New York-based composer Scott Alan's work is regularly heard on cabaret stages around the city (including an all-star showcase at 54 Below in January), and he also makes appearances in work by others, including the Broadway Sings Tori benefit concert April 20 alongside Laura Benanti, Lena Hall, Erin Davie and Kyle Dean Massey at Le Poisson Rouge. He's also a regular in London, where he has appeared at the Charing Cross Theatre, the St James and the 02 Arena's Indigo.
And out of these concerts, special affinities have been created on both sides of the Atlantic: in New York, one of his muses is Shoshana Bean, and in England, it is Cynthia Erivo, soon to reprise her London role of Celia in the Broadway transfer of the Menier Chocolate Factory's production of The Color Purple opposite Jennifer Hudson.
"You are my voice," Scott tells Cynthia as the three of us chat on a recent Skype call. And Cynthia replies, "There's something in her soul I guess you see in my soul, and that's a complete and utter love for music and making it!"
Erivo, who is a RADA trained actress with a captivating stage presence that has seen her earning rave reviews for her every appearance, whether it be in Shakespeare at the Donmar Warehouse (where she starred in the all-female Henry IV, in a cast led by Dame Harriet Walter in the title role), or Liverpool's Everyman Theatre (where she just finished a run last weekend playing Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream), first connected with Scott when she was appearing in The Color Purple at the Menier. Scott picks up the story: "A mutual friend had messaged me on Twitter suggesting I used Cynthia for my concert, and I saw a video of her and Nathan James singing together and was so blown away by her voice. Then I went to see her in The Color Purple, and I was astonished not just by her talent but also by the aura and energy she brings to her life and to the people she meets. So I reached out to her and asked if she would join me for tea at Fortnum and Mason!"
Cynthia remembers one thing most keenly above everything in that first meeting: "I remember him being really honest, and that's what I look for in my friendships — to be able to be open and honest and be there for each other." And that's what Scott's music is about, too. A connection was forged; she agreed to perform in his concert at the 02 Arena.
But the day of the concert itself, which coincided with a final matinee performance of the run of The Color Purple, turned out to be fraught for her. "I wasn't feeling very well, and had legged it to the 02 after the last emotional matinee, and arrived just in time to try to steam my dress into shape! I went out and sang 'Anything Worth Holding Onto.' I got onstage, sat on the edge of the stage, and just lived in the song."
That's exactly what cabaret is about: living in the moment and living in its emotions. Scott picks up the story: "I remember that when she walked offstage, I said to her, 'You need to go out and take another bow. But give me a hug first!' She replied, 'Thank you — I needed to release.' And even if you don't understand depression, which the song is about, you understand that with depression comes exhaustion. And she got that completely."
It meant a lot to Scott: "That's always been the favourite song I've written. But for years no one picked up on it. It took Cynthia getting it out there. Now it’s the song everyone requests to sing!" The most striking feature of her performance, which was preserved on video and can be viewed on YouTube, was its stillness. "It something I learnt at RADA. One of my teachers was trying to drum into me that one of my strongest suits was vulnerability, instead of having to play a strong black woman all the time. It's good to let things fall away and for everything to be exposed, and the easiest way to bring something down to its purest is stillness — where you enjoy things from the inside out."
For Scott, the emotional connection is always more important than the perfection of the performance. "My song is all about not being perfect. The imperfections in my music is how it needs to be sung — with as many imperfections as you're vulnerable enough to show. In that moment, Cynthia was allowed to show her vulnerability."
Now that they've become firm friends, they show their vulnerability to each other, onstage and off, and it has paradoxically made them both stronger. And that's exactly what cabaret does for an audience, too: it's an empowering art about our shared humanity. "We're two friends standing on stage, and we share ourselves," says Scott.
Now they're reuniting for a three night run in the intimate downstairs studio theatre at the James Theatre May 4-6 — and they'll be doing just that. And making a difference to those that hear them, in turn: "You can see a little salvation in that song," says Cynthia. "What I want more than anything in what I do is to be able to help others as I sing stories, so that someone out there says, 'You get what I'm feeling — I can breathe.'"
Scott is also hosting an additional night in the mainhouse upstairs to kick off his London run, joined by a line-up of guests that is yet to be announced, May 3. It has sold out already, on the strength of his name alone, proving what a devoted fan base he already has in London.
And while he's in Europe, he's also making his Spanish debut with a concert in Barcelona May 11 that's going to feature leading Spanish stars singing his work in Spanish.