Calvin Calgori, pushing an older woman in a wheelchair. The two men talk about trying to get to the truth of some matter. To find the information they need, they must use an invention by Dr. Calgori, which will allow them to view the distant past. They peer into the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s as a railroad is being established between a lumber mill and the nearby mountains. We’re soon introduced to a lumberjack named Robert Winters and his daughter Effie who live deep in the mountains. They look forward to the railroad because that means Robert won’t have to float logs down the river. The railroad will support Charles Foster Quinn’s lumber mill. Quinn’s son, Aaron, doesn’t want to succeed his father in the family business. Instead, he wants to be an engineer on the new railroad. Aaron soon meets Effie, which stirs more division between the young man and his father.

The musical felt like a cross between The Pajama Game and Paint Your Wagon. The former is the story of workers at a pajama factory fighting for better wages and working conditions, a theme which comes up in Giants of Iron and Steam. The stage version of Paint Your Wagon focused on the miner Ben Rumson and his daughter’s forbidden romance with a young man named Julio. Unlike those musicals from the 1950s, Giants of Iron and Steam is more honest about the history of labor and race. Plus there’s a dandy mystery as we figure out what the people from the future want from this story of the past.

I felt several personal connections to this story. Aaron learning to be a railroad engineer reminded me of my dad teaching me how to drive a locomotive. Robert Winters talking about the dangers of taking logs down the river reminded me of stories about my great grandfather, who apparently did take logs downriver in his youth, and was seriously wounded at one point. Finally, at one point, Robert Winters reflects on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and sees himself as Prospero to Effie’s Miranda. Given that I actually do have a daughter named Myranda, I’ve opportunity to reflect on The Tempest and definitely felt the parallels.

Giants of Iron and Steam is sold along with the script for the musical, so you can read along as you listen. You can learn more at: https://abneypark.com/market/musical-giants-of-iron-steam-c-83/

If you’d like to look into my steampunk old west, which also tries to present an honest look at history go to http://davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Paint Your Wagon

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed how my parents loved Westerns on television and at the movies. I’ve also discussed how the classic show The Wild Wild West taught me there was a type of western that I could fall in love with to. However, I may not have been open to even trying The Wild Wild West if it weren’t for another show, and that’s the 1970 movie of Paint Your Wagon starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I first saw the movie, but I was in elementary school and I know my family had recently traveled through Gold Rush country in Northern California. I had been captivated by the forests and mountains of Northern California and this movie captured that and told a story that made me laugh as well. I even enjoyed many of the songs, especially Lee Marvin’s rendition of “Wandrin’ Star” which has always felt like something of an anthem in my own life. The movie Paint Your Wagon doesn’t get a lot of love from musical fans. Now, I’m not one of those people who says that singing should be left to professionals. I think music belongs to everyone and we work a little too hard to keep it away from people who just want to sing on their own and lift their spirits. Even so, I have to admit, Clint Eastwood’s rendition of “I Talk to the Trees” can be a challenge to listen to. The movie was also an almost complete rewrite of the original Lerner and Lowe Broadway musical. Many new songs were written by Alan Jay Lerner and the music was largely re-scoured by Andre Previn.

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to play the part of Angus in Lerner and Lowe’s Brigadoon. I had great fun, but thought it would be fun to see my school stage Paint Your Wagon. After all, we went to a mining school and it was a musical about miners. One of the themes of the story is about how few women there are in the camp, an issue we shared on campus back in the day. Never mind that the musical features a very male-heavy cast and even at a campus with a large male to female ratio, it was a challenge to get enough male science students out to try out for parts in any musical. Still, that’s about the point when I first got really curious what the Broadway musical was like and how it differed from the movie.

A couple of years later, I found a CD of the original musical’s soundtrack. It included many familiar songs plus several I hadn’t heard before. I gathered Ben Rumson had a daughter in the musical, which he didn’t in the movie. Also, she was in love with a Latino miner who didn’t appear in the movie. The album from the 50’s was truncated just enough for it to be difficult to glean the musical’s entire plot.

A few weeks ago, I learned about a revival of the musical performed in New York in 2015 starring Keith Carradine. What’s more, I discovered they released a more complete and higher fidelity soundtrack than the original from 1952. So, I gave it a try. There were more songs and I got a better sense of the musical. Over the years I’d learned the musical isn’t performed very often. That said, I did decide to see if the script was available. It turns out Alan Jay Lerner published the book with the script in 1952 and I was able to find a good used copy on line.

I can see why the musical never quite achieved the “classic” status other Lerner and Lowe musicals such as Brigadoon, Camelot, or My Fair Lady. It’s a pretty straight-ahead tale of the rise and fall of a mining camp. Jennifer Rumson falls in love with Julio Valveras on first sight. They only get about one scene and a partial of another scene in the first act. He’s gone for most of the second act as well. It’s not exactly a romance for the ages. We also have a plot about Jennifer’s dad, Ben, marrying a Mormon woman. That part was largely preserved in the movie. Still, I could see it being fun to see and perform, even if it isn’t one of the great musicals.

What really struck me was that certain parts of the musical echoed themes I’ve explored in my own work. The story of miners in a new land echoes themes in my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. There’s a great line about being Latino in America during the 1800s that echoes themes I explore in my Clockwork Legion novels. Julio says, “One time all this was part of Mexico. I’m a citizen. Suddenly a few years ago they start fighting in some place called Texas. I’m a foreigner.”

You can help support this blog and my rewrite of The Pirates of Sufiro by donating at my Patreon site: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers. You can learn more about the Clockwork Legion series at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion.