10.14.2014

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.

Introduction
"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.

9.26.2014

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.

OFFICIAL WEBSITE

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

Trailer:

 

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

7.16.2013

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.

5.14.2013

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.




4.01.2013

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

2.03.2013

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

WEBSITE

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


9.23.2012

Album Release

Image by Emily Orling

After years of sweat, love, heartburn and emotional upheaval we've finally carved this joyful and unwieldy beast onto actual vinyl. Come out and enjoy heaps of recriminating banter and cacophonous merriment as we tell you the unlikely story of a Civil War soldier trying to save the world with a steam powered super brain. We are even going to cart out some of the big kinetic percussion instruments that Eric made up at American Repertory Theater.


FUTURITY Album Release
October, 6, 2012
92YTribeca - Mainstage
200 Hudson Street, NYC
8:30pm



Check out FUTURITYthemusical.com for photos and press quotes

Listen to samples:



#futuritythemusical

5.24.2012

Ancient Music for the Future

Here are 3 videos that have been hacking my own thoughts about music. All of them have a distinctive non-western approach to melody, harmony and rhythm, and they are each incredibly catchy. My jazz training has given me a feeling that chord changes are "the bones" of a song, but the more I look outside of western music the more I realize how melodic and rhythmic exploration inside of more static harmonies can be deeply gratifying. I realize that many western musicians have explored modal music, but each of the examples below has a deep folkiness that is riveting and truly different than much of what I've heard. None of these songs feel like an experiment but rather a continuation of a musical tradition that has been in process for centuries (With the possible exception of some of Wu Man's extended techniques). The thing that is so interesting about all three of these pieces is that they each have a "hook."  They all force me to reconsider what makes music enjoyable, addictive, and the extent to which computers have homogenized the sonic reach of popular music around the world. This is ironic because I actually believe that computers are supremely versatile instruments, however they allow for a laziness that can end up eliminating nuance. I do think that computers are creating music that helps us process our computerized lives (eg: dubstep), just as ancient music helped people understand pre-industrial life. But just as our use of technology might become more organic and integrated into our humanity so might our music. These musicians all have a lot of information about what music means for humanity.

Kalumbu Song from Zambia



Pipa Song from China



Song from the Carnatic Indian Tradition (Southern India)

12.03.2011

In Defense of The Musical

Hedwig Illustration by Alex Kittle
"It is nonsense to say what a musical should or should not be. It should be anything it wants to be, and if you don't like it you don't have to go to it. There is only one absolutely indispensable element that a musical must have. It must have music. And there is only one thing that it has to be – it has to be good." 
- Oscar Hammerstein II* 
Musicals are based on this simple idea: telling a story on stage with dialogue, action and song. The problem is that in the very short history of the American "book musical" (which started with Showboat in 1927) the public understanding of the musical has been largely confined by a more rigid set of parameters. This article outlines a few distinctions that will hopefully reframe the musical for a more flexible contemporary conversation and seek to provide ideas about how to revive what is a truly fascinating, vibrant, and uniquely American form. If you are a musical theater skeptic I hope I can convince you to take a second look at the form, and if you are an artist I hope I can convince you to consider the musical as an interesting place to work. I am a composer who, not so many years ago, claimed to hate musicals, and now they are at the center of my artistic life.

1. The Musical is a FORM not a GENRE.

This distinction is at the heart of the popular misunderstanding of the musical. To illustrate this idea I'll use an analogy. To say, "I don't like mystery novels" is a completely different statement than to say, "I don't like novels." Mystery is a genre and the novel is a form.  I hear people all the time say "I hate musicals." This statement is based typically on a few bad experiences and a small misunderstanding. A musical could contain any kind of music and be about anything. The conceit of hating musicals is usually based on the fact that many overplayed "classic" musicals all share a type of music (show tunes), a specific type of singing, sentimentality, and/or campiness. It is very possible to dislike those qualities but they definitely do not encompass all of musical theater.

Many people that claim to dislike musicals loved the movies Annie, Labyrinth, Aladdin, or Dancer in the Dark. They often don't consider that these films are full-fledged musicals. The fact that they didn't like their high school production of Guys and Dolls, or they saw Les Miserables on Broadway and thought it was cheesy, shouldn't mean that all musicals are bad. This would be similar to watching an episode of "Leave it to Beaver" and then declaring, "I don't like sitcoms."

It is of course possible to dislike the form of the musical, however most people misunderstand that the type of music (orchestrally scored show tunes) and the type of singing (semi-operatic with heavy vibrato) that they associate with the form is not actually a requirement. Unfortunately there are not a lot of famous musicals that truly disobey these norms. Even many "rock" musicals pepper electric guitars and drum set into what is essentially a conventional musical. Powerful examples of a musicals which present an authentic rock n' roll approach are Hedwig and the Angry Inch or Rocky Horror Show. On film I'd say 8 Mile and Dancer in the Dark are great examples of movie musicals which use the form but in a total departure from a "Musical Theater" stereotype. There is nothing wrong with any of the above stated norms of musical theater, however it is important to state that they are not a prerequisite for something to be a musical.

2. Is it cheesy?

What most detractors claim to dislike about musical theater is the moment when characters "burst into song." There is a rupture in the narrative flow whenever a someone stops talking and starts singing. This moment is intrinsic to the form but not always as cringe-inducing as people think it has to be. I think Glee has done a really interesting job around this question. Because the show is about singers the songs almost always are cleverly diegetic (or emerging directly from the action). The use of diegetic music is just one way around the awkwardness of song interrupting dialogue. Musical theater writers have been creatively dealing with these moments for almost 100 years. And the truth is that musicals require an acceptance of stylization. To quote Scott Miller, "Musical theatre is at its purest and most honest when it admits its obvious artifice." In a way, the artifice of musicals is something that is easily gotten used to, sort of like quick edits in music videos. At first it seems jarring but eventually you don't even notice.

3. The Production Value Problem

One of the most damaging trends to the musical theater world has been the skyrocketing ticket and production prices on Broadway. This phenomenon in addition to the advent of the "Spectacle" musical in the 80s has made Broadway mostly a destination for tourists and large corporations rather than a vibrant center of cultural experimentation and discourse. My suggestion is that composers and librettists stop aiming for Broadway, just as musicians have stopped aiming for major record labels. If you look at a major label roster and imitate what those artists are doing in order  to achieve musical success you are headed down a very treacherous and unhappy path. Imagine where we'd be if major labels alone were curating the music that gets widely distributed. We'd be back in the 50's. As composers and theater makers we need to re-imagine how we can make musicals, how much it will cost and who will come. This isn't to say that there is anything wrong with having a show on Broadway. By all means that is an opportunity of a lifetime. But let's let Broadway come to us.


Musicals are also hurt by their long gestation period. Most musicals will easily take 5-7 years from first reading to commercial production. With a DIY mentality you can put your musical in front of an audience quicker, develop it quicker, and in the long run get more shows off the ground.

Scene from Sweeney Todd - Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
4. What is the point?

The musical is one of the few examples of an artistic form that was originated in the United States.  The value of the musical is that it is a form of expression which tells the diverse and multi-faceted story of american culture especially well. The form itself was born out of a collaboration (though often fraught) between immigrant songwriters and producers, and black, white, Asian and Latino entertainers.

The fact of group singing, the doubling of characters through song and dialogue, harmony, counterpoint, the use of visuals, choreography, and the emotional intensity of music allow the musical to tell certain kinds of stories exceptionally well. Here are some examples of themes and musicals that address them.

Community (In The Heights,  Chorus Line, Oklahoma!)
Societal Upheaval (Hair!)
Insanity/Revenge (Sweeney Todd)
Comedy (Avenue Q)
Tragedy (West Side Story)
Injustice/Oppression (Scottsboro Boys)
Loss of Tradition (Fiddler on the Roof)
etc...

5. How do we change the conversation?
I have a few ideas.

First:

I'd like to propose that January become National Musical Writing Month. (NaMuWriMo) 

All kinds of musicians and writers should experiment with the form of Musical Theater. The more people that write musicals the more lively the form will become. Perhaps more people will start going to see experimental and oddball musicals. Perhaps larger non-profit theaters will be more willing to produce musicals that might not have a commercial future. Perhaps the "indie musical" scene will take off in the way that the "indie film" and "indie music" scenes have. Perhaps Broadway producers would take notice and start reaching beyond spectacle shows, star-fueled film adaptations and revivals. Perhaps in the coming month a few people can commit to writing a musical in January. If you'd like to commit please email me (cesar at cesaralvarez dot net) and we can start setting up a network of support. I will put up another post in a few days with some basic guidelines. And if you need a librettist or composer maybe we can match people up.

Second:

People should start self-producing musicals. Gather musicians and performers and book a night at a venue, a bar, or a gallery. Put on your musical. It doesn't cost much, and you might be shocked at the reception. When my band first self-produced our musical at the Zipper Factory in New York in 2009, almost 500 people came to our 2 shows. Which was more people than had ever come to any one show in our previous 4 years as a band! There is a hunger in the world for stories that are being told through music. The musical is a powerful cultural tool that should not be neglected or pigeonholed. And you might be surprised at who might show up for a musical.

Third:

Talk about it online. The critical discussion about Musical Theater online is tiny compared to comparable fields. Here's a hashtag that you can use when discussing musicals, song on stage, the musical as drama, the musical theater industry, contemporary, new, experimental, or oddball musicals: #newmusical (some people have already been using it). In addition here's a hashtag for National Musical Writing Month #NaMuWriMo Tweet me here @musicisfreenow

Fourth:

Read up. The Musical as Drama by Scott McMillin and Strike Up the Band! by Scott Miller are two very insightful books which deal with the critical theory (former) and cultural impact/value (latter) of the musical. These books both completely transformed my understanding of what is possible in a musical and the extent to which the musical theater has participated in and contributed to the cultural output of our society. Scott Miller's blog also has some fiery analysis of contemporary musical theater.

6. Conclusion

From working in musical theater for only the last few years I've started to notice that many (maybe most) Americans actually have a hidden affinity for at least one or two musicals. In many cases it is secret, denied or misunderstood. I'm interested in creating a conversation that can de-stigmatize and uproot those affections in order to reclaim a powerful and exciting art form. Folks, musicals aren't lame. They rock.

Long live the musical!
Thanks for reading.

César Alvarez

* as quoted by Stanley Green in The World of Musical Comedy (New York: Ziff Davis Publishing, 1960), p. 7. via John Kenrick

12.01.2011

27 Cast Albums, Six Words Each



I listened to all of these cast albums in about a month. Here's a 6-word observation about each one.

1. Sweeney Todd - (Angela Lansbury, Len Cariou) - This musical is a masterpiece. Period.

2. Sweeney Todd - (Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone) - Stripping it down is often best.

3. Urinetown - Songs should approach narrative more obliquely.

4. Avenue Q - The most obvious things are hilarious.

5. Showboat - I'm glad musicals aren't operatic still. (or) I'm glad Showboat invented the musical.

6. Oklahoma - Local colloquialisms in song depict place.

7. You're a Good Man Charlie Brown - Lack of vibrato represents innocence/youth.

8. Rocky Horror Picture Show - Don't be so wussy about campiness.

9. West Side Story - Melodic movement and rhythm encode emotion.

10. Follies - Musical is perfect form for nostalgia.

11. On a Clear Day You Can See Forever - I love songs about past lives.

12. Guys and Dolls - American slang is a gold mine.

13. Crazy for You - Gershwin songs shine in any context.

14. Rent - Distended vowels can ruin rock songs.

15. Company - Sondheim loves sixteenths. I do too.

16. Hair - The tape distortion is just shocking!

17. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum - Worth it for the first song.

18. Into the Woods - Every melody has its own meaning.

19. The Fantasticks - Piano centered score's not my favorite.

20. Annie - Little girls sound amazing singing loud.

21. In the Heights - Salsa's built-in momentum suits the form.

22. Carousel - In heaven there will be reverb.

23. Fiddler on the Roof - Aspiration's the best inspiration for song

24. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying - Highlighting the worst in us all.

25. A Chorus Line - Musical theater about musical theater works.

26. Cabaret (Alan Cumming) - Brilliant formal construct. Diegetic is best.

27. Godspell - Just can't get into Jesus musicals.

I listened to the Original Broadway (or definitive) Cast Recording except where noted.

11.28.2011

This Machine Creates Peace

FUTURITY at HERE by Sam Hough

Dear Friends, Family, and Readers,

Since 2007 I've been working on a musical called FUTURITY. Some of you have seen it and many of you have heard me yammering on about it. In a few months it will World Premiere and run for 5 weeks at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA. This is a HUMUNGOUS deal for me, my band, and everyone that's been working on the project all these years.

The musical is about a soldier in the Civil War who tries to invent a steam-powered mechanical brain, which, through its great intelligence, can solve all of humanities problems. The most pressing of these problems, from his perspective, is war itself. In the musical he proposes to invent a "Machine that creates peace." The central question of the piece is whether or not our imaginations can ultimately devise a more humane and peaceful society. It calls into question the role that we all have in designing the future we will inhabit. I think, and hope, that all of our imaginations working together could create a better and more peaceful world than we have now. And I hope that this musical helps to enliven that conversation.

We are currently in the process of recording all of the music I've written for the show (17 songs) into an album that will be pressed to Vinyl and CD. If you are interested in the the piece and would like to support us you can pre-order the album HERE. It is HUGELY helpful to pre-order because otherwise the entire bill for recording and pressing gets put on credit (boo). And just fifteen bucks gets you the album!

Follow the link to watch the Official Trailer and Pre-order: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/thelisps/futurity-the-album

Thanks so much for reading. I hope you are well and I'd love to hear from you all.
Hugs and kisses,
César