In Transit, the new show currently offered by Off-Broadway's Primary Stages, will not have to try too hard to stand out among the dozens of stage offerings this fall in New York. It is the only a cappella musical in town. In fact, it's the only a cappella musical in long memory.
"The only one I know of is Avenue X," says director Joe Calarco, referring to the John Jiler and Ray Leslee musical about race relations in 1963 Gravesend, Brooklyn that played Off-Broadway in 1994. But, Calarco points out, "Avenue X is strictly a doo-wop a cappella musical. This show is every musical style."
How do you end up with an a cappella musical? Well, it helps to start with an a cappella group. In Transit was written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russell M. Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth. All four were members of a singing group in college (along with two other people who have since moved on).
Along the way, to provide themselves with fresh material, they started to write new songs. Eventually, they added stories to them. This was a slow process. Thus, In Transit had been around in one form or another for some years before the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center called Calarco in 2008 and asked if he'd like to direct a reading. As the title somewhat indicates, the show takes place on a New York subway. But the people on the train don't stay there. "There are moments when we go to where people work, and this one character goes home," explains Calarco, who is best known as the adapter and director of the unorthodox Bard adaptation Shakespeare's R&J. "We go a lot of places with them, literally and in their head." Among the riders are an aspiring actress, a fledgling financier, a street-savvy beatboxer and a cab driver. In keeping with the nature of the show, the characters are identified in the program not just by their names, but also their vocal ranges, i.e., "Alto/Regina."
Cast members include Steve French, Celisse Henderson, Hannah Laird, Chesney Snow, Graham Stevens, Denise Summerford and Tommar Wilson. Between them, they play 38 roles. Their function within the piece is tricky, both in vocal and acting terms. "In a cappella, if you're not singing lead, you're singing back-up," explains Calarco. "They're always, all seven of them, singing." However, even though each performer is ever in song, they're not always on stage as a character every moment. This presented difficulties for Calarco and the creators, who had to figure out who each actor was in every scene, not just as a voice, but as a person.
"It's a whole new world, the challenges," Calarco says with a laugh.