When someone thinks Norah Jones, puppets probably don’t immediately (if ever) come to mind. But the singer herself instantly saw the connection.
While walking past the ClockWorks Puppet Theatre in her Brooklyn neighborhood five months ago, Jones thought the puppets would be good counterpart to her new album, Little Broken Hearts. She reached out to Jonny ClockWorks (real name: Jonathan Edward Cross), owner of the 19th century theater that was once a hardware store, about using his handmade creations. Though the expert puppeteer and Norah fan was nervous to tackle the high profile project, he was up for the challenge of making Norah’s music come to life.
“It’s a personal album so I thought of it like a gift for her,” ClockWorks said. “Not every girl gets her own puppet show.”
ClockWorks, who started his craft in Boston nearly 23 years ago, usually composes his own music for his productions, so he knew tackling someone else’s work would be a challenge. How does someone use puppets to tell the story of a 12-song album without being too literal or disjointed? An even better question: how do you do it in nine weeks?
While ClockWorks and his company, The Cosmic Bicycle were originally commissioned to do one video for a song on the album, Norah’s label EMI/ Blue Note soon realized it was a better concept for a stage show. The puppeteer was then asked to take each track and create individual scenes, which entails hand making all the puppets from material such as wood and found objects. Through the process, the show became known as the “Theatre of Little Broken Hearts.”
ClockWorks worried it would be difficult to come up with a vignette for each song, “I didn’t want it to be a David Lynch puppet show,” he said. “I wanted to marry the music with my imagery.” His style, he says, is a little rough around the edges, but after listening to the opening track, “Good Morning” he found his vision. Throughout the song, Jones sadly repeats, “I’m folding my hand,” and he imagined her holding playing cards and just throwing them into the air to watch them fall. The ideas kept coming as he listened to the next song, “Say Goodbye.” For the ’80s inspired pop song, he saw a clock and imagined Norah going back in time to her younger days, before her broken heart. Only two songs in and he knew he’d found the story that would represent the moody album. It was all about Jones letting go of her heart, only to reunite with it at the end.
ClockWorks often begins building his puppets before he’s even figured out the show’s ending. This project was no different. The craftsman knew he would need to build two different Norah puppets. One of which stands two and a half feet tall. Her arms, legs and face are carved from wood with antique gears for eyes. Her torso is made from two different sized birdcages that sit one on top of the other to look like a dress. For her hair, ClockWorks used black rope and styled it in the same wild way that the real Norah wears it on the cover of her album. It takes three people to move her: one controls the head, another her legs and the last one does her arms. The five puppeteers for the project use the Japanese style of puppetry, Bunraku, where the performers wear all black so they can hide in the shadows and not be a distraction. The mini-Norah, an even tinier version at just one foot high, was carved from wood with sprockets for eyes and the same crazy head of rope hair.
The other characters, all inspired from Ms. Jones’ lyrics include a jumping Jack of Hearts as Norah’s ex-love who spends all his time flirting with the Queen cards and a baby doll, used to represent the younger woman in “She’s 22.”
While some songs only required one listen, other songs like “Miriam” proposed a challenge for the artist. ClockWorks wanted to make sure the song about murdering a cheating boyfriend and his mistress didn’t become too over the top. His humorous take has the little Norah poisoning her ex-boyfriend and his new woman with a little spot of cyanide tea. The catch is, they’re both taxidermy mice.
“It’s a silly song that [Norah] plays up live with stage banter,” he said. “We wanted to add a clever twist without being gross. I like that it’s a little unsettling, even though some people might not like the idea of dead mice.”
“Theatre of Little Broken Hearts” also uses live animation created in real time to further tell the story of the shattered heart. The two animators use tabletop cameras to project hand drawn visuals on the back wall of the stage. Though it looks like an old film, ClockWorks suggests everyone attending a performance sneak a peek at the pair furiously drawing away in the back corner of the theater to prove it’s really being done as the show is underway.
After celebrating his theater’s one-year anniversary, ClockWorks is looking forward to seeing how fans will react to the show, which begins its month-long run June 14 at the venue. He is most excited though to see what Norah thinks. The singer was said to be all smiles after seeing it performed for the first time in April at her Manhattan listening party.
“It’s her puppet show,” he said. “I want her to sit in our little church pew seats and experience the album in a brand new way.”
And if that isn’t enough to get Norah there, ClockWorks promises she’ll have the best seat in the house, free of charge.
New York fans or those planning to be in the Big Apple from June 14 through July 14 should go to cosmicbicycle.com or call 212.614.0001 for ticket information.
– Shannon Carlin, CBS Local