The Making of a Musicial World Premiere

Long Wharf stages Kahane’s February House

Written by Lisa Mikulski

Gabriel Kahane. Photo by Josh Goleman.

I have always been fascinated with the artistic process. It is a creative mystery that can seemingly transform a blank canvas into something colorful and bright, create a muscled man from stone, and, in the case of composer Gabriel Kahane, create life from a book.

This February, Long Wharf Theatre is joining with New York City’s Public Theater to bring the story of February House to Connecticut audiences. This world premiere features the musical magic of composer Gabriel Kahane and tells the story of how editor George Davis creates a utopian home in Brooklyn Heights during 1940s wartime America. Personalities such as W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee gather under one roof to explore ideas of love, war, friendship, and their own artistic voices and creative processes. Directed by Davis McCallum, February House features music and lyrics by up-and-coming composer Gabriel Kahane and a book by Seth Bockley.

The production is based on Sherill Tippins’ literary biography February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, and Gypsy Rose Lee Under One Roof in Wartime America, a title that refers to the February birthdays of many of the famous artists who lived there. According to Long Wharf Theatre Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, “this musical is about breaking out. It is a celebration of eccentricity, artistry, and a kind of failed utopian dream. They are dreaming about making a better world. If they can make the better world in their home, maybe they can make one in the outside world.”

What goes into the making of a new musical? The creative process is arduous. “It’s incredibly challenging … unending imagination, resources, and intelligence is required. Musicals are made collaboratively and February House is a deeply collaborative effort,” Edelstein explained. “There are a million challenges and there is no harder task.” For Edelstein, the success of the production depends on how the story is told. In this case, Kahane’s music and lyrics are a key component of that effort. How does one communicate a message through song? What is the right piece for a particular moment? Both Edelstein and Kahane described the rewrites that were necessary in achieving the desired effect. According to Kahane, “the rules of the written book (are) different than keeping someone compelled in theater. I’ve written twice as much music as will appear in the production.”

Kahane, a Brooklynite, describes himself as a tactile musician who likes to explore ideas using piano, voice, and guitar to find the right fi t. In composing the music for this production, Kahane was not just interested in what was going on inside February House, but also the backdrop of wartime America in New York. “I was interested in using the poetry to reflect what was going on outside the house … the looming sense of disaster,” he said. According to Kahane’s website, “Gabriel’s relationship to geography is never far from the surface in his songwriting. He writes about place with a passion often reserved for a lover, the resulting songs offering a unique path toward emotional catharsis.”

Kahane not only creates music for operas and theater productions, but also performs pop songs. While working on February House, Kahane originally thought the score would offer a quasi-operatic feel, “but that felt forced. And then one day with the banjo, suddenly something became clear. My hope is that the different sounds and music will help people understand the different situations and emotions in the play.”  Indeed, diverse characters require diverse music. Kahane’s exciting score mixes elements of operetta, jazz, and musical comedy with modern folk-pop. Kahane’s style helps convey the complexity of the story’s characters. “There is a story we all want to tell,” Kahane said, “and we all want to tell it as beautifully as possible.”

Kahane’s most recent recording as a singer-songwriter is Where are the Arms, which was released in 2011. It is his second CD release. As a composer of concert works, he has received commissions from Carnegie Hall, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Kronos Quartet, American Composers Orchestra, Caramoor International Music Festival, and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, for which he’s serving as composer-in-residence. In October 2012, he’ll make his Carnegie Hall debut in a concert devoted to his music. Inspired by true events, the powerful and funny February House marks the first commission of the Public Theater’s Musical Theater Initiative in collaboration with Long Wharf Theatre, which presents the work through March 18.

The cast of February House includes Stanley Bahorek (Benjamin Britten), Ken Barnett (Peter Pears), Ken Clark (Reeves McCullers), Julian Fleisher (George Davis), Stephanie Hayes (Erika Mann), Erik Lochtefeld (W.H. Auden), Kacie Sheik (Gypsy Rose Lee), A.J. Shively (Chester Kallman), and Kristen Sieh (Carson McCullers). The creative team is made up of Riccardo Hernandez (sets), Jess Goldstein (costumes), Mark Barton (lights), Leon Rothenberg (sound), Andy Boroson (musical director), and Cole Bonenberger (production stage manager).

Visit longwharf.org for tickets. The Public Theater will stage February House May 8–June 10. Visit publictheater.org for details. Learn more about Gabriel Kahane at gabrielkahane.com.

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