Acappella – The Musical (Exclusive Interview)
Florian Städtler (FSt), Vocal Blog editor-in-chief on June 20th, 2015, interviewing Greg Cooper (Executive Producer) and Evan Feist (Music Director) about “Acappella The Musical”, which will debut in New York on July 7th.
Before you read the interview below you might want to win tickets for the upcoming shows of Acappella The Musical (July 7th-14th) by answering the following question: Who wrote the script for A Cappella The Musical?
By sending the correct name to firstname.lastname@example.org by Thursday, 2nd of July, 12pm, you’ll take part in this Vocal Blog ticket raffle. But for now: Enjoy the interview!
FSt: So how about, introducing yourselves a little bit and tell our readers how you both got to do this adventure.
Evan: OK, thank you. So my name is Evan Feist. I’m the music director, the arranger, the orchestrator and the sound designer. I got involved in this project when one of my collaborators Andrew Fox went to the NYMF mixer and met, I believe it was you, Greg, and Vynnie, and he made a beeline to them and said: “I know nothing about your project, but I know, that it’s a cappella, and so I want to be involved!” And they started talking and my name came up, and Andrew gave them my contact info, and I got a couple of calls and a couple of e-mails about this project and I was very excited about it and didn’t really know much about it and, you know, immediately signed on. I had the same kind of reaction that Andrew did, which was: “I don’t really know much about this project, I haven’t seen a script, I don’t really know much about the music, but it’s an acappella musical, and I want to be involved.
Greg: Greg Cooper, I’m the executive producer of Acappella and this project, for me, started about twelve years ago, when I started hearing about all the juke box musicals and I thought, well my favorite group has got a bunch of music, why can’t we take their music and really spin it and kind of put it in 3D so the world can experience it in a different way. So, I contacted the Acappella company and they said: “Go man, go! We think that would be a great idea”. So I began working on the project and then really got started in earnest about three or four years ago, when I came in contact with our amazing book writer Vynnie Meli, and she was able to really craft a really, really amazing story around the music so that it stood up and really, really made sense. So, we started working on that, submitted it to the New York Musical Theater Festival, they loved it, and here we are. So, the basis is obviously this amazing, powerful soul story in music, and I wanted to really let people experience that in a different way, but the idea of combining a cappella and live musical theater is just such a compelling idea and vision for us. We’re so excited about that!
FSt: Yeah, that’s really true. You also answered my second question basically, that you have been thinking about it for a while…
Greg: And Florian, I would be remiss, if I said I did that on purpose *laughs* that really is some divine intervention, that it all happens in this perfect storm type situation we’ve got going with a cappella.
FSt: Yeah, cool. So actually there has been a 24, 25, 30 year old history of what we call contemporary a cappella in the US. But how have you both been, or maybe first, how did you get involved with this kind of early movement? Cause I heard your names before.
Evan: So in 9th grade, when I was about…I’m gonna say twelve or thirteen, there was an a cappella group at my high school, Plainview-Old Bethpaige John F. Kennedy High School in Plainview, Long Island, New York. There was an a capella group, an all-male group, called the B-Sharps, which were the rock stars of our school. I was lucky enough to audition and got in. I was the first freshman to ever be initiated into the group, and it was great. Now, in our high school, there are eight different acappella groups. I really feel that, you know, now that we’re conquering musicals, high school a cappella I think is the new frontier. And so, since then, I ended up running our group in high school and arranging for them. I started a group at the Conservatory of Music at SUNY-Purchase, and we’re just celebrating our ten-year anniversary next year. I was arranging for them and directing them. They just started doing some ICCA stuff, and then ever since I graduated from college, I became a freelance arranger, have worked with a whole bunch of people, recently started as a staff arranger for Acappella Psych and, you know, after college I went to grad school at teachers college at Columbia. Where I really honed my skills as a vocal coach, when I started working with The Voice and contestants from The Sing Off and American Idol. So at this point, you know, it’s so broad and so varied. People ask me what I do for a living and the best answer I can say is, that I’m a musical handyman. Whatever you need to do, you know, I go between a musical handyman and an a cappella vagabond.
FSt: That’s a nice description. And it’s basically one of these careers, that nobody would have thought possible like ten or fifteen years ago.
Evan: Right! And it’s a lot of piecing together. It’s just, you know, freelancing and, you know…I think acappellist is going to be a career path.
FSt: Greg, let’s talk about the musical and the project. In New York, there have been like thousands of great shows, maybe others not so great. Why should people go to Acappella the Musical?
Greg: A really, really good question, Florian. I’ll just say a few words. First of all…romantic comedy. This is gonna be tons of fun, number one. Number two: great story. Really, really excited about this story, that our writers crafted around it. Amazing, amazing cast of people. We’ve got some of the best talent in the city, that are gonna be working with us. I’ll just throw out a few names: Cheryl Freeman is playing Aunt Leona; Jeremiah, our lead, is Tyler Hardwick; Virginia Woodruff…just some amazingly talented people, who are coming together to create this thing, but you asked about the difference. Well, I mean listen, Broadway has got so much variety in entertainment, but listen, when was the last time you saw a full-fledged, real, book-written production, put together Broadway style, with a cappella music? I mean, that’s a spectacle in and of itself. So, we’re definitely going a little bit off the beaten path and outside the box. And I think one of the most important keys for us is, the audience will be able to see, hear, feel, and taste this thing, because the music is a cappella and because Evan is doing such an amazing job of crafting this with the music. The audience will not just be sitting there watching; they’re gonna be interacting with this thing. I mean, we’re already seeing people getting up, standing and clapping and shouting and just having the best time. We really plan this to be a magical, unique musical theater experience. So it’ll be like nothing else, that you can see on Broadway right now.”
Evan: Yeah, I feel like there have been shows, that have gotten towards this kind of genre. There was a show called “Avenue X” and there is another one, that I can’t quite remember the name of… [Greg: Perfect Harmony?] Right! And I think one of the big differences is, that we’re doing this on the NYMF stage, which, you know, is a very collaborative effort and, you know, is just kind of a different kind of stage to put this up on. And then of course coming, I believe, this fall is Deac’s Vocalocity. Which I think is a very, very different thing and I really love that, you know, as our community is growing, as we’re getting bigger and more varied, the kinds of stage shows are changing. I remember, when I was in high school about six or seven months after I started singing a cappella, I saw the off-Broadway show “Toxic Audio”, which was a fantastic show and, you know, to go from seeing a concert in a concert hall to seeing a concert with vignettes on a Broadway-style stage to a full-fledged Broadway musical and then, you know, I feel like things are growing, things are changing and things are branching out a bit. And I think one of the core features of our musical is the idea of finding your own voice and singing your own song. And I think that one of the things, that I love most about our community right now is that there is a way, an opportunity, and a place for everybody to find their own voice, sing their own song and, you know, whatever it is that you want to do, we have a way to support that, and the community is such a warm and loving community, that everyone is supportive of what everyone else is doing. I remember hearing the score for an a cappella opera in Memphis a little while ago, and it’s just amazing, the different kind of things that people are doing and even more amazing than what people are doing, it’s really incredible how everybody is supporting everyone else and it really is a big acappella family.
FSt: What kind of styles of music will people hear in the musical?
Evan: I think at its core, it is an old time gospel musical with a contemporary twist. And I think that is echoed in our story a lot too of this town celebrating its centennial, it’s hundred years old, our prodigal son is returning, which, you know, things are gonna happen and you gonna have to come and see the show to see what happens, but it’s a gospel musical, so you’re gonna get some of that old time gospel, voiced in the very traditional sense with these really big-rooted chords, with these fantastic singers, singing their heart out, belting their face off, And we put a bit of a contemporary twist on things: there’s some R’n'B, there’s a little bit of Reggae. I think what’s really important for our listeners and viewers to know, is that even though it is Acappella the Musical, it is not a pop, “Pitch Perfect” kind of thing. It is deep soul music. And in terms of what we did with the arrangements, in terms of vibe, we tried to keep it as true to the original, true to what a rootsy gospel musical would be, as well as trying to tell our story through these songs. So things get contemporized, things change. And it’s not so much changing it so that it is new, fresh and flashy, it’s more that things are getting tweaked to tell our story, you know, a tune might go minor, a tune might have big 9th, 11th, and 13th chord tone extensions because our ensemble is the vocal band. They are the ensemble in terms of the show, they’re the chorus. But they’re also the townspeople. But they also kinda function as a Greek chorus commenting on the action and talking to our characters as well as the audience about the action. So we’re doing double and triple duty and the music is so lush and so deep that there’s so much to chew on there. Greg did a great job finding which songs to use and Vynnie, our bookwriter, had a great job of putting where they go, and it made my job really really simple in that the story kind of tells itself. The hardest part for me was deciding: is it this or is it that because it’s so good, I want it to be both!
FSt: Of course, you have to make choices so it’s not three hours or something like that. So you told me a little bit about the story without any spoilers to keep me excited. But the music: can you tell me a little bit about the people who wrote the music, who arranged the music?
Greg: Florian, part of this, there’s so many pieces and modalities going into this, but one of the really big pieces is paying tribute and hommage to what I believe is one of the most talented musicians and one of the most incredible figures in the a cappella world that has ever existed. And that is Keith and Melissa Lancaster. Keith founded the A Cappella Company in 1982 and really, he just really laid the groundwork for a lot of what we are experiencing now. So all of the music that we are using in the show was originally produced by The A Cappella Company. They’re a vocal group that’s basically four guys, but when you listen to their music, they will get into the studio, and they will create magic like you have never heard before. So over the years, they have just really really done a bangup job of taking melody and words and lyrics and even scripture and just creating soul-stirring music. So they are…they’re kind of the bedrock for everything that we’re doing.
Evan: The group was started in 1982, and picking this music was really fun because they have over 24 albums, and we really went through their history.
FSt: One word, Greg, about the venue where you are. What is the New York Musical Theatre Festival, and what’s it all about?
Greg: Absolutely. The New York Musical Theatre Festival is the largest musical theatre festival in the country. Just an amazing platform. So accessible for producers and writers of every level, and we’re so excited. The festival takes place during the entire month of July. So there’s actually going to be a ton of productions, but we want everybody coming to ours! So we’re going to be featured during the New York Musical Theatre Festival July 7th-July 14th, and we are at the Pearl Theatre Company Performance Space right at 555 W 42nd Street. Really really great venue. We have 5 performances and maybe a couple more if everyone comes out in support. I’ll leave all the performance date and times to you. Tickets are also reasonable. One of the real mantras of the festival is giving audiences a Broadway-style experience for an extremely good value. So ticket prices are great, it’s a great show, we certainly want you to come on out. Pearl Theatre Company: great venue. And still plenty of good tickets left!
Evan: One of the things I really love about the Pearl is that it is not a ginormous theatre. So our show, especially with an a cappella show, especially with the story we’re telling, it’s a really intimate story. So the fact that we have a smaller, intimate space is really nice and really is working to our advantage because people will feel really immersed into our story.
FSt: Well, everything sounds incredibly great and fascinating and exciting, and we will do the best to spread the word! Hopefully people traveling to New York in addition to New Yorkers will read about it and come out to see it! Is there anything else you want to add at this point?
Greg: We just want to let fans of a cappella know that it is an incredible time to be alive and to be a part of the a cappella world. We are so honored to be a part of that history, and we just want to invite every a cappella fan on the planet to really come and see what we feel like is one of the next steps in taking a cappella to heights that we can’t even imagine.
FSt: I will pass this on, and Vocal Blog will keep everybody posted on the project. Thank you very much for taking the time again! I wish you all the best for the final stretch before production.
Greg: Thank you so much Florian!