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