A Kind of Magic: Creating The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs: The Musical

Promotional art for "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs: The Musical."

Mike Daisey is one of the world’s most gifted talkers. If you’ve ever seen him perform, as he has on many occasions since 2008 here in DC at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, or perhaps heard one of his two, very different, appearances on This American Life last year, you’ll know that one of his tools is silence. When you’ve made a 15-year career out of speaking to paying crowds for 90 to 150 minutes at a time, and occasionally much longer, you learn what a pause can do for you.

So why not take Daisey’s most-heard and most-discussed work, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and fill it with music? According to Daisey, the show has been adapted for roughly 80 productions on six continents since he posted a transcript of the monologue on his website in February 2012 and gave his blanket permission for anyone to adapt and perform it, royalty-free. But none of them has been a full musical.

Timothy Guillot wrote the book, music and lyrics for the sung-through version, which premiered in the Capital Fringe Festival and has its final performance this afternoon.

Guillot saw TATESJ during its July 2012 remount at Woolly, after Daisey had stripped the show of the elements he admitted to having made up. (I wrote about all this at some length last year.) He wanted to see the show’s initial run, in the spring of 2011, but he couldn’t get a ticket. When Guillot did finally see the show, he said it was the binary structure of the show that inspired him to adapt it. Many of Daisey’s monologues spin parallel narratives that eventually converge; in TATES, he gives us a history of Apple Computer crosscut with the story of his journey to Shenzen, China, to visit the plants where Apple products are manufactured.

The piece is Guillot’s fourth musical.

“I’m a classically trained musician and composer, but the music I write is within the confines of a rock band,” Guillot explains. “ A lot of my music is very rhythm-forward.” No surprise, then, that he plays drums in the musical’s four-piece ensemble.

Guillot says he downloaded the transcript and begin going through it with a pencil and a highlighter. He ended up writing 16 original songs for his adaptation, which in its current form runs about 70 minutes. A few song titles: “Genisues and Bozos,” “Apple is Fucked,” “The Secret Union,” “Sun.” The latter is named for Sun Danyong, a Foxconn employee who was jailed and beaten for losing an iPhone prototype. (Foxconn is the Chinese manufacturing behemoth that assembles the electronics designed and sold by Apple and many, many other companies.)

Another big divergence from the source material is that Guillot has turned Daisey’s solo play in to a five-hander, with Steve Isaac playing both Steve Jobs and Daisey, and a four-actor chorus sharing a number of other roles. He also added a character, Daisey’s wife—although she isn’t based on Jean-Michele Gregory, Daisey’s real-life spouse, and the director of many of his monologues, including the original, non-musical TATESJ.

Guillot says the decision to add the character came from his wish to give the show a set of emotional bookends. In the monologue, Daisey talks about seeing test photos taken by an iPhone camera at the Foxconn plant where it was made. The photos ended up online after someone neglected to delete them before the phone was shipped.

“I wanted to bring an emotional perspective to the inciting incident of the show,” Guillot says. “I wanted to show his love of technology and his discovery of these photos. He calls his wife over and they look at the pictures together.”

Daisey told me via e-mail that he’d hoped to make it down from New York to see the show, but ultimately got too busy with his current project, a continuous, 29-night, 44-hour monologue titled All the Faces of the Moon.  But he recalled having a favorable impression of Guillot when they’d met earlier this year, when Daisey was performing American Utopias at Woolly. And the premise seemed to intrigue him.
“As far as I know this is the only one that is a full musical adaptation—the one in Mandarin has some shadow puppetry, and the German one has interactive video, but no others are all music as far as I can tell,” Daisey wrote.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs: The Musical is at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church – Mountain at 4 p.m. Tickets are available here.