Whisper Darkly: Shining a Light on Secretive Jazz Age Theater Project

YouTube is just full of surprises, isn’t it? For instance, today I learned that there’s a channel called Electro Swing Thing, which recently uploaded a compilation video called “Electro Swing Mix – Best of 2023.” This surprised me, as I was under the impression that electro swing—that fist-pumping cocktail of classic jazz samples, scratching and drum machines served up by the likes of Caravan Palace, Parov Stelar, and Waldeck—had disappeared during the mid-2010s along with Blackberry phones, Blockbuster Video, and Susan Boyle.

Not so, it seems. In fact, electro swing is apparently still so well loved that two superfans saw fit to design a multimedia experience with the divisive musical genre as its soundtrack. Back in 2021, Broadway composer and lyricist Andrew Gerle (Gloryana, Meet John Doe) teamed up with Emmy-winning scriptwriter DJ Salisbury (The Man Who Would Be King, Million Dollar Quartet) to create a speakeasy-themed spectacular, pitched as “a time-traveling, decadent night out” to be visited “in person, or with friends a thousand miles apart.”

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First mooted during the bad old days of COVID lockdowns, Whisper Darkly was conceived as an immersive live musical theater performance, with virtual reality and podcast options for those unable—or unwilling, in those paranoid pandemic days—to enjoy it in person. From the titillating concept clips still viewable on YouTube, it strikes me as an exciting idea: in 2017, during Britain’s third (fourth?) swing revival, I attended a lower-budget but nonetheless delightful Great Gatsby interactive theater experience in Sheffield; with Broadway star power and more investment, Whisper Darkly looks well primed to impress.

Image courtesy www.whisperdarkly.com

Sadly, despite the best efforts of dozens of dancers, singers, actors, musicians, and crew, the nightclub-set extravaganza has yet to see the light of day. The curious creation has remained something of a mystery: recent announcements on Playbill and other luvvy websites mention only an upcoming “cast recording” of a show which has never actually been performed. All seem to crib from the same press release which, having got my hands on it, gives few clues as to the state of this ambitious project—well, color me curious.

Like a Prohibition-era G-man I scoured the internet for evidence, but clues as to the content of this would-be musical are few and far between—perhaps producers have been keeping things on the down low, in line with the speakeasy theme. As of writing, the only track released publicly is a so-called “pre-mix” of the number “Too Much Fun Fun” (not a misprint) on which Latin Grammy-nominated producer Santiago Deluchi has maybe a little too much fun fun (again, no typo) chopping up the show’s dialog and stuffing it with bass-heavy beats.

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This remixed track (tinyurl.com/toomuchfunfun) is, to my ear at least, totally obnoxious. And I say that as someone who still considers electro swing classics “Lone Digger,” “Chambermaid Swing,” and “Memories”—by Palace, Stelar, and Waldeck respectively—dancefloor-proven bangers. Fortunately I can now reveal, having tapped up the project’s press wallah for an advance copy of the upcoming record, that this pre-release teaser is not representative of the Whisper Darkly project as it now exists, in February of 2024. And it very much still does exist, according to its creators.

The fifteen-track album presents a soundtrack which is more Broadway than Ibiza. From bluesy ballads to frenzied foxtrots, these tunes owe more to Cole Porter than they do to Porter Robinson. Where tracks do show a hip hop or EDM influence, it’s where (I imagine) the creators want to maximize the party atmosphere and hype up a hypothetical live audience who may not be comfortable dancing to something swingy. (Get thee to a Lindy hop class, normies.)

Through music, dance and a suitably seedy storyline, the Whisper Darkly project will breathe life into the Hush Club, a fictional New York City speakeasy circa 1928. That’s right—I said will: I’ve contacted Andrew and DJ, both of whom are both optimistic about opening during 2024. And, to my very great excitement, it’s looking like the premiere will be over here, in London. So, what can West End audiences expect of this Harlem-themed marvel?

The concept record gives hints of the action set to take place and the names involved: several tracks (“We Make the Night,” “Run in the Rain,” “Black Widow’s Kiss”) concern the rise and fall of nightclub proprietress Topeka McShane, inspired by Hollywood actress and real-life speakeasy hostess Texas Guinan (played here by Broadway’s Aléna Watters, previously seen in The Cher Show, Bad Cinderella and Mrs Doubtfire).

Other tunes introduce Maître d’ Gregor (“Love in the Shadows,” played by Howard McGillin), tap dancer Deuce Dalton (“The Top Dog Strut,” Claybourne Elder), naïve country-turned-chorus-girl Evie (“Who’s Evie Now?,” Keri René Fuller), Josephine Baker analog Wysandria Cole Davis (“Paris Says Yes,” Kayla Davion), comedian Mortimer Woodcock (“Jazz Age Johnny,” Brad Oscar), hard-partying flapper girl Hattie (“Too Much Fun Fun,” Alli Mauzey) and other colorful characters.


“The album is really our first public release of the show in any form,” Andrew told me, and we’re hoping people respond to it. We actually have a fabulous venue [which] is eager to host a full production… we just need to find the producer to raise the money!” The record is part artwork, part pitch, DJ admits, aimed to convey the project’s “very fresh and modern” (and therefore very sellable) sound while nodding to time-honored musical traditions. “It offers the thrill of a very contemporary aural experience,” he explained. “Our Charleston number, ‘Too Much Fun Fun,’ is not your great-grandmother’s Charleston!”

But besides gin and jive talk, what can punters anticipate? A top secret synopsis shared with the ST suggests that audiences will witness bootlegging, corruption and even murder, up close and personal. A simulated police raid will then separate speakeasy patrons into smaller spaces, with audience members teaming up to complete escape room-style puzzles and help save the Hush Club from Hoover’s killjoy cronies.

The show has been workshopped behind closed doors and the reactions of test audiences have been very positive, Andrew says. “We needed to see if the immersive elements worked, so in the middle of the Delta variant in Orlando we put the whole show up in a disused dance studio,” he told me. “[We] learned a lot, got some video—but no producers stepped forward at that time, so we decided to make the concept album.” He added: “The songs lend themselves to an album treatment, and we figured it was the best way to get the show out there and hopefully attract some fans.”

DJ shares Andrew’s positivity. “The good news is that the proof-of-concept workshop did indeed prove the concept,” he told me. “Audiences were engaged and willing to behave as patrons of the Hush Club for the two-hour experience.” The flies in the ointment have been a slow return to theaters post-pandemic, plus very particular requirements of a potential venue. “The show as designed requires a non-traditional space,” he explained, “a bespoke speakeasy with theatrical technology built in. We have our eyes on a configurable venue in Camden Market [and] a budget has been crafted by experts in the UK. So here’s hoping we can mount the show in the fall.”

At the height of COVID, the creators pitched a ten-episode VR idea to a panel of arts experts including Cindy Citrone, Alani Ilongwe, and Jason Ma, with DJ selling it to them as being “like a Star Trek holodeck or Westworld”—referencing the HBO series in which rich patrons pay top dollar to hang out with, get fresh with and murder Wild West androids in a reconstructed frontier town. “You know going in that we’re going to blend two worlds,” he explained. “The electro swing music right off the bat sets up that we’re not really in 1928—we’re in 1928 through the lens of 2021 and beyond.” Andrew added: “It’s sort of a retro-future feel, which gives us a lot of leeway to use all this technology like LCD screens and projection mapping in the space, and also to bring it into people’s homes with that VR viewer.”

Planned VR spin offs included in-depth explorations of character backstories, relying on a $75,000 cash injection which they unfortunately didn’t get. But they haven’t closed the door on the idea. “The VR ideas are still in our plan,” said DJ. “Wouldn’t it be great to offer an at-home experience with additional story material that augments the narrative in the live performance?” Still, with other shows to produce and rehearse, the focus is on a live premiere of a “dangerously sexy otherworld, which looks and sounds like no musical that will have come before it.”

So, are you as pumped for a slick, sophisticated, century-hopping speakeasy experience as I am? Head over to www.whisperdarkly.com to read more, and grab that album when it drops on February 23. Then cross everything and be ready to visit the UK in the fall—you can crash on our sofa bed.

Dave Doyle is a swing dancer, dance teacher, and journalist based in Gloucestershire, England. Write him at [email protected]. Find him on Twitter @DaveDoyleComms.

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