Sitting in a small, glass-walled meeting room with Trey Anastasio, Doug Wright and Amanda Green as they readied Hands on a Hardbody for its Broadway debut in 2012, I started to ask Trey—and yeah, let’s just call him Trey for our purposes here—about his long-running interest in musical storytelling.
"Gamehendge wasn’t a musical, but…,” I began.
“It was supposed to be a musical,” Trey broke in.
By which I think he meant: Yes, Gamehendge was a musical.
He then quickly pivoted to a story about listening to musicals at home as a child. And covering the show for the magazine American Theater, it wasn’t really my charge to linger in the land of the multibeast. But this remark was a revelation to me.
I had always thought of The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday—Trey’s thesis at Goddard College, commonly described simply as “Gamehendge''—as a song-cycle, akin to a concept album. (Indeed, the hive mind of Wikipedia describes it as a concept album.) But not a musical, per se. Part of that was my own ignorance—I’d managed to miss, or forget, that the author refers to TMWSIY as a “musical” several times in the written portion of the thesis, which circulates online. (He also calls it a “play” at one point, which wouldn’t be correct, strictly speaking.)
If it doesn’t “feel” like a straight-up musical to many, keep in mind that musicals don’t need to have standalone dialogue; some are known as “sung-through,” which means what you’re probably thinking it means. There still may be some spoken dialogue among characters, but always within a song.
In the same 2012 conversation, Trey cited Jesus Christ Superstar, an example of that genre, as an inspiration for Hardbody. In fact he also told me that near the beginning of the process of creating Hardbody, he recorded an “album” of its songs in the Barn with Larry Campbell and other musicians. (To cite a more recent example, Hamilton is pretty much sung-through; it has one line of dialogue outside of the music, and thus not on the cast album.) Gamehendge doesn’t fit neatly in that category, with all of its spoken narration, but that narration does come with musical backing … so it’s not necessarily not a sung-through musical.
Each song is sung by a character in the story. Colonel Forbin and Rutherford the Brave duet in “Lizards,” a classic expositional number near the top of the show. It’s not quite the “I want…” song that typically comes here, but it’s in the ballpark. Forbin sings “Tela.” Errand Wolfe sings “Wilson.” Wilson sings “AC/DC Bag.” The narrator sings much of “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent,” with Icculus breaking in.
The material for a musical is absolutely there. But it’s more like a demo. Musicals are as collaborative as any art form; it’s a truism in theater that a new musical isn’t truly complete until it’s had at least one run of shows in front of live audiences. Creators keep adjusting throughout the process. The most brilliant theater-maker in the world couldn’t sit in a room and write the final draft of a musical … not one that's going to work in front of an audience, at least. It’s a mysterious and confounding art form. It depends on the work of composers, performers, and designers of sets, costumes and lighting. It also depends on an audience.
“It was supposed to be a musical,” Trey said to me in 2012.
Maybe he meant: I wanted it to be, but it never got there.
I soared into Phish fandom on the wings of the 7/16/94 “Harpua.” First hearing it the next year, I was blown away by the combination of music and a very amusing story about a comet crashing into Jupiter.
I saw my first show in summer 1995, which means I was just in time to miss the era when story songs “Harpua” and “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent” > “Famous Mockingbird” were in regular rotation. As I readied for my second show, in fall ‘95, I cheekily posted a “Lost dog” alert to rec.music.phish because there hadn’t been a “Harpua” yet that tour. I couldn’t know we were right at the transition of “Harpua” and “Forbin” into once-in-a-blue-moon events.
They were seemingly no longer representative of Phish’s evolving aesthetic. The jokey/silly stuff will always be part of Phish’s DNA, but it became clear that these songs were just no longer where Trey wanted to be. And as far as the full Gamehendge suite following its twin performances in 1994 (originally intended for release) and the one-off announcement of a soon-to-come Gamehendge CD-ROM, never to be referenced again—the project appeared to fizzle. “We’re done with this now,” the band seemed to have said. It’s not us. Not any more.
This was underlined on 8/14/09, when the band played the first “Forbin” since the Breakup … and glided straight into “Mockingbird” with no narration at all. (I do wonder if the expansively talky “Icculus” in the second set was a sort of reaction to that move.)
Yet the band never lost its interest in multidisciplinary spectacle. There’s a throughline from the original Gamehendge performance (billed as “Story time at Nectar’s”) to then-road manager Brad Sands being hoisted above the stage in a Famous Mockingbird costume on 12/31/92, to the aerialists performing during the Clifford Ball “Run Like An Antelope” and the “Tower Jam” at IT, to 40 Phish “clones” running around, to the ultimate manifestation of Phish on Broadway on the last night of 2023.
Watching things take shape on New Year’s, it occurred to me: We’ve finally gotten to a place where this material could, once again, be the sort of thing the fellas in Phish are into. After years of building contacts in the theater world, of producing New Year’s gags that involved groups of dancers and other performers, Trey and the band had gotten to the place where they could mount something that could credibly be called Gamehendge: The Musical.
To the extent that this performance fulfilled what Trey was looking for, it is only possible because of his other experiences making things like this work, as he’s continued to extend his artistry into other performance forms.
“Story time at Nectars”? That time is past. But a theatrical interpretation of Phish songs, performed essentially on Broadway? With skillful aerialists, puppeteers, drone artists, dancers? That hadn’t been possible before. Yet it is now. And it’s something new.
“I used to get made fun of in the early years of Phish,” Trey said in our 2012 interview. “If you went back and looked at some of the press, some people would say some of the stuff sounds kind of ‘Broadway.’”
After splitting apart decades ago, the aesthetics of contemporary Phish and of Gamehendge intersected again in 2023. And it’s only because of all the artistic growth in the meantime.
Expanding The Form
Trey famously worried about becoming a “nostalgia act” in the breakup letter from 2004. But that can never be true as long as the band is developing new material, expanding its sound, trying new things: creating new stuff. Fan-favorite happenings like big bustouts are essentially an exercise in nostalgia and we eat it up—it’s fine if that’s in the mix, too. I’ve been doing this with you for 30 years, and I’m essentially a n00b. We deserve to get a little nostalgic now and then. The key is just that the nostalgia must not ever become the point.
Playing Gamehendge is in a sense the most nostalgic thing Phish can possibly do. If they had simply decided to play Gamehendge on New Year’s in a fashion similar to the other performances, and then executed it competently, it would have been a nice thing. Everyone would have choked up. But it would be mainly an emotional gesture, not an artistic statement.
Nostalgia was only one small piece of what was happening on 12/31/23. The performance was not merely a retrenching of the Phish aesthetic, but an expansion of it.
Who can again hear “Tela” without seeing her in blue, twirling high above the stage, the fluttering notes of Trey’s guitar solo seemingly scripting her revolutions through the air? Who’ll be able to hear “Lizards” without imagining a stage full of costumed Lizards dancing around? It almost seems like they were always meant to be there, that previous versions sadly lacked them.
The musically forceful “Wilson” takes on new power as the euphoric rabble-rousing call of the inspiring Wolfe. The breathless tempo of “Llama” now paces the heartbeats of a troupe of revolutionaries running and dodging for their lives. And simply from the song’s new context within Gamehendge proper, the churning rhythms of “Punch You In The Eye” now vividly convey to me the force of deadly ocean currents buffeting a sole kayak as its rider comes increasingly into view. That’s always what it sounded like, right? How had I not noticed?
Even the unfortunate malfunction that prematurely grounded the Famous Mockingbird on 12/31/23 has underlined for me the potent drama in the song’s climactic solo: no longer simply a pretty piece, but a musical depiction of the avian hero’s struggle to make it through tough weather with the Helping Friendly Book intact. Revolutions ‘aint easy.
Maybe most thrillingly, Gamehendge: The Musical has room for improvisation. When Phish quickly ditched the song form of “AC/DC Bag” after the last lyrics and headed into Type II territory, without at all throwing off the show’s staging, it felt to me that Phish was collectively adding something to the contemporary musical form. You can have your big setpieces all dialed up and ready to go, but with an unwritten map connecting them.
And as with any musical, this one has seen a few different iterations before winding up where it is now. This latest iteration includes less narration, the new character of Grandma, a few songs that haven’t appeared in previous performances, and some of the other songs are in a different order. That’s completely normal; the first production of a musical is not frozen in time as the “proper” version. The band has never performed The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday, the thesis, as originally recorded. And key details have always changed across versions. This time around, it seems that we witness the final extinction of the Lizards, to the winningly deranged sounds of “Split Open And Melt”—a sort of deus ex machina in reverse, with a volcanic eruption suddenly putting all the drama in Gamehendge to rest.
Throughout this performance, I was so very happy for the composer. As a Phish fan, theater fan and sometime-theater journalist, I remain thrilled that Trey was able to revisit this college project of his—a thing essential to Phish lore but long-since-irrelevant to the band’s latest moves—and bring it to life again in a way that was not possible before, in a way that actually expanded what this band is capable of. In a way that looked back only to point the way forward.
“It was supposed to be a musical," Trey said to me.
Damn straight it is.
If you liked this blog post, one way you could "like" it is to make a donation to The Mockingbird Foundation, the sponsor of Phish.net. Support music education for children, and you just might change the world.
You must be logged in to post a comment.
Phish.net is a non-commercial project run by Phish fans and for Phish fans under the auspices of the all-volunteer, non-profit Mockingbird Foundation.
This project serves to compile, preserve, and protect encyclopedic information about Phish and their music.
The Mockingbird Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by Phish fans in 1996 to generate charitable proceeds from the Phish community.
And since we're entirely volunteer – with no office, salaries, or paid staff – administrative costs are less than 2% of revenues! So far, we've distributed over $2 million to support music education for children – hundreds of grants in all 50 states, with more on the way.