The shutdowns provoked by COVID-19 may have put a kibosh on in-person performance, but it hasn't stopped the creation of new music and theatre. In fact, the idea of songwriters trapped in their homes led producer Andrew Gerle to create the new album Artists in Residence. Released digitally by Broadway Records June 26, the album features 14 original songs written in quarantine; proceeds from the recording will benefit The Actors Fund and the Dramatists Guild Foundation.
Artists in Residence includes songs by Alan Menken, David Zippel, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, as well as multiple award-winning theatre writers Todd Almond, Sean Barry and Jenny Giering, Carmel Dean, Andrew Gerle, Adam Gwon, Peter Mills, Ryan Scott Oliver, Eric Price and Will Reynolds, Jonathan Tunick, Ben Wexler, Jake Wildhorn, and David and Joseph Zellnik. With performances by Harolyn Blackwell, Victoria Clark Menken, Santino Fontana, Amber Gray, Victoria Huston-Elem, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Rachel Bay Jones, Patina Miller, Christiane Noll, Laura Osnes, and Lauren Ward, and orchestrations by Tunick and Michael Starobin, the writers and performers for this album have won 12 Tony Awards, nine Academy Awards, 14 Grammy Awards, 13 Drama Desk Awards, thee Olivier Awards, thee Emmy Awards, six Richard Rodgers Awards, three Kleban Prizes, three Fred Ebb Awards, and three Jonathan Larson grants.
Here, each of the songwriters offers a glimpse into the story behind their tune and the process of writing their original piece:
“I Don’t Know About You” by Todd Almond
Almond: When Andrew reached out with this idea, I said yes while having no idea what I would write about. This was before the murder of George Floyd and during the moment in the pandemic when there were many more questions than answers, so the feelings of isolation were at the forefront. My nighttime dreams, which are typically fully-produced and finely-plotted extravaganzas, were full of passageway imagery (doors, halls, magic entrances and exits) and I had been hearing that most everyone else was experiencing atypical dreams (or dreams at all) as well. So I pitched that idea to Andrew (a song about my COVID-stress-influenced dreams) and he thought it was a good idea. So off I went.
“Essential” by Ben Wexler
Wexler: When writing this song, I was thinking especially of people who live alone in New York City—not the millennial newcomers, but those who have lived a lifetime here, have had partners and lost them, have developed their “New York ecosystem” of friends and neighborhood spots that gets them through, only to have that stripped from them by this virus. I wanted to imagine a woman, who in the face of loneliness and isolation, finds a new set of “essentials” to get her through this painful time. Finding a way to make her “OK,” or at least almost OK, has helped me find touchstones in my own life to be grateful for.
“Rooftop Girl” by Andrew Gerle
Gerle: I knew I wanted to do something fun, with lots of energy, something that allowed a little celebration and optimism even with everything we're all going through. I had just seen the viral TikTok video by Jeremy Cohen where he looks out his window and sees a girl dancing on the roof of a nearby building and decides to send a note to her with his drone. Her surprised and happy reaction, and the fact that he suggests introducing himself to strangers is not something he normally does, made me smile all over and I thought this could be a great little story song. I imagined his apartment and basically just fleshed out his video into a full mini three-act play. I haven't heard from him yet, but if he sees it, I hope he likes it!
“Two Buoys” by Peter Mills
Mills: When the lockdown began, I remember feeling very grateful that I would be quarantined with my wife, and that we would navigate the uncertain times ahead together. That sense of connection and mutual support is how the image of the two buoys had first occurred to me. And as I continued to think about it, the metaphor seemed to resonate more broadly, getting at the interconnectedness of a whole community or society as it weathers the storms. During these times when we have been so isolated from one another, I have felt those connections all the more powerfully as a source of strength and hope; they are our lifelines. Thank you, Andrew, for offering me this opportunity; thank you, Tori and Eli, for creating a beautiful arrangement of my song. Those connections have buoyed my spirits, and I hope the song can do the same for others.
“Stay Home” by Alan Menken and David Zippel
Zippel: I was sitting on my butt in California in self-quarantine. I had just returned from London where a terrific West End production of City of Angels closed after the 12th preview and a workshop of Cinderella lasted a single day before being shuttered. Facing a seemingly endless need to “shelter in place,” once my quarantine was completed, I had this idea for a song. I asked Alan [Menken] if he wanted to write it with me. He said yes. A couple of days later, I got an email from Andrew Gerle asking if I wanted to write a song for Artists in Residence. It felt like it was meant to be. Alan created a demo and we started to discuss singers to do the final version. But the more I listened to the demo and Alan’s charming rendition it became clear that Alan should be the singer.
“Find My Way Home” by Adam Gwon
Gwon: This songwriting assignment came at a peak moment of quarantine ennui. I was dealing with the uncertainty (and the creakiness of my idle limbs) by jogging through my neighborhood. I had ample time, and the jogs got longer. I soon realized there were huge swaths of the neighborhood I’d never seen, despite having lived here for nearly a decade. Certain streets I hadn’t crossed, intersections where I’d always turned right, and never left. As I uncovered new buildings and unfamiliar blocks, my ennui was replaced by wonder—at what’s out there to be discovered when you’re forced to abandon the path you know. It was a first spark of hope, that, on the other side of this, we’d find our way back to a better world than the one we left.
“New York Day” by Joseph and David Zellnik
The Zellniks: Perhaps because of our love for the WWII era (our best known show, Yank!, is set during the war) we immediately thought of the wartime city of the early '40s, with its blackout curtains and marquees turned off. Of course, 2020 is very different time, but this thought inspired us to write a version of one of our favorite genres from that time, the so-called “future nostalgia songs” that looked forward to the return of happier days. Musically, Joe aimed for a modern take on that era’s swoony and lush harmonies, while David landed on an idea of conjuring up one day in the life of New York, full of the unremarkable sights and sounds we all took for granted. We were thrilled our first choice of singer, Santino Fontana—possessor of one of the prettiest voices on Broadway—said yes right away, and delivered a gorgeous rendition of the tune, tinged with melancholy but full of warmth, just exactly the tone we were going for.
“Something You Can't Lose” by Jake Wildhorn
Wildhorn: I wanted to write something about being close and honest during a time when it was hard to be. And hopefully without it being too on the nose.
“Time Moves On” by Carmel Dean
Dean: Like many of us, I’ve been marveling at how we are experiencing time whilst we are in quarantine. Especially in the beginning, when it essentially felt like the world “stopped,” it was remarkable how quickly the days and weeks passed. And the little things like seeing your roots grow out, your pedicure fade away—the things we get taken care of, that we take for granted, that were no longer an option, kept reminding me that things never really STOP. And then there was the guilt of noticing these things and wanting them to get taken care of along with the shock and trauma of an unprecedented worldwide pandemic where people are losing their loved ones and jobs and stability. So this "quarantine time warp” felt like a great theme to explore!
“Central Park at Dusk” by Jonathan Tunick
Tunick: A native New Yorker, I grew up on the Upper West Side, a few steps from Central Park, which was my childhood playground. Every rock was a mountain, a fort, or a desert island; every bush a jungle; every grove of trees a forest, a setting for games and adventures. In these long days of quarantine, I remember my park, and long, as Sara Teasdale (who lived on Central Park West a hundred years ago) did, for the “Spring,” which inspired me to compose this little song.
“What a Thought” by Ryan Scott Oliver
Oliver: My song ‘What a Thought’ is inspired by the Shirley Jackson story of the same name (you know her from her story “The Lottery” and as the source material for the Netflix show The Haunting of Hill House). The original tale narrates the descent into madness undergone by a housewife who can’t get the homicidal urge to murder her husband out of her mind. Knowing how many of us were/are trapped at home with our spouses, roommates, and family members for months—without any escape possible—I thought this story seemed fitting for our time. I updated the scenario to be about a gay couple, and my long-time collaborator Jay Armstrong Johnson and I had a blast playing house. For what it’s worth, my real-life husband, Broadway photographer Matthew Murphy, loves the song because he says he know there’s absolutely no truth in it. Ha, the fool.
“Someday” by Sean Barry and Jenny Giering
Barry and Giering: We were thrilled when Andrew approached us to be a part of the Artists in Residence project. We’d left Brooklyn some years ago to live full-time in the hills of Western Massachusetts, hoping to devote more of our energy to our creative lives and less to finding ways to pay for them. And though at times that choice has felt like a difficult one, we were grateful to find ourselves in a rural location during this pandemic. So far, our town still has recorded no cases of COVID, which is remarkable. Yet our lives have been impacted in countless ways—from the loss of writing retreats and productions of our shows, to the end of middle school and university for our kids.
Stuck at home with our 13- and 22-year-olds, our thoughts centered on them and on what they stood to lose. Milestones at their ages seemed somehow more precious—or at least more monumental—than those at ours. So our song started with them at its center.
As any parent will tell you, parenting is 50 percent adoration and 50 percent wanting to stick your kid in the curbside "free box." That balance changes over time—or hour to hour—but we wanted to find some way to express the understanding that while this pandemic has been massively tragic and profoundly disruptive, it has also compelled us to find ways to be well together. That means different things for different people. For our family, it has meant cherishing our shared time. Yet however noble that might sound, our sense of appreciation kept foundering on the shoals of dirty laundry, unwashed dishes, and endless Xbox games. And that seemed worth exploring, somehow.
Our song, “Someday,” sits in that tug-of-war between love and frustration. Half the time we feel compelled to acknowledge our sense of gratitude and recognize that this time together is fleeting; the other half, we bemoan the loss of those busy Brooklyn curbsides, where the free-box was quickly picked through.
“Calle Santa Barbara” by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty
Ahrens: My first instinct was to try and write something up-tempo, bold, rhythmic, maybe even light-hearted—anything but sad. There was too much sadness already, all of us sequestered away from our normal lives and from one another. But Stephen said, “I don’t know if I can do that right now.” So I told him I’d set whatever he came up with. (Truth is, I far prefer having the music first, anyway.)
Flaherty: I was hunkering down in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where my husband and I have a home, and wanted to write a piece of music that reflected how I was feeling at the moment, how I was processing things. I came up with a melody that felt reflective, in nature, as if someone was looking back while trying to find a way forward. I played it into my iPhone and the VoiceMemos app stamped it “Calle Santa Barbara,” which is the name of the street where I recorded it, and sent the tune off to Lynn.
Ahrens: The intimate melody made me imagine someone in isolation with the time to look at all the objects and pictures in their home, remembering where each came from and what memories they conjured up, something I’d been doing myself. I thought Stephen intended “Calle Santa Barbara” to be the title, so I set it. It fit perfectly on the six-note phrase of the melody. First song of ours to be named by GPS!
“When I See You Again” by Eric Price and Will Reynolds
Price and Reynolds: This song imagines the time when we can all gather in the theatre again. A time when we can make music, tell stories, and be in one big room together. Our hope is that hearing the song now will help bridge the gap to that much-awaited moment. The writing happened over the course of a few days in late April while Will was in Brooklyn, I was on Cape Cod, and there were no live performances happening anywhere. Our work was enhanced immeasurably by Charlie Rosen’s stirring orchestrations, the crystalline performance by Laura Osnes, and the incredible instrumentalists who lent their artistry to the song. We’re very grateful that the finished product is reaching listeners today and we eagerly await when audiences can hear it again, live.