Snag the Lemons: The Music of ‘On the Eve’

by Bradley J. Behrmann


PART 2 in a series exploring the new musical On the Eve.  Read Part 1 here.

The rehearsal process for the SDSU/La Jolla Playhouse reading of On the Eve began two weeks ago as most processes do with a series of music rehearsals.  The cast quickly discovered two distinctions about the score that sets it apart from most musical theatre being produced today.  First of all, the characters don’t sing “numbers” per se.  While Talking Man (our ringleader of sorts) features prominently in the opening song, while Spacegrove (our time-traveling Conrad Birdie) sings lead vocals throughout the show, and while Joseph and Caroline (our romantics) sing the intro to a rockin’ love duet, it’s hard to say that any song in the show “belongs” to a particular character.  The ensemble joins in on most of the material, creating at times an indie rock choir and other times a unison soundscape.  The second distinction that runs contrary to expected norms is that the songs of the show are—for the most part—non-integrated material.  While the lyrics of each song point towards the situation, they do more to comment poetically than they do to drive the story.

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The cast of ‘On the Eve’ includes SDSU Musical Theatre MFA candidates Julia Cuppy, Liv Stevns, Jessica Humphrey, and Courtney Kattengell. Director Stephen Brotebeck works in the background during a music rehearsal.

Neither of these observations should be taken as criticisms.   They are, however, a curiously unapologetic choice for a show that dwells in a post-Rodgers and Hammerstein world but does not dwell in pastiche.  It’s not that all modern musical numbers motor plot, but usually when they don’t, it’s for a strong reason.  In this instance, it seems like the creators “just don’t wanna,” which is kind of fun.  If an audience views the music through the lens of something like Spring Awakening, they probably won’t take issue with the music at all.  Most of the music in Spring Awakening doesn’t further the plot either.  Numbers like “Mama Who Bore Me” and “Totally Fucked” serve as commentary on the action; the play pauses, the characters whip out handheld mics, and they sing a rock song.  That’s the world of On the Eve.

This guttural score is deliciously indie.  It’s the kind of music you put on the turntable on a Saturday morning with strong coffee.  It’s the kind of music that soundtracks a Zach Braff movie.  It’s the kind of music you try really hard not to musical theatre-ify in rehearsals.

As we discussed in the last post, the opening song, “In Hand,” serves as a solid representation of the kind of driving rhythms, guttural vocals, and metaphoric lyrics found throughout the score.  (Ahem, the phrase “Snag the Lemons” comes from this song.  Don’t ask me what it means, but I took to the lyric instantly.)  “In Hand,” in all its not-production-number-opening-production-number goodness is almost as much fun to sing as “Veneers,” which introduces our hero, Spacegrove.  And this is perhaps the first and greatest lesson when performing this score:  if you’re making music and you’re enjoying it, best not to overthink it.

These tunes are catchy, though maybe not in the way Irving Berlin or Jule Styne might have imagined.  Modern ears will pick up influences as the score progresses.  “Lie In Your Bed” has elements of Coldplay.  The Act I closer, “Time to Dream,” has an intro that mimics Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.”  Spacegrove’s eleven o’clock number “Stop the Noise” sounds like it belongs on a U2 album, while the closing number escaped from Austin City Limits.  There are musical theatre influences too.  The bridge in the aforementioned “Veneers” bears unmistakable resemblance to “Finale B” from Rent.  Considering the potential audience of this show, musical nuggets from both the world of indie rock and that of musical theatre will please both ears, no matter what’s on your Spotify.

“What Is Most Real” is perhaps the ‘most real’ musical theatre piece, partly because there is dialogue tucked in that includes action.  The newest song, “Glide” is freshly written after the NAMT reading, and it is the song that most smoothly transitions from scene into song.  It’s not completely integrated, but it is the closest.  Neither number is out of place, but both toe the line that separates this score from full-out musical theatre.

As a champion for the music of Broadway gaining a wider listenership, On the Eve is a show I want to follow closely.  From a selfish standpoint, this music fits PRECISELY into that sweet spot identified in my research on Broadway music and popular music (Reclaiming the Top Forty).  If a musical theatre song can have rock elements without being too rooted in the plot of the musical from which it’s taken, that song has a much higher likelihood of gaining wider popularity.  In the case of On the Eve, these songs are already cut and ready for pop distribution thanks to the Home By Hovercraft album Are We Chameleons?  For that reason, On the Eve is in a great position:  sitting in a Montgolfier balloon, watching Broadway actors perform indie rock at Versailles.

 

 

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Snag the Lemons: Following the new musical ‘On the Eve’

What happens when the music of an indie rock band collides with a story about Marie Antoinette and a time traveling hot air balloon?  A musical?  You can’t be serious.  Believe it. 

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Over the course of the following week, 7½ Cents will be guiding readers through an in-depth look at the new musical On the Eve and its road to San Diego State University (SDSU) where it will receive a reading on November 19, 2015 in conjunction with La Jolla Playhouse.  With music and lyrics by Seth Magill and Shawn Magill and book by Michael Federico, this quirky show gleefully bends the rules of musical theatre.

Today’s post includes the 411.  Creators Seth and Shawn Magill are a husband and wife duo who front the Dallas-based band Home By Hovercraft.  The sound of the show is a direct reflection of the band’s indie rock sound, and this is precisely why On the Eve has generated such buzz around it at both the 2014 Dallas production and the very recent reading at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre (NAMT) conference in Oct. 2015.  Click the links throughout the post to direct you to more information.

Though the score is partly interpolation of previously written songs, partly new songs for the piece, and partly brand-new material since the NAMT reading, much of the On the Eve score can be heard on Home By Hovercraft’s LP Are We Chameleons?  At first blush, Home By Hovercraft has a sound akin to Vampire Weekend with repetitive musical patterns, clever instrumentation, and poetic—if non-linear, non-storytelling—lyrics.  The opening number serves as a good taste of On the Eve.  It also features step dancing by Seth’s sister Abbey Magill, a sound which represents the coming of the revolution.

Future posts will include a thorough look at the musical score, a recap of the first week of staging rehearsals of the SDSU reading, a discussion on the tightly wrapped metaphors around Michael Federico’s book, and a glimpse into the potential future of the piece.  Readers should feel free to send questions or comment below, as updates will be happening daily.

In the meantime, have a gander at the Home By Hovercraft homepage or browse the official website for On the Eve.

Read PART 2 in the series exploring the music On the Eve here.


ON THE EVE SDSU Workshop

Director—Stephen Brotebeck

Musical Director—Robert Meffe
Talking Man/Captain Boulder—Randall Eames

Antoinette/Marie—Courtney Kattengell

Louis/HAMOTCB—Jacob Brent

Joseph—Bradley J. Behrmann

Simone/Caroline—Jessica Humphrey

Chase Spacegrove—Kikau Alvaro

Statue/Clio—Liv Stevns Petersen

Bureaucrat/Dr. Scientist/Mother—Julia Cuppy

Young Marie/Young Antoinette—Amy Perkins

Etienne/Pundit—Sean Boyd

Stage Manager—Stephanie Kwik

Assistant Stage Manager—Aimee Holland

Lighting Desiger—Walter Lopez

Dramaturg—Rachel Mink

La Jolla Playhouse’s ‘Come From Away’ shows heart

September 11, 2001 is widely regarded as this generation’s “JFK Moment” in so far as everyone aware of the unfolding events of that day could probably say exactly where they were when they first heard the tragic news.  But while many people can describe watching the events of September 11, few can describe what they gave in response to the tragedy in such generous terms as the people of Gander, Newfoundland who welcomed 7000 passengers on 38 diverted planes that day.

The story unfolds in rapidly-paced vignettes in the new musical Come From Away, playing at La Jolla Playhouse through July 5 (at least).  The creators—husband-and-wife writing team Irene Sankoff and David Hein—are known to those who know them at all from their first show, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, based on David’s mother’s true story.  It seems this team feels that real life stories make the best stories.  And they have real life stories in abundance.

Sankoff and Hein traveled to Newfoundland in September 2011 to take part in the reunion commemorating the 10th anniversary of the 7000 temporary refugees descending on Gander.  They conducted extensive interviews with the “Plane People” as well as the citizens of Gander who opened their doors and their hearts.  These first-person accounts—often delivered to the audience in direct address—along with the folk Irish musical elements—a piece of Newfoundland’s unique cultural history—makes Come From Away equal parts The Laramie Project and Once.

Come From Away is the second show from husband-and-wife creative team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, following their first and also based on a true story success, My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. (Photo courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse)

Come From Away is the second show from husband-and-wife creative team Irene Sankoff and David Hein, following their first and also based on a true story success, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. (Photo courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse)

Twelve actors portray dozens of characters—both locals and “come from aways”—and the players masterfully and quickly endear these characters to their audience.  Because the creators jam-packed so many different perspectives of the same story, the action of the show doesn’t stop.  Though songs are listed in the program, they really could be considered sequences.  Locales, characters, accents, and stories continually shift in both dialogue and song.  Not until late in the show does any one character receive an honest-to-goodness “number.”  The pioneering pilot Beverley—played with strength by Jenn Colella—helps the audience finally breathe with “Me and the Sky.”  Following that bit of breathing room, “Stop the World” provides Nick—a cheeky Lee MacDougall—and Diane—the fantastically chameleonic Sharon Wheatley—with some reflection on how their lives have changed.

Jenn Colella shines in the role of pioneering pilot Beverley in the new musical Come From Away. (Kevin Berne/ La Jolla Playhouse)

Jenn Colella shines in the role of pioneering pilot Beverley in the new musical Come From Away. (Kevin Berne/ La Jolla Playhouse)

Evocative of the story itself, director Christopher Ashley stages this show with simple elements put together in an amazingly complex way.  A few chairs and tables comprise the set amidst towering onstage trees and partially onstage band.  Despite the already mentioned whirlwind of unfolding action, the story has moments of much-needed cathartic humor.  Chad Kimball and Caesar Samayoa play a number of these moments to great effect as Colin 1 and Colin 2.  No-nonsense Canadian humor comes from Petrina Bromley—a real-life Newfoundlander!—as Bonnie and Astrid Van Wieren as Beulah.

The least consistent moments of the show were—unfortunately—the opening and the closing.  In both instances, the entire company welcomes the audience to “The Rock” through some foot-stomping, heel-dropping, “We’re a strong community” kind of choreography.  Though it means well, the staging is reminiscent of “It’s a Bitch of Living” from Spring Awakening.  The stomping of a bunch of adults in polos and mom jeans seems out of place.  Particularly given how nurturing and generous the audience sees these people throughout the rest of the show, the opening number shows the citizens of Gander in an angrier light than we see them throughout the rest of the show.  It evokes strength, perhaps, but my eyes were wide and concerned on both occasions.

The company of Come From Away--along with the ugly stick--complete the ritual for becoming a Newfoundlander in "Screech In." (Kevin Berne/ La Jolla Playhouse)

The company of Come From Away–along with the ugly stick–complete the ritual for becoming a Newfoundlander in “Screech In.” (Kevin Berne/ La Jolla Playhouse)

The rest of the time, however, my eyes were pooling.  In fact, with each aspect of the story, I sustained a level of “about to cry” so long that I left the theatre with a headache.  But the pain was to the company’s credit.  The extraordinary generosity of ordinary people over the course of five fateful days in September 2001 create an incredible emotional journey for the audience.  Whether or not the audience leaves feeling uplifted by the human spirit—which I did—the show unearths our own memories and our own reactions to this national tragedy.

On September 11, 2001, I was at home in Belleville.  I was painting my bedroom closet mustard yellow.  I turned on the radio to Y98, and went about my work.  As I set up my work space only half-heartedly listening, I realized that what I was hearing wasn’t a St. Louis traffic report.  “No one is getting in or out of Manhattan,” came the voice, much more grave than normal for a morning radio show.  Honestly it took me another moment or two before figuring out that something had happened—something very serious.  I went downstairs to the television and flipped on the Today Show.  Before I could even understand all the images that I was seeing, I watched—in real time—as Flight 175 hit the second tower.  It was horrific. 

 I was about to start my junior year of college studying abroad at my university’s London campus.  Because of our term schedule, I was not leaving until the first of October.  Whether I would be able to go at all was in serious question, because no one knew what was going to happen next.  Would there be more attacks?  Would we retaliate?  My friend who was scheduled to study in Edinburgh was kept home.  I did study in London that term, but it was not without trepidation on the part of my parents. 

 How did you experience the events of September 11, 2001.  Share your story by commenting below.

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