Thursday, February 23, 2012

Songs You Should Know from People You Should Also Know

First of all, have you seen a show lately? If you're in New York and love musical theatre, there is a ton of exciting stuff going on right now/coming up, from Carrie (yes, Carrie the musical) to Ryan Scott Oliver and Matthew Murphy's 35 MM, from The Total Bent to the next show at the D-Lounge. If you're looking for a straight play recommendation, I haven't been able to stop thinking about Leslye Headland's Assistance at Playwrights Horizons and Paula Vogel's How I Learned to Drive at Second Stages. Of course, musicals have also been a huge part of my February, and while I know it's been a little while since I last posted on here, I promise there's a lot of exciting stuff to come (and more posts about some of the things I've seen this month).

So to go back in time for a bit, I wanted to revisit an awesome night of songs by new writers that I saw about two weeks ago. Entitled "Songs You Should Know," Libra Theatre Company presented a night of new and rarely sung tunes by amazing composers: Brad Alexander, Sam Carner and Derek Gregor, Joshua H. Cohen and Lavell Blackwell, Bobby Cronin, Adam Gwon, Caleb Hoyer, Joe Iconis, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth, Pete Mills, and Will Reynolds. The evening was hosted by the wonderful Jennifer Ashley Tepper and Jeremy Morse, and there was a lot of great banter throughout the evening between each of the amazing musical performances. Here are some highlights:

When asked who he would like to star in a show with someday, Jeremy Jordan shared that he wants to be in a musical where Mandy Patinkin sings him a lullaby. (Above, he sings "If the World Looked Like You" by Will Reynolds.)

J. Austin Eyer sang Will Reynold's beautiful "Like That For You" that left my jaw on the floor.

Blair Goldberg told the audience about how she got a massage alongside Dick Latessa before taking the mic to sing a great Adam Gwon song ("So Over").

Not only did Melanie Field kill this song ("Lullaby" by Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth), but Russ Kaplan also floored everyone when he revealed the song is from a new musical based on a woman who assumes her daughter's identity.

You can check out more clips at Libra's Youtube channel, and even then there are a lot of other songs that didn't make it up there (including a song by Joe Iconis about a Naked Korean Girl... sad you missed out now, aren't you?). What the night cemented for me, at least, was the sense of community among new artists, both writers and performers, and it was really sort of magical to be a part of that. The audience really enjoyed every minute, and I can't agree more that all of these songs, people, and shows should be known by everyone.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Looking Behind the Music-al: An Interview with Kyle Ewalt and Michael I. Walker

Last November, I had the privilege of seeing an installment of Behind the Music-al at 92YTribeca. The whole experience was a total geek-fest for any lover of new musical theatre, and the many insightful conversations and exciting new talent fostered a great sense of community. Much of this can be attributed to composing team Kyle Ewalt and Michael I. Walker, who regularly organize these events and often present their work alongside guest composers. The first 2012 show of Behind the Music-al is coming up on February 22 (with a theme of 'Teenage Dreams' and guests Kait Kerrigan, Brian Lowdermilk, Nick Blaemire, and Steve Fickinger as moderator) and to celebrate this wonderful series, Kyle and Michael agreed to answer some questions about what makes Behind the Music-al so special:

Me: How did Behind the Music-al start? What has been your process of organizing each event?

Kyle Ewalt and Michael I. Walker: We had been working with 92YTribeca for a while, and had done a number of concerts of our own work there, when they approached us about establishing a musical theater series with them. We had seen a series that 92Y does uptown called “Lyrics and Lyricists,” in which a moderator interviews established writers about various songs from throughout their career while singers perform those songs. We really liked how the show combined performances with insight into the writing process, and wanted to try to translate that for a younger audience downtown. We decided that it could be really exciting to have more established writers or producers interview emerging composers about their process in order to give new musical theater fans a look behind the scenes at how contemporary writers work – and “Behind the Music-al” was born.

Our process been pretty much the same since we started last season – we act as curators and organizers for each show, reaching out to songwriters and moderators through friends and colleagues, and picking a theme for each show. Each songwriting team really puts their own set together (they bring their own singers, songs, etc). 92YTribeca produces the show, including PR, venues, etc.

(Molly Hager singing Ewalt and Walker's "Do Not Disconnect"
at Behind the Music-al:Rocks!)

Me: What have been some of your favorite Behind the Music-al moments? What have been some of the most interesting discussions that have come out of the shows?

Ewalt and Walker: We’ve really loved each show and the community we’ve been able to build with the series. Getting the chance to share the stage with all the other great writers and talk with them about their work has been so much fun for us.

Each show seems to have its own magical moments, but a few stand out. When Stephen Flaherty was moderating, his stories were incredible. At one point, as he was talking with Drew Gasparini, Drew just stopped and said, “I need a moment. Oh my goodness, I’m talking with Stephen Flaherty!” Seeing Drew’s excitement talking to one of his idols was really fun.

And in our last show, watching Adam Guettel work with each of the songwriters was truly like being at a master class. At one point, he suggested that Michael Holland do a song a second time without any accompaniment. His singer performed the song again, and it was hauntingly beautiful. You could sense that everyone in the audience knew that Adam’s suggested had affected Michael’s ideas about the song. We were watching a musical get written, in real time. That doesn’t happen very often.

Friday, February 3, 2012

I Made That: An Interview With Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen

For my first interview of the new year, I reached out to Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen to answer a few questions about exciting projects, from their recently released cast recording of The Burnt Part Boys (which I wrote about when it played at Playwrights Horizon) to their Broadway-bound Tuck Everlasting adaptation. Undoubtedly, very exciting things are on the horizon in 2012 for this songwriting team (including a recording of their song cycle Fugitive Songs), and they were gracious enough to share some details about the cool things they're working on:

Me: How did you two begin writing music together? What is your process of picking projects and how do you approach new works to pursue?

Nathan Tysen: We met in the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU. We liked about 90% of the same things and have a similar aesthetic. It seemed only natural for us to write together.

Chris Miller: Our process of picking projects is odd—we just know it when it hits us. We currently have commissions from both Lincoln Center Theatre and Playwrights Horizons, and we’re just reading a lot of books, watching a bunch of movies, television, and listening to new music looking for the seed of the something that’s inspiring, that makes sense for us to either adapt, or jump off of into an original idea. It’s hard because you never know what will start speaking to you, so right now, as we’re looking for new things to write, we’re constantly tuned in to many different possible sources. Who knows? It’ll just make sense when we decide what it is.

Me: Congratulations on The Burnt Part Boys cast recording! What was it like making the recording?

Miller: Making the record was awesome, although we didn’t do it in the traditional way cast albums are made, so it took a little longer. We tracked the band first, then the strings, then brought in the vocals—all on separate days. It made for a long editing process, but it was totally a joy to work on, and we’re very proud of the end result. The show had closed in June of 2010 so when we got everybody back together the following November/December it was like a family reunion.

Tysen: There have been so many iterations of BPB (The Off-Broadway production was it’s tenth step of development), it is a great comfort to finally record the final version. It was especially amazing since our first cast album also happens to be the first show we wrote together (It started as our thesis at NYU). So it all came full circle. Now, with the near-completion of the Fugitive Songs album, we’ll finally have most of our early work out in the world.

Miller: Also working with the guys at Yellow Sound Lab has been a fantastic experience.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Taking the Doll Off the Shelf

When I told friends I was seeing A Doll's Life, a musical sequel of Ibsen's famous A Doll's House, I got many confused looks. "How does that work?" they all asked. And the truth is that after only 18 previews and 5 performances on Broadway, it seems like a lot of people didn't really know.

The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective has resurrected A Doll's Life in repertory with Ibsen's original, and it's an interesting study to see both a canonical and a flop-ful play taking one another in stride. A Doll's Life has only appeared at The York prior to this current production (which plays through this Sunday), and there is much to glean from seeing this show in an economical production that makes much its resources.

The work itself is flawed -- the book is scattered and the premise itself is problematic. The show opens with Nora leaving Torvald and follows her on misadventures with loves gone wrong as she hops a train to Christiana and tries to make her own way. Much of the ambiguity of A Doll's House's original themes are sacrificed, and many of the heavy-handed comments on gender roles and women's power are often undermined by some of Nora's misguided choices. Still, there is a dizzying fascination that comes with the collection of fun characters that populate Nora's travels in the first act in an Odyssey-like adventure. It's not until the second act, however, that the characters' desires start to take any concrete shape, and by then some revelations seem to come rather belatedly. One of the biggest burdens on this show is just the connection to A Doll's House in the first place, as it could easily be its own narrative without the baggage (no pun intended) of the original play.

Even with a problematic premise, one thing I appreciated about The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective's current production is that it found small moments of beauty and truth that gave insight into what this show could be. Larry Grossman's music is beautiful and memorable in many instances with some powerful lyrics from Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and I particularly enjoyed some of the group numbers with "There She Is" being a standout in this production.

One interesting discussion I overheard in the audience tonight was a bunch of fans of the Broadway cast recording talking about how the performance stacked up against their expectations. Someone pointed out how interesting it was to finally get context to the songs they had been listening to devotedly, and I realized what a gift it is to be able to see what would otherwise be a somewhat 'lost' show in full. Because theatre is often so timely, we tend to overlook works that weren't necessarily commercial successes, but with companies like Beautiful Soup (or even MCC's Carrie), there are still opportunities to experience these shows. And as a piece of theatre history, there definitely was still life left in this doll.