A Capella Original Arrives for the Holidays
A capella has been inspiring fans at college campuses for decades, but it’s been building an entirely more professional profile in recent years with the film series “Pitch Perfect,” as well as NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” which crowned super- group Pentatonix the winners of the third season (they are now Grammy winners, as well). Indiana University a cappella group Straight No Chaser has been signed to Atlantic Records for years, touring all over the world. The trend seems to have been pointing in the direction of something even bigger — and Broadway may be the answer.
Arriving just in time for the holidays, a new musical, In Transit, with music from Frozen Academy Award-winning composer Kristen Anderson-Lopez and long-time partners James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, and Sara Wordsworth. Directed by veteran Kathleen Marshall (Anything Goes) and with vocal arrangement from Deke Sharon (Pitch Perfect), the original show about New York transportation and ambition will bow December 11. A cast of 16 multi-talented performers run and flip and dodge one another in a jungle gym of sorts, illustrating intensely stressful subway rides, busy streets with businesspeople, and tourists and locals trying to make their way in a New York minute.
New York City Monthly had the rare (and oftentimes humorous) opportunity to speak with the four composers/co-writers in an open discussion about the early days of the production and their own a cappella days, the unusual “three-quarter thrust” stage experience, and what makes this musical a celebration of togetherness during the holidays and beyond. In Transit is years in the making, and the creative team reminded us of the power of song and loyalty among friends.
The first a cappella musical on Broadway. The Sing-Off, Pitch Perfect, Glee, even Indiana University has an a capella group that’s signed to a major record label. This is a thing right now. Why did it take so long?
Russ Kaplan: It’s been a thing for us for forever. I don’t know why it took the world so long to catch up.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: I think actually it’s possible we love a cappella so much is because in this world where technology is increasingly more complicated and we’re distanced even further from our own humanity by devices, you can’t think of anything more communal than a bunch of voices coming together in the same space, at the same time, and creating harmony with human voices. That’s what In Transit really celebrates.
Would you say New York is almost like a character in this show?
Sara Wordsworth: That was my favorite episode of Sex and the City, where Carrie went on a date with somebody and she’s like, “Oh, he insulted New York and nobody messes with my man.” Like New York was her thing to put down. I always enjoyed hearing that they used New York in that way.
James-Allen Ford: Yeah, it’s an obstacle and a reason to come together. It’s a hero to them in a way.
Kristen: And it’s a destination. New York is its own goal and another major theme that we look at is the difference between the journey and the goal. You come to New York for the goal and realize it’s a lifelong journey instead.
Deke Sharon thinks of this show as “vocal Cirque du Soleil.” Kathleen Marshall spoke to the emotional depth of all the voices coming together. Do you agree this combination of spectacle and emotional depth is what will bring people together?
Sara: This is very much a book musical. That’s what we really want people to know that a cappella hasn’t been done in a musical theater setting before, and you’re not coming to see a concert. You’re coming to see a piece of musical theater. Our characters have rich lives. They have rich journeys. We’re going to end some place different than where we began the show.
James-Allen: Yeah, you’re not coming to see covers.
Russ: That’s maybe the one a cappella truth that hasn’t really been cracked through yet. It’s gotten into the movies and TV as we discussed. I won’t call it a stigma, but people used to associate a cappella with very specific genres: doo-wop, barber shop. I think people have largely gotten past that now. They know from Pitch Perfect that it can be pop music, that you can do any kind of music a cappella, hip-hop, whatever. I think one of the things they haven’t gotten past yet is that it’s still associated with covers, almost exclusively. The trick of a cappella is, “Oh I didn’t expect to hear ‘No Diggity’ performed.”
How strenuous of a show is this on the performers? This isn’t just your triple-threats in acting, singing, and dancing, but you have to do different things with your body and your vocal chords and all of that.
Kristen: These are the hardest working performers I have ever seen, really.
Russ: They’re going to make every other Broadway actor look lazy. There is a level of multi-tasking…
Sara: These actors are the only ones who are also their own orchestra that you’ll see. That means they are changing clothes while they’re singing.
Kristen: You’re doing a cappella in three-quarter thrust, meaning almost in the round. You’re surrounded by [the audience on] three sides. Another challenge for any musical is that you don’t have the orchestra pit here and the conductor here. In this case they are conducting themselves and there’s a musical director in their ear. Instead of visually, they are hearing “2, 3, 4,” possibly while saying something incredibly emotional on stage.
Do you have any New York City moments, something you have observed or experienced that made the show?
Sara: Everything we observe can make the show. You might be in it by the end of this conversation.
Jams-Allen: The reason we made these original songs into a show was because we got together on the night of 9/11 and said we wanted to write a love letter to New York City.
Yeah, so this is a long time coming?
Sara: Long time coming.
Kristen: We were an a cappella group gigging around before it was a show. We started writing songs about our own lives.
Sara: The songs were originally inspired by us and the people we know and love, and strangers and stories we would see on the subway. We draw from a lot of inspiration from the people around us.
James-Allen: There’s a beat-boxer we added at some point who gives it a more urban feel than we originally had.
Kristen: As a New Yorker, one of the great things is you can see these subway performers and some of them are exquisite artists doing something you would pay 75 bucks to see in Vegas. But here they are giving it to you for free in a place where nobody wants to be. We wanted to celebrate that artistry.
This is a long time coming and I think this is going to inspire so many young, creative people. I think it’s important and special to remember that it takes a long time, but you keep building your craft.
Sara: We’ve had a lot of fun. I think the dream only became a reality because we had so much fun doing it and supported one another while we did it. A lot of times for many years we’d get together and work on the show, I think because we wanted to hang out. It’s an excuse.
Kristen: One of the things that we look at is the idea of following your bliss, doing what you love and the career will follow. This was definitely a case of do what you love with people you love. It’s a train that keeps going.
This is a dream team across all types of entertainment. How did you re-team? Your lives took off and you did all these other things. When did this happen again?
Kristen: Well, we like each other.
Sara: It happened all along.
Kristen: We were all in each other’s weddings and…
Sara: We can’t get rid of one another.
Kristen: These guys, we’re all like family at this point. Even if this show didn’t happen we’d still be like, hey, let’s have a Halloween potluck and usually we’d turn to talk about the show at some point.
Russ: The show’s never completely fallen off our radar. Even when it wasn’t as active as at other times, yeah, if somebody had renewed some interest in it or something like that, none of our other projects were ever so important that we didn’t immediately jump right back on the In Transit train.
Sara: I think one of the nice things is that we all supported one another through the other opportunities we were doing, knowing that we would separately become better artists and better people, too, as our lives got richer. Every time we’d come back we’d be able to bring those experiences back with us.
Russ: The show’s older and wiser now. The earliest versions I think definitely exudes a 20-something exuberance, but maybe also naiveté and now shows a little more life experience and so forth and so on.
Why do you think this is a fantastic show to see during the holiday season or even after?
Kristen: In Transit is really about the family you find when you step into the community that is New York and we really celebrate that community and that family. It’s a great time.
James-Allen: And everyone loves New York City, and this is a love letter to New York City.
Sara: I think though that if there are tourists that come, they too will see pieces of themselves in some of our characters.
Russ: Yeah, I was told once in our off Broadway run by a tourist on their first visit to New York who came to see the show maybe a few hours after landing, [I said] “Did you get all the jokes? Did you identify with any of this?” They said, “Yeah, about 60% of this happened to me on the way to the theater.”
There’s something for everybody.
Russ: There is something for everybody and if you are a tourist or somebody visiting wondering, “Man, what’s it like to live here? Why would anybody live in crazy New York City?” Hopefully we provide some answer to that.