Edna St. Vincent Millay. If you don’t know the name, allow for a primer: The Jazz Age poet was known as a prodigy, a rebel, and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She broke all of the rules, in poetry and in life, launched to stardom with her poem “Renascence” a poem written as the entry in a contest that’s $1,000 prize was to give her, her mother, and her two sisters a new life. In the new musical—titled for the poem—from writer and co-director Dick Scanlan (Thoroughly Modern Millie), co-director Jack Cummings III, and composer Carmel Dean, set the lyrics of Millay to a new sweeping score in an abstract narrative about the poet’s life. (And now, Dean has launched a crowdfunding campaign to get an album made.)
Starring Hannah Corneau as Vincent Millay, the production also stars Mikaela Bennett, Jason Gotay, Danny Harris Kornfeld, Katie Thompson, and Donald Webber, Jr. From the moment the lights rise on the aisles and the players enter, the audience knows this musical is going to be as radical as Millay herself.
Here, Dean and Scanlan talk about how their Renascence came to be.
Discovering the idea for a musical about Edna St. Vincent Millay:
Carmel Dean: The very first time I set Millay’s poetry to music was the the NYU Musical Theater Writing program application. They asked everybody to set the poem “Time Does Not Being Relief” [to an original composition] so there are literally hundreds if not thousands of versions of that song floating around. That’s what introduced me to Millay’s poetry. Over the years, every time I wanted to write an art song, I would open up her volume of poems and find something that spoke to me. I ended up having this collection of probably a dozen poems, which I made demos of. I’d worked with Dick on Everyday Rapture [music directing and arranging] and I told him I was a writer and he expressed interest in hearing my music. I gave him a CD of these Millay songs and I said “Do you think there’s anything there?”
Dick Scanlan: Interestingly, I had come across Vincent Millay researching Thoroughly Modern Millie and, if you know Millie at all, the opening image of Sutton [Foster] at the train station—that was taken from Vincent Millay’s letter home to her mother and sisters about when she stepped off the train in the middle of Grand Central Station. The song “Not For the Life of Me” is inspired by Vincent Millay. I knew about Millay as a cultural figure. When Carmel shared the demo with me I was sort of astonished. Carmel is as good a composer as we have working right now. I was also astonished at how well the poetry lent itself to be musicalized.
Finding the music in the lyrics:
CD: I always let the poems dictate where I wanted the music to go. I thought: What is this emotion that Millay is trying to convey? I try to find the harmonic language first, I try to find the piano accompaniment and then I improvise and sing melodies over that. We used the songs I’d already sent and then we started finding other poems that spoke to the story and spoke to the themes we wanted to explore. It’s a very backwards way of creating.
DS: In a sense, the selection of poems that had not yet been musicalized was easier because they were chosen as we developed a narrative. We’d got through the poems and say, “Oh my goodness this one’s perfect.” [For example] we wanted a sequence in New York where we were dramatizing how pansexual and libertine she was, so completely free form traditional morality of that time or even this time. “The Penitent” is all about innocent sex and shame and Vincent Millay basically saying she’s not capable of feeling shame, so she may as well feel pleasure.
CD: We were locked in one way, but we were also able to break all of these rules in another way.
Creating a new structure for an abstract musical:
DS: In a way the whole play had to be like a poem. It had to have a rhythm to it. It couldn’t be naturalistic in any way, shape, or form.
CD: [Working around these poems as lyrics] enabled us to explore a new form of storytelling—that things don’t need to be literal in our show.
DS: The Millay sisters names were, and are in our play, Kathleen and Norman. In “Lament,” there’s a song and a daughter, Dan and Ann, clearly used for the internal rhyme. I expected a lot of people to complain to me about that—like “I was really confused when their names changed”—but I think it says to the audience, “These poems are not meant to be literal book songs. They’re functioning in a different way. The rules are different in the storytelling.
Casting three men and three women to play characters across genders:
CD: Vocal arranging is one of my favorite things to do. I knew that to get my best sonic experience I needed three men and three women. It felt like an equal balance. It just happened, as Dick and I were exploring who these people were that were going to be in the story of—mostly—four women and two men. Then we realized Edna St. Vincent Millay was a huge pusher of boundaries and gender identity. It really does give it another layer.
DS: One of the things that’s interesting to me about Edna St. Vincent Millay is what a clarion call of a voice she was to young people and also what a singular person she was—how she really made herself up. We wanted to cast six really interesting young actors and create a structure where each one of them were equally distributed and—even though it’s the story of Vincent Millay—all of them get equal time because it’s really as much about these six young artists trying to process their own dreams and ambitions and deeds as much as it is about Millay. They’re using the details of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s life to do that.
Writing a 20-minute epic finale set to the 200+ line “Renascence”:
CD: That ended up being a mega-mix, in a way, of all the songs that we've heard. And that was the last song that I completed for the show, and I knew I wanted to reference every song that we had heard previously. So it ended up being a jigsaw puzzle. Obviously the lyrics weren't repeated from poems that we'd heard previously, but I needed to figure out which section made sense to tie back to a previous melody. the good thing about Renascence, too, is that it's not a literal piece in the show. They are not the same characters anymore. They're the six individuals who've embodied these characters, but are also bringing themselves and bringing the audience's connection in to the world that Vincent created with this poem.
Renascance plays at Off-Broadway’s Abrons Arts Center (466 Grand Street at Pitt Street) in a limited run, with previews from October 5 a closing scheduled for November 17.