Stroke By Stroke
I’m not sure when I first met Ryan Scott Oliver in person. But the encounter that stays with me was at a band rehearsal for Prospect Theater Company’s Annual Gala last year. One of Ryan’s songs from JASPER IN DEADLAND was on the bill as a preview of coming attractions, since plans for a Prospect production of the show were already in the works. I was at the rehearsal because they were also doing a song of mine—“It’s Amazing The Things That Float.” After they’d finished running through my little hymn to buoyancy, Ryan took his turn, gave a few notes to the band, and started singing through a song of his that I’d never heard before. It began with the lyric: “Don’t you know the world is water? You can’t just float on it.” What was this?! Clearly one of us had it wrong when it came to water-based metaphors—and it couldn’t be me. Things do float, and furthermore, they are amazing when they do so. I decided I’d see what the song had to say for itself, so I kept listening…
Of course, I had “met” Ryan Scott Oliver years before that rehearsal. I had met him the way everyone in new musical theater meets him—through the RSO publicity machine. RSO, the impresario behind many a “Rated-RSO” concert, the social media maven with the prolific Twitter feed and the legions of followers. There was no escaping the RSO brand. I think the first RSO song I heard was “Mrs. Sharp” from the musical of the same name. The show had won the Richard Rodgers Award, and I decided it was time to find out what all the fuss was about. What I heard was a revelation. The music was propulsive, seductive, and catchy as hell. The lyrics were colloquial and spiky, but poetic too. Okay, I had to admit—there was something to it.
Back at the Prospect band rehearsal, they had hit the first chorus of Ryan’s song and he stopped to point out a particular tempo shift that happens there. “We go stroke by stroke by stroke by stroke by stroke…” For those two bars, the tempo slows down a bit. Bass and drums land heavily on the “and” of 1. It’s like we’re fighting against the current, and you can really feel that resistance. That happens every time on the “stroke by stroke” lyrics. I was struck by what a simple, but surprising, and above all effective, musical device this was. From that one gesture, the whole force of his idea hit me: you can’t just float; this life is a struggle and every bit of forward progress is going to require effort. That viscous tempo shift and the five-fold repetition of the word “stroke” made me feel the strain of pulling myself through the water. Maybe this song had it right. After all, isn’t it inherently more dramatic to emphasize the conflict, the tension, the protagonist faced with an obstacle? I kept listening…
Jay Armstrong Johnson performs “Stroke By Stroke” from JASPER at 54 Below.
When songs sound as “cool” as the typical RSO song does, it’s tempting to label their creator as a pop songwriter rather than a theater composer/lyricist. But I knew better. I had seen a show of Ryan’s called 35MM, a song cycle, with each song inspired by a different photograph. What’s remarkable is how from a single, still image, Ryan would find a character, a situation, and a story to tell. In 35MM, I met people like poor, abused Luanne, and I followed her desperate attempt to escape a brutish husband… through the swamps of Louisiana, through mayhem and murder until, in a final twist, Luanne gets the last laugh. It was a full three-course meal of melodrama served up in a five minute long song. And that was just one of the songs. There were a dozen others, and each one was as complete a portrait as the photo that had inspired it. After that, I had no doubt this guy was a natural storyteller.
Back at rehearsal, they were coming down the home stretch of “Stroke By Stroke.” As the song unfolded, I’d begun to understand that the metaphor was about more than just the stroke-by-stroke effort of living. It was about total immersion, and the courage it takes. The song was building to a climax: “Now, let’s jump. Let’s jump! We’ll never know we’re alive till we jump, till we dive!” And then we were into that refrain—the usual pulled-back tempo, but in a higher register now—and it was thrilling! This wasn’t about just the strain of fighting the current, but the exhilaration of jumping in without knowing if you’re going to be able to keep your head above water.
That kind of leap of faith is what putting on shows with Prospect Theater Company has always felt like for me. From the company’s earliest days, Cara Reichel and I took the “dive right in” approach to the new musicals that we would create together. Often, we would announce a show as part of Prospect’s upcoming season when we had barely started writing it; we would cast the show while we were still trying to work out the second act; we would write the last number during tech week. We didn’t have a choice; we had jumped in and it was sink or swim! Gradually, Prospect began to make a name as a company that would venture into those dangerous waters of producing new musicals. And soon Prospect was doing shows by other writers, most recently with the Off-Broadway productions of TAMAR OF THE RIVER by Marisa Michelson and Joshua Cohen, and UNLOCK’D by Sam Carner and Derek Gregor.
It’s hard to believe, given RSO’s household-name status in the business, but JASPER IN DEADLAND will be his first professional New York City production. I am so pleased and proud that Prospect is able provide him this well-deserved opportunity. My hope is that his experience will be every bit as exhilarating as my own Prospect experiences have been. More than putting on a concert, more than making a studio recording, more than doing a 29-hour reading—there is something so all-consuming about working on a production… getting caught up in all the many aspects of it as they come together—sets, lights, costumes, props—and then seeing your show in front of audiences… doing rewrites during previews… waiting on pins and needles for the reviews to come out… watching how the show evolves over the course of the run. This is what we writers signed up for… it’s exhausting, and it’s scary! It’s the deep end, no doubt. But this spring Ryan Scott Oliver is taking the Prospect plunge. How will it turn out? Keep listening…
Prospect Theater Company’s production of JASPER IN DEADLAND plays March 16 – April 13 in NYC. Book is by Hunter Foster and Ryan Scott Oliver, music and lyrics by Ryan Scott Oliver, directed by Brandon Ivie and choreographed by Lorin Latarro, starring Matt Doyle and Allison Scagliotti. More info and tickets available at www.ProspectTheater.org or by calling 212-352-3101. Use code NMT35 for special $35 tickets!