How Do You Write an A Cappella Musical?

Special Features   How Do You Write an A Cappella Musical?
 
Four friends turned their love of a cappella music into the groundbreaking new Broadway musical In Transit.
James-Allen Ford, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Sara Wordsworth, and Russ Kaplan
James-Allen Ford, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Sara Wordsworth, and Russ Kaplan Monica Simoes

On a Thursday afternoon, the creative team of Broadway’s In Transit gathers in the audio booth at the famed Avatar Studios. Vocal arranger Deke Sharon (Pitch Perfect) stands at a console, remote in hand, to communicate with the full cast of 11 (plus three understudies and a beatboxer alternate) as they sing the opening number. Tony Award–winning director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall hovers beside him. The writing team, a quartet of composer-lyricist-book writers, are scattered around the room. Kristen Anderson-Lopez, an Academy Award winner for Frozen’s earworm power ballad “Let It Go,” anchors the back. James-Allen Ford leans against the far wall, peering over Sara Wordsworth’s shoulder, as she bobs to the beat. Russ Kaplan stands a few paces behind them, hands in pockets, eyes closed, lightly swaying.

The four friends and co-creators met after college through an a cappella group, Bob Ross Juice Box. Anderson-Lopez and Ford were partners at the BMI Workshop (the program that nurtured writers like Alan Menken and Jeanine Tesori) and created the very first iteration of In Transit for their ten-minute musical. Decades later, they—along with Wordsworth and Kaplan—premiere Broadway’s first a cappella musical, opening at the Circle in the Square Theatre December 11.

After winning the 2011 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble Performance for the Off-Broadway version of In Transit at 59E59, the team is excited to finally see their show bow on the Main Stem. But they’re also nervous as they sit to discuss their daring new musical, and the combination of fear and thrill is palpable.

James-Allen Ford, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Sara Wordsworth, and Russ Kaplan
James-Allen Ford, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Sara Wordsworth, and Russ Kaplan Monica Simoes

ON CREATING BROADWAY’S FIRST A CAPPELLA MUSICAL
What’s going on in your mind when you’re in that booth. What are you listening for?
James-Allen Ford: The changes we put in this morning.
[Everyone laughs]
Sara Wordsworth: Technically the mix, which we’re also listening for in the theatre. We’re listening for the exact right combination of solo lines and storytelling.
Kristen Anderson-Lopez: For us, the most important thing is that the story we want to tell is coming across—and the mix is part of that. If it’s a wall of sound, then you’re not hearing the individual voices come out. Today, we were just hearing literally: Where’s the alto? Where’s the tenor?
SW: We want the audience to not have to deal with any of that. Sometimes it’s a compliment when we hear, “I forgot it was a cappella.”
KAL: It’s a one-of-a-kind sonic, aural experience.

What’s the biggest lesson or the most surprising thing you learned?
SW: I don’t think it’s surprising: How complicated the show is in terms of sound.
JAF: And how hard it is to do the reading and to hear it because people have to learn so much. It can’t just be one person at the piano, it has to be ten people, and as you know it takes a while for a group to gel.
SW: We’ve also learned a lot about casting. Not only do they have to be incredible musical comedy actors, incredible musicians, but it takes a certain kind of non-diva to do this show.

Have there been vocal elements you’ve had to keep in mind for the staging?
JAF: Musically, it’s been an issue. Who’s onstage? Who can we see doing the words?
SW: Somebody’s got to change their clothes, so we don’t actually have a tenor onstage here.
JAF: Right, but if the four people onstage are just going oooh and then we only hear words won’t that be weird? So we have to switch out the arrangement so those four people are doing the words and the people backstage are doing the ooohs.
Russ Kaplan: Fortunately, we’ve been able to start revising these arrangements with our arranger, Deke Sharon, and with Kathleen’s feedback.
KAL: And because it is staged as a series of train stops, we also have to make sure we don’t have one actor playing one character at stop one and the next immediate stop they’re a different character. You have to stagger.

With movies like Pitch Perfect, reality shows like The Sing-Off, and groups like Pentatonix, a cappella has broken through as a mainstream genre instead of a niche pastime.
JAF: The world’s a different place than when we started this musical. We’re used to liking a cappella now. It’s more mainstream. People are more open to the idea.
SW: For so many people, a cappella is in them. Even if they just sang in their high school choir, this choral thing is a happy thing.
KAL: It’s like a family. That’s part of why we wanted to write this—it’s even in the lyric. We wanted to write a love letter to New York. It was post-9/11 [when we started], and it was during this time that we realized, “Oh my gosh, when you really strip it back, everyone in New York, we’re this giant family. We’re this giant a cappella group operating, and sometimes we’re singing the solo, but most of the time we’re singing background.” That is what this show is trying to say.

1_The Company of IN TRANSIT, Photo by Joan Marcus, 2016.jpg
The Company Joan Marcus

MEET THE STRAPHANGERS
In Transit follows 11 New Yorkers as they struggle to discover their identities in the city. Who are the people audiences will meet?
KAL: You’re going to meet a lot of people, and this is inspired by real life events. You’re going to meet an actor who has been doing the actor-temp thing for ten years and is wondering if it’s time to switch routes. You’re going to meet…
SW: A recently unemployed banker who has lost his entire sense of being because he doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. We’re meeting people at real crossroads, all trying to get somewhere and not sure how to get there.
KAL: [To James] Do you want to explain the…
JAF: Sure, because you outted me that one time.
[Everyone laughs]
KAL: I outted him to his family.
JAF: We’re going to meet a gay couple and one of them is not completely out to his family.
RK: And a lovelorn runner, who—years prior—uprooted her whole life from the other coast for a guy, moved to New York and when that ended she has no roots … and she’s trying to fill her time finding who she is and reestablishing her connections to the city.
KAL: A beatboxer.
SW: You’re really going to meet 40 people. There are 11 actors, but they all play multiple roles, so it’s really more like 40 people in the city.
KAL: You’re really going to see how they intersect. What we’re trying to celebrate is the connections that you make while in transit, or along the way, tend to be the thing that gets you where you need to go.

INSIDE THE WRITER’S ROOM
As a writing team, all four of you are working on all of the components of the show. How is your dynamic? Do each of you take ownership over certain characters?
RK: They’re at least semi-autobiographical in some cases, so we can’t help but [take ownership]. As for as our roles in the collaboration, we all do everything, but we also have specialties.
KAL: The boys tend to be the a cappella gurus of our group. They know the notes; they tend to compose the music. When we’re doing vocal rehearsals, Sara and I are listening in a different way. They’re listening to: “Are they hitting the eighth note?” Sara and I are listening to: “Can you be less aggressive?”
SW: The lyric and the rhyme and the story. …. But we all work together much like a Hollywood writer’s room, which isn’t really the theatre model, but it’s worked for us, especially in this comedy that we’re writing. [Our philosophy is] “best joke wins.” Plus, we are all really close friends. We are a family.
KAL: We’ve been through a lot. We’ve been at each other’s weddings, births.
SW: We all sang a cappella at one another’s weddings.
KAL: I think half of our writing process is just an excuse—
SW: To hang out?
KAL: It has lasted for eight years.
RK: It was the entire reason for some years.
SW: I thought about when we won’t be writing the show anymore, and I got really depressed about that.
KAL: I think we’re going to have to come up with something new.

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