Music of the Night - Creating Underground Moods

I’m pretty proud of my Underground playlists. Over the years I’ve found that select songs have managed to infiltrate people’s own mood music, show tunes, acts, iPods, car stereo systems and lives. It’s gotten to the point where any one of my players or groupies needs to hear just a bar of one of ‘our’ tunes in the real world in order to be dragged back into what we like to call the ‘Funday Haze.’

The creation of these lists has been a labour of love over 20 years in the making. I’m an avid music collector – everything from golden oldies and classical pieces to movie soundtracks and ‘greatest hits’ albums. I have shamelessly shared and swapped mp3s with just about everyone I’ve ever met at one stage or another…carefully selecting the most striking, inspiring and emotion-inducing of these to reverently place in my Underground hoard.

Some of the songs have come from others, from performers and people of like minds…others were plucked from my childhood and adolescence, a testament to the black little heart beating inside of me from a young age. All have a meaning, a purpose, a time and a place for use…and all are dear to me in one way or another.

It may surprise you (or not, for those who know how obsessively controlling I am of my world), that the playlist for each show takes about 4-5 hours to compile and arrange.

The process begins with a leisurely trawl through 25,000 odd songs or so and over 1000 albums. With a theme in mind, I isolate all the pieces of music that ‘might’ fit what I am looking for. This takes at least two hours…because you just gotta stop and listen to all those tunes that you forgot you even owned as you go. Cue the Bon Jovi 30 minute dance break.

At the end of this process, I have about 500 songs on my shortlist. Of these, only 50 will make the final cut.

The next step is the fun part.

Using my show runsheet, I create 4-5 new playlists – one for each interval, one for the beginning of the show and one for post-show play, and give them fancy names like ‘Children in Towers,’ ‘Little Boy Blue’ and ‘Lyra has some Chocolate.’ Then, going back to the 500 songs, I systematically sort them into each playlist depending on what mood I am going for at any given time. These moods are determined firstly by whatever has just taken place on the stage, secondly by what I know and/or suspect will be going down during the interval, and finally by what I know is coming up in the next act in terms of storyline and drama. It also involves me sitting there and asking myself standard Underground questions like ‘what music do I want to physically abuse so-and-so to?’


If I’m lucky and my OCD has been good to me, the end result is approximately 100 songs in each list (this never happens, it’s usually like 250, 50, 25, etc).

Now for the fine tuning.

Sitting by myself with the lights down and headphones on, I close my eyes and – using that imagination thing I apparently have – I pretend that I am there, at the Underground, as an audience member walking into the theatre for the first time. What do I want to be hearing? What is playing? What feelings does it evoke in me? The first playlist goes for approximately 40 mins…what is the emotional topography of that time? Do we start dark and slowly lighten the mood? Do we lull them into a false sense of gaiety before ripping the rug out from under them? Or is it death and gloom and sickening dread all the way?

Shakespeare was always very careful to counterbalance his darker works with moments of comedy and light-hearted banter, both to give the audience some respite from the drama, and to intensify the effect of said drama by dragging the viewers along on an emotional rollercoaster that does not allow them to catch a breath.

I approach the creation of my playlists in the same way.

Once the pre-show list is done, I get into the nitty gritty of interval-wrangling. The easiest song to pick is the first cab off the rank…I find whatever tune perfectly compliments (or in some cases counterbalances) whatever has happened on the stage immediately prior. Was Cookie being an incorrigible idiot and welcoming everyone jovially to the Underground? Then I’ll go with someone like Manson’s ‘This is the New Shit’ or some well placed emo/grungy classic. Did Baelian just have the first of his many meltdown’s of the evening (though I try not to hit too much high drama til about halfway through the show), then maybe some Lana Del Rey, Bjork or a ‘kill yourself now’ cover of a golden oldie.

Each interval generally goes for 10-15 mins, so a playlist can sometimes only fit 4-5 songs in it. The second song needs to counterbalance the first – if the first was a female artist I may choose a male singer or a duet for my next track…the tempo needs to be sped up (or slowed down), the mood changed from whatever came before. These changes need to be gradual, not jarring, so I use the crossfade setting in iTunes to listen to the end of each song and the way it blends into the start of the one following it. I do this for the entire playlist, then move on to the next interval.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

Sometimes I find a song in subsequent playlists that would better fit a mood of one of my earlier ones. In this instance, I have to go back to the old list and add the new song (then use my trusty crossfade to make sure it fits – and if it throws off my entire groove I either scrap it or redo that particular list again to include the new song). Sometimes I accidentally delete the whole playlist and have to start again (don’t even laugh, this happens more often than it should).

I also try to include ‘emotional trigger’ songs where appropriate, whether they relate to particular characters or something that has been happening in the storyline, to facilitate and prompt improvised role-play amongst players. Depending on what headspace they are in at the time, characters may choose to be affected by the music or not – Baelian may respond to a random lovesick song by having a conniption, or he may ignore it entirely. If I know that Lyra’s been having issues with the past, I may throw some random song about children or orphans into the mix, then sit back and watch the melodrama unfold.

By the time we get to the end of the show, the mood needs to be brought back up again. Post-show music will always begin with one or two ‘happy’ or upbeat tracks to send people on their merry way to the bar (or upstairs). Three songs in I may smack the players in the face with another broody crooner, but I don’t allow it to last too long, the fourth track will always kick it up a notch so that the overall feeling is one of either contentedness or ‘listen to this fucking happy music I want to kill myself and everyone is just smiling and waving.’

Counterbalancing something dark with the most hideously cheerful tunes is one of my favourite pastimes…something I learned from watching many Kubrick films. Cheerful 50’s songs are the best for doing this…the more sickeningly sweet they are, the greater the violence/darkness seems as a result. Cue Johnny Mathis and The Platters.

There are a few other sneaky little tricks I like to throw into my collection – sometimes blended into the most innocent of tracks you might hear a child crying or the sound of someone whispering…other times I’ll throw a ‘go to’ song in there just to see what happens (Delilah is always entertaining to include, because of reasons). At Bella and Jasper’s wedding celebration I had our tech play ‘The Rains of Castamere’ just before Bethany came out dressed as a bride. I have never seen the mood of an audience drop so dramatically without any prompting whatsoever. They didn’t know what was coming…but they knew it was going to be bad 🙂

Once all my lists are complete, I sit and listen to them on fast forward (the first and last ten seconds of each song) and make sure I’m satisfied with it. It’s usually about 5am by this point, so I sync it to my iPod and pass out. The rest of the week will be spent listening to the lists over and over again as I drive to and from work, walk from here to there and/or do anything where I can get away with having headphones stuck in my ears. If there is a problem with the flow of any list I sit down for another hour and fix it.

I’m usually 85% happy with what I’ve got by the time show-night arrives. There’s always room for improvement.

So there you have it. I don’t know how other producers set about creating playlists – I won’t lie, I’m aware of how obsessive-compulsive I am about this, someone send help! – but I’ve always believed that music is a very important part of creating atmosphere and an immersive experience for an audience. Not to mention that it’s given me new and sneaky ways to mess with my players and characters 🙂

There’s so much beautiful, magical and in some cases soul-shattering music in this world…the more of it that I can share with you all, the better.

Happy listening!

Written by Natalie Ristovski.

The Burlesque Underground plays bi-monthly in Melbourne. For event info visit:

All characters and story lines remain the property of N.Ristovski and the Underground. All character writings within the Underground are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Copyright © 2016. Natalie Ristovski.

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