A World Outside of its Libretto
In March 2010, the New York Philharmonic joined a plethora of Broadway stars to celebrate the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim. A memorable highlight from the event featured Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone, and George Hearn performing “A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd. Those familiar with the acclaimed musical thriller is well aware of the context for “A Little Priest,” in which the sadistic Mrs. Lovett conceives the plan to use Sweeney’s victims as a secret ingredient for her suffering meat pies. The audience at Avery Fisher Hall expressed vocal enthusiasm when the music began. The laughs were as audible as the audience that witnessed the 1982 recorded performance of Sweeney with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn. However, “A Little Priest” is a notably plot-specific musical theatre piece. While the birthday concert clearly set up a scenario to celebrate the renowned works of the famed composer, “A Little Priest” is not necessarily a song to be performed at just any concert or cabaret. Part of the appeal of “A Little Priest” is the specific nature of its characters, plot point, and its downright individuality as a musical theatre song. While plenty of musical theatre songs can transition smoothly onto a pop album or solo concert, many exist in the realm of celebrated musical theatre pieces that seldom find a life outside of its libretto.
As many of us are fans of the concerts, compilations, and cabarets featuring the work of musical theatre songs, many songs in concerts tend to (understandably and wonderfully) be stand alone trunk songs, or songs that can exist on their own terms without context. After all, there is an evening to fill and an audience would rather hear music over context. But from the musical theatre concerts that I’ve witnessed, I do feel a strong fondness for the songs that require an ounce of detail leading up to the first note. It feels as if we are stepping into the brain of a writer at work. Musicals are usually written to be designed, performed, and staged (sometimes with a linear narrative, sometimes not). But when a composer decides to include the audience on his or her artistic process it transforms into a rather personal invitation to a play that has yet to come into fruition.
Just the other month I attended the most recent edition of 54 Below’s “Writer’s Block,” hosted by Mr. Joe Iconis. The open-mic style evening is filled with several musical theatre writers trying out their newest material, featuring Iconis acting as emcee between each song. He also performed a couple of his own songs that were very distinctly removed from a libretto. One of them in particular was the blissfully heartfelt “Michael in the Bathroom,” a song that begs for a minor explanation as to why a teenage boy has locked himself in the bathroom at a party. Not only was I captivated by this sympathetically awkward teenager, but I also wanted to know what would happen once he leaves the bathroom, thus putting Iconis’ new show on my radar while simulatenously giving a solid performance at a cabaret setting.
A personal favorite song blatantly removed from its libretto is “My Hair” from Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond’s Dani Girl. I remember seeing Kooman and Dimond’s concert Homemade Fusion several years ago at The Zipper Factory. The concert featured many of the talented songwriters’ trunk songs from their latest song cycle. The duo also opted to include songs from their book musical, Dani Girl. The drama about a young girl who loses her hair to leukemia may not be the subject that one expects at a pop/rock musical theatre concert in which audience members bring beer and wine to their cupholders. But myself and many others in the audience are eternally grateful for the decision to include Dani. For the inspiring and bittersweet song “My Hair,” Marissa Lesch approached the stage with her wool skull cap in place and began to sing about getting back her hair. Clearly there is more to Dani’s story beyond what happens in this one particular song, but similar to Iconis’ “Michael in the Bathroom,” it provided a rather unexpected turn for the evening that allowed the audience to know more about who Kooman and Dimond were as artists, as people, and ultimately where their interests lie.
A few months ago, songwriters Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen made their 54 Below debut featuring songs from their song cycles and musicals such as Fugitive Songs, The Burnt Part Boys, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, and Tuck Everlasting. The concert came to a close with a song from Tuck, in which Sadie Sink sang the title song of the show. Nathan Tysen had already provided a brief explanation of the plot to Tuck Everlasting earlier in the concert. This was followed by performances of multiple songs from the show. It resulted in feeling like an exclusive sneak peek at an emotionally powerful book musical. All of the Tuck songs were clearly removed from a unique theatrical environment, but they were put into place at 54 Below as if a scaled down version of the show was happening on the stage at the Supper Club. When the concert concluded with Sadie Sink’s performance of “Everlasting,” I felt not only an exhilarating expectation of what I’d feel at the end of Tuck Everlasting, but a fully satisfying emotional end to an evening of new musical theatre songs.
While new musical theatre songs might not have the same history or nostalgia as a song like “A Little Priest,” they can certainly have their emotional weight and flow seamlessly within a tapestry of trunk songs. Every time I attend a NMT Writer’s concert of their portfolio, I quietly anticipate the moment in which the audience is plucked immediately from one world to another, and the composer says the words, “This show is about…”