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How an iconic 1912 poem inspired an unconventional musical
Veteran musical director Carmel Dean had worked closely with celebrated artists ranging from Green Day to Chita Rivera, but she panicked when she met Stephen Sondheim -- not because she revered him (although she does), but because he asked what she was working on. She had heard that he wasn't a fan of people setting poems to music, yet that was precisely what she was doing. She reluctantly confessed: "I'm writing a show about Edna St. Vincent Millay, and all of the songs' lyrics are her poems." Sondheim regarded her briefly, and then started to recite Millay's "Renascence:"
"All I could see from where I stood…"
"…Was three long mountains and a wood," Dean responded, finishing the opening couplet.
She was amazed that he had picked that particular poem of Millay's since it gives Dean's world-premiere musical its title and focus. Produced by Transport Group at the Abrons Arts Center, Renascence marks her debut as a composer.
It is not, however, her first go-around with musical theatre. A native of Perth, Australia, Dean began playing piano at age 3 and was training to become a classical musician when she was cast in a high school production of The Boyfriend starring the late Heath Ledger; not long afterward, she decided on a career in musical theatre. After graduating from college, she moved to New York in 2001 on a Fulbright scholarship and earned an MFA from NYU's Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program.
She found work on Broadway almost immediately, creating the vocal arrangements and playing the synthesizer for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and serving as musical director and conductor for American Idiot, Hands on a Hardbody and If/Then. But all the while she was setting Millay poems to music for fun -- a project sparked by NYU, which had required all program applicants to compose a melody to go with her sonnet "Time Does Not Bring Relief."
About five years ago, Dean realized she had 14 of these Millay songs, and she shared them with her friend, playwright and director Dick Scanlan. He came on board as book writer and co-director of Renascence, fashioning a tale about the celebrated poet around Dean's score.
At the peak of her fame, Millay commanded huge audiences for her readings and was a bona fide bisexual bohemian writing with wit and abandon about her wild Greenwich Village adventures. A dramatist as well as a poet, she also co-founded the Cherry Lane Theatre.
But Renascence isn't a conventional bio show. It focuses on a single year in Millay's life before she was famous when, at the age of 18, she entered "Renascence" in a poetry contest. She did not win first place, which outraged the other contestants who considered it the best submission; the ensuing scandal launched her career. The chamber musical doesn't present this origin story as a linear narrative. Instead, Scanlan describes it as "a theatrical exploration. Think of it as six actors in search of a poem."
Hannah Corneau, who portrays the poet, says Dean "created these sounds that are a match with Edna St. Vincent Millay's words. They go hand in hand perfectly." Which was no easy feat considering her poems aren't easy to take in.
"The language is so dense," Dean admits. "It's not always direct, as regular lyrics would be. She often uses words that are no longer familiar to us. I had to be sure I was allowing the audiences to connect with the emotion of the poems."
For example, for "Afternoon on a Hill," Dean used very fast 16th notes to represent shimmering sunlight, then a lower register on the piano to conjure the cliffs and clouds. Before the last stanza, she has the singers insert several oohs. "I needed to add oohs and aahs to let the audience's ears settle before digesting more of the language," she explains. "My goal as the composer was to give a window into the poetry." In turn, Millay has given Dean a new calling -- she's currently at work on two new musicals.
Top image: Hannah Corneau and Mikaela Bennett in Renascence. Photos by Carol Rosegg.