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Making an A Cappella Musical

Date: Sep 30, 2010


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When it comes to collaboration, the cast of In Transit, now in previews at Primary Stages, makes everyone else seem kind of wimpy. These seven people are not only responsible for every character in the show---a new musical about a group of New Yorkers trying to make sense of their lives---but also for every sound.
That's because In Transit is entirely a cappella. Every note and sound effect is made by the human voice, and even the percussion that runs under most songs is provided by a beatboxer.

And sure, anyone who watches Glee has an idea of what it means to perform an "a cappella musical," but the reality is much more complicated. Just ask Denise Summerford, who stars in the show as a struggling actress named Jane when she isn't providing background harmonies or imitating the sound of a subway door.

"This is absolutely, hands-down the hardest thing I've ever done," says the Broadway veteran. "You think going into it, 'Oh, it's a musical with no orchestra. Let's do it.' You don't realize the amount of concentration that needs to happen to keep the keys of the songs and then stay aware of what character you're playing. You always have to focus, even when you're off-stage, because you're singing off-stage, and then you're on in two seconds.

"It's not about being the best singer. It's about being able to know music and blend and provide back-up sound."

So why would the writers put their actors through that? Or themselves? After all, creating In Transit hasn't been easy. The four composer-lyricists---Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, and Sara Wordsworth---have been working on the show for almost ten years, taking it through countless revisions and development productions everywhere from the New York International Fringe Festival to the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. And even though they all used to be in an a cappella group together, they admit that writing original a cappella music is difficult.

"It's been challenging," says Wordsworth. "But even after all these years, we still find the sound of a cappella really rich and visceral and exciting."

Beyond that, the musical style also reflects the meaning of the show. "What we're trying to talk about are people who are so focused on getting somewhere that they aren't experiencing their own lives," explains Anderson-Lopez. "Nobody hears the music that's around. New York is noise and music all the time, but you never hear it. You're tuning it out. And in a way, a cappella is a metaphor for this music that nobody's hearing."

Kaplan adds, "Additionally, it's a metaphor for the interconnectedness of people in New York. We all depend on each other hugely, but we all try to block each other out all the time. A cappella is a sonic metaphor for that. [When you're performing it,] you're depending on everybody all the time, even if you don't want to, and they're depending on you."

As for the challenge of singing in a show like this? Before they had a cast, the creators spent years performing the material themselves, so they're fully aware of what's required. More to the point, they know that actually appearing in the show creates an even deeper version of that central metaphor about being connected to the people around you. "Once you create your own uni-brain of people, you all start to feel it," says Anderson-Lopez. "And then the music starts to be like driving."

"Eventually, we got to the point where we could make odd changes of tempo and volume without ever seeing each other, from different parts of the stage, because we'd been doing it for so long," Ford adds. "It was the musical equivalent of kinesthetic response."

Summerford, who has been with the show through several incarnations, is starting to experience that payoff herself. "When you hit every mark and moment, it's so rewarding," she says. "You think, 'I can't believe I just did this. And it sounded good!'"


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor

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