How Poets and Strippers Sing
Gabriel Kahane creates musical languages for famous names in “February House”
Composer Gabriel Kahane has spent most of his career in pop and opera, and he was never a fan of musicals. “It wasn’t until I started working on February House that I think I really fell in love with the form of musical theatre,” he says. “I grew to appreciate how difficult it is just to make a musical that works.”
In 2006, Kahane read Sherill Tippins’ book February House, which tells the true story of a communal house in 1940s Brooklyn that was formed by literary editor George Davis. His flatmates included friends like author Carson McCullers, poet W.H. Auden, stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, and composer Benjamin Britten. Kahane thought of this community when the Public Theater and the Shen Family Foundation commissioned him to write a musical, and he knew he wanted to explore ideas like the role of the artist in wartime and the extent to which we can choose a family.
Kahane previously believed that the theatre’s artificiality was a weakness, but when he began creating February House, which has a book by Seth Bockley, he learned it’s a strength. He explains, “The classic thing that people who say they don’t like musicals—and I was certainly one of them—say is, ‘Why do they burst into song?’ And I think now I just understand that it’s really about heightened theatricality. That to me is the great excitement about what compels a character to sing. And if you’re along for the ride, that can be really transformative or transporting.”
It makes sense, then, that February House‘s music is largely driven by character. The score is a hybrid of styles—jazz, pop, folk—which reflects not only Kahane’s eclectic taste in music, but also his mission to find the right sound for each character.
The first piece he wrote for the musical is no longer in the show (he has written over 60 songs for a score that now has 23.) It was called “Can I Admit to Myself” and intended for the character of Carson McCullers, who flees her Southern roots (and her abusive husband) to make sense of her life. Initially, Kahane didn’t want Carson’s music to have a traditional southern sound, so he wrote her as a legit mezzo-soprano. However, that never quite worked. “But when I started fiddling around with the banjo and thinking about her as a character, something just clicked into place and her voice became clear through this very simple folk vernacular,” he says.
Carson’s sound unlocked the rest of the score. “Basically, I just decided to let my intuition guide me in terms of what they sound like,” Kahane says. For instance, Benjamin Britten and his lover Peter Pears function as Shakespearean clowns. “They provide a kind of doubling of the story in a slightly lighter tone, and obviously they’re going to sing in a different way than Carson McCullers, who is a young Southern writer,” Kahane says. “The musical story that we’re telling with them is the story of two uptight, closeted British men who are on this wild adventure living in Brooklyn and ultimately finding that it’s too Bohemian for them. Their songs are driven almost more by the comedy than specific musical values.” This is reflected in their act-two opener “A Certain Itch,” about bed bugs that attack them in their room.
Gypsy Rose Lee has the most period-appropriate songs, like her striptease number “A Little Brain.” For George Davis, the editor who started the commune, Kahane combined the art-song feel of Auden’s songs and the folky energy of McCullers’ tunes. “There’s this kind of split in George between this camp gay man and this profound vulnerability that is underneath it, so he has two modes of singing, this 1940s jazz thing and then also something that is much closer to the folky vulnerability of Carson,” Kahane says. “And I think one of the really strong relationships in the piece is the platonic relationship between George and Carson. And they share the banjo in a way.”
Ultimately, Kahane wants his music to tell the audience who these personalities are. He says, “I hope that because the score is diverse, it doesn’t really matter if the audience is familiar with these figures as historical people.”
Linda Buchwald also writes about theatre at Pataphysical Science
Photo by Joan Marcus