May 8, 2013

De-genre-ifying the Musical: Part 2 of My Chat With The Lisps' César Alvarez

Part 1 of my interview with The Lisps’ César Alvarez went into some detail about his bands’ show Futurity, which originated in 2009, played at ART and at the Walker Center last year, and is headed for a New York production at some point in 2014, as well as about the band’s music for The Good Person of Szechwan, a hit at LaMama earlier this year that will be part of the Public Theater’s next season.

In this second part of our interview, we get down to more widely applicable notions about the gap between rock and theater, and between the traditional musical and band-created narratives, that were the animating ideas behind my April cover story in American Theatre and my recent chat with Stew & Heidi.

César Alvarez: I feel like musicals, because they’re so complicated, have over the years been overcurated. And the idea of a DIY musical is much more difficult than a DIY album or a DIY theater performance, right? Because there are so many elements and because there’s this complexity. When you wrote me and you were like, “I’m writing an article about bands and band-driven musicals,” I started thinking: Are bands writing more musicals now than they ever have been, and why? And I think it’s got everything to do with the MP3 revolution. Musicians have always wanted to tell stories with their music. They’ve just started to notice that there’s been a new interest in spectacle. It’s not enough to go into the studio and record the music; you also need to create a whole world around your piece in order to really stand out and to articulate who you are as an artist.

So actually I think this interest in bands writing musicals is really about bands distinguishing themselves and giving in to the natural impulse of every musician of how to tell each story, how to create a world. Whatever sort of upsurge of this thing that we’re seeing has everything to do with where we are culturally and technologically.

Q: I was speaking to Shanta Thake at Joe’s Pub, and she said they are consciously looking at musicians and the music business, now that income from recording has collapsed, and seeing that one way they can support musicians is to help them theatricalize their shows. Obviously you weren’t someone that Joe’s Pub had to introduce to the idea--you came to them with this thing already conceived.

César: Right, but the fact that Joe’s Pub said, “Yeah, we’ll give you four Saturday Nights in May” completely transformed our ability to get our work out there. Shanta specifically saw from a very early point what we were doing and how it made sense for their mission and how we really connected. We had a great run there. And there are venues that have to start letting their musicians think that way.

Q: Obviously, there are some venues, like Oberon at ART, where you did Futurity, and Joe’s Pub and Ars Nova, who are thinking this way, but not many.

César: Here’s the thing that I find fascinating. Even one step before that: Where do you rehearse a rock musical? We can’t even figure it out, it’s so hard. Like, just for Good Person actually, what would have been great was to have the band sing for weeks with everyone rehearsing. It was so difficult to even do that; we got three days before tech with the band. The reason is that the theatre world isn’t set up to allow bands to come into the rehearsal room and leave their gear set up, and music rehearsal spaces are these tiny, dingy, basement closets full of mold. So every time we think about this, a major, major consideration goes to,Where are we going to rehearse? We’ve ended up rehearsing in art studios, in big open spaces that our visual artist friends have, who say, “Yeah, you can use my studio,” and we can leave stuff set up there. There’s just not a lot of space to do what you really need to do. I think we’ve been creative about figuring it out. There’s all these instances where you see how hard it is to do the thing that we’re trying to do.

One of the things that was so exciting was that we never put on the musical without our band; you never had to hear Futurity with just like the piano or a guitar, which is very hard for people because they don’t have the musical imagination to know really what it would sound like with everyone. So by the time we got to Joe’s Pub for our second workshop the band was so tight, and we killed it. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing between the songs, but the songs were great. I think that really helped to propel us.

Q: Now, as much as the theater world may not be ready for rock bands, are rock bands ready for the rigors of rehearsals, of an eight-show week, etc.?

César: For musicians, it’s crazy, but I feel like my band has really felt the benefits from it. I mean, working at ART and on this Good Person are the biggest gigs we’ve ever had as a band, by orders of magnitude, in terms of the length, in terms of the support we got and the opportunities that opened up. Most of the reactions of our musicians have been, “This is so cool.” Especially our drummer, Eric Farber, who built his whole drum set to be this handmade mechanical percussion machine which was a musical instrument, a storytelling device, and an interactive set piece that is so intertwined in the way we’re telling the story. It was the most radical, transformative experience of his life. He’s been a professional drummer in New York for 10 years and this came to be so far above and beyond anything he’s ever done creatively. It was an absolute revelation. So we all got back from ART thinking, “Let’s do that some more; how do we figure out how to do that more?” Which is why Good Person has been really awesome.

Q: Do you ever feel, though, that the musician in you is saying, “Enough of this waiting around and playing the same show, let’s make a record and just play it for an audience”?

César: We’ve actually put out four records, and that’s easy! We do want to keep putting out records. But I think what we really want to do is put on these big shows and perform for tons and tons of people and innovate. It’s more exciting to feel like we’re really pushing the format rather than just putting out records. I think a lot of artists have felt the fatigue, that what used to work doesn’t work anymore. There was this incredible article I read online about the band Grizzly Bear, about how they’re an incredibly successful band and basically they can’t quite get over the hump where they’re really supporting themselves; they’re as successful as an indie band could ever get without going majorly mainstream, and they’re still living in their Bushwick apartments and don’t feel like they’re gonna go out and have kids or start a family—it was very eye-opening to me. Because I’m in an indie band, and it’s very easy to look at Grizzly Bear and think, “See if we just could get on the Warped Tour or open for Arcade Fire, then we’ll be set!” But actually the way this industry works, that’s not true. And we’re looking for, in a way, an escape hatch that will allow us to be artists to the fullest degree than we’ve ever been able to, and also get involved in something that’s more sustainable and more kind to our art, you know?

One of the most interesting facts about our band is that in 2009, when we did that first Zipper Factory show of Futurity, we had been a band for four years. We had fans and a couple albums. We were like a little Brooklyn band who could draw some people to a show if we booked it. Then we did our musical in two nights, and both nights basically sold out, so about 450 people came and saw it, which was so far beyond anything we had ever done. We thought it was a big risk, but in a way the best way thing we ever did for our audience was writing this musical. The minute we announced it our audiences were like, “Oh, crazy!!” which was great. Of course there were others who were like, “What the…? I thought this band was cool, now they’re pretty lame.” But for the most part that was not the response.

There’s a band in Philadelphia called The Extraordinares, and they haven’t gotten a big production in the way that Futurity has, but all their work is really concept-driven and they have written a musical and produced it. They’re a really good example of the complete DIY ethic of a band writing a musical and they’re doing it in an incredible way. There are other bands that are laboring in this way. And there are so many bands that are “theatrical,” but there’s a real leap, and it’s really about venue and about the structure of the performance. When a band says they’re theatrical, it usually means they have video and costumes and they might choreograph some moves and do some gags. But with the Extraordinaires it was a musical--it was like 16 songs and costumes and they put it on in a loft for 150 friends and videotaped it and then they sell the DVDs.

The other thing that’s incredible is that whenever we have a gig and we say, “You know, we wrote a musical,” and then we play a couple songs from it, so often bands come up to us afterwards and say, “We wrote a musical, too! We just don’t know how to do it,” or, “We have this idea for a musical, we just don’t know how to write it.” Everyone wants to write a concept album, and then everyone wants to put it onstage. Everybody’s concept album could work as a musical. I think it would be really cool to see more support for that type of creativity.

Q: Did you look at traditional musicals at all as a model, or did you intentionally try not to copy that form?

César: When we started Futurity, I was a grad student/composer looking at musical theater for the first time. I went to a conservatory and was always an experimental musician, a jazz musician, a computer musician, but never a theatrical musician. So I started listening to all these musicals and reading up on musical theater and I realized that musicals are an indigenous American form, just like jazz. It had never even occurred to me. And the musical is a form in the way a novel is a form. However because of the evolution and the power of people like Rogers and Hammerstein and the way the dominated Broadway for so many years, musical theatre became a genre, but it’s not a genre! The analogy I use--you hear from musicians all the time, “Oh, I hate musicals,” which is actually like saying, “Oh, I hate novels.” It would be like somebody invented the novel and then for hundreds of years the only one that became popularized was the mystery novel—so you read all these mystery novels and you think “Well, I hate novels!” So I say musical theatre has been genre-fied in a way that is a complete disservice to the form, which is indigenously American and is a brilliant open form which basically says: music, dialogue, and narrative on a stage, telling a story. And that’s it. It doesn’t say how to sing or what kind of music.

So that’s what we’re trying to do--I think we’re basically re-claiming the form from a specific genre, which is incredible--look at the classic musicals, they’re classics, but they don’t encompass the entire spectrum of what musical theater can be. Film, for instance, has just blossomed into all these branches, but for some reason musical theater never got the full treatment that film did in blossoming, and I think it’s our responsibility as theater artists to give it that and keep pushing for it and to make our field as thoroughly explored as film has been, or as straight theater has been.

Q: What you’re doing isn’t really reinventing the wheel; it’s actually going back to the roots of telling a story and singing songs, and going a different direction from traditional musical theater. And the most obvious difference with a band musical is that the writers are also the performers, which you typically only see in theater with solo shows or ensemble-devised work.

César: I mean, it’s really amazing to hear Frank Sinatra do a Cole Porter song, but it’s also just as amazing to hear The Beatles play The Beatles. That was the big revolution that happened in pop music, and I honestly think there’s a thing happening in musical theater which is: It’s incredible to watch the people who made the thing do the thing. And that’s what you get when you see a band perform a musical. You see that with Stew; it’s so exciting to see someone telling their own story on a Broadway stage.

Q: Yeah, it’s odd that that doesn’t happen more often, and that’s it’s someone like Stew, who’s not a huge superstar, who did it. But I guess it makes sense, because giant rock stars are on tour all the time and can’t afford to sit in a rehearsal room for weeks making a show.

César: But then you have someone like Ricky Martin who spent eight months in Evita.

Q: That’s true, I didn’t think about that. I guess I’m just saying that I think theater is a good match for bands more than rock stars, because bands are used to being more flexible and changing in small dressing rooms and—

César: Dressing rooms? More like “behind the bar.” That’s what’s so good to read about from Brecht in his essay about music and theatre: The main thing is that music should be its own thing. You should be able to take the music out of the show and the music is still interesting, which in a lot of cases, it doesn’t really stand up. It’s more powerful in a lot of cases to have like an autonomous and ensemble-driven musical force inside of a theatrical work rather than a few hired guns that are playing some underscoring. It would be so much fun to see more of that.

In the next and final installment: What theater gets wrong and what it gets right, and what about a Brooklyn indie-rock-musical festival?

UPDATE:  A comment from Facebook by Joe Drymala: I really love this series, Rob. (And I've been having the same thought about bands turning to theater for income streams.) If nothing else, the "sound" of theater is going through an enormous upheaval right now, and I think that even the traditionally trained musical theater composers are going to be forced to take more care with the actual sound of their music (as opposed to hiring a slick professional arranger to make their material sound slick and professional and soulless). A band doesn't have that luxury--they have to think about the music as a final product, and listen to it as the audience member would experience it, so they're much more self-conscious about creating a unique "sound". Btw, it was kind of a bummer to see Hands on a Hardbody, if only because I thought the music was made to sound so bland, which sort of defeats the purpose of having a pop musician write the score. The best thing that pop musicians know how to do is use specific sounds that evoke certain moods and images in people's minds (think of the Beatles wandering through genre after genre and fusing them together, often in a single song, knowing full well the emotions and associations those genres will conjure in the listener's ear--and of course the great theater composers--Bernstein, Sondheim, Gershwin, Rodgers--could do this as well). I could go on and on about this subject, so I'll stop here, but please keep this series going.

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