Frank Loesser once asked the musical question "What are you doing New Year's Eve?" — a query that prompts anxiety in some, including members of the music trio GrooveLily.
For keyboardist Brendan Milburn, electric violinist Valerie Vigoda and drummer Gene Lewin — the musician–singers of the new Off-Broadway musical Striking 12 — the question in recent years wasn't about the pressure of having to make a date when the clock strikes 12 but the practicality of finding work.
"November, December and January were always tough times for us; it was always hard to get gigs," says Milburn, who is married to Vigoda.
A cure for the group's holiday blues was proposed in 2001, when Milburn, an alumnus of New York University's graduate musical-theatre writing program, suggested creating a holiday show that, in theory, would get them future December bookings. What blossomed was Striking 12, now a cult-hit hybrid of pop concert and traditional musical with a history that includes regional theatre, intimate Manhattan presentations and a live cast recording. The momentum has led to its current limited run (to Dec. 31) at the Daryl Roth Theatre. The three GrooveLily musicians play multiple characters in the frisky Striking 12, which boasts minimal sets and costumes but, thanks to the collaboration of librettist Rachel Sheinkin and director Ted Sperling, still richly conjures contemporary and gaslit worlds.
This is the story of a 21st-century Grumpy Guy (Milburn) who decides to avoid the ballyhoo of New Year's Eve. Alone in his apartment, he dips into the dolorous 1846 Hans Christian Andersen fable "The Little Match Girl," which comes to life when Vigoda soulfully sings the waif's tale.
The match girl idea was suggested by Sheinkin, whose participation with the project predates her 2005 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. (With composers Milburn and Vigoda, she shares equal writing credit for book and lyrics of Striking 12.)
Sheinkin explains, "Brendan and Val had sent me some of their GrooveLily CDs, and on one of them was a song called 'Little Light' that Val sings, and the hook is, 'no one needs my little light.' It immediately made me think of 'The Little Match Girl.'"
Can a sad 19th-century urchin inspire a hipster cynic? GrooveLily and company are keenly aware that optimism is the oxygen of the greatest musicals.
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)