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Why David Cale's New Musical Memoir Is His Most Personal Work Yet

Date: Jun 21, 2019

The Obie-winning solo artist digs into his traumatic past for We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time


Ever since his auspicious 1986 New York debut The Redthroats, about an unhappy gay kid growing up in a working-class English town, writer-performer David Cale has mined his life for his solo shows. But only a few close friends knew his full shocking backstory, which he reveals in his most personal work to date, We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time, a one-man musical memoir running at The Public Theater. With a book and lyrics by Cale and songs composed jointly with Matthew Dean Marsh, it chronicles the violent events that caused the auteur to change his surname and immigrate to the U.S. to begin a new life.

When he was 16, his father Ronald Egleton, the owner of a hat factory in their hometown of Luton, murdered Cale's mother by hitting her on the head with a hammer and then drowning her in the family bathtub.

Claiming temporary insanity and pleading to the lesser charge of manslaughter, Egleton served a short prison sentence; he died seven years ago in his eighties. Father and son had a brief moment of reconciliation a few days before Egleton's passing, but unexpected revelations after his death negated the closure.

Cale, now 60, resisted writing openly about the tragedy for years. "I didn't want it to be self-pitying and have people feeling sorry for me," he says. "And I didn't want to be manipulative in any way, to use it to get me some kind of attention."

But the success of his 2017 one-man play Harry Clarke, starring Billy Crudup as a man who changes his identity, helped Cale feel more confident about his storytelling skills. His father's death and an awareness of growing older also made looking back easier.

An accomplished songwriter whose work has been performed by Elvis Costello and Debbie Harry, Cale originally conceived We're Only Alive a Short Amount of Time as a chamber opera for four singers. But as he developed the piece, he decided he wanted to pay a more direct tribute to his mother Barbara, especially because tabloids at the time characterized her as a harridan who had bullied her husband until he snapped.

"How she was treated in the press post-trial was horrifying," Cale recalls. "I thought, I'm going to see if I can try and channel her almost and bring her to life in a theatre." Cale plays all the characters in the production, including himself, his mother, his father and his younger brother Simon, who has yet to see the show.

Cale says that, as he was writing, he was nervous about how the piece would be received. He feared the details of what happened might be too raw, and he hoped the songs, played by a six-piece onstage band, would provide an emotional salve for theatregoers. "I thought the audience might walk out or just be like, oh this is too grim," he admits. But, under the sensitive direction of Tony winner Robert Falls, We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time received warm reviews when it premiered last fall at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. "It got such a strong response and it was so unexpected," Cale says.

Of course reliving the events night after night takes its toll. Cale confesses that he's "much more stressed out than I appear because I've been having late night sweats."

Thinking about his mother helps. "I feel like I'm on a mission," he says. "I want to get my mother on stage so that kind of barrels me through."

His dream is to take the piece to England, where none of his shows have yet played. The factory his family once owned has been converted into a performing arts center called The Hat Factory, so presenting We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time there would bring his story full circle.

In the meantime, Cale says he hopes New York audiences, especially those who've survived trauma, will find the show cathartic. "I thought maybe it could be helpful to people that have gone through some variation of this -- maybe not as extreme, maybe more extreme -- and show that it didn't kill me," he says. "In spite of everything, you can potentially transcend your circumstances and your genetics."


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time. Go here to browse our current offers.

Janice C. Simpson writes the blog Broadway & Me..

Top image: David Cale in We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time. Photo by Joan Marcus.