The American composer Raymond Scott was a man ahead of his time. In addition to being an innovator of swing and jazz music, a master of the early ad jingle and the composer of many recognizable riffs of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, he was also a pioneer of electronic music, credited with developing the first self-composing synthesizer. A bit of a mad scientist as well, he looked forward to the creation of machines capable of transferring the brainwaves of a composer directly to the mind of a listener.
But while Scott sounds like a fascinating subject, his life story as related in Sinking Ship’s Powerhouse is rather more mundane. The title references Scott’s 1937 “assembly line” music that figures frequently in Warner Bros. animation. While not explained much, the quote does stand, however, as an inadvertently appropriate choice: the show marches predictably forward through the nearly interchangeable sequences of the composer’s unremarkable life, namely marriages #1, #2 and #3, as Scott, a famous control freak (played with a manic zeal by Erik Lochtefeld), orders his music into “crisp” tempos and his career (as much as possible for a man with so many irons in the fire) into neat sequences.
Jon Levin’s direction tries to tap into Scott’s creative energy, using recordings of his music (rather than musicians) but also live puppetry, created by a trio of puppet animators (Tyler Bunch, Spencer Lott and Eric Wright), whose contrasting styles add some physical comedy to (but also sap significant energy from) our understanding of Scott’s interior journey. Hanley Smith, as Dorothy Collins, his adolescent protégée who (no surprise) became his second wife, doesn’t deliver the vocals that so inspired Scott and that would lead his famous “quintette” on tour, but she has a glowing presence as an inspired teen whose own ambitions probably almost matched those of her visionary teacher.
Having apparently logged many hours in researching this undoubtably influential musician, writer Josh Luxenberg has made an admirable investment in reviving his memory, although the question remains what is to be learned from Sinking Ship’s sketchy exercise of that material. One wishes for the invention of Scott’s mind-reading machine, that would take us deep into an artist’s creative springs rather than connect the dots of a man’s life.