It's a Thursday afternoon at Lexington High, and 20 or so students have congregated in a music room surrounded by racks of folding chairs and sporting a sleek black Steinway baby grand. They lounge about in leggings and sweatpants, their scripts in binders tossed casually to the side.
VIDEO: Backstage at With the Needle That Sings in Her Heart
"Think of yourself as a note moving through a staff," instructs Steven Bogart, who teaches theater at the school. "Pay attention to images you see and just use it as exploration." A female student — one of the assistant directors — taps her iPod and the first strums from "King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1," the opening track on Neutral Milk Hotel's seminal 1998 album In the Aeroplane over the Sea (Merge), drift through the speakers.
The group launch into motion. Some run, some stand in place, some move their arms slowly, some drop to the floor. The students — who have been working with Bogart and the Dresden Dolls' Amanda Palmer (herself a Lexington alum) to create With the Needle That Sings in Her Heart, a play based on Aeroplane, to be performed this weekend — are largely unaware of the critical bickering that has surrounded the album (itself based on Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl) in the 11 years since it was released. In fact, most of them had never even heard it before Palmer and Bogart announced plans for the play back in January. "You must have had it on that vast iPod of yours," Amanda says to Wally Napier, the class "guy who's really into music."
"I did not," he admits, sounding surprised at himself.
Most of the students bought Aeroplane after making the cast list for the play, and since then it's become a group obsession. "It keeps getting deeper and deeper into you," says Alex Parrish, a regular in Lexington High musicals. He'll be doing his best Jeff Mangum when he sings most of the songs for the play, accompanied by Palmer on piano and five musicians from the school band.
Palmer returned to her alma mater to collaborate with Bogart, whom she cites as a significant influence on her career. Like all Bogart's students, she refers to him by his last name. Together with the students, they "workshopped" the play into existence. Bogart: "Basically, the process is exploratory improvisation. People are sent off in groups and create structured improvs." From there, the group look for "moments when everyone goes, 'That's it!' "
Needle is far from a literal interpretation of either the Anne Frank story or Aeroplane. "The lyrics suggested things, but unsayable things," says Palmer. "Little seeds for scenes and ideas." Gabi Goszczynska, a female student with long blond braids, agrees. "We have created our own world through this play by, like, making every single page of the play our own interpretation of what happened."
Palmer sought out Bogart in order to rekindle the creative dynamic they share, one that she's missed in recent projects like The Onion Cellar, which she staged at the ART's Zero Arrow Theatre in 2006. But sitting with the cast on the steps outside the school, listing the plays she and Bogart put on when she was a student there (one was based on the Legendary Pink Dots' 1985 album, Asylum), Palmer makes it sound like indulgence in a little nostalgia is as important as restoring a lost artistic bond. "The reason I'm doing this project," she says, "is to sit around and do this all day."
WITH THE NEEDLE THAT SINGS IN HER HEART | Donald J. Gillespie Auditorium, Lexington High School, 251 Waltham St, Lexington | May 7-8 at 7:30 pm; May 9 at 1:30 + 7:30 pm | $10 | 781.861.2320 orwww.amandapalmer.net/lexington