A Pop Musical on the Verge of Tomorrow

Special Features   A Pop Musical on the Verge of Tomorrow
 
Striking 12 may be the best new American musical that nobody has heard of.
From Left: Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda in Striking 12 at TheatreWorks/Palo Alto.
From Left: Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda in Striking 12 at TheatreWorks/Palo Alto. Photo by David Allen

Well, nobody isn't exactly precise. Performed by the pop trio GrooveLily and co-written by Rachel Sheinkin (the Tony Award-winning librettist of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) and Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Milburn (two of the three GrooveLily members), the show is embraced by followers of the 10-year-old band. It also has a growing number of enthusiastic theatre fans thanks to three regional engagements — in Philly, San Diego and Palo Alto — and a live cast album that was released in 2004 on the PS Classics label at www.psclassics.com.

"When we brought out Striking 12 at our website last December, it quickly became one of our strongest sellers," PS Classics co-founder Tommy Krasker told Playbill.com. "It continued to do well throughout the year, but then sales went through the roof again right after Thanksgiving of this year. With its holiday theme and memorable songs, people obviously view it as the perfect Christmas gift — that's the only way I can explain so many people coming to our website and buying 5 and 10 copies."

Is this how a cult title becomes a popular hit? Word of mouth, the dissemination of CDs and regional engagements? Time will tell. Producers are in the wings to take the show to larger venues in the future, Playbill.com has learned. The last chance to catch the show in an intimate setting (for $25) may be the remaining 2005 performances through Dec. 23 at Ars Nova, the 99-seat midtown Manhattan space. (See ticket information below.)

The current New York City run features the GrooveLily trio of Valerie Vigoda (on electric violin), Brendan Milburn (on keyboard) and Gene Lewin (on percussion). The show was not originally meant for other performers; it was first conceived as a way for the pop-rock band to be in one place for the holidays.

"November, December and January were always tough times for us, it was always hard to get gigs," Milburn, who is married to Vigoda, said. All three GrooveLily musicians are vocalists and play multiple characters in the expressionistic, highly theatrical, utterly accessible Striking 12, billed now as "The New GrooveLily Holiday Show." (The word "Musical" is on the album; the experience is purposely both concept concert and musical, challenging our definition of what theatre is — and showing us what it can be.)

With no set and minimal costumes, the band tells the story of a Grumpy Guy (Milburn) who decides to avoid the hectic, loveless world on New Year's Eve. Alone in his apartment, he dips onto Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl," which comes to life in our imaginations (and the Grumpy Guy's) when Vigoda soulfully sings the waif's tale ("Doesn't anybody need some light tonight?" is her lamentation). The modern world intrudes in the form of phone calls from pals (played by Vigoda and drummer Lewin), who are partying on Dec. 31, and a visit by a contemporary match girl (Vigoda), who is selling holiday lights with the promise that their "full spectrum" glow will chase the winter doldrums. (Vigoda's sales pitch is a beguilingly fast patter song, topped when she increases the tempo for a reprise.) Light Bulb Girl knows a depressive when she sees one: the Grumpy Guy moans that everything in town is decorated green and red, but all he feels is blue.

Among the show's choice moments, which are favorites of fans, are two turns by bald-pated drummer Lewin: "(You Gotta) Give the Drummer Some," in which he sheds his secondary roles to take center stage, and "Screwed Up People Make Great Art," a rumination on artists (like Andersen) whose personal lives are broken.

The show's ability to break the fourth wall, draw us into dual humane stories about loneliness, and gleefully revel in musical theatre conventions — including sentiment, patter specialties and optimism over bleakness — is making musical theatre people sit up and listen.

The show's genuine craft (including perfect rhymes — a pop musical rarity) is partly rooted in Milburn's theatre-training background in The BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop (he attended it very briefly) and the New York University Tisch Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program (he graduated in 1995). Rachel Sheinkin met Milburn and Vigoda through an introduction by Sarah Schlesinger, head of the NYU-Tisch musical program. Sheinkin is also a graduate.

"I've been writing musicals since I was in high school," Milburn, a San Francisco native, told Playbill.com. "My time at NYU made me a more aware craftsperson and artisan so that when inspiration strikes I have the tools to do something with it instead of turning out some half-finished piece of pop pap."

Of her shift from general pop to the specificity of stage songs, Virginia native Vigoda said, "The whole process for me, as a relative newcomer to writing musical theatre, has been great. I kind of feel like I vicariously attended the NYU graduate school for musical theatre just by collaborating with Brendan, and then Rachel. It's a whole different kind of rigor and discipline that I didn't have or value when I was concentrating on my Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, wistful-girly-ballad-type writing. Now that I'm writing so much about character and story, I am completely enamored of it. I love what we're doing. Now I'm a complete lyrics Nazi. I won't let the slightest imperfect rhyme go by."

(Once she said that she admitted that listeners may indeed find the odd off rhyme; sometimes you have to go for woolly meaning rather than perfect sound.)

Broadway conductor Ted Sperling was in the house at Joe's Pub in 2002, when Milburn presented a set of his past songs in an evening, and Sperling encouraged Milburn to continue musical theatre writing. Sperling, the Tony Award-winning orchestrator of The Light in the Piazza, who is also a stage director (The Public's See What I Wanna See), eventually became the director of Striking 12, giving the show a spot in the 2002 season at Philadelphia's Prince Music Theater.

The writers learned from the developmental Philly run and honed Striking 12 in engagements at The Old Globe in San Diego (in 2003) and TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, CA (in 2004). Since its first draft in 2002, the writers "have thrown away three songs and added about six," Milburn said.

Striking 12 is subtitled "A Rewired Version of 'The Little Match Girl.'"

Who came up with the notion of exploring Hans Christian Andersen's 1846 fable?

"That was Rachel," Milburn said. "She heard one of the songs on one of the previous GrooveLily records — 'A Little Light.' For Rachel, it evoked 'The Little Match Girl.' It's mostly Valerie's song. It was Valerie talking about how it was tough trying to make it in the music business, but she was using the metaphor of cradling a match, a flame in your hand against the wind, against the snow. It struck a chord with Rachel. She came back with three or four ideas and the one based on 'The Little Match Girl' was the one we all liked the most. And we were off and running."

Although Striking 12 was created as a property for GrooveLily to perform, the collaborators are now in the process of adapting the show for other people — and there are several regional theatres looking to book it without Gene, Valerie and Brendan singing and acting.

Striking 12 may just strike it rich.

*

Milburn, Vigoda and Sheinkin all get credit for the storytelling and lyrics in Striking 12, with music credited to Milburn and Vigoda.

Ars Nova is at 511 W. 54th Street. All tickets are $25.

Ted Sperling recently made his New York City directing debut with Michael John LaChiusa's See What I Wanna See at The Public Theater. Other Broadway credits as music director/conductor/pianist include Dirty Rotten Scoundrels; The Full Monty; How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; Kiss of the Spider Woman; Angels in America; My Favorite Year; Falsettos; Drood; Les Misérables; Roza and Sunday in the Park With George.

Striking 12's lighting design is by Michael Gilliam. Sound design is by Rob Killenberger. Jason Quinn is production stage manager. Richard DiBella is on lights, Jorge Muelle is on sound.

Striking 12 performances at Ars Nova in Manhattan began Dec. 3. The schedule continues Dec. 16 at 11 PM, Dec. 17 at 8 PM and 11 PM, Dec. 18 at 4 PM and 7 PM, Dec. 20 at 7 PM, Dec. 21 at 8 PM, Dec. 22 at 7 PM, Dec. 23 at 8 PM.

To purchase tickets, call SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or go to www.SmartTix.com. Ars Nova is located at 511 West 54th Street.

For more information, visit www.arsnovanyc.com.

For more information, visit www.striking12.com.

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