At ‘Tarantino Live,’ Director’s Soundtracks Come to Life, With a Little Help From Jackie Brown, the Bride and the Gimp

Call it cabaret, call it a musical or call it a rock 'n' roll show with swordplay and skinny ties, but the condensed "concert" adaptation of Quentin Tarantino's entire filmography couldn't be more of a slightly blood-spattered crowd-pleaser.

At 'Tarantino Live' in Hollywood, Director's Soundtracks Come to Life

What do the Bride, Jackie Brown, Django, Mia Wallace, Hans Landa, Cottonmouth, Stuntman Mike McKay, Mr. Pink, Charles Manson and the Gimp all have in common? For one thing, that they’re all characters in a stage musical now playing at the Bourbon Room in Hollywood.

But its creators would rather that you not call “Tarantino Live” a musical per se, or at least not boil it down strictly to that term. For one thing, its “book” — largely an amalgam of dialogue from Quentin Tarantino’s movies — is a sort of loose fantasia tying characters and themes from the films together into a surreal, seriocomic knot, more than any traditional, straight stage narrative. For another thing, the 50-plus songs from the filmmaker’s soundtracks are being licensed for an immersive concert nightclub experience, not a theatrical production… although a transfer to the legit stage is something that’s hoped for down the road.

And finally, the M-word might scare off part of the target audience — the part that is wearing “Death Proof” T-shirts to a night out at what may or may not count as “the theater.”

Executive producer Shane Scheel says part of the production’s marketing goal is to “reach the average Joe that’s intimidated or is turned off by theater. Some of my favorite comments from people are, ‘I would have never gone to see a theatrical show. I would have never gone to a traditional musical, but this…’ Seeing bros on dates is kind of awesome.”

How to describe the form? “I keep calling it a meta narrative, which is to mash it up and make it feel like you’re going through the journey of the entire filmography of a director,” says the production’s director and arranger, Anderson Davis, speaking not just of “Tarantino Live” but of some of the other auteur/soundtrack shows that have been put on by the company For the Record, which over the last decade have also included “Scorsese: American Crime Requiem” and “BAZ Star Crossed Love.”

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“Tarantino Live” Lawrence K. Ho

More bluntly, Janet Billig Rich, the somewhat legendary music business figure who has worked on acquiring song rights for this and other For the Record shows, calls it “a hybrid that celebrates a director’s fucking great taste in music. I hate calling it a musical. It’s a concert meets a cabaret. And it could grow into a proscenium theater thing, but I think it could lose something there, too. There’s something about the experiential part of it, where it’s happening around you and all of a sudden your server is onstage and your bartender’s shimmying through the tables singing and being part of the production, that makes what For the Record does really special. The fact that it could happen at a place like the Bourbon Room, which is built for something like this, makes it more exciting than a proscenium show.” There’s another sometimes verboten term that Billig Rich isn’t afraid to use. “There’s something really extra special about being at the Bourbon Room that feels like you’re part of like a secret club. I’d hate to say we’re doing dinner theater, but this is the most like elevated version of dinner theater there is.”

Says Scheel, “Someone came up to Quentin when he was seeing (a past production of) the show and asked him what he thought, and he said, ‘This shouldn’t work, but it works. It works really well.’ I think there there’s always that initial skepticism, especially from Tarantino aficionados, of ‘What is this going to be? They’re turning this into a musical?’ And I think to a certain degree, it’s a bit of a dirty word for Anderson and I: musical. I like when Anderson describes this as a rock concert with a story to tell. It’s bringing that music to the forefront and understanding how music really tells the story, just kind of reversing that normal dynamic, where the music’s supporting a story.”

“Tarantino Live” makes the case that most of Tarantino’s films have secretly been musicals all along. Even though no one breaks into song in his narratives, a needle drop is rarely just a needle drop in one of his movies — they’re brought to the forefront as what almost seem like interstitial arias. The stage show takes these moments next-level to imagine: What if the characters that were merely internalizing those often obscure Top 40 chestnuts of the distant past suddenly externalized them, and turned out to have Broadway-rock-opera-quality voices that could sometimes better the original recordings?

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“Tarantino Live” Lawrence K. Ho

Speaking of immersive, the show takes a pretty comprehensive plunge into those soundtracks, too, hitting expected notes like a reprise of John Travolta and Uma Thurman dancing to Dick Dale and the Deltones’ arrangement of the classic instrumental “Miserlou” in “Pulp Fiction,” or of “Across 110th Street” as the theme from “Jackie Brown,” but also gets into the deep cuts. It is just about guaranteed to be the only time you will ever hear Roy Orbison’s “There Won’t Be Many Coming Home” — as heard in “The Hateful Eight” — ever performed on a stage. And even Maria McKee fans may not likely have ever heard her sing “If Love Is a Red Dress” (also from “Pulp Fiction”) on stage, let alone witnessed it turn into a bravura chorale performed as a group-sing by the entire female half of a cast.

Asked what their favorite numbers in the show are, the creators have some surprising choices. “It’s a different one every night, depending on how the crowd reacts,” says Scheel, “but the ‘Freedom’ song from ‘Django (Unchained)’ is probably my favorite, epic theatrical moment in the whole show.”

Says Davis: “If the cast hears that I have a favorite, that puts in their minds that I think one performance is better than the other. But if you’re talking about just the way it works in the show, I really liked ‘Good Night Moon,’ which is not a song that I really paid a ton of attention to when the soundtrack of ‘Kill Bill 2’ came out. And it’s a very mysterious, haunting, obscure song, but I love the way the lyrics fit with the sentiment of Fabienne, the French girlfriend of Butch in ‘Pulp Fiction,’ where she is waiting for him to come back and they’re hiding out from the gangsters. The song was all about waiting with paranoia in the middle of the night for something to come and get you. And it just works so perfectly with that character, even though it’s a totally different movie (than ‘Kill Bill 2’). So that’s one of the moments in the show where one movie has a relationship with another movie.”

The director adds, “Another one of my favorites is the song ‘Chick Habit,’ which almost no one had ever heard. Even now, it’s in a movie that even some Tarantino fans haven’t seen, which is ‘Death Proof.’ The lyrics were originally in French, and then the English-translated lyrics (in April March’s adaptation) are so brilliantly, perfectly on in this kind of weird genre world where a lot of these strong female characters are kicking the asses of the tyranny of evil men, which is what ‘Death Proof’ is about. And it just perfectly encapsulates that sentiment — like, hang up the chick habit or you’re gonna get it; you’re going to pay the price. And in the right context, in this concert style, it’s a beautiful, perfect little Tarantino rock ‘n’ roll moment.”

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Quentin Tarantino watches a production of “Tarantino Live”

The germ of the show — and of For the Record generally — came 11 years ago, when Scheel was looking to do a cabaret-style night of songs with friends from the theater, and thought that rather than indulge in show tunes, numbers from Tarantino films might be a more novel (and L.A.-specific) alternative. It didn’t hurt that part of his circle of participating friends was Tracie Thoms, who actually co-starred in “Death Proof,” and who has been a part of different “Tarantino Live” productions since. Davis came in about a year later as the show graduated from an informal get-together to a ticketed event in small clubs.

Needless to say, perhaps, none of this would be moving forward without the approval of the man himself.

Says Davis, “Quentin showed up at the very first incarnation of it because he had a relationship with Tracie. She sent him a text message saying, ‘Hey, you should come and check this thing out. We’re doing your whole life. It will flash before your eyes.’ One Saturday night, he walked in there, and what ensued was several hours of tequila afterwards with Quentin, we started talking about all the things we could possibly do with it. And every production since then, he’s come to it, and he definitely gets it and loves it. Every one of our shows is a little bit different on how it’s structured based on all of the parties that are involved in the IP, but he is unique in the sense that he is the guy that directs and writes everything, so he’s been able to keep the rights for any kind of theatrical adaptations of his work beyond the film itself. … He is involved from a licensing standpoint, but not a producorial standpoint. Although,” Davis adds with a laugh, “I feel like, since he’s now buying theaters, the Vista would be a really great place for this show.”

The show is a vindication of Tarantino’s music tastes, certainly, and also of how small an excerpt it takes from one of his screenplays for audiences to lock into a scene joined already in progress. There was also a sense of vindication for the filmmaker just in one of the early venues “Tarantino Live” played as the show was being developed.

“When he came to the West Hollywood venue,” recalls Scheel, “he wasn’t sure where he was going. We were in this space on Santa Monica Boulevard and he walks in and says, ‘The last time I came here, it was when I decided I was going to do stand-up comedy. And it was a lesbian bar, and I got booed off the stage. And it’s really fitting that you chose this location tonight, where you’re celebrating me and the music choices I make.’ So it was full circle for him to walk into a venue where he’d tried stand-up comedy at one point, apparently. So he’s been very complimentary to the show. The only thing he’s ever wanted to do is give us more resources to do what we want and connect the dots, and was very helpful at doing that early on.”

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“Tarantino Live” at the Bourbon Room Chris Willman/Variety

Billig Rich is the major dot-connector on the rights side. That’s something she’s specialized in, in part, since the days when she was one of Nirvana’s managers at Gold Mountain. She still has hands in artist management and music supervision, but was also one of the original producers of “Rock of Ages” on Broadway, which is where the Bourbon Room on Hollywood Blvd. comes in.

“The space was built for ‘Rock of Ages’” to play in L.A., she points out. “The Bourbon Room is the name of the fictitious bar in that show, so we created a space that had previously been just a name in a play and made it come alive. And then when the pandemic hit and there was no way to get ‘Rock of Ages’ back up and running, I remembered how I had during that run been talking to Shane and Anderson. saying, ‘Could we do For the Record here some nights?’ It was always an idea because the space is so magical and flexible.”

Was it not overwhelming to license more than 60 songs for “Tarantino Live”? “It is completely overwhelming. Holy shit,” laughs Billig Rich. “But because it’s a concert experience and not a stage show, there’s less hurdles. When this show goes to a proscenium theatrical version, I expect there’ll be more. But I look at this concert version as the workshop for the next version, because we’ll have worked it out, and we can invite publishers and rights holders and all sorts of different people to come see the concert version, and they get much more invested into helping us make it for the stage show version.”

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Tracie Thoms in “Tarantino Live”

Currently, For the Record is working on mounting a production of “The Brat Pack” — a show that combines songs from ‘80s movies like “The Breakfast Club” and “Say Anything” — in San Francisco. The next L.A. production from the team will be a renewal of their “Love, Actually” show at the Wallis in Beverly Hills; it’s the one show they’ve put into production that is based on one movie, not an assemblage of films.

“Our partners in ‘Love, Actually’ are Universal Pictures,” points out Billig Rich. “Some of the staff from assistants to the most senior execs at Universal had come to see various For the Record shows and were always so impressed. So when the pitch was ‘We want to do “Love, Actually” for Christmas as a live event,’ we got immediate buy-in from Universal to be partners on it. And this is the third season that it’s being presented at the Wallis, which is a proscenium theater — you get your ticket, you sit in your seat. It’s not at all what the Bourbon Room is, which has a nightclub energy and feels like a party.”

As for taking “Tarantino Live” to a proscenium approach, Billig Rich and the other principals are mindful of what could be lost as well as gained, beyond just renegotiating song rights. The clubbiness of the QT cult is part of what keeps the 200-seat Bourbon Room sold out every night, although, as the box office for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” proved, he’s about as mainstream as auteur filmmaking has ever gotten.
“If you’re like a deep, deep Tarantino fan, there are so many secret handshake moments in the show that (others) wouldn’t even know,” says Billig Rich.

But for anyone who’s not a weekend-midnights New Beverly habitue or even has only seen one or two, there’s the ineluctable appeal of great pop songs, well-belted — no Easter egg acknowledgement required. “If you like music, you’re in; if you like movies, you’re in,” she says. “It really does speak to everybody.” And then she qualifies that, remembering the amount of simulated gunplay and swordplay. “When we do the ‘Brat Pack’ show, that’s more family-friendly. This is not for kids. It’s a great grown-up night out.” And, lest the point be lost: “It’s also for dudes.”

“Tarantino Live” is currently set to play at the Bourbon Room in Hollywood through Oct. 2. Tickets and further information can be found here.

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“Tarantino Live” at the Bourbon Room Chris Willman/Variety