Musical Theater Can Create Political Action, Right?

The Songwriter's Orchestra making music -- and change -- at NYC's 54 Below. Photo: Mike Discenza.

In a moment when Americans are looking for means of resistance in all aspects of political, cultural and daily life, musical theater seems like, well, one of our less effective weapons. Yet the musical is often referred to (perhaps disparagingly) as a populist art form. What, then, are the possibilities for musicals to harness the power of the people? How effective are musicals at, for example, documenting contemporary, real-life stories? Can they stir audiences to take direct action? Can they organize communities? With a team of writers, musicians and composers, I’m developing and directing a new project that I believe will explore the potential of musicals to meet us where we are.

Chains Don’t Rattle Themselves derives its title from Dathonie Pinto’s forthcoming memoir of the same name, detailing her experience living through a moment of familial violence that led to the incarceration of her teenage son. The song-cycle brings together formerly incarcerated writers and affected family members, such as Pinto and Anjelique Wadlington, with a group of composer-performers to share stories about youth incarceration and songs adapted from, and inspired by, those stories. While it is a concert staging, the way that Chains Don’t Rattle Themselves intermingles text and music reflects traditional, integrated musical theater storytelling. With performances Sun., March 12 in Port Washington, Long Island and Mon., March 13 in NYC, the project is a collaboration between Herstory Writers Workshop, a social justice organization committed to helping people write their stories, and The Songwriter’s Orchestra, an ensemble that specializes in orchestral arrangements of contemporary genres.

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The songs are haunting, idealistic, tortured, joyous

One classification for the show might be that seemingly incongruous genre: documentary musical theater. Other documusicals might include the verbatim piece London Road and the work of The Civilians; these shows also have something in common with memoir-turned-musicals like Fun Home and the autobiographical Passing Strange. They help audiences to rediscover the utter surrealism of musicals, heightened by the combination of music with the authentic speech of real people, or else by the proximity of a lead character to their real-life alter ego. It’s difficult to imagine what it must be like to look up on stage and see not just you, but a version of you, unabashedly sharing a song that expresses what’s supposedly in your heart. Too strange? Or is it so strange that it creates a comfortable distance?

Writing and performing this song-cycle is a delicate process and a heavy responsibility. I’ve encouraged the songwriters to bring as much of themselves and their own vulnerabilities to the work, which seems key — not thinking of it as a one-sided exercise but, rather, as a give-and-take. The songwriters involved come from both the traditional theater and music communities of NYC: Broadway performers Brinae Ali and Britton Smith, late of Shuffle Along; soul singer-songwriters Olivia Harris and Taylor Simone; John-Michael Lyles, of the current Off-Broadway Sweeney Todd revival; Allison Strong, a performer and bilingual songwriter; and actor-director-writer Zhailon Levingston. The songs are haunting, idealistic, tortured, joyous — hopefully capturing some literal and emotional truth.

Chains Don’t Rattle Themselves can also be seen as a kind of musical community theater. In bringing the show to Manhattan and Long Island, we seek to engage audiences with stories from their neighbors about pressing local issues. We, as NYC theater artists, can easily lose sight of the fact that our work exists not just in the “industry” but in a relatively intimate social and cultural area as well.

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Writing and performing this song-cycle is a delicate process

Community theater, by definition, necessitates accessibility, so a typical theater is probably not our ideal venue. For this reason, our show will take place at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the world’s largest LGBT synagogue. Though NYC’s criminal justice laws disproportionately affect Black and Latinx New Yorkers far more than others, the social movement against this dynamic has strong support from the queer and Jewish communities. Solomon Hoffman, leader of the Songwriter’s Orchestra and the conductor-arranger for the concert, has helped to connect disparate communities through his work with Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice organization that is our co-sponsor for the event. If social and political organizing is rooted in intersectionality, shouldn’t musicals be as well?

Finally, Chains Don’t Rattle Themselves dips its toe into a third niche genre — what I’d call “activist musical theater.” The event was specifically conceived to marshal support for the Raise the Age NY campaign, which began in 2012 to end the practice of New York state prosecuting 16- and 17-year-olds as adults (North Carolina is the only other state still to do so.) Our show is part of a surge of momentum around this issue and offers direct action steps — organizations to donate to, representatives to call, future rallies to attend.

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Part of me wonders whether musical theater featuring a call-to-action eliminates nuance — generally scarce in musicals as it is. Indeed, don’t theater makers fear our work being reduced to a message? Perhaps so, but I also don’t think that attempting to convince audiences that we should raise the age of criminal responsibility simplifies the audience’s journey. It’s the opposite — the audience experiences something like what our composers experienced: listening to a story, confronting and bypassing their own judgments about it, walking around with it, letting it spur them to make something from it. For our composers, that “something” is a song. For the audience, collectively, it could be change.

Chains Don’t Rattle Themselves performs at at Landmark on Main St. (232 Main St.) in Port Washington, Long Island on Sun., March 12 at 4pm, and at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (130 W. 30th St.) on Mon., March 13 at 7:30pm. Performances may not be suitable for children under 10. Tickets are currently on sale and can be purchased online here.

Alex Hare is a director/theatremaker focused on democratizing the creative and rehearsal process in order to create invigorating, joyful, community-building theater. Co-artistic director of the theater collective The Brewing Department, Alex has developed and premiered work at HERE Arts Center, Cherry Lane Theatre, Dramatists Guild, NYCFringe, Dixon Place and Feinstein’s/54 Below. Alex studied English Literature and American Studies at Columbia University.