Here's a fun game to play with your musical theater nerd friends: Imagine your favorite shows set in different time periods or locations. For example, what ifFiddler on the Rooftook place in a Cuban cigar lounge as opposed to a shtetl in Russia? This is the premise behindWhat If?, part of theMind The Art Anthologyat La MaMa.
What If?, which will play one more performance on April 2 at 10 p.m., is conceived and musically directed by Christian De Gre. The show is presented as a concert with De Gre explaining the concept before each song, performed by an alternating cast of 14, backed by an 8-piece band. I'd have loved to see some of these ideas fleshed out in longer scenes, but in its current state, it is a highly entertaining evening. Some of the numbers were set to a different genre of music, such as a heavy metal "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." Some featured a new staging concept, such as Jason Robert Brown's "Stars and the Moon" sung by three couples. Others were mash-ups, the best of these being a hip-hop "Modern Major General" backed by snippets from songs about men being men ("C'est Moi," etc.). The highlight of the evening was the grand finale--"In The Heights" sung in the style of Boublil and Schonberg, who wroteLes MiserablesandMiss Saigon. De Gre explained that they were going to take everything that made In The Heightsrevolutionary and take it away. On the one hand, its amusing to hear these songs in unexpected ways, but the larger implications give you something to think about after the show.
Friday night, I sawWhat If?at La MaMa, a show that takes musical theatre songs and reinterprets them. I'd never seen anything there before, which is weird because it's practically around the corner from where I went to grad school and I walked by there a zillion times, so right away I was excited to see the space. The show was in their smaller space, and I liked it a lot. It had this weird kind of part warehouse, part barn feel to it that I thought was really interesting, and it was kind of exciting to think about what kinds of shows would really work there.
…I just want to talk about how moving I found their version of "L'Chaim" from FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, which was done in a slow, Cuban style. The arrangement I heard Friday night was amazing. They played it once through without vocals, then again with three singers, and listening to the song slowed down significantly--especially without vocals--allowed me to focus on the music in a way I never had before. I was surprised by how beautiful the melody became at that tempo; the song felt like a prayer, rather than a rousing celebration as it is originally....
Hearing the song in that style also created such a vivid scene for me. As much as I enjoyed the other reinterpretations, none of them conjured up a whole story the way this version of "L'Chaim" did for me. I felt like I understood the character singing and that I was there, in some kind of factory in Cuba, listening to someone trying to inspire a crowd by paying homage to God. It was honest and simple and beautiful, and I know I'll never hear that song the same way again.