– by guest writer Harv Lester –
I routinely search out new cast albums for musical theater shows. I have what I once thought was a very large cast album collection – between 900 and 1,000 cast recordings – until I recently did a show with someone who has three times as many. Even though I’ll apparently never hold the record (pun intended) for most cast recordings, I still love trolling around thrift shops and yard sales, as well as on-line on Ebay and elsewhere, looking for old, or not-so-old, CDs of musical theater shows that I do not have and of which, sometimes, I’ve never even heard.
When you listen to a recording of a show previously unknown to you, it often becomes pretty clear pretty quickly why you’ve never heard of that show and why, at least from a music perspective, it never went anywhere. But occasionally, you discover great music from some obscure place that totally captures you, totally speaks to you, and makes you want to learn more about how it came to be.
You wonder what it would be like to see it on stage. Would staging it add new layers of complexity, or is the music better heard on a recording rather than on a stage? You look on-line to see where you might see it, but, most of the time, there’s nothing because the show is just too obscure. You just have to wait, and keep your eyes open, for a time when someone might find it and get the idea to produce it. You add the CD to your music rotation, and you wait for someone else to find and produce a production of it.
That is what happened when I discovered Songs from an Unmade Bed. I ran across a used CD of the show – in a battered case with stickers on it indicating its former ownership by the St. Louis Public Library system.
I’d never heard of the show, but the cast recording was published by Sh-K-Boom Records, which has a good track record of recording interesting musical theater shows so that they can be heard outside of New York.
The show is billed as a “theatrical song cycle” of 18 songs, which, when you put them together, tell the story of a smart, resilient, wry, and ultimately romantic gay man going through the heartaches and triumphs of love and sex in the big city. Each song tells a separate story – some funny, some a bit heartbreaking, and all honest depictions of life.
They maintain, as the New York Times described them, “a sardonic, self-mocking honesty with glimpses of deeper emotion”: in “Perfect, Finite,” a one-night-stand from a youthful past is remembered with some longing yet contentedly; in “Florence,” the naïve excitement of a trip to Italy is repeatedly pulled back by a desire to be too cool to express it; in “The Other Other Woman,” it’s the discovery that your partner in a series of adulterous trysts has betrayed you with another series of adulterous trysts. I completely relate to many of the situations and feelings that the songs relay through my own similar experiences, memories, regrets, and secrets. And even those songs that don’t directly address situations from my own life – I have never been the “Other Other Woman” – are so real that you cannot help but relate to them or at least understand the emotions underlying the stories that they tell.
The way that the show was created is a bit unusual. In 2005, lyricist Mark Campbell, an opera librettist who most recently wrote the libretto for the opera Silent Night (which then won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music), asked 18 different composers, including Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) and Jake Heggie (the opera Dead Man Walking), to put music to his lyrics to complete the telling of his stories of “The Man.”
Songs from an Unmade Bed
Lyrics by Mark Campbell
Music by Various Artists
at Fort Fringe – Bedroom
612 L Street NW
Details and Tickets
In the resulting one-man performance piece, with an on-stage orchestra of piano, cello, and percussion, “The Man” brings the audience into the most personal of spaces – his bedroom – where he reflects upon, and explores, his emotional and sexual past. Every song is sung in, or around, the bed. Variety, in writing about the show, said that “Songs from an Unmade Bed might be one of the best hours not spent in bed. Mark Campbell’s lean style, sly point of view and overall sensibility are entirely his own …. The 18 composer pals he turns out for this endeavor match the message with sophisticated and beguiling melodies, wrapped in loving arrangements.”
At only 60 minutes, it is not the type of show that you would typically see on a traditional theater’s schedule. And the subject matter – a gay man in his bedroom singing about his sexual and romantic past (or present) – is not necessarily something that would draw suburban audiences. But, even though the character here is gay, the emotions and experiences that he discusses are universal.
After having heard the music and stories many times and the stories that they told, I wanted to experience a real production of the show and see the songs that I’d heard so often come to life on-stage. Tired of waiting for someone else to put it together, I thought that I was ready to take on “The Man” myself and sing his stories. With an outstanding music director, Elisa Altman Rosman, and director, Joshua Redford, on board, I thought that we could make it come to life.
And I thought of Capital Fringe. I’ve performed in two prior Fringe shows, as well as a show at the New York International Fringe Festival, and all have been incredible experiences. It is a unique feeling to be a part of something that generates as much excitement, enthusiasm, and great raw art as Fringe.
And at 60 minutes, Fringe seems like a perfect place for a work of intelligent musical storytelling like Songs From An Unmade Bed. We are ready to tell these often poignant stories that find humor in the most ridiculous of situations and give hope that, even in the face of exhausting loneliness, we can move on, love some more, and find a place for ourselves … all dressed up with great music!
Harv Lester is a DC area attorney-by-day and musical theater actor-by-night.
Fringe Peeks is part of our ‘in their own words’ series.