Come Join The Wagon Train!
Would you move across the country for the promise of a new life? Would you still do it if you had to move by wagon? That is what Benjamin and Nancy Kelsey had to decide for their family nearly two centuries ago.
Pioneer Songs is a concert piece telling the story of the first pioneers and their journey to California in the early 19th century. As it stands now, it is a beautiful, expressive piece for orchestra, choir, soloists, and narrator. But it didn’t start out this way.
Robert Marquis, then 47, had been taking piano lessons with Eric Houghton. After learning a few of Eric’s compositions, Robert conceived the idea for a show about early western settlers. The original idea was for four soloists, narrator, and piano. Robert wrote the lyrics and narration while Eric composed the music. The piece premiered in Bristol Chapel at Westminster Choir College in 1993. The recording of that performance was burned into 1000 CD’s and 1000 cassettes, ready to be purchased.
However, just when the future of Pioneer Songs seemed the brightest, Eric received a call from Robert’s wife one January morning in 1994. Robert had passed away from a heart-attack the night before. The project came to a screeching halt.
23 years after its initial premiere, the original soprano soloist contacted Eric about possibly performing the show in the Congo. This idea breathed new life into the piece. Over the next six months, the original piece was transformed into the grand concert piece it is today.
Pioneer Songs contains 15 songs in 2 acts. The first act focuses on the preparation for the journey ahead while the second act follows the travelers across the country, over prairie, desert, and mountains. The music perfectly captures that of early American folk-music while still being rooted in the western classical music tradition. The vocal lines are delightfully challenging for the singers and beautifully evocative for the audience.
In Beckoning, Ben (Tenor Soloist) hears the calling of freedom from the west. He weighs his options through lyrical, sweeping melodies. The choir and the other soloists urge him to come along with them and to “join the wagon train.” In Preparation, the farm is filled with excitement as each person tries to pack their entire life onto a covered wagon the size of a grand piano. The song ends in complete chaos as everyone proudly declares all the items they “need” for the trip. Taking a break from the pandemonium on the farm, Ben and Nancy, through beautiful, flowing melodies, say their Marriage Vows, promising to love each other for all of eternity. The act ends with Departure as the soloists begin their march to the west, tentatively at first, but more and more confident with each step they take.
In act two, the REAL star of the show is presented: The obstacles and elements of the grueling journey itself. Each song paints a picture of the travelers’ surroundings. In the Prairie, you can almost smell the air after the rain. In the Desert, Nancy (soprano soloist), exhausted and fearful, gathers strength by remembering Ben’s promise to her in Proposal (back in act 1). Just as they make it out of the seemingly unending desert, they are forced to ascend straight up into the Mountains, with wagons, oxen, and children in tow.
This piece is rich with imageries and colors. When asked about his inspiration, Eric Houghton immediately brought up his former piano teacher, Harold Zabrack. “Always think orchestrally,” Harold would tell Eric. And so he did, and the result is a series of stunning auditory paintings.
In May 2018, Pioneer Songs had its orchestral debut. I was lucky enough to have been chosen as the soprano soloist for that performance. Being in it was a pleasure and an honor. I thoroughly enjoyed preparing and performing such a brilliant piece. I was ecstatic when I was asked back for the next performance, this time at the Patriots Theater in Trenton, New Jersey, a gorgeous theater that sits 1850. The concert is on November 10th, 2018, at 7:30pm. You can reserve your tickets at www.communitymusical.com. Come experience this amazing piece of music for yourself - you’ll be glad you did.
To learn more about Pioneer Songs, please visit www.pioneersongs.com
This post contains some SPOILERS about the musical.
Person A is traveling at a rate of three miles an hour. Person B is traveling in the opposite direction at two miles an hour. How long will it take them to meet? This is the question that Neil Bartram and Brian Hill asked in their musical, The Theory Of Relativity. This chamber musical explores the interconnectedness of our society and how small events can manifest in big ways. And, aside from the important missing variable of distance between Person A and Person B, there's not much else missing from this gem of a musical.
I watched a production of The Theory Of Relativity at Rider University in Central Jersey about a week ago. With no knowledge of what the show is about, I found myself deeply invested in everyone's stories. The director seemed to have taken a page from the Broadway musical Come From Away, utilizing a single set with a number of chairs that set the scenes and show the relationships between the characters. The result of this staging, along with some brilliant lighting cues and a fantastic band, is a beautifully touching story of interconnectivity.
In this musical, most characters start out completely unrelated. Each character gets a song or a monologue. It begins with some quirky characters telling their own stories: a boy who is allergic to cats asking permission to marry a girl who lives for her cats, a friend that always lived in the shadows of her “best friend” stepping into the spotlight, a college student who goes home again and again to devastating changes to his family. They are all interesting, though seemingly unrelated. Then, there are characters who have bits and pieces scattered throughout the show: the OCD girl who freaks out because her boyfriend made her a cake and touched all the ingredients, and a boy who is nervous about going on a first date with a girl who told her to bring her one red rose. Still, they seem quite unrelated to each other. The magic starts to happen in the second half of the show (what would be Act 2 if there were an intermission). Very quickly, the stories start to connect, with some stories being told from another perspective by another person. Finally, in a long monologue called “Manicure,” a girl mentions her relationships, both minute and significant, to each of the characters in the musical thus far as she sits at the table getting her nails done to go on a date with the boy with the rose. The whole company then reflects on how other people’s day to day actions lead to their own big decisions which can change the whole course of their lives.
The music in this show is both clever and topical. In “Apples & Oranges,” a boy lements about how he never liked apples though everyone else seemed to. He liked oranges, but there were none around. So when he goes to college, he met a boy who also liked oranges. They sing together about how it is okay to be different, and that you should find your own “fruit,” which, personally, is such a cute way to approach the topic sexuality. In “Footprint,” a boy talks about his experiences of going to college, being nervous, and wanting to return to the home in his memory because he has left a footprint there. After returning home three times with high hopes to three tragedies (the loss of his dog, his sister’s elopement, and his parents’ divorce), he realizes that his footprint is where he stands and that he is capable of making other footprints that will spread as he lives his life. “Me & Ricky” discuss the topic of abortion after a bad relationship, which is a touchy subject, but one that should be talked about nonetheless.
The Theory of Relativity is a great choice for young adults and young artists. It gives personal attention to every actor and is great for a cast of singers-who-act and actors-who-sing. It is also a great option for smaller community theatres, as it requires very little for the set and a great amount of flexibility in staging. As an audience member, be prepared to do gymnastics with your emotions. You will laugh. You will cry. But no matter what, you will leave being more aware than ever the effects your actions have on others.
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It's the first thing people think of when they hear "Avenue Q." Modeled after the wildly popular show (among children), Sesame Street, this very adult show tells the stories of the colorful residents on the fictional street of Avenue Q. Currently performing off-Broadway at New World Stages in Midtown Manhattan, this is a show that shouldn't work in theory, but is spectacular in reality. It will make you laugh until you can't breathe and leave you warm and fuzzy, all the while teaching you important lessons about life.
Want to learn more about it? Keep reading to get in the know before the show!
1. Some of the actors have puppets while some are humans. It may seem like it would be distracting at first, but in practice, the puppets act in a way much like adult cartoons do. When a puppet does something out-there and inappropriate, it's funny. When a human does it, it's vulgar and disturbing. And, it's surprisingly easy to focus on the puppets while getting additional information about mood and movement through the actors who operates the puppets.
2. It's basically an adult version of Sesame Street. Now, I always found Sesame Street scary as a kid because I couldn't figure out who's talking, so I don't know much about that. But I've been told that the puppets can be traced back to their TV counterparts.
3. Avenue Q is a fictional street in Brooklyn. The street doesn't actually exist, just like there's no place called Sesame Street.
4. Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx wrote the music and lyrics to this show. You may know Robert Lopez from a number of things, from Frozen, to Book of Mormon, to various songs in South Park, and the Scrubs musical episode. It was after a performance of Avenue Q that Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the creators of South Park) approached Lopez about the possibility of creating Book of Mormon.
5. After its successful Broadway run from 2003 to 2009, the show moved off-Broadway to the New World Stages, where it is still running today!
6. It requires multiple puppets to make this show work. Playbill.com has a wonderful article on that.
7. Some actors voice two puppets in the show. It took me all of the first act to realize this (a testimony to how captivating the puppets are). It's a fun fact to know going into it because the logistics of making this work is very complex and interesting. Definitely watch out for it!
Avenue Q took home 3 Tony's in 2004: Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score. So if you're ever in New York City, don't pass this show off just because it's off-Broadway. Go visit the neighborhood and make some new friends!
If you are reading this in February 2018 and you live in or near North Jersey, come see me as Christmas Eve in Rhino Theatre's production of Avenue Q! It's been such a fun project and the cast is stacked with talent. You can purchase tickets at https://www.rhinotheatre.com/ The poster is attached below. Hope to see you there!
This is my midterm paper for my theory elective, Music and Ecology. In this essay, I explore the connections between Schoenberg's Twelve-Tone music and John Cage's "silent piece," 4'33".
In the first half of the 20th century, the twelve-tone movement emerged, making the masses question if it was the end of the line for music. Surely, arranging music mathematically and meticulously defeats the emotional impact of this art-form! As a result of this system, music grew increasingly complex and difficult, eventually requiring only the most virtuosic musicians to be able to perform it. At a time when tonality is being twisted and knotted in a multitude of different ways, it became difficult for most to muster up the attention span to truly listen to the music. What Schoenberg described as “precisely definable aesthetic discipline” (Whittall 377) registers as noise to much of the public, which subsequently caused many to check out mentally. John Cage’s 4’33” is in many ways the complete opposite of twelve-toned music. Without a single note on the page, Cage forced his audience to listen thoughtfully, to meditate, and to register whatever emotions they may be having, all while making them a part of the piece. As simple as the piece may appear to be, it is also a culmination of the complexity of sounds, for nature is the most complex and most often ignored sound-machine, making it a logical next step after experimentation with tonality has been exhausted for the time being. Thus, the four minutes and thirty-three seconds of “silence” acts as a palate cleanser, bridging ultra-complex tonality and experimental music based on chance and nature, a whole other level of complexity.
After a particularly difficult harmony class with Schoenberg, a young Cage confessed that he does not have a feel for harmony, to which Schoenberg replied that “a composer with no feeling for harmony would necessarily always encounter an obstacle, a wall through which he could not pass” (Hicks 128). It is not difficult to see how devoted Schoenberg was to tonality and harmony - the guy worked with all twelve notes in an octave in all octaves all the time! However, according to an article entitled Arnold Schoenberg: Do Not Approach With Caution in the Guardian, his music is rarely performed because it is deemed “too difficult” and not “approachable” (Napolitano). His music is complex, but mostly surfaces in music history classes and advanced music theory classes instead of in front of, for the lack of a better description, a real audience.
4’33”, on the other hand, has no tonality, no harmony, no rhythm - at least, none that was put down in ink, destined to happen a certain amount of measures into the piece. All sounds heard during the piece is purely by chance. The anticipation for the pianist to depress a key and make musical sound causes the audience to be hyper aware of any and all noises made during the performance. And, as the piece was premiered in a semi-outdoor venue at Woodstock, New York, as the second to last piece of a modern piano recital performed by David Tudor, anticipations were high and the noises were plenty. In Kyle Gann’s book No Such Thing As Silence, he states that, according to Cage, the “silence” was “full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out” (4). Cage achieved something simple instruction could never accomplish: he succeeded in bringing attention to the noises often tuned out and ignored. By adding the element of anticipation, 4’33” catapulted the audience into a state of hyper awareness, turning noise into sound.
To say that 4’33” is a simple piece is to do it a great disservice. After all, it took Cage four years of thinking and another year of doing to complete it (Gann 14). Though it may look simple on paper, the philosophy behind it is quite complex. By erasing all deliberate and organized sounds, the piece becomes a framework for the complex sounds of nature. It is, in a way, a logical next step from the chaotic atonal phase of his harmony-obsessed teacher. After reaching a high level of chaos in tonality, eliciting few emotions from the audience except for annoyance and confusion, the inevitable successor is a relatively calm piece filled with varied and colorful emotional responses.
The complexity of the piece is not limited only to the emotional responses of the audience. With each subsequent performance, the piece changes, making it a special event every time. It is unpredictable, which makes it exciting. The piece is also inclusive, for the audience becomes the piece. The sounds of people shifting in their seats, whispering, and walking out adds to all other ambient noises, and for the four and a half minutes dedicated to this piece, everyone present were performers. What is more complex than a piece written for one to one thousand performers?
It is impossible to talk about 4’33” without addressing the question that will inevitably come up: is this really music? In Cage’s book Silence, he argues that tonal modern music simply rearranges old “musical habits” and that pitches are just “stepping stones twelve in number” (9). Cage strived to experiment with elements other than pitch and rhythm for this work, opting to use natural sounds instead. Painter Willem de Kooning states while dining with Cage, “If I put a frame around these bread crumbs [on the table], that isn’t art.” However, “Cage argued that it indeed was art” because he was “framing the sounds that the audience heard in an experimental attempt to make people perceive as art sounds that were not usually so perceived” (Gann 20). The idea of framing is quite a cinematic one. Different framing draws attention to different things and create different moods. By framing “silence,” Cage has framed life as art, drawing attention to everything but the silence.
When asked to give a distinct definition of theater (the art form), Cage gave a very inclusive definition: “Theater is something which engages both the eye and the ear… I want to make my definition of theater that simple … so one could view everyday life itself as theater” (Cage, Kirby, Schechner 50). By that definition, 4’33” can also be described as a piece of interactive theater, for it takes a certain amount of concentration in the seeing and listening department. The performer plays an important role. Cage could have just as easily removed the pianist all together and had the audience sit in silence waiting for four and a half minutes, but he chose not to because the presence of a talented pianist draws the attention of the audience and raises expectations. The fact that this seemingly simple piece is so difficult to categorize speaks to its underlying complexity.
The fact that whether 4’33” is music has to be discussed shows how peculiar this piece is. With no pitch and no rhythm to speak of, Cage has succeeded in developing a piece of music that not only used new techniques, but ignored the previous constraints of the idea of tonality, therefore opening the door for the period of experimentation with and without traditional sounds. The use of chance procedure to determine the length of the piece inspires later Cage compositions, such as his Cage Circuses. This shift from math to chance also started the de-professionalization of the music industry by changing the definition of musical composition and not requiring virtuosity to perform or appreciate it. Cage succeeded in stopping the chaos that pitched music has become and opened the doors for future musicians such as Steve Reich and even Kanye West to manipulate sounds and frame it as music.
Cage, John. Silence. University Press of New England, 1961.
Cage, John , et al. “An Interview with John Cage.” The Tulane Drama Review, vol. 10, no. 2, 1965, pp. 50–
72. Jstor, www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1125231.pdf?refreqid=search%3A13fa0b822d31b7089d9847c8
Gann, Kyle. No such thing as silence. Yale University Press, 2011.
Hicks, Michael. “ John Cage's Studies with Schoenbe.” American Music, vol. 8, no. 2, 1990, pp. 125–140.
Napolitano, Pina. “Arnold Schoenberg: Do not approach with caution.” The Guardian, Guardian
News and Media, 21 Feb. 2017, www.theguardian.com/music/2017/feb/21/music-arnold-
Whittall, Arnold. “Schoenberg.” The Musical Times, vol. 114, no. 1562, Apr. 1973, pp. 377–378. Jstor,
If you had your time again, would you do it all the same? That's the question Groundhog Day the Musical poses. Based on the beloved classic movie by the same name staring Bill Murray, this musical tells the story of a self-proclaimed hot-shot weatherman Phil Connors on one particular day: Groundhog day. Sent on an assignment he feels is below his paygrade to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to report back live whether the famous groundhog saw his shadow or not, Phil finds himself stuck in a time loop and living this silly holiday in this small town over and over again.
Interested yet? Here's what you should know before the show:
1. This musical has music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, who also wrote the music and lyrics for Matilda the Musical a few years back. His music tends to be very exciting, utilizing interesting harmonies and unusual meters. In the case of Groundhog Day, the variations on the music of this one particular day shows the shifting moods that Phil experiences, from trapped to liberated to depressed to enlightened. It is very intuitive to the audience exactly what he is feeling, and, in a way, projects the moods directly onto the audience members.
2. The chorus of this show is so important. They create the exciting atmosphere of the holiday, but change quickly depending on what Phil throws at them. For a staged production, the actions and intentions of the characters are unbelievably original.
3. Most of the stage is a turntable. However, unlike Anastasia the Musical which (I think) utilizes the rotating set way too much to the point of being distracting, Groundhog Day used it in ways that felt natural and which added to the overall storytelling.
4. Telling the story of the same day over and over again is no small feat. This musical managed to do it in such a way that is easy to follow and fun to watch. The pacing of the show is also very accommodating, switching seamlessly from whole days at a time to real-time moments to repeats of specific scenes and different outcomes to inner monologues.
5. The song Hope is accompanied with gruesome and morbidly hilarious scenes of Phil committing suicide. It is my favorite part of the show because of the complete contradiction between what being sung and what is being shown.
6. You've probably deduced this, but with a 5 minute suicide scene and some very colorful language, this show is not exactly child-friendly. Listen to the music beforehand, and then making a decision whether you need a babysitter.
7. Rita, the female lead of the show and junior producer at Phil's station, sings a song called One Day. Classic Disney fans would get the references in this song. *Hint: Snow White*
Groundhog Day the Musical was nominated for 7 Tony's in 2017. It's a high energy show with terrific choreography, mind-spinning musical numbers, and a heart-warming message that will leave you feeling cozy through those "6 more weeks of winter."
Groundhog Day the Musical closes on Broadway September 17th, 2017.