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Poetry Of Failure Comes To Life At Chicago's 'Baudelaire In A Box'


This weekend, the Lollapalooza music festival is taking over downtown Chicago. Hometown hero Chance the Rapper is the headliner tonight. He will be grabbing the spotlight. But on the city's North Side, a theater is hosting a very different kind of music marathon. It features original musical adaptations of every poem from 19th century French writer Charles Baudelaire's book, "Les Fleurs du Mal." You could call it Malapalooza (ph). Dan Weissmann has the story.

DAN WEISSMANN, BYLINE: Charles Baudelaire, who died 150 years ago this month, is the original poet of extreme disappointment, what Baudelaire called spleen - all the awful feelings we usually keep to ourselves. Not necessarily the kind of guy you'd want to spend a whole weekend with. In the case of visual artist Dave Buchen, it's been more like eight years. His paintings accompany every one of the Baudelaire poems being performed in this festival. When the project started, he was a new father, desperate for something kid unfriendly.

DAVE BUCHEN: I was reading to my children every night "The Little Red Train." I read that about probably a thousand times. And so Baudelaire is, you know, bad sex, bad drugs, death - all of the things that I'm not going to talk about...

CHRIS SCHOEN: Failure, remorse, ruining your life.


WEISSMANN: That other voice is songwriter Chris Schoen, Buchen's main collaborator. The project started small. Buchen illustrated 5 Baudelaire poems about wine and scrolled his images across the front of a wooden wine box with a handheld crank while Schoen sang and played. Kind of a miniature 19th century music video.


SCHOEN: (Singing) One night, the soul of wine sang in the bottles to you, oh, my worthy guttersnipes.

WEISSMANN: Here's how Buchen says things got more ambitious.

BUCHEN: Some guy came up to us and he said, so are you going to do one for every poem? And we laughed at him, said, that's an insane idea.

WEISSMANN: But it became a series of shows called Baudelaire In A Box. Once a year or so, Buchen would produce a scroll illustrating another dozen or so poems. And Schoen would recruit songwriters, musicians and singers to collaborate on the music.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) If your heart is not a total fake, inside it sits a yellow snake saying, all you do is a mistake.

WEISSMANN: The songs all favored acoustic treatments until Schoen recruited veteran Chicago indie rocker Bobby Conn for a 2015 show.

BOBBY CONN: When I just started reading those Baudelaire lyrics, I was like, this is so Goth and so metal and not - it's just not folk music at all.


CONN: (Singing) This irrespecter wears no clothes at all, a dreadful crown reeking of carnival.

WEISSMANN: After producing more than a hundred songs, Buchen and Schoen decided to wrap up with the grand what-the-heck gesture of this weekend's festival - bringing together more than 50 artists, some of them flying in from places like Puerto Rico and Argentina. It's a big stretch for Theater Oobleck, the tiny company to which Buchen and Schoen belong. It's been presenting brainy, deeply eccentric original works for almost 30 years with a minimal budget. And as festival producer and Oobleck ensemble member Diana Slickman explains...

DIANA SLICKMAN: We work without a director, which makes a lot of people cock their head and look at you like puppies, like, what? How do you do that?

WEISSMANN: They also work without any full-time staff, a permanent location or a regular season. In addition to writing and performing, ensemble members do all the grunt work - costumes, lights, marketing. And decisions get made by consensus or on the fly, which is how Slickman ended up agreeing to produce the festival.

SLICKMAN: I'll tell you what, I don't think I did agree to it (laughter). I remember having a conversation with somebody saying, well, who's going to produce this thing? I said, well, I might be interested in that.

WEISSMANN: Oobleck's unusual approach has won the company fans in high and low places. Half of the festival's $30,000 budget came from the National Endowment for the Arts. The other half was raised on Kickstarter. There is a 12-hour marathon going on today of everything that's been performed to date. Tomorrow, every poem that Oobleck hasn't adapted before - about 30 - will get a one-time only airing with all new music and then it's done. Everyone goes home. Buchen says he doesn't know what his next project will be, but this one has lasted long enough that Baudelaire is no longer a haven from his kids.

BUCHEN: We were walking in the park one day. And my kids and I were playing dare. Like, dare you to climb that tree. And I said, dare you to jump up on top of that fountain and sing a song. And my daughter jumped up on that fountain in the middle of the park and she started singing, Satan have pity on my...


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Satan have pity on my long misery.

WEISSMANN: Buchen's own favorite Baudelaire tune. For NPR News, I'm Dan Weissmann in Chicago.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) The all-knowing lord of subterranean things, who will remedy all human sufferings. Oh, Satan, have pity on my long misery. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Weissmann