In 1938, Will sings a traveling song of promised prosperity (“Dustbowl Dream”). His guitar slung over his back, he arrives at a carny campsite on the California border and falls in love with the owner’s daughter, Clara, who, as the troupe’s Fortune Teller, tries unsuccessfully to encourage the migrant workers who visit her tent to demand work and fair wages. Will’s music soothes her baby daughter Louise (“The Sand Man”) and inspires the workers (“Company Man”). Clara sees in Will and his music the chance to finally make an impact, but Will has a secret past that threatens Clara’s dreams for them.
Will’s guitar, having acquired its red handprint, makes its way to San Francisco, 1969, where Peake, all sex and guitar, performs for ecstatic fans (“Open Invitation”). His wife Billie (Will and Clara’s daughter) has put her own artistic life on hold while Peake spends his life on the road, giving concerts and interviews and sleeping with adoring groupies (“Not Your Girlfriend”). Fed up with his self-centeredness, Billie walks out of Peake’s life (“Swear”), taking with her the redhand guitar. Peake is lost without her. In a nightmare acid trip he is pursued by visions of Billie, both demonic and from their happier past (“Show Me”).
Seattle, 1991: Billie dies after battling cancer. Her niece, Flanery, cleans out Billie’s attic and finds her aunt’s journal and the redhand guitar in a dusty case (“Remains”). She writes music to some lines from the journal, tattoos a red handprint on her chest, and begins performing in area clubs (“Help Me to Forget”). She meets another young musician, Nigel Ashe, who leaves his up-and-coming band (“Self Control”) to become her manager. She plays music festivals, condemned to repeat the same songs over and over, while Nigel moves from handling the cd and T-shirt concession to fielding television reporters’ questions about Flanery’s substance abuse.
Decades later, in present-day Los Angeles, Nigel, now the head of a hugely successful entertainment empire, encounters Dawson Lu, an ambitious young artist whose interest in Nigel’s work and the redhand guitar which hangs on his study wall dredges up his past (“Grave Rave”) and jeopardizes his future (“Swear” reprise). Dawson goes on to stardom, aiming to marry popular culture with political protest (“Whose Blood?” and “Brainstorm”).
Finally, a tsunami of dust washes away all traces of the past, leaving only a desert of sand – with the neck of the redhand guitar rising above it. As the ghosts of earlier generations pass from view (“The Song Plays On”), the guitar awaits the next generation and a new verse.
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