Apr 1, 2013

Band for a Run

The Lisps
I've been in bands, and I've written musicals, but apart from my actor/singer/musician adaptation of The Devil and Tom Walker a few years backI've never really put the two together. In much the same way I learned to play classical and pop music almost entirely separately (and in that order), and have struggled ever since to bridge the two in terms of technique and theory, there's a kind of impermeable right-brain/left-brain wall between the worlds of bands and musicals—one in which you write discrete songs, teach them to a band, put them together into a setlist, and get people to come out and hear you, the other in which you write songs for a show with a playwright, teach them to a band and singers, and get people to come out and hear you.

Why is there such a gulf between the two? It has everything to do, of course, with the different expectations, economics, and aesthetic traditions/possibilities that have grown up around each way of making and sharing music. Luckily for the future of music and theater are some artists coming up who don't see or feel the distinction as clearly, and these hybrid writer/performers are the subject of a big new cover story in American Theatre I spent the last few months putting together. One of my goals was to avoid the way new voices in musical theater are still too often written about (essentially, in a tone that's a variation on, "Good golly, musicals are rocking now!"), and I think—thanks to the input of a seemingly endless, interlocking network of sources and tipsters—I managed at least to make some kind of case that this is a trend worth noting.

The thesis graf:
Perhaps the most heartening and transformative trend in American musicals...is a swelling wave of hybrid shows created, and often performed, by indie bands and singer/songwriters. Some begin as staged concept albums (the Lisps’ Futurity, Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys’ 28 Seeds, Black Francis and the Catastrophic Theatre’s Bluefinger). Some begin as devised-theatre pieces in which live music is as integral as the script (PigPen’s The Old Man and the Old Moon, Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die). Some begin as quasi-cabarets built around performers with stories to tell and/or roles to play (Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s Passing Strange, Ethan Lipton’s No Place to Go, and the trannie granny of them all, Hedwig and the Angry Inch). Some even begin as essentially traditional musicals, but with the clear stamp, and often the actual presence, of their composer/performers (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s Once, Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, Groovelily’s Sleeping Beauty Wakes). 
None are Broadway-tooled properties by brand-name stars, though some (OncePassing Strange) do end up on the Main Stem. And while most are mere flickers on the radar of the nation’s resident theatres and play-development houses, that is rapidly changing. In a trend analogous to the way “devised” ensemble work is increasingly welcomed by institutional theatres (see “Group Think,” March ’13), bands and actor/musicians are teaming with directors, playwrights and dramaturgs as full partners on new stage pieces, not simply rolling their gear through the stage door just before tech rehearsals to play through scores fully notated by a single composer.
There are MP3s and links galore with the online version of the story.

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