“Buick City, 1:00 AM”
evokes a Flint that no longer lives except in our memories, the Flint that existed when the auto industry was just starting to founder. Created and composed by Flint native Jason Cady, the four-act avant-garde podcast opera takes place in 1984, opening with a newscast of the Mondale-Reagan presidential race. This edgy whodunit concerns a time traveling woman named Elena. She goes back to the Flint of 1984 to save her father’s life.
“The whole project was a sort of homage to my best friend from childhood,” Cady says. “He died when we were teenagers and he was buried with a VHS copy of ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ and a hockey stick. So there are a lot of personal references in the story that no one would be able to pick up on, but I hope it adds to the emotional resonance of it.”
“Buick City, 1:00 AM” definitely has emotional impact. Better set aside a couple of hours once you start listening to the podcast – you’re likely to be drawn in and want to find out who, among the half dozen or so suspects, actually “dunit” and why.
“When I first imagined ‘Buick City, 1:00 AM,’ I only thought of the time travel and murder mystery plot,” Cady says. “But I believe that setting is important and too many stories take place in NYC and LA. I wanted the character to travel back in time to the 80s, so it just made the most sense to set the story in Flint where I grew up. Once I decided that, the rest of the story clicked into place.”
‘Buick City 1:00 AM’ is the first podcast opera. Cady says he got his interest in podcasts from his wife, Ann Heppermann, a producer of radio shows and podcasts who teaches writing for radio at Sarah Lawrence College.
“While she won’t let me actually attend her class I’ve been kind of a full-time student of hers for the last 11 years,” he says. “Even before creating a podcast opera I was inspired by fiction podcasts to bring in such things as sound design into my operas.”
Cady has crafted dialogue that sounds like we’re back in the days before the Flint plants closed, before the internet, before 9/11 and before smartphones. The actors’ delivery is pitch-perfect down to that flat Flint nonaccent that only people not from Michigan can hear.
“I believe theater is perfect for exploring ideas from multiple perspectives. Images are crucial whether they are visual or sonic. For example, in ‘Buick City, 1:00 AM’ the father, Wayne, has an aortic valve replacement, which makes an audible tick, and that ties in the fact that his days are ‘numbered,’ as well as time in general and time travel.”
Wayne, played by Flint-area native Joshua Pyne, opens a store selling guns (as well as books and records) that evokes Flint’s head shops that posed as record stores, of which there were several from the 1970s until 2011, when Wyatt Earp Records closed. Cady drew on his own family background for the portrayal of Elena’s family.
“I’ve always been bothered by stereotyped portrayals of working-class people,” he says. “My entire family worked at Buick. My parents met on the assembly line. There’s a misconception that only privileged people pursue a career in the arts. But when I decided to devote my life to music I assumed I would always be poor, so doing what I loved made the most sense. Most of my family members had artistic or intellectual pursuits. My father used to work fast on the assembly line and stop to read a book for a few minutes, and my mother now takes ballet classes.”
“ALWAYS BEEN BOTHERED BY STEREOTYPED
PORTRAYALS OF WORKING-CLASS PEOPLE. ”
Since his parents still live in the area, Cady returns at least once a year. He’s familiar with a lot of the ways in which the city has changed but the project needed research too.
“I read ‘Rivethead’ by Ben Hamper, ‘Teardown’ by Gordon Young and ‘Here Comes Trouble’ by Michael Moore, as well as re-watching ‘Roger and Me,’” he says. “I interviewed family members, visited various spots in Flint and looked through the Flint Voice archives. Probably the funnest thing was having my father and his friend Dennis McGary read a scene and give me feedback.”
Wayne, Elena’s father, is a working-class intellectual who reads Bertrand Russell, Madalyn Murry O’Hair and Eugene V. Debs. He discusses religion and nihilism. The idea of fate returns frequently in “Buick City, 1 AM.”
“In ‘Buick City, 1:00 AM’ the time travel is reflected by ideas about destiny, free will versus determinism and the New Age,” Cady says. “I like using a premise that situates my stories as speculative fiction or sketch comedy, but I’ve realized I identify more with literary fiction. I thought the death of the father would embody the death of the working class. At the same time it would be the death of the innocence of childhood for the protagonist, so I could conjure my own childhood.”
Cady says that by nature he is “naively optimistic, but also pretty dark.” Despite the grim aura that surrounded Flint in the 1980s, he doesn’t blame his existential approach on Flint.
“When I write I try to tie as many things together as possible,” he says. “Whenever something appears I make an effort to bring it back in another way.”
Music has been Cady’s lifelong passion. “When I started as a composer I wrote instrumental music, but right before grad school I started composing for the voice,” he says. “That got me in touch with my earlier interests in punk and pop and led to my interest in opera, but I don’t exactly have a traditional opera background. I wrote my first opera before I had even been to a real opera house. What attracts me to it is the opportunity to put lyrics in the context of character and story. For example, in ‘Buick City, 1:00 AM,’ there are songs about atheism, infidelity and suicide. I would never write standalone songs about those topics.”
If you want to see more of Cady’s time travel ideas, check out the opera video “I Screwed Up the Future.” It deals with Y2K – and how things might have been different had it actually come to pass. You can hear “Buick City, 1:00 AM” and learn more about Jason and his work at experimentsinopera.com and jasoncadymusic.com.