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Celtic Music, British Crimes


To revisit Irish history, Larry Kirwan fuses Celtic and Broadway sounds

Larry Kirwan has become a fusion artist. For one thing, he’s not only the lead singer of the political rock band Black 47, but also the composer of the new musical Transport, now at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Furthermore, to tell the story of a female convict ship transporting women from Cork, Ireland to Sydney, Australia in 1838, he’s combined two types of music he knows well—Celtic and musical theatre.

Kirwan, who has been developing the show with Australian writer Tom Keneally for about a dozen years, was interested in taking music from the story’s period and injecting it with a show tune sensibility. “If I was doing something that might sound like it’s from a musical, then I would fuse it with a Celtic melody to link it back to the 1830s,” he says. “I was always very conscious that you’re writing for an Off-Broadway theatrical project, but you have to link back through music across the century, through these women and what they might have been thinking.”

The Celtic part comes naturally to Kirwan, who was born in Ireland and moved to New York City in the 80s. However, he’s hardly a stranger to musical theatre. “Growing up in Ireland, radio wasn’t Balkanized the way it is here,” he says. “So you might hear ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ next to The Beatles, and then you might hear ‘Maria’ next to The Chieftains. I was very familiar, and everybody in Ireland was very familiar, with show tunes, the really popular ones. So this play was a great opportunity to write in that manner.”

West Side Story, a favorite of both Kirwan’s and Kenneally’s, was a particular influence, especially the idea that “somewhere there’s a place for us.”

But even with this new style, writing for Transport was similar to writing for his band. “Music is not that different,” he says. “People try to make it out as being different, but it’s all about good lyrics and good melodies. You can talk about the differences until the cows come home, but no matter what field the composer is working in, you’re going after that—good melodies and good lyrics.”

Plus, Black 47′s songs are also character-driven. The band—which has announced it will break up in November—has been explicitly political since it formed in 1989, confronting everything from the conflicts in Northern Ireland to the daily struggle of living in New York. “To write a political song, unless the song has a deep personal root, it’s just polemic and it doesn’t really work,” Kirwan says. “What you have to do is just to touch people with the situation and in that way you bring the politics in, but you don’t hammer and nail it. You take a personal situation and then you cloak it a little bit with the politics.” [Read more →]

February 18, 2014   No Comments

The “Monkey” and the Chinese Circus


Inside the acrobatics of Monkey: Journey to the West

Who knew how difficult it was to find performers who can spin plates? That’s what director Chen Shi-Zheng discovered when he traveled to China to find 23 acrobats adept at traditional Chinese circus techniques. It took him half a year to track them down.

“A lot of people have abandoned training in these classic acts,” explains the New York-based director. That’s why he was so intent on incorporating the art form into Monkey: Journey to the West, the opening production for the 2013 Lincoln Center Festival.

“I wanted to give a spotlight on this dying tradition,” Chen says. “I want the people who are practicing, especially young people, to value what they do. In China, it’s very unappreciated.”

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July 10, 2013   No Comments

Jeanine Tesori Rocks the “Cradle”


The composer’s vision for a summer of Off-Broadway musicals

Putting together a three-show summer season is ambitious enough, let alone when it’s being done by a musical theatre composer with two new pieces premiering in the next five months.

So why on earth is Jeanine Tesori (Shrek, Caroline, or Change) adding extras to Encores! Off-Center, the monthlong series of Off-Broadway musical revivals at City Center? As the artistic director of the program, she’s overseeing not just the musicals themselves, but also bonus material like art exhibits, concerts, talkbacks, and other events.

“We could have just presented the shows,” says Tesori, who is unveiling her inaugural series as artistic director on July 10 with a semi-staged version of Marc Blitzstein’s legendary 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock. “But I wanted to make sure we discussed not just what they were, but what they continue to be and continue to mean to my fellow artists.”

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July 8, 2013   1 Comment

A Musical for the Future

Venice The Public Theater

Why Venice takes place in an unreal world

Venice is set in Venice, but not the Venice you’d expect.

The hip-hop musical, now in previews at the Public Theater, unfolds sometime in the future, when terrorist attacks have torn the city apart, leaving the privileged to create their own private colony far away from the rubble. Meanwhile, everyone else survives in the ruins, and we join the story when a freedom fighter tries to unite his people with the elite.

“We knew we wanted to set the play in a place that was not referring to any other: We didn’t want to say it was in Europe or in the year 2087 on the continent of Anarctica,” says Eric Rosen, who wrote the book, co-wrote the lyrics, and directs. “We wanted to create a world that sampled from many styles that were around us, but still created its own rules.”

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June 5, 2013   2 Comments

Duncan Sheik Gets Brechtian

The Caucasian Chalk Circle Classic Stage Company

Inside Sheik’s score for “Caucasian Chalk Circle”

When he composes for the theatre, Duncan Sheik almost always works with a lyricist. Typically, though, the lyricist is still alive.

Recently, however, Sheik—who shared a Tony with lyricist Steven Sater for the score to Spring Awakening-–composed music for a revival of Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, currently at Classic Stage Company. If he has a question, he can’t exactly call Brecht for an answer. Still, he says his process is essentially the same, explaining, “It’s my normal practice to set music to existing words.”

Brecht wrote the play, a parable about justice within feuding Russian communes, in 1944. This translation is by James and Tania Stern, with Brecht’s lyrics translated by the late W.H. Auden. While writing the music, Sheik listened to the record Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares by the Bulgarian State Television Female Choir.

“I didn’t necessarily have a choir to work with, but I was thinking about some of that tonality and some of those harmonies and the idea of merging middle European folk music with a certain kind of late 19th century classism, which you would have heard in that region at that time,” he says.

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June 4, 2013   No Comments