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.
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.