They’re called the Orchestra of the Undead.
The scrappy bunch of professional musicians who don skeleton paint and black T-shirts bearing rib cages and spines can’t play dead when their “demon conductor” David Pierce takes up his baton in the makeshift bandstand for the beginning strains of Cirque du Horror.
This marks the fourth year for some of the musicians to put on face paint and make an occasional ugly noise or two in the spirit of Halloween.
“I wasn’t quite sure what to expect,” said French horn player Brian Brown, who joined the Orchestra of the Undead last year. “I’ve played some musicals, and I’ve played some jazzy stuff, but nothing like this. Musicians don’t have a lot of opportunities to play this kind of music.”
Cirque is the brainchild of Pierce, a composer, arranger and freelance trombonist who lives in Denton. Pierce wrote the musical — a collection of disparate musical sketches about witches, mad men, lonely hearts and circus sideshow monsters — when he simply grew tired of the dearth of music written for Halloween.
He changes the show each year, keeping a few numbers as a skeleton (pun intended) for a show that entertains all ages with colorful sound and lots of witty jokes. Pierce is a fan of horror movies and scary stuff, but he knows just how far to push it.
Brown and his mates in the orchestra play a score that narrates, propels plot and develops characters dreamed up by Pierce.
“I was really pleased once I saw what we’d be playing,” Brown said.
The French horn is the regal diplomat of the orchestra, sounding mellow and deft, triumphant or mild. Brown said he makes use of effects during Cirque.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “We get to use some mutes, and you can also close your hand inside the bell [of the horn] and get a really raspy sound. I really like getting to play like this.”
Brown said he plays plenty of symphonic “Hollywood”-style sounds, laying the part a trombonist would take in a bigger group.
This year, Pierce composed music for the keyboard, electric guitar and acoustic guitar, electric and upright bass, drums, euphonium, French horn and two trombones. One musician is playing saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet in the ensemble.
Eric Pulido, the guitarist of Denton’s Midlake, is singing the role of a lovesick head of a two-headed monster.
“Dave and I have been friends for a long time,” Pulido said. “I was a thespian in high school and did a lot of musicals then. I’ve been wanting to be in it [Cirque du Horror], but [Midlake] has been on tour during the fall for the last few years. Now that we’re in the studio and not touring, I could do it.”
Pulido shares the stage with jazz musician Bach Norwood, who sings the role of the monster head that is preoccupied with food, rather than love, in the number “Hideous as Me.”
“I just hope I remember the lyrics,” Pulido said. “I really think, as a whole, musically and visually, a show is supposed to entertain. I think sometimes people can lose sight of that. But when you’re playing music, you’re supposed to entertain.”
In the song, Pulido sings what Brown describes as “almost a straight-up Broadway song” about a young woman he’s seen. He laments being a two-headed monster, doomed to spend his life with just his other head.
Norwood interrupts the ballad with a rapid-fire homage to food — all kinds of food, and especially processed food.
This year’s musical riffs on high-fashion ridiculousness and waif-thin models. It brings the Egyptian patron of embalmers and attendant of mummies — Anubis, the jackal. It muses over a figure that arrives with a cold, harsh winter.
Drummer Ryan Jacobi said he quickly learned what a serious business Halloween is for Pierce.
“David’s charts are gorgeous,” said Jacobi, an alumnus of Denton band Oso Closo. “A lot of times, when you get charts for an arrangement, you almost can’t read them. Not David’s. You could tell he’d been working on this music for a long time.”
Like other members of the orchestra, Jacobi said the music is easy on the ears, but not always easy to play. Pierce infuses the show with a touch of gypsy folk music, a flash of pop, and the sounds that played in old movie houses while silent films rolled.
“It’s not the easiest music. In ‘13 Seconds,’ with so many tempo changes in one song, if I don’t get them all, I can mess everyone up,” Jacobi said. “I’m kind of the lead in a lot of this.”
That number, about a cold, cruel winter, is an endurance feat.
“I’m basically sustaining a really long crescendo,” Jacobi said. “It’s a question of: Can I start at level one and end on level 10, and can I play it from one to 10 evenly throughout the song? Not easy.”
The musicians were stumped when asked what their favorite scary movie music is. (No one mentioned either the spine-tingling “Tubular Bells” from The Exorcist or the sensual, macabre gypsy music by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.)
Brown could name a score he wouldn’t mind playing.
“I really like the score for Young Frankenstein,” he said. “I’d love to keep doing this. I’ve decided I’ve had enough of playing music that isn’t fun.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
DENTON’S DAY OF THE DEAD
• What: Daylong festival with booths, children’s games, a costume parade, live music and the all-ages Halloween musical Cirque du Horror
• When: 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday
• Where: Industrial Street, off East Hickory Street in downtown Denton
• Details: Admission to the festival is free; coffin races and Cirque du Horror include fees. Costumes are encouraged.
• On the Web: http://on.fb.me/SVutP2
9:30 to 10:30 a.m. — Zombie Dash, a children’s walk for health, starting at First United Methodist Church’s side yard at the corner of Industrial and Sycamore streets. Donations will be accepted for Denton Christian Preschool.
10 a.m. — Festival and vendor booths open
1 p.m. — Coffin races on Hickory Street
3:30 p.m. — Salsa cook-off tasting outside Dan’s Silverleaf
7 p.m. — Twilight costume parade around the Square
In the Pumpkin Patch (children’s area)
10:30 to 11 a.m. — Children’s costume parade
11 a.m. — Clowns on Fire
11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. — Denton Childbloom Guitar Program concerts
12:30 to 1 p.m. — Spooky story time with Thom Anderson and Chuck Voellinger
2:30 to 4 p.m. — Miss Polly and Her Tiny Big Band
2 p.m. — Bonnie and Nick Norris
3 p.m. — CholoRock Dance Theatre
5:30 p.m. — Circus Della Morte sideshow troupe
7:30 p.m. — Mariachi Quetzal
8 p.m. — Bone Doggie & the Hickory Street Hellraisers
Entrants must turn in 2 gallons of salsa at 3 p.m.; entry is $40 for businesses, $30 for individuals. Salsa tasting tickets are $10; tasting begins at 3:30 p.m. For more information and entry forms, visit http://dentonmarket.org/salsa-cook-off
CIRQUE DU HORROR
• What: An original Halloween musical by David Pierce
• When: 4:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturday; 5 p.m. Sunday
• Where: Dan’s Silverleaf, 103 Industrial St.