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Red Dress & The Sugar Man: The Music Of Tom Waits

  • Written by 
  • Thursday, 09 March 2017 11:20
Published in Music  
The music of Tom Waits can take you to some deep and dark places, making it the perfect soundtrack for the latest theatrical stage production from singer-songwriter Marisa Quigley.

'Red Dress & The Sugar Man' is a passion project for Marisa, who admits to harbouring a long-time obsession with Waits and his canon of work.

The show is not a musical tribute, but a self-contained drama that utilises Waits' music to tell a film noir-style story of the tragic romance between main characters, Romeo and Rosie. “It's a bit of a tragedy where Romeo spies Rosie in an all-night diner,” Marisa explains.


“Of course, she lives a pure and pristine life from what he can tell and he lives a very seedy life; he's a bit of a man about town, on the seedy side of town.

“He desperately wants her and feels the only way he can have her is to drag her into his seedy world, but what he doesn't realise is that she has a very seedy past of her own and she's done everything she can to turn her back on it. So it has calamitous results when he does finally lure her over to the other side, the dark side.”

The show draws heavily on the '70s era of Waits' extensive discography, particularly his 1975 live-studio album, 'Nighthawks At The Diner', which is characterised by a distinct Blue Note jazz style and the storytelling aspect of his spoken-word performances. “It very much draws on his style,” Marisa says of the show.


“Tom does a lot of spoken-word and it's definitely influenced by that and the characters he elicits with his music and poetry. There's even a few references: 'red dress and the sugar man' is actually a line from a Tom Waits' song and is alluding to the drug, or lure, of that seedy lifestyle.

“I think it's the imagery is what comes to me. The first album I ever had was 'Nighthawks At The Diner' and I was about 21. It wasn't until my 30s that I developed more of an obsession, but I was very taken with his music and he was probably the first, non-mainstream artist that I'd been introduced to. I was really intrigued by his stuff; he's a real storyteller and that appealed to me.”

Tom Waits' music is very much epitomised by the gravelly growl of his vocal style, which makes his songs almost instantly recognisable. For 'Red Dress & The Sugar Man', Marisa adopts a more melodic approach in her interpretation and rearrangement of the songs. “I certainly don't attempt in any way, shape or form to sing like Tom Waits,” she laughs.

“There's definitely different feels and different styles but not with any real intention of doing that, that's just how they've come out.


“There's some slight lyric changes that make the song fit the story, and a name change here and there, or a verse dropped out here and there to make it fit. I love singing his music, it has so much depth for me and so much soul and feel. Obviously I sing completely different to him but it elicits a feeling for me.”

Marisa says you don't even need to know any of Tom Waits' music to enjoy the show. “In fact, many of the people who've come to see the show have said they'd never heard Tom Waits' music before, but the story speaks for itself.

“I'm loathe to say this because I do love Tom Waits, but I know a lot of people find him, let's shall we say, not terribly melodic. As a bit of a wind-up or a spoiler, the show is a little melancholy, but some people have said it's strangely uplifting at the same time.”

Marisa Quigley performs 'Red Dress & The Sugar Man' at La Boheme as part of Adelaide Fringe 15-19 March.

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