Ghost Quartet

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Ghost Quartet
Ghost Quartet.jpg
CD cover
MusicDave Malloy
LyricsDave Malloy
BookDave Malloy
Productions2014 Off-Off-Broadway
2015 Off-Broadway
2015 Cambridge
2015 San Francisco
2016 Edinburgh
2017 Off-Broadway
2019 Chicago
2019 Melbourne
2019 Toronto
2019 Off West End
Awards2016 Elliot Norton Award, Outstanding Visiting Production

Ghost Quartet is a musical song cycle written and composed by Dave Malloy. The show is described as "a song cycle about love, death, and whiskey. A camera breaks and four friends drink in four interwoven narratives spanning seven centuries" [1]


The show tells four interwoven stories: "a warped fairy tale about two sisters, a treehouse astronomer and a lazy evil bear; a retelling of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"; a purgatorial intermezzo about Scheherazade and the ghost of Thelonious Monk; and a contemporary fable about a subway murder."[2] The story does not take place in chronological order.

The musical begins by introducing the four story-tellers ("I Don't Know"); throughout the show they will inhabit several characters. Next, a young woman known as Rose visits a camera shop to purchase a new camera, having broken and lost her old one. The owner of the shop shows Rose a fiddle made from the breastbone of her great-aunt, Pearl White, and tells her a story about Pearl White and her sister (the camera shop owner's great-grandmother), whose name was also Rose Red. Rose Red falls in love with an astronomer and writes poetry about the stars. The astronomer steals her writings and publishes them in his own name; soon after, the astronomer leaves Rose Red for Pearl White. Rose Red, furious, asks a bear to kill the astronomer and turn her sister into a crow. In return, the bear asks for one pot of honey, one piece of stardust, one secret baptism, and a photo of a ghost. It is revealed Rose Red performed the baptism in the sea, on a baby she stole from a teenage mother ("The Camera Shop").

The scene changes and we hear the baptized child, known simply as "Starchild", reflect on being blessed by a stranger and the impact it had on her life ("Starchild"). The scene changes once more to a subway station ("Subway"), with four modern characters - the driver, the victim, the pusher, and the photographer. The victim is pushed in front of a train.

In 1873, the Usher family is at the side of their seventeen-year-old daughter, Roxie ("Usher, Part 1"). Roxie's child, Starchild, was stolen from her, and as a result, Roxie has fallen deathly sick. The scene changes again and a character known as "the soldier" reflects on her readiness for death. Rose Red arrives and seduces the soldier in order to take her honey to give to the bear ("Soldier & Rose").

The story-tellers sing a song about ghosts and other animated dead people ("Any Kind of Dead Person"). The astronomer introduces his character ("The Astronomer"). In the House of Usher, Roxie's father, Edgar, calls a family meeting and discusses Roxie's supposed imaginary friend - her sister, also named Rose, who died when Roxie was a baby. Roxie tells her parents that Rose has tried to convince her to die to join her in heaven, and she eventually becomes frustrated with her parents and shouts at them ("Family Meeting"). The four story-tellers, in no particular character, sing a song that personifies 4 different brands of whiskey ("Four Friends").

Edgar Usher encourages his son, The Fool, to leave home and escape his bad influence; The Fool makes plans to leave his family and make his own way in the world ("Fathers & Sons"). Roxie cries out for her brother, her sister, and her daughter. After Edgar tells her that her daughter is gone, Roxie dies. Lady Usher, who is losing herself to madness, vows to lock her daughter's corpse in the vault underneath her bedroom for a fortnight ("Usher, Part 2").

In the astronomer's treehouse, Rose Red and the astronomer look through his telescope, while she creates poems about each star they see. She professes her love for him, and he does the same. Later, Pearl White and the astronomer profess their love for each other ("The Telescope").

Rose Red is next seen hunting down Scheherazade, an ancient storyteller who lives in a fourteenth-century Persian palace with her husband, Shah Zaman. Scheherazade tells Rose Red she reminds her of her sister, Dunyazad. Rose Red asks for a piece of stardust, and Scheherazade offers it to her, telling the story of her life ("Tango Dancer"). The scene reverts to when Dunyazad was alive, where her older sister is telling her the story of Roxie's child being stolen. Scheherezade tells the story of David, the piano player, and the ghost of Thelonious Monk living behind a hidden door. Scheherazade asks Dunyazad if she remembers being anything other than her sister; she doesn't ("Monk").

In the Usher household, a young Roxie asks her mother to read her Arabian Nights ("Lights Out"). The story of how Rose lost her camera is explained; she took a photograph of the victim on the subway instead of saving her, proceeding to throw her camera to the ground in disgust ("The Photograph").

In the next song, Scheherazade finishes a story and talks with Shah Zaman, her husband, who plans to kill her when she runs out of stories and throw a feast shortly after. Meanwhile, Rose Red finds out about Pearl White and the astronomer's affair and threatens the astronomer, who denies ever having a relationship with her sister. We flash forward to Rose Red bringing the bear the four items; the bear tells her he never planned on doing what she asked, he just wanted the honey ("Bad Men").

In the House of Usher, Lady Usher hears Roxie awaken from the dead, and her husband reads her stories to soothe her. He tells her the story of the subway, but before he can finish, Roxie breaks into the room and attacks her mother, killing her. Meanwhile, at the subway station the victim plays a game on her phone, before she is pushed onto the track. Rose has to make a split second decision - to save the victim or to take the photo to give to the bear. She takes the photo, and the victim is killed ("Usher, Part 3"). The four story-tellers sing and make a vow to forgive themselves for their mistakes ("Prayer").

Rose reflects on choosing to take the photograph at the subway instead of saving the victim, which she regrets. She also reflects her regret in choosing to kill her sister, and laments that she is not a hero ("Hero"). Later, Rose and the camera shop owner talk; the camera shop owner reveals that she was Rose's sister, mother, daughter, lover, and best friend in various former lives. Rose and the subway driver dance; they later have two daughters together ("Midnight").

The four story-tellers then tell the story of how Rose Red took revenge on her sister and how Pearl White's breastbone was turned into a fiddle ("The Wind & Rain").

Cast and characters[edit]

  • Brent Arnold — The Pusher, Bear, The Fool (or Son), Shah Zaman, Thelonious Monk, cello, guitar, erhu, dulcimer, percussion
  • Brittain Ashford — Rose Red, Roxie, Starchild, Dunyazad, Rose (the photographer), autoharp, keyboard, percussion
  • Gelsey Bell — Pearl White, Pearl (the victim), Sheherazade, Soldier, Lady Usher, Camera Shop Owner, metallophone, Celtic harp, accordion, percussion
  • Dave Malloy — The Astronomer (the driver), Edgar Usher, David, piano, keyboard, ukulele, percussion

Musical numbers[edit]

Side 1
  • 1. "I Don't Know"
  • 2. "The Camera Shop"
  • 3. "Starchild"
  • 4. "Subway"
  • 5. "Usher, Part 1"
  • 6. "Soldier & Rose"
  • 7. "Any Kind of Dead Person"
Side 2
  • 1. "The Astronomer"
  • 2. "Family Meeting"
  • 3. "Four Friends"
  • 4. "Fathers & Sons"
  • 5. "Usher, Part 2"
  • 6. "The Telescope"
  • 7. "Tango Dancer"
  • 8. "Monk"
Side 3
  • 1. "Lights Out"
  • 2. "The Photograph"
  • 3. "Bad Men"
  • 4. "Usher, Part 3"
  • 5. "Prayer"
Side 4
  • 1. "Hero"
  • 2. "Midnight"
  • 3. "The Wind & Rain"


The piece draws on numerous sources of inspiration, including Arabian Nights, Matsukaze (a Japanese Noh drama), Grimms' Fairy Tales, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”, James Joyce's Ulysses, Rosemary Timperley's "Harry," Thelonious Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear,” “Epistrophy,” and “’Round Midnight,” The Twilight Zone (particularly “The After Hours” and “In His Image”), 2001: A Space Odyssey, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, Cosmos (both the Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson versions), Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Legend of Zelda and Castlevania, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Bill Willingham’s Fables, Ken Wilber’s A Brief History of Everything, Tina Satter’s Seagull (Thinking of You), Frozen, R. Umar Abbasi’s NY Post photo, and “The Wind & Rain,” a 17th-century English murder ballad.[3]

The music is scored for four voices, cello, guitars, dulcimer, Celtic harp, erhu, autoharp, piano, keyboards and percussion, and is inspired by murder ballads, doo-wop, angular bebop, Chinese folk, Islamic adhan, and the music of Bernard Herrmann and George Crumb.[4]


The piece premiered in 2014 at the Bushwick Starr. The production starred Brent Arnold, Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, and Dave Malloy, and was directed by Annie Tippe. Christopher Bowser was the production designer and James Harrison Monaco the dramaturg.

The show was remounted at the McKittrick Hotel, home of Sleep No More, in January 2015 and ran through May of 2015. Throughout 2015 the show went on tour, playing at various venues in New York State including Mt. Tremper Arts in Mt. Tremper NY (July 2015), American Repertory Theater's Club Oberon in Cambridge, MA (September 2015), San Francisco's Curran Theatre (October 2015), and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (August 2016).

The show was also presented for a month-long engagement at the New York Theatre Workshop in October 2017, where it launched the inaugural season of Next Door at NYTW, a "new works program that provides a creative home for artists and theatre companies who produce their own work" in a 75-seat black box theater space.[5] As stated on Gelsey Bell's Instagram, the run sold out within half an hour.[6] Additional tickets were added for November 2017.

The Chicago premiere of Ghost Quartet was presented from July 12 through August 17, 2019, by Black Button Eyes Productions.

An Australian production premiered in Melbourne's Gasworks Arts Park on August 14, 2019, by the Antipodes Theatre Company featuring David Butler, Melissa David, Patrick Schnur and Willow Sizer.[7]

Ghost Quartet made its Canadian debut in Toronto on October 5, 2019, presented by Crow's Theatre and Eclipse Theatre Company, directed by Marie Farsi and featuring Beau Dixon, Hailey Gillis, Kira Guloien, and Andrew Penner.[8]

Ghost Quartet premiered in London as the inaugural production of the newly refurbished Boulevard Theatre on October 24, 2019, and closed on January 4, 2020. [9]

Critical response[edit]

The piece was well received by the New York press; Ben Brantley in the New York Times called it “Rapturous…this happily haunted song cycle speaks in many styles. The voguish term “mash-up” doesn't begin to capture its breadth or its quirky sincerity...Ghost Quartet uses languages as varied as gospel, folk ballads, honky-tonk anthems of heartbreak, electropop, doo-wop and jazz à la Thelonious Monk...directed with unobtrusive cunning by Annie Tippe...Mr. Malloy is infectiously in love with the dark arts of storytelling in all its forms...”[10]


On October 31, 2014 the album was released by the ensemble via Bandcamp.[11] On July 1, 2016 a live cast recording from the show's run at the McKittrick Hotel was released.[12] On March 15, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dave Malloy uploaded a full video recording of the same live performance on his YouTube channel.[13]

Awards and Nominations[edit]

Original Off-Broadway production[edit]

Year Award Category Result
2015 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Music Nominated
Drama League Award Outstanding Musical Nominated
Off-Broadway Alliance Awards Best Unique Theatrical Experience Nominated

Original Cambridge Production[edit]

Year Award Category Result
2016 Elliot Norton Awards Outstanding Visiting Production Won


  1. ^ Giola, Michael. "Ghost Quartet", Playbill, Oct 20, 2014
  2. ^ Giola, Michael. "Ghost Quartet", Playbill, Oct 20, 2014
  3. ^ Ghost Quartet liner notes, Bandcamp page
  4. ^ Padilla, Lily. "Ghost Quartet—Dave Malloy's New Show About Love, Whiskey, Regret, and Hope", Culturebot, Oct 7, 2014
  5. ^ "Dave Malloy's Ghost Quartet Will Re-Open New York Theatre Workshop's Black Box Space | Playbill". Playbill. Retrieved 2017-10-23.
  6. ^ "Instagram post by Gelsey Bell • Sep 20, 2017 at 4:39pm UTC". Instagram. Retrieved 2017-10-23.
  7. ^ "Gasworks Arts Park - Ghost Quartet". 2019-08-21.
  8. ^ "Crow's Theatre - Ghost Quartet".
  9. ^ Gans, Andrew (June 19, 2019). "Newly Restored Boulevard Theatre Will Open With Dave Malloy's Ghost Quartet". Playbill (magazine). Retrieved June 20, 2019.
  10. ^ Brantley, Ben. "The Finest of Dead People", New York Times, Oct 9, 2014
  11. ^ Giola, Michael. "Cast Recording of Ghost Quartet Released Today", Playbill, Oct 31, 2014
  12. ^ "Live at the McKittrick, by Ghost Quartet". Dave Malloy. Retrieved 2017-10-23.
  13. ^ Meyer, Dan. "Dave Malloy Shares Full-Length Video of Ghost Quartet". Playbill. Retrieved 16 March 2020.