Last Saturday, I was at church. No, I did not just suddenly find God (unless that God is at the bottom of a banana pudding cup). I was at the theatre, the performing arts lover’s version of church, which was located in the basement of a church. And I was watching a very secular musical called The Old Man & the Old Moon. It was from PigPen Theatre Company, a troupe of Carnegie Mellon graduates who utilizes shadow puppetry and self-penned and performed songs to tell whimsical stories set in fantastical (yet familiar) lands.
The story on Saturday was about an Old Man who lives somewhere in colonial times, who sails to the ends of the Earth looking for his wife. The fantastical part is that his day (rather night) job is to refill the moon’s light.
Visuals work better than just talking so if you would like an example, refer to the video below. I’ll wait…
As soon as I heard the music, I thought, “I need to get this on my iPod.” Luckily, PigPen has just released their debut album called “Bremen,” which is on Spotify for anyone who enjoys cute guys who write their own songs.
The sound and aesthetic of The Old Man & the Old Moon seemed familiar. In fact, it shares qualities with a larger, more uptown musical: Once. During the Tony Awards this past June, I didn’t have a TV so I decided to watch the ceremonials via Twitter and live-blogs. One comment about Once the musical made me laugh: “This is like Mumford & Sons, the musical.” For anyone who has seen or heard of Once, the comparison is not far off. It’s folk-rock songs sung and played live on stage—like a John Doyle production but in earth-tones.
American Theatre recently covered Gabriel Kahane’s chamber musical February House as well as New York City–based ensemble the TEAM’s Mission Drift (with music and fierce acting by Heather Christian) in our pages. Both are similar to The Old Man & the Old Moon and Once in their size and musical genre (folk, rock, acoustic).
Are we entering a new age of the American musical, where the imperative is not to go big, but to go small? And is folk a new musical genre? I can’t remember the last new musical I’d seen where there were chorus lines; bombastic, every-piece-in-the-orchestra-at-attention showtunes; or glory notes. Instead, it’s been character-driven stories where the actors sang their feelings, not belted them, and were accompanied by a piano and/or a guitar. Sometimes even a violin (the imperative word being a violin, not many violins).
These are all musicals that “whisper rather than shout.”
I have compiled a list of similarities between these works that I have listed, with the common fact being a focus not on size, but on the lack of it:
1) You can see the musicians on stage playing the music. Because the instrumentation is so sparse and so few, they can fit comfortably on the stage with the actors. When I saw Mission Drift at the Under the Radar festival in January, Heather Christian played and sang on an upstage-placed piano, while the actors moved to the music downstage. Next to her piano were a drum set and a guitar.
2) On a related note, there is a chamber feel to these pieces, with an emphasis on sparse instrumentation. The Old Man & the Old Moon has a piano, banjo, accordion, guitar and fiddle. Similarly, February House has a piano, cello, violin and banjo.
3) Sometimes, the musicians and the actors are the same people. Examples being Once, The Old Man & the Old Moon and Mission Drift.
4) The songs on stage are usually slow-tempo, acting as emotional character moments while also being removable from the musical. These are not Sondheim-specific songs. “Bremen” is never mentioned in the dialogue in The Old Man & the Old Moon but it’s the name of a song in the show. Not sure how it’s related but it’s now on my iPod.
5) The composers/lyricists also moonlight as musicians. PigPen will be playing at Joe’s Pub in New York City, Gabriel Kahane is playing at Carnegie Hall later this month, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (the Once composers) tour as the Swell Season and also individually, and Heather Christian is the front-woman to her own band.
A probable explanation for this proliferation of small musicals may be economic. Large productions are expensive to mount, especially when you are paying for musicians as well as actors. A small band is cheaper than an orchestra, and when your musicians are also your actors, well that’s the death of two birds.
There may also be another reason: Perhaps this is the next generation of American musicals. It’s a trend that began with Duncan Sheik’s sparsely orchestrated Spring Awakening (whose recently performed The Nightingale at La Jolla Playhouse in California, seems to follow in the same vein) and has now reached critical folk mass with the popularity of Once.
These newer musical-theatre composers are young (the oldest are Duncan Sheik and Glen Hansard, who are both 42, practically a teenager in theatre years) and their show tunes are at home on the radio alongside Bon Iver, Regina Spektor and Mumford & Sons. On a related note, Regina Spektor is currently writing a musical called Beauty, with Tina Landau.
Perhaps we are finally reaching a time again when the music onstage is reflective of contemporary, popular music. Or perhaps it’s just indicative of the shrinking scope, and budget, of the non-for-profit performing arts world.
Or maybe musical theatre is starting to attract musicians who want to write both music for themselves and for the play stage, rather than composers who write solely for the theatre. And this is the kind of musicals they are choosing to put out.
Either way, when you place the songs from these musicals in a contemporary iTunes playlist, it’s hard to tell the show tunes from the tunes.
Diep Tran is an editorial assistant at American Theatremagazine. She comes from the sunny land of California. When she is not writing about theatre and seeing theatre, she watches television shows about glee clubs and zombies. Her Twitter handle is @DiepThought.