A New Brain – A New Voice

This Friday, May 29 (5pm), I will host the final listening party (for the time being). We will be listening to William Finn’s A New Brain, which is a semi-autobiographical story about the composer’s personal experience with a genetic vascular disorder in his brain.

WHAT? Another weird musical?

Yes. Y’all can listen to Oklahoma or South Pacific on your own (although I really enjoyed the bluegrass version of Oklahoma this past January – oh, Broadway, when will you be back?). I like to listen to stuff that just pushes the envelope a little bit without being too self-consciously, “hey, look, I’m pushing the envelope” about it (I’m looking at you, Spring Awakening).

The 1998 original Lincoln Center production of A New Brain features Malcolm Gets as the stricken composer, Gordon Schwinn (William Finn/Gordon Schwinn – see the connection). Penny Fuller is his Jewish mother, Mimi. Norm Lewis is his partner, Roger (who sings the most beautiful song of the show, “I’d rather be sailing”). Other celebrated actors in the show are Chip Zien, Mary Testa, and Kristin Chenoweth. The show was revived in 2015 with Jonathan Groff, Aaron Lazar, Ana Gasteyer, and Christian Borle. Apparently, there were some rewrites – I have not heard that version yet, and I think I need to listen to it.

Instead of selecting a local arts group to link donations to, this time I am going to put a link to a group called VocaliD, which is a group that is dedicated to digitizing sound to create new voices for people who have lost theirs (the link takes you to a TedTalk explaining the mission). My friend Ami Bouterse, a voice teacher at UW-Parkside in Kenosha, Wisconsin, turned me on to this. Her daughter, Evelyn, is doing it as a service project for school:

It’s actually free to donate – just your voice is needed. People record their voices, which are then used to create voices for those with assistive devices. You can share your voice in your own time – from the comfort of your own home to help change a life. All you need is a computer, headset with a microphone, and Google Chrome! Visit this link to create your own account and join my Voice Drive:

Join the ‘Evelyn’s Voice Drive’ Voicedrive on VocaliD

So listen to A New Brain and help someone get a new voice.

I would like to continue doing these listening parties once a month. I’m thinking we might have a better turnout on Saturday mornings. Let me know if you’re interested in continuing – and maybe suggest something I don’t know? Message me and let me know what you think.

“You are here not to laugh; but to learn”

This Friday, I’ll be holding Listening Party #4, which will focus on the musical Bat Boy The Musical by Laurence O’Keefe. You may know Laurence O’Keefe from Legally Blonde The Musical and Heathers The Musical. The latter two of which are based on movies of the same name, and, consequently, are pretty commercial.

(What is up with shows post-1995 having “The Musical” after them? Would we not know they’re musicals as soon as people start singing? And yes, I’m watching the Jerry Seinfeld special on Netflix while I write this.)

Bat Boy, on the other hand, is a 2001 off-Broadway rock musical based on the now-defunct tabloid Weekly World News 1992 cover story about a fictional creature found in a cave who is half-bat, half-boy.

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Yep. It’s a musical about a mutant. I don’t know Heathers  (yet). From what I’ve heard of it, I think Bat Boy is more like it than Legally Blonde.

I’ve only seen one production of Bat Boy, as part of the 2005 summer theater program at Divine Savior Holy Angels HS in Milwaukee.

DSHA was a curious choice for a show like this. It’s an all-girls, relatively-conservative Catholic school. But they did a pretty good job with it. I enjoyed it immensely (in part because I had two students in the leads). And I love the cast recording

What does it say about me that I like musicals like this? Let’s look at our listening parties so far.

  1. Sweeney – barber kills people, landlady makes them into pies
  2. Ragtime – well, that’s relatively traditional, but still pretty intense
  3. Assassins – presidential assassins
  4. Bat Boy – see above.

This will be at 5pm instead of 3pm. I’m using the same PMI as for my lessons. If you don’t know what that is, message me.

As always, admission is free but donations will be accepted for the American Visionary Arts Museum (my favorite place in Baltimore).

I’m excited to introduce this show to people. It’s really weird. The music and lyrics are just terrific. But you might feel the need to take a shower afterwards.

Listening Party #3: Assassins

Stephen Sondheim certainly does like to write about varied subjects, doesn’t he? Here’s a few examples:

  1. A fake miracle, a corrupt mayor, and inmates from a local asylum called the Cookie Jar (Anyone can Whistle, 1964)
  2. A love story about two young people living in a department store with a subculture of residents who are afraid of being turned into mannequins if they leave (Evening Primrose, 1966)
  3. A demon barber who takes revenge on his hapless customers and his amoral landlady, who turns their corpses into meat pies for sale at her pie shop on Fleet Street (Sweeney Todd, 1979)
  4. Presidential assassins, successful and would-be (Assassins, 1990)

On Friday, May 15, at 3pm, I will be hosting the third listening party, which will feature Assassins. This is a 1991 recording of the off-Broadway version, which includes a fantastic cast of actors including Victor Garber, Debra Monk, and Terrence Mann. The show did not open on Broadway until 2004 (it was supposed to open in November 2001, but the post-9/11 atmosphere would not have been friendly for a musical about presidential assassinations).

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Much of the music in the show is reflective of the time period in which each assassin lived. “The Ballad of Booth” has strong overtones of Stephen Foster. “I am unworthy of your love” is a 70s folk-rock ballad. “The Ballad of Guiteau” is a late 1800s cakewalk (and features the only words that Sondheim has ever set to music that were not written by him). “How I saved Roosevelt” uses a Sousa march as its foundation.

None of the assassins are portrayed as heroes, or victims, or justified in their actions. It is an examination of the times in which they lived.

Yes, it’s weird. Come listen to the weirdness with me. I’ll walk you through it. Contact me if you want the PMI.

Donations will be accepted for Spotlighters Theatre, which has served Baltimore for nearly 60 years, and had to suspend their current season due to the coronavirus.

Listening Party #2: The People Called it “Ragtime!”

My second favorite musical is Lynn Ahrens’ and Stephen Flaherty’s Ragtime, which premiered on Broadway in 1998. On Friday, May 8 at 3pm, we’ll be listening to the original cast recording, which features some of my favorite singers:

  • Judy Kaye – Emma Goldman
  • Lea Michele – Little Girl
  • Marin Mazzie (RIP) – Mother
  • Brian Stokes Mitchell (or as I like to call him, “Stokes”) – Coalhouse Walker, Jr.
  • Audra Audra AUDRA McDonald – Sarah Brown

This musical is set in the early 1900s and is based on the style of music popular during the era, which was known as ragtime. But it addresses so many issues that still exist today:

  • Immigration
  • Racism
  • Anti-Semitism
  • Socialism
  • Sexism
  • White privilege
  • Tabloid journalism

There are three primary groups within the show:

  1. The affluent white family, known only as Father, Mother, Grandfather, Younger Brother, and Edgar, the son of Father and Mother (why he has a name and no one else does, I don’t know). Others affiliated with this group are historical figures such as J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Harry K. Thaw and his wife Evelyn Nesbit, as well as her former lover Stanford White, and Admiral Robert Peary. Less affluent, but also a face of white privilege is the fictional fire chief Willie Conklin.
  2. The African-American musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and his girlfriend, Sarah Brown; Booker T. Washington; Sarah & Coalhouse’s friends.
  3. The Jewish immigrant Tateh and his daughter, Little Girl (note that she doesn’t have a name); as well as the anarchist Emma Goldman. A more famous immigrant is magician Harry Houdini, whose life is somewhat tied to Edgar.

I saw this show on a national tour in Chicago in the early 2000s and fell in love with it. I’d already listened to the original cast recording, where I first fell in love with the amazing voices, especially those of Stokes and Audra.

Join me on Friday to hear more about this wonderful show (message me for the link or use the one from last week if you were there). Meanwhile, enjoy this performance of Audra and Stokes at the Kennedy Center in January 2019, a little over 20 years after their first performance in the Broadway production.