May 9, 2013

Breaking Theater's Code: The Final Installment With The Lisps' César Alvarez

The Lisps et al in an earlier incarnation of Futurity

In this final installment of my three-part interview with César Alvarez (here are part 1 and part 2), we talk about the future of musical theater and where its next leaders might be found.

Q: This might be a matter of generations—that there are more of these band-driven musicals now because there are more people like you looking for this form of expression outside of just being the rock band. The problem, as you’ve noted, is finding the right venue and support.

César: That really is the problem. For the first two years of the development of Futurity I was the actor, the musical director, the composer, the book writer—and the producer! For whatever reason and mostly from the help I got, we were able to piece it together in this outsider way. My dream would be to start and indie Brooklyn musical theater festival, where you have two stages and two nights and there’s 15 musicals that are put on by these bands on shoestring budgets, with two hours of tech. That would be so cool! How many amazing musicals would you see? As opposed to having them go through their normal workshop process, which is basically impossible unless you get major theater people to help you do it. And once you do that, you start working under theater’s agenda, which is tricky. ART is incredible, and they’re a very unique space because they really booked us because of our hybrid nature and not in spite of it.

Q: What do you mean by theater’s agenda?

César: Every form of art has its own morality and orthodoxy; it’s the same in music. And people spend their entire lifetime figuring out how to navigate those orthodoxies. It’s like with the Pope—you can’t be the Pope until you’re 80 because you have to work your way up, but what would it be like if the Pope was 45? You know what I mean? It’s like this fact of life that the people with the power are the people who are inventing the status quo, so trying to find that entrance point where you can still be working in a challenging way and also get the support you need to create audiences--I mean, that’s the whole thing about being an artist.

Q: But as you say, places like ART are looking for work like this—they seem to recognize that something’s going on they should be part of.

César: That’s what Philip Bither said, too. He wrote on the Walker Center website about our piece, and he said that one of the great things about the Walker Center is not just that they have the opportunity there to really challenge their audience and the orthodoxy of the organization but that they are required to by their mission. Phillip was like, “We’re going to book a musical on our performance calendar,” which is radically unheard of. He was mildly terrified, and rightfully so, in the same way ART would be if they booked a piece of conceptual performance on their calendar. But he stuck his neck out and saw that what we make is contemporary and it should be considered as such.

Q: How did it go over there?

César: The Walker audience was thrilled. They have thick skin; they come to see a Walker show and have no idea what they’re in for—it could be one person sitting for an hour and a half, and it could be incredibly dense and abstract. They came to our show and they got a musical! They were like, “Whoa, everything is rhyming!” But it still worked in the context of their season. And the fact that we got Walker and ART working together was so cool. What if every regional theater had to collaborate with a contemporary art venue somewhere? What kind of theater would come out of that?

Q: Was there anything about working in theater that you especially learned from or appreciated?

César: Well, it’s what everyone loves about theater, that there’s such a code of collaboration, a code of working together, and even people who don’t know each other can immediately access this code together and create functional working relationships—and sometimes dysfunctional working relationships—but there’s just such an ethic and a code of honor of how you work with people. In bands, there’s not a code, and all the drama in bands is treated with such horror, and it breaks them up—there’s a lot more blindness about how you manage collaboration. We as a band have stayed together for 7 years because we know how to fight; we know how to beat each other up and not take it personally and to move forward the next day.

Q: You teach, also. What and where?

César: I taught at Bloomfield College in New Jersey for four years, music technology and songwriting, but now I’m a visiting artist at Sarah Lawrence. I work with one class there called the new musical theater lab, which is essentially a bunch of people working on new musicals. It’s a dream come true; I’m basically helping them turn all their work into music.

Q: So what’s the next generation doing?

César: I have a very small sample size, with just 12 students, but I think that what I’m seeing is that you can’t have a play that doesn’t have music. It’s not just about having a sound designer, it’s like with Lear deBessonet—she never has no music in her plays. There’s music in everything she does, and I think that’s really smart and that’s really emergent.

Q: I’m just surprised there hasn’t been like a giant country or hip-hop musical, because they’re such narrative forms.

César: There have been hip-hop musicals, they just haven’t made it to Broadway. In the Heights is more like a salsa musical, a Latin musical. And there was a bluegrass musical at 59E59. But they’re genre-fied, that’s what I’m trying to say. You take a show like Once; that’s an example of a show that’s stepping out of the form and it has been a success. Or Sleep No More: a commercial venture, with an extended run, completely out of the world of Broadway, a show that’s in a site-specific place and it’s, like, Wow, maybe we can start to get a new theater district, one that’s actually around the art galleries in Chelsea that’s going to embrace real hybridization and a different kind of cultural ethic; maybe this is gonna be the space where musicals can start. Like Hedwig, which started in some abandoned space over there...

Q: It started in a club but then played in a hotel ballroom, never in an actual theater.

César: Right. And I think that’s because the real theater is not a place for us, for whatever reason. We need Broadway to come to us. We can’t beat that, we can’t break the walls down. But I think it’s possible that there are a lot of ideas out there, and a lot of talent to create things like Sleep no More that are gonna be viably commercial.

You know, we all sit down for our jobs in front of computers. All of us: Composers, writers, every job now is sitting down in front of a computer. And theatre’s job, especially now, is a reminder to get us up, rather than to give us a rest and keep us sitting which is what historically has worked. That’s what I hope, that we start seeing a lot more new opportunities for this type of hybrid work.

Q: One question about these band shows is if they can have a life beyond the original version. So far Futurity hasn’t existed without The Lisps, but can you see a day when it might be licensed for other productions?

César: My dream is to go to Grimsley High School, which is in Greensboro, North Carolina, which is where I went to high school, and see a production of Futurity. I think it’s a show everyone should be able to do. So I’m not like “Only Lisps can do Futurity,” but I do think I want to do a more definitive version of it, which I don’t think we’ve done yet. I think that when the show goes up in New York, I’m hoping that’s what’s gonna be the definitive version of Futurity and I’ll be in it.

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