Music Review: Miss Helen’s Weird West Cabaret

Coincidentally, Paul Shapera’s latest offering to the world of music, Miss Helen’s Weird West Cabaret, came out around the time that The Bifrost Incident was made available to Kickstarters, which was a nice seasonal double whammy.

So here we are.

What will the person who brought us A Slender Man Musical have for us next?

Miss Helen’s Weird West Cabaret is set (surprise!) in the Wild West, or at least an analogue of it. The titular cabaret is essentially a low-tech version of a pulp TV show: “Our town’s like an address to an orgy/of tired tropes and pulp stories”. It begins as one of what we assume is a regular parade of pulp stories, as the villain Han-Mi hatches a dastardly plan to unleash a flock of flying zombie babies on the town; but the story quickly breaks down as the various characters (including the titular Miss Helen, who has lost her family to a mysterious carnival; sheriff Hank, who has A Past involving a werewolf lady who died; the aforesaid Han-Mi, who’s in love with Hank; and Henry the Alchemist, who – you know what, let’s talk about Henry the Alchemist a bit later) slowly realise that they are not, as they thought, actors in this cabaret, but rather characters within it, unable to remember anything outside the performance.

Obviously, this picks up on the mythos developed in the New Albion trilogy, and certainly Miss Helen feels more of a descendant of those operas than it is of A Slender Man Musical, and not just because it’s set in the same world.

Do I like it, though?

Musically, I think, Shapera’s really excellent at writing tunes: big, rousing, catchy numbers that do exactly what they need to do, which is capturing a mood, an intense emotion, that makes our grey and stressful lives appear just a little more colourful for a while. He’s not quite so good at plotting, I think, which is where Slender Man and The New Albion Guide to Analogue Consciousness really fall down: they’re difficult to follow unless you’ve listened to them approximately a million times. Miss Helen manages to avoid the plotting pitfall largely due to its cabaret format, as each character delivers their own backstory, each with its own particular mood: it’s a format that works actually particularly well for Shapera, especially given his very Gothic imagination.

The centre of Miss Helen is really Han-Mi, who’s sung by Psyche Chimera of Psyche Corporation: an excellent choice, she brings an amazing, menacing croon to her numbers which soprano Lauren Osborn hasn’t been able to reach in previous work, plus she’s got fantastic attitude. Han-Mi’s probably the most self-aware character here: it’s she who begins sowing the seeds of doubt about the nature of her compatriots’ involvement in the cabaret, as she struggles against the racist implications of the scripts she’s given (dark Eastern magic, hordes of threatening Chinese people, etc., etc.). The album as a whole is very much rooted in the struggle against such tropes, as in the case of the aforesaid Henry the Alchemist, a gay man who turns into a sex monster (effectively) when he’s aroused. (Incidentally, this is the one thing I really don’t like about Miss Helen, and it’s a problem I had with Slender Man too: not the presence of sex, but the way it’s presented, over-literally and seemingly in an effort to shock; it ruins the mood of the music and makes it feel faintly ridiculous.) Han-Mi points out the offensiveness of this plot point, which essentially equates male homosexuality with beasthood; but her deconstruction of the narrative she and Henry live proves futile – she can’t contact the writers to change it, and if she refuses to live it she might vanish, be erased entirely.

The mood of Miss Helen, then, might be said to be a kind of helplessness, a helplessness that feels very topical for 2016: the helplessness of the liberal left, watching all the old hateful tropes come back out of the box, seemingly unable to change them. The writer is a moron, and we can’t contact him.

It’ll be interesting to see what Shapera does with Act 2.

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