The Skin of Our Teeth at Theatre for a New Audience

Eric Farber and Fred Epstein | Photo by Henry Grossman 
Photo by Henry Grossman
Photo by Henry Grossman
I wrote original music including 4 songs for TFANA's production of The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder. This play summons the eternal story of how humans endure total catastrophe. After working on it for months I feel like I finally arrived at its key insight: that our desperation to survive, the love of our communities and families, and the truth we discover through arts and sciences will always carry us through the darkness.

New York Times Feature: "Why Thornton Wilder Matters in the Trump Era"


Jenna Rush | Photo by Eric Wolfe

Photo by Eric Wolfe
Photo by Eric Wolfe
NOISE was inspired by a little piece of critical theory, which proposes that music, as the organization of noise, was the earliest expression of civilization. And if music precedes all forms of political economy, it follows that we should be able to make a musical which designs a new and better society. Right? RIGHT?!

NOISE was a commission of Playwrights Horizons Theater School.
Jack Moore of the Public Theater talks about it in this podcast. (Minute 42)

Here's a demo of a song from the show:


The Elementary Spacetime Show

photo by Eric Wolfe

“The universe doesn’t care if you live. It just doesn’t want you to die as the result of a false impression."

The Elementary Spacetime Show
Music, Book and Lyrics by César Alvarez
Directed by Andrew Neisler
Choreography by Sonya Tayeh and Ben Hobbs
September 10-24, 2016

Co-presented by The University of the Arts and FringeArts

The Philadelphia Inquirer - 'Spacetime Show' probes teen suicide with humor, music, physics
WHYY/NPR - Fringe Reviews: 'The Elementary Spacetime Show'
Broad Street Review - University of the Arts/FringeArts co-production asks, "Why live?"


Polyphone 2016


Joanna Settle and I started the Polyphone festival last year as a place to grow musicals. We wanted to create a sanctuary where musicals can transition from adolescence to adulthood. We wanted to create a platform for artists to launch their scripts and demos off the page into live events that move, breathe and rock out. As creators of musicals we tried to imagine the Utopian ideal of where and how we'd like to develop our own work. We knew that if we could create that little Utopia, it would attract artists from all over. We also knew that our students would grow immeasurably from being part of the making, and that the theater world might get to glimpse a different set of possibilities for what musicals can be, and how they can come into being. 

The Polyphone Festival
March 20-27, 2016
March 26 is Marathon Day. Four new musicals in one day for $10.
Merriam Theater and the Arts Bank 
The University of the Arts
Philadelphia, PA



Sometimes you come up with an idea, and you work on it for eight years. And a bunch of wonderful people start to believe in you, and help you, and it grows and grows and grows. And you see it slowly turn into the thing that you always wanted it to be. It is an incredible feeling. When you finally see it fully-formed it makes all the heartaches, stomach aches, and difficulties you encountered along the way seem distant and well worth it. Thank you to everyone who came and collaborated on this big beautiful beast.

Illustration by Adam Hayes   
Music by César Alvarez with The Lisps
Lyrics and Book by César Alvarez
Directed by Sarah Benson

FUTURITY won the 2016 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical and received 5 nominations.
FUTURITY won the Off-Broadway Alliance Award for Best New Musical
NY Times Review HERE



This is a song from my episode of Washeteria: A site specific, immersive theater piece for children. Louisa Thompson designed a fantastical laundromat inside an former auto parts store in Brooklyn. I wrote a mini-musical for the piece. My episode (Directed by the luminous Annie Tippe) is called Consuela and the Great Genie of The Laundry Bag. It's about a woman trapped inside a laundromat by an evil manager, and a genie who loves granola bars.

One thing that is interesting about this show is that that as we've been rehearsing, every single day we are visited for an hour by a different second grade class from The Brooklyn Arbor. I love the idea of making a musical in front of an gaggle of squirming second graders.  

Tickets are HERE.


Ursula K Le Guin on Science Fiction

"Truth is a matter of the imagination" - Ursula K Le Guin
Image Credit - The Left Hand of Darkness by David Lane

I recently read Ursula K Le Guin's legendary novel The Left Hand of Darkness. In the introduction she lays out a really compelling meditation on the role of science fiction in culture.  As we are ever more altered by our technology, it bears repeating that the metaphors of science fiction might help us create a more intelligent society.

"Science fiction is often described, and even defind, as extrapolative. the science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. "If this goes on, this is what will happen." A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.

This may explain why many people who do not read science fiction describe it as "escapist," but when questioned further, admit they do not read it because "it's so depressing." Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.

Fortunately, though extrapolation is an element in science fiction, it isn't the name of the game by any means. It is far too rationalist and simplistic to satisfy the imaginative mind, whether the writer's or the reader's. Variables are the spice of life.

This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let's say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let's say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let's say this or that is such and so, and see what happens.... In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed. The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future - indeed Schrodinger's most famous thought-experiment goes to shwo that the "future," on the quantum level, cannot be predicted- but to describe reality, the present world.

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.


The Universe is a Small Hat - BABYCASTLES RESIDENCY

The Universe is a Small Hat is a multiplayer immersive musical that tells the story of a space colony leaving earth in order to devise a more rational society. I've been developing this piece for two years now, and it isn't quite like anything I've ever created or experienced. Part game, part performance, part social experiment, part Utopian concept album, part party. We can't make the piece without willing participants. Come out and play.


Babycastles play test dates (click link for tickets):
Monday 9_29_14
Saturday 10_4_14  + Babycastles Opening Party
Monday 10_13_14
Monday 10_27_14
Monday 11_17_14
Wednesday 12_3_14 (sold out)
Friday 12_12_14  (sold out)
Wednesday 12_31_14 + New Year's Eve Space Party
Monday 1_5_15



An Octoroon

From left, Chris Myers, Danny Wolohan and Amber Gray. Credit Pavel Antonov 

Composing for Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' An Octoroon at Soho Rep this past spring was one of the most exhilarating artistic experiences of my life. The song I wrote for the end was meant to be a moment of healing or reflection after the intense discomfort and insane melodrama that the play intentionally creates. Lester St. Louis is the fantastic cellist who makes it happen in the show.

NY times Review HERE.

Here's my original demo of the closing song:

"When You Burn It Down."
Music and Lyrics by César Alvarez


The Universe is a Small Hat - 1st Play Test

Engineering meaningful participatory theater.

Photos by Nora Mericicki from the Berkeley Rep Ground Floor workshop/playtest June 21, 2013. 
The Witness Training. Safiya Fredericks (background) as The Founder and audience member/colonist Melissa Nigro

During my time in The Civilians R and D Group and the Berkeley Rep Ground Floor Program I have been studying how to turn the experience of my musical into an immersive and interactive game. My piece is entitled The Universe is a Small Hat and tells the story of a techno-Utopian space colony which encounters a mysterious non-human atmospheric intelligence. Each audience member plays the role of a colonist and has to choose how to behave and interface within the micro-society on the ship. The decisions that colonists make influence their experience of the piece, opportunities they have, their access to the ship itself, and ultimately the ending that they experience.

A Song from the show:

“A game is an experience created by rules.” - Anna Anthropy (Rise of The Videogame Zinesters)

Games are systems and so they are well-suited to tell stories about systems. Small Hat is at its core about a society, which is a network of shared laws, customs, and/or organizations. My piece also deals with physics which is a system of laws capable of describing and predicting aspects of our Universe. The idea for turning my piece into an immersive experience first came from this video of futurist Jason Silva talking about his experience of Punchdrunk's Sleep No More

When I found the Jason Silva video I was trying to figure out how to tell a futuristic story in a theatrical context, but I feared that being conventionally presentational would come off as hokey. My sense is that science fiction has a bad reputation in theater. Perhaps science fiction works better in novels and films because both forms are so good at immersing us in a fictional future. Silva connects Sleep No More to virtual reality and frames its (albeit analog) interactive environment as an evolution of the video game and “the future of storytelling.” I think he has a point. For centuries theater has served to create a moment of physical rest and reflection after a day of labor. But now, as more jobs than ever require hours of isolation sitting in front of a screen, plugged into a network, theater might be well positioned as a place to engage our bodies, and allow us to interact with one another in physical space. George Lucas recently came out with a similar point in his Times article The Future of Movies

The Healer Training
"Games are a kind of theater in which the audience is an actor and takes on a role – and experiences the circumstances and consequences of that role.”  - Anna Anthropy

Below I've presented some game concepts alongside a few thoughts on how we are integrating the concepts into The Universe is a Small Hat. The words that game designers use to describe their work have been helpful as I try to merge these two worlds. My hope is that more theater artists will start creating work that generates story-driven interactivity. In the two large playtests we've done I've found an incredible willingness on the part of audiences to participate as long as the system makes some sense to them.

Player Character - is a character in a video game or role playing game who is controlled or controllable by a player, and is typically a protagonist of the story told in the course of the game.
In Small Hat the “player” is the audience member. And as I develop the “script” I am viewing the audience member as an actor in the play. The script should be a delineation of circumstances that allow for a mediated experience full of sensation, story and choice. The audience members will not be asked to “act” or play a character other than themselves. Since they are cast as members of the space colony we are asking them to be themselves exactly as they are, or as they'd like to be. Each colonist is given one of five “identities,” or jobs, based on an evaluation, but each individual can embrace, switch, or reject the identity as they see fit.

Non-Player Character - any character not controlled by a player. In our case, the actors.

Reward - The reward is the positive consequence of conquering the challenge; it can be anything from an increase in score, new items, or a scene.

The Bluelight

Risk - a situation involving exposure to danger, or in the case of a game, the loss of points, rewards, or status.

Cutscenes - A cutscene is a sequence in a video game over which the player has no or only limited control, breaking up the gameplay. Cutscenes are used to advance the plot, strengthen the main character's development, introduce enemy characters, and provide background information, atmosphere, dialogue, and clues.The video game form of scene/gameplay/scene/gameplay reminds me of the musical theater form of scene/song/scene/song. In Small Hat we will move the narrative primarily through songs, direct address, and gameplay, with few scripted scenes between characters. The colonists also have a lot of time to interact directly with the drones, in which case the drones will be improvising based on their understanding of the world.

The Belief Ladder

Items – Objects which play role in the story. The might contain clues, unlock elements of the story, offer powers or privileges.

Score - In games, score refers to an abstract quantity associated with a player or team. Score is usually measured in the abstract unit of points, and events in the game can raise or lower the score of different parties. Most games with score use it as a quantitative indicator of success in the game, and in competitive games, a goal is often made of attaining a better score than one's opponents in order to win.

Playtesting – This is an idea in games that you have to play the game in order to gauge its effectiveness. Is it challenging? Too repetitive? Too easy? Interesting to both expert players and novices? Factors of the game can be tweaked and adjusted according the to subjective experience of the playtesting. I thought playtesting is the game design version of workshopping in theater, but I've actually discovered it is more analogous to rehearsal. We actually need the players (audience) to see even the most basic elements of the piece on their feet.

Skill and Chance – This is a polarity that is present in many games. There is a randomizing element (dice or cards) but also a system of rules which can be employed though a player's skill. Specific strategies will allow Colonists to achieve higher and reach greater depths of the world. But the randomizing elements will add unexpected outcomes.

Level - In a video game a level is the total space available to the player during the course of completing a discrete objective.

Audience members fill out exit surveys after the playtest.

César Alvarez - Creator/Composer
Sarah Benson - Director
Ivan Safrin and Syed Salahuddin - Game Designers

For more information on the The Universe is a Small Hat tweet or contact César.


Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812

14 Reasons I Love Dave Malloy's Opera based on War and Peace.
Phillipa Soo as Natasha in NATASHA PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812, Photo By Chad Batka
  1. You get perogies and vodka.

  2. Dave uses bass clarinet, english horn, and gut rumbling club music all in the same piece.

  3. One scene inside of the opera is a hilarious parody of an opera.

  4. A bunch of the actors, and almost all of the musicians, are also composers.

  5. At one point two female singers in a tense situation sing the lyric “constraaaaaaained” a half step away from each other, and it is beautiful.

  6. One of the actors passed me a tiny folded paper during the show that had “you are hawt” scrawled on it. (Data suggests this was part of the show, and not an impulsive appraisal of my hawtness).

  7. Dave's melodies pour from the piece so effortlessly. I waited for something to be repetitive or predictable but each musical moment is an ingenious transformation and/or departure from the previous.

  8. The opening number is a cumulative song

  9. Mimi Lien created a magical Russian Cabaret.

  10. I'm incredibly impressed that Dave could tell such a complicated story using no spoken dialogue, without the exposition ever feeling forced. This makes me hopeful about the potential of song to tell big stories in an authentic and light-hearted way. It cleverly triangulates musical theater and operatic tropes so it can make use of them, without ever being subsumed by them.

  11. Every one of the actors approach singing differently. I love this. I like shows that have a few classically trained singers and a bunch of singers that are using their voices with folk, blues, rock, and experimental sensibilities. The sonic patchwork is what makes the piece feel current and authentic. Our culture is so heterogeneous that when a large group of performers stand up and sing according to a single musical orthodoxy, the product can feel institutional, dated or even corporate. This is the experience I have, though not always an unpleasant one, at many Broadway shows and big budget operas. Comet on the other hand feels homemade. It may not feel as homemade in its current commercial incarnation than it did at Ars Nova, but that leads to my next point.

  12. I love seeing a commercial production of a truly downtown piece or performance. Rachel Chavkin and Dave have kept the core of the work intact even though there are now many more costumes and chandeliers. To quote the brilliant Taylor Mac, “The avant-garde IS commercial!” It is inspiring to see commercial backing for a work as quirky, honest and courageous as Comet.

  13. The waitstaff are all actually Russian (or have convincing accents), and I think this actually adds a lot to the experience.

  14. It's in a damn TENT!

    Go see for yourself.


It's Better With a Band

The Lisps and I are featured in the April 2013 cover story of American Theatre Magazine. The article, by Rob Weinert-Kendt, offers some nuanced insight into the emerging musical. Here's an excerpt:

It’s a funny thing, what’s happened to the word “musical.” Like “novel,” this simple adjective has grown into a giant noun encompassing an entire art form. But even as the term has inflated, the form itself seems to have shrunk. Even after Rent, even after “Glee,” the American musical has a particular vocal and compositional sound, and we all know it when we hear it.
For all their pleasures, and for all the crowds musicals continue to pack in, stage music itself has become a niche genre, and apart from a devoted cadre of show fans, it’s not what most of us choose to listen to on our iPods, on our Pandora stations, in concert halls or on our party playlists. Indeed, though it’s got the word “music” inside it, the varieties of music typically excluded by that innocent little word, “musical,” could fill several lifetimes of listening—and for many audiences stubbornly immune to the charms of musical theatre, they do.
Arguably, there’s new blood pumping into the form via so-called “jukebox” shows, which range from bio-concerts (Fela!Million Dollar Quartet) to broadly narrativized samplers (Movin’ OutRock of AgesMamma Mia!); or via theatricalized concept albums, like Green Day’s American Idiot or Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend(both originally mounted at Berkeley Repertory Theatre before moving on, to Broadway and to Actors Theatre of Louisville, respectively). That pop stars like Elton John and U2 have conquered Broadway may be most notable in how exceptional their cases are. And the fact that not-so-huge stars like Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening),Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) and Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) have pressed pop sounds into fresh storytelling service is certainly some cause for hope.
But perhaps the most heartening and transformative trend in American musicals—and we might as well reclaim the word, all the better to broaden its purview—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.
It was César Alvarez, the lanky, curl-topped frontman for the folk-rock band the Lisps, who floated an analogy between novels and musicals in a recent interview. Since he and his band wrote Futurity, a concept album about the Civil War–era inventor of a steam-powered artificial intelligence, which was staged last year at Cambridge, Mass.’s American Repertory Theater and at Minneapolis’s Walker Arts Center (and will hit New York in 2014–15, with Soho Rep co-producing), they’ve been bitten by the theatre bug. They recently scored and appeared in theFoundry Theatre’s Off-Off Broadway revival of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan, and they’re developing a show with Soho Rep artistic director Sarah Benson at Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor. And while the Lisps still tour and record, Alvarez now thinks of himself, at least in part, as a theatre artist.
“Musical theatre has become a genre, but it’s actually not a genre!” exclaimed Alvarez, climbing on what is clearly a favorite hobbyhorse. “You hear from musicians all the time, ‘Oh, I hate musicals,’ which is like saying, ‘Oh, I hate novels.’ It would be as if somebody invented the novel, and then for hundreds of years, the only kind that became popularized was the mystery novel.” He feels that the American musical has been similarly constrained, sonically and aesthetically: “The classic musicals, they’re classics—but they don’t encompass the entire spectrum of what musical theatre can be. That’s why I say musical theatre has been genre-fied in a way that is a complete disservice to the form. It’s basically music, dialogue and narrative on a stage, telling a story. That’s it! It doesn’t say how to sing or what kind of music.”
In the case of Futurity, what began as a staged concert at New York’s Zipper Factory blossomed into a play-with-a-band, with Alvarez and singer Sammy Tunis taking lead roles and drummer Eric Farber sitting at the helm of a contraption he constructed called the Steam Brain—which Alvarez described as a “handmade percussion machine which is a musical instrument, a storytelling device and an interactive set-piece.” The style of the score, true to the Lisps’ artisanal indie-rock sound, encompasses twangy folk, old-timey Americana and pristine chamber pop. And the style of the piece, even as it’s added a script, by Alvarez and playwright Molly Rice, is still centered around the Lisps’ presence.
The challenge, as director Benson put it, was “trying to figure out how to keep it being a show where the band was telling the story, and yet blow it out into a musical. When I was stuck, I would just think, ‘What would the Lisps do?’ Casting solutions, design solutions—all came out of that musical language.
Full Article and music samples are HERE


The Good Person of Szechwan

It's been an absolute revelation working with the cast and creative team on this show. I wrote 7 songs for the production and the other members of the Lisps will be on stage rocking every night. Here's a demo/download of one of my songs from the show:

La MaMa presents the Foundry Theatre production of 
Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan.
Directed by Lear deBessonet
Featuring Taylor Mac
Music by César Alvarez with The Lisps

New York Times REVIEW


Dates: Feb 1st - 24th, 2013
LaMama's Ellen Stewart Theatre 66 East 4th Street
NYC (between 2nd Ave & Bowery)
Tickets: ONLINE /// or call: 212.475.7710