Track-By-Track: Steven Sater Breaks Down the Alice by Heart Score

Cast Recordings & Albums   Track-By-Track: Steven Sater Breaks Down the Alice by Heart Score
 
The Off-Broadway original cast album from Ghostlight Records is now available.
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Molly Gordon and Colton Ryan Deen van Meer

MCC Theater's Off-Broadway musical Alice By Heart, featuring a score by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, is now available.

The album, released by Ghostlight Records, is produced by composer Duncan Sheik and Kurt Deutsch, with Craig Balsam and Cody Lassen serving as executive producers.

The original cast featured Molly Gordon as Alice and Colton Ryan as Alfred/The White Rabbit, along with Kim Blanck, Mia DiLena, Zachary Downer, Noah Galvin, Zachary Infante, Andrew Kober, Grace McLean, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, Catherine Ricafort, Heath Saunders, and Wesley Taylor. Sater also co-wrote the book with director Jessie Nelson. Choreography was by Rick and Jeff Kuperman.

READ: Alice in Wonderland Collides With 1940s London In Off-Broadway Alice By Heart

The show adapts Lewis Carroll’s famed fantasy into a London-set tale against the backdrop of World War II, as Alice and her friend Alfred journey down a rabbit hole to find love, loss, and the courage to move forward despite harsh circumstances.

After kicking off previews January 30, the production officially opened February 26 at MCC Theater's The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space.

Lyricist Sater broke the score down track by track; his memories and thoughts are below!

WEST OF WORDS
In February 2006, I handed Duncan a hand-typed lyric called “West of Words,” and he soon came back with the same haunting chords you hear on this album. (Initially, that song was meant for Melchior in Spring Awakening—but was later replaced by “All That’s Known”.) Over the course of a decade, since I first adapted it for Alice By Heart, the song’s gone through so many versions, I’ve lost count. In fact, after she’d been performing this ballad for months at MCC, I had to hand our Alice, Molly Gordon, a freshly printed lyric in the recording booth because I’d created a more compact version for this recording. And yet... through every Alice-iteration, the brunt of this song has remained the same.

In the midst of the Nazi bombing of London during World War II, with their homes reduced to rubble, Alice and her beloved childhood friend Alfred huddle in a makeshift shelter in an underground tube station. Though Alfred is stricken with tuberculosis, Alice keeps denying how ill he really is. She’s convinced that, if only she can read to him, she can transport him—west of words—to their imagined Wonderland.

DOWN THE HOLE
Given the fantastical, nonlinear nature of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Duncan and I first conceived of a music-only project, a series of songs and music videos, based on the book. But then, in October 2008, he played me this song. I still remember the chills I felt hearing it—almost as if I went tumbling down a hole within myself. Maybe, I thought, there’s a full stage musical in Alice. Through all the years since, as Jessie, Duncan, and I have developed our show, this anthem has served as Alice’s incantation to Wonderland. As the music rises, she transforms into the Storybook Alice, and then turns Alfred into a proper White Rabbit. Likewise, she summons all the displaced youths in the Tube Station, turning them into her own idiosyncratic versions of Lewis Carroll’s classic characters.

STILL
“Still” was one of the last songs we composed for Alice. One morning last summer, as we workshopped the show at New York Stage & Film, Jessie approached me bright-eyed, telling me she’d had a dream that, when Alice and the White Rabbit met in Wonderland, they shared a new song: a song based on the scene we’d long had there, in which the White Rabbit feels anxious, and declares he’s late, while Alice resists—she wants only to linger with him. Over a sweltering July 4 in Poughkeepsie, I wrote the lyric, and Duncan set it to music the next day. The following morning, as I heard the cast sing through the tune for the first time, I began tweaking the wording. I offered a correction: “Let’s try ‘your roses just bloomin’,” and Molly immediately lit up like a rose. “Oh I love that!” she exclaimed. As our “one and only Alice” over so many years, Molly holds the soul of Wonderland. And so, I kept that lyric.

CHILLIN’ THE REGRETS
“Chillin’ the Regrets” was the first song Duncan and I wrote expressly for Alice By Heart. Shortly after the 2007 Tony Awards, we traveled to Japan to celebrate. There, in the back lobby of our hotel, on a Yamaha grand piano, he first set the music to this lyric. All these years later, and through all the myriad incarnations of this song, I still always hear the original joy and wit he brought to it, alone at that piano.

Within the show: In a cloud of the bluest fumes, Alice meets two cool-kid, seductive Caterpillars. Winding near, they offer her a puff from their hookah, promising that it can “stop time.” This certainly gets Alice’s attention. “One puff,” a Caterpillar promises, “and all one golden afternoon...”

THE KEY IS
Conceived and then composed in the winter/spring of 2018, we first workshopped “The Key Is” in Poughkeepsie—with Jason Hart’s elegant, layered vocal arrangement. The opening verse nods to Walt Whitman’s pronouncement, “I have heard what the talkers were talking...” Indeed, the entire song can be seen as a kind of Song of the Self: a celebration of our innate ability to transform the majestic world without us by unlocking the equally majestic one within us. In this song, Alice holds out the hookah to the White Rabbit, and encourages him to let his twitching head float free. She can make time stop for him, she promises. All he has to do is take a puff. The key to Wonderland is right here at hand.

THOSE LONG EYES
As our first ever Cheshire Cat, it was the 16-year-old Kathryn Gallagher who first sang “Those Long Eyes,” for two workshops in 2010. I remember one afternoon, after she’d sung it through (that voice!—even then), she looked at me wonderingly: “Why do you always use colors in your lyrics?” I came back, with a laugh: “Maybe because they’re a refuge from the darkness within us?” She just smiled that Kathryn smile. “Ha! I’ll have to think about that.”

Within our show: time comes to a glorious halt, for the hushed moment of this song. Alice leads Alfred down from the Wonderland treetops to the golden sands, and there they join their beloved Lobsters in a classic Storybook Quadrille. Just for this moment, Alice holds Alfred within her arms.

MANAGE YOUR FLAMINGO

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Noah Galvin Deen van Meer

From the first audition to the final performance, Noah Galvin was a continual revelation as the mad Duchess of Wonderland, forever unearthing fresh layers of comic disdain. That was all the trickier to achieve, since he was invariably singing the exact same song. “Manage Your Flamingo” was one of the first tunes Duncan and I wrote for the show, and we never changed a word or a note of it.

Within the song, the cross-dressing, body-shaming Duchess chastises Alice for subverting the classic Wonderland narrative. Her real issue is: the bigger Alice grows, the older she makes the Duchess feel.

SICK TO DEATH OF ALICE-NESS
Once upon a time, at my dining table in L.A., I wrote a lyric titled “Sick to Death of Nothingness.” Duncan set the song with aplomb, and soon Ben Platt, Jack Quaid, and Riley Costello were leaping from chair to chair, belting it out in our first workshops. The following year, as Jessie, Duncan, and I worked on the show in London, we came to feel we could do better with that moment musically. I’ll never forget sitting on a street curb in South Bank, scratching out this new lyric, “Sick to Death of Alice-ness.” Ever since, this has served as the bitter, bullying conclusion to our version of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. (What a relief it must have been—for Wes, Zach, and Colton—to record this song while standing still in a booth, rather than leaping onto, swinging from, and being pushed off a tea table.)

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Wesley Taylor Joseph Marzullo/WENN

BRILLIG BRAELIG
As a child, I spent a lot of time in hospitals, confounded and feeling un-comprehended by DoctorSpeak. Those memories came back to me with a fresh bite, as we searched for a musical moment during which the ailing Alfred is sent away to “Ward D”: a sort of hospice, at the end of the line, for the “good-as-dead.” While talking it all through with Jessie, what suddenly struck me was the connection between the menacing medical jargon of our doddering Dr. Butridge and the terrifying gibberish of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” (It was the sort of thought that feels like it’s always been there, waiting for you to catch up to it.) From the connection of my own life to Alice’s Looking-Glass (and with lots of further encouragement from Jess), this macabre dance was born.

SOME THINGS FALL AWAY
In our version of the tale, Alice banishes the Jabberwock, but is left all alone. Without Alfred. Without anyone, really. Feeling lost, she calls out, “Which way?” And the Cheshire Cat appears to her. All Alice wants, she says, is more time with Alfred. “Perhaps he hasn’t much to give,” replies the Cat.

We wrote this song for a 2015 workshop with our producers, Manhattan Class Company, and Emmy Raver-Lampman was the first to sing it. And the song’s remained the same ever since. One thing I’ll never forget: as we rehearsed for our world premiere at MCC this winter, sitting with our then Cheshire Cat, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe and talking through the origins and imagery of the lyric, our conversation ranging from paintings by Edvard Munch to poems by Ted Hughes and Wallace Stevens... Our new Cat, the sly, remarkable Kim Blanck had no such time to prepare! After a few quick rehearsals, she leapt into performing it—as if it were her own spontaneous, heartfelt response.

YOUR SHELL OF GRIEF
This is the last song (to date) we’ve written for Alice By Heart—in a sense, it was shaped by Rick and Jeff Kuperman’s choreographic inspiration and Jessie and Duncan’s shared love of steel drums. As all our Mock Turtle actors through all the years (from Jack Quaid to Andrew Mueller to Alex Brightman to Andrew Kober) can attest, we tried song after song in this spot, but perhaps we finally found what we’d been looking for all along. It’s an anthem for a bereavement group of Mock Turtles, counseling Alice never to recover from her loss: after all, if she never lets go of her grief, then she never has to leave her friend behind.

ANOTHER ROOM IN YOUR HEAD
What I remember most acutely about this song is a walk I took in the moonlight, in Santa Monica, after rewriting the original lyric. We were in the throes of our second workshop. After a long day of rehearsal, Jessie and I met intently about the script; as ever, she urged us deeper into the love story and Alice’s impending sense of loss. It struck me, that night, how much of the current lyric remained unexamined. After a full-on day of hammering away, reshaping it to the version recorded here, I headed on that walk, and felt like we had finally uncovered the soul of our show.

In our Wonderland, Alice wants to avoid her classic Trial. If she never turns another page of the book, she believes, she can simply stop the story here. But Alfred knows they can’t. His deepest concern is how Alice will go on without him.

ISN’T IT A TRIAL?
One sunny summer day in a work room at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, we wrote and then rewrote and then rewrote this (once Kurt Weill–esque) song, to bring out a more gospel flavor. America’s new sweetheart, Beanie Feldstein, was the first to sing it. (I can still see the savage disdain she directed at her BFF Molly as she sang.) Through the years, such a regal lineage of women—like Mary Testa and Lesli Margherita—have claimed it, imperiously dressing down Alice for pretending to be all grown up while acting like such a child. What a thrill, then, to watch Grace McLean take on the crown, as if it had always been hers.

DO YOU THINK WE THINK YOU’RE ALICE?
“Do You Think We Think You’re Alice?” began life as a taunting ditty for the Magpie, Duck, Dodo, and Mouse. (Could I ever forget Skylar Astin quack-quacking through it as our Duck?) Last summer at Poughkeepsie, we crafted a reprise of the song to employ in the Trial. By the time our show opened at MCC, it had become solely the song of the High Court. Who does “the heartless Alice” think she is, the Royals ask: attempting to rewrite their treasured book? Does she think she’s the only reader who ever imagined herself in it? She can’t really believe their dream needs her to dream it!

I’VE SHRUNK ENOUGH
“I’ve Shrunk Enough” was one of the final songs we composed for the show, replacing the rollicking “What Have I Done with Me?”. As much as we loved and still somewhat miss that earlier song, we all felt strongly that in our post-Me Too world, with mad, entitled despots taking the reins around the globe, a musical blast of existential angst would no longer cut it. It was, it is, time for us all to stand up and be heard: “Enough’s enough, we’ve shrunk enough.”

AFTERNOON
I have more than a few indelible memories of this song: Duncan breaking down in tears setting the lyric in my home in Los Angeles; Duncan breaking down in tears the next day, playing the song for the teenaged Ben Platt and Molly Gordon; Jessie throwing herself down on her sword to protect the song in London; Mike Faist ascending into Wonderland heaven in Aspen, climbing over the kneeling bodies of Stephanie Hsu and Phillipa Soo; Molly and Colton recording it so beautifully in Duncan’s mother’s apartment in January, then Colton (who’d come straight from rehearsal to the recording) staining his dress shirt as he wolfed down a pizza.

Over the course of “Afternoon,” Alfred tells Alice farewell, and Alice bids childhood goodbye.

WINTER BLOOMS
Our show begins and ends with melodies originally intended for Spring Awakening. During tech at the Atlantic Theater, Duncan and I wrote “The Cold Blue Cold” as a potential climactic song for that show (in the place of “Those You’ve Known”), but it was never even taught to the actors. I remembered the melody, and years later, we began recrafting it as our closing hymn.

As the show nears conclusion, the shadowy form of the Tube Station fills in around Alice. She hears the tick-tock of Alfred’s pocket watch -- on his empty cot. He’s gone. “What a curious dream I’ve had,” Alice recites, concluding her book. A young girl, Tabatha/Cheshire Cat, encourages her: “Sometimes we overcome, you know, just by going on.”

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