When McCarter Theater produced “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the spring of 2006, they introduced area audiences to the band GrooveLily, who performed live onstage as an integral part of the production. At that time, U.S. 1 theater critic Simon Saltzman described their music as “sensual, glib, romantic and raucous. . . with an eclectic musical vocabulary traversing rock blues, Broadway, folk and jazz…mostly defined by its originality and independence.”
This month they are back at McCarter with a new musical, “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” with music by Brendan Milburn, lyrics by Valerie Vigoda, and book by Rachel Sheinkin. Sheinkin wrote the award-winning book for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Milburn and Vigoda are the husband and wife team making up two-thirds of GrooveLily (the third member, Gene Lewin, is not involved in this project). Beginning with the familiar fairy tale, the musical soon relocates to a contemporary sleep disorder clinic where resonances from the old story continue to weave into the musical, exploring, according to a press statement, the “magical space between dreaming and waking.”
“Sleeping Beauty Wakes” goes into previews on Friday, April 29, and opens on Friday, May 6. It runs through Sunday, June 5.
The story of how the musical came to be actually begins when Vigoda and Milburn teamed up to make music. “I went to New York and wanted to be Sara McLaughlin,” Vigoda says in a phone interview. She did follow that path, singing, writing music, and forming a band. Through mutual friends, she met Milburn who was a New York University graduate student. Since he kept dropping off music tapes at her apartment, she describes him as “a stalker with great references.” Soon they started writing songs together and have continued for the past 17 years. In addition to concert performances, they have released a number of albums, and written additional music for Disney’s “Toy Story, the Musical” featured on cruise lines. In 2005 they produced their proudest achievement, their son, Mose.
Vigoda, Milburn, and Sheinkin first collaborated on “Striking 12,” a concert musical based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.” They wanted to do a holiday show, “but something universal, not Christmas or Hanukah,” says Vigoda, adding, “It became not a retelling of the story, but a multi-layered back-and-forth-in-time, frame-upon-frame story, playing characters in the story ourselves, and also serving as commentators on the action.”
When they performed it as part of the 2004 National Alliance for Musical Theater Festival, people from the North Hollywood, CA-based Deaf West Theater were in the audience. Vigoda remembers, “They loved the idea of the band being on stage and the idea of the fairy tale.” So they were asked to write an original show for Deaf West Theater, again based on a fairy tale and with the band on stage. “Brendan and I first came up with the idea of doing ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ and calling it ‘Rump: the Musical.’ Rachel very wisely said she didn’t know if that was the right thing to do.” She suggested instead “Sleeping Beauty,” who after falling asleep for 100 years, wakes up in a present-day sleep disorder clinic.
‘We love her brain and were immediately enamored with this idea — dreamy and fun with otherworldliness and humor,” says Vigoda. “It started to appeal to us on a personal level because about that time Brendan and I were trying to have a child. A large part of the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ story begins long before Beauty was born when the king and queen want, more than anything, to have a child. They go through quite a lot to have this child, who is then very precious to them.”
If you don’t remember the story, at baby Aurora’s christening, a fairy who doesn’t get an invitation to the event crashes the party and casts a spell on the baby, with the dire warning that when she’s 16, she will prick her finger on a spindle and die. Another fairy can only temper the spell, making it a sleeping sentence of 100 years. So, the king and queen ban spindles all through the kingdom. Wouldn’t you know: on Beauty’s 16th birthday she wanders into an out-of-the-way place and pricks her finger on a spindle.
Just as Vigoda and Milburn were beginning to develop “Sleeping Beauty,” they discovered that their son, Mose, had a serious peanut allergy. “Overprotectiveness kicked in and was right there in the forefront of our lives,” says Vigoda. In Milburn’s blog, he expands on this: “In the show, we’ve sublimated our fears and worries about our son’s own ‘spindle allergy.’ It has blossomed in a way that I’m really excited about; it’s a fairy tale, but it springs from our own experience. You can’t be too careful, and of course, you can be too careful.”
Originally based in New York City, the family now lives in California, but all of them have journeyed to Princeton for rehearsals. And thanks to an accommodating school in this area, Mose is able to attend classes. He did take time off to attend the play reading on the first day of rehearsals. According to Milburn’s blog, “It’s tradition at McCarter for everyone in the room to stand and introduce themselves: name, job. Mose stood up when it was his turn, climbed up on his chair, and announced in a big theatrical voice, in front of the assembled crowd of about 50 people, “I’m Mose, the caped avenger!” Theatricality is inborn. Vigoda admits Mose likes to “pound away on the piano and he drums on everything. We think he’s just about ready for some real music lessons.”
It’s a heritage that goes back to the grandfathers. According to Vigoda, Brendan’s father started out playing pop but grew into more classical music. A few years ago he retired as professor of composition and theory at Rice University. Vigoda’s father, Bob, had a career as a society pianist in the Washington, DC, area, where she grew up. “He had a wonderful way of bringing people together around a piano. Whether they were Republicans or Democrats who weren’t the best of friends, within 15 minutes they’d be singing together songs that they didn’t remember that they knew,” she says, adding that he’s coming up to see “Sleeping Beauty” “at least once.”
The Deaf West Theater production of “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” featured a blending of speaking and singing actors, with the musicians on stage. Vigoda shared the role of Beauty with an actress who signed the story. “When she would sign, I would follow her and watch her like a hawk; we would be performing in sync.” Not only did Vigoda sing, she also played electric violin. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” (This combination of signing, speaking, and singing was introduced on Broadway by Deaf West’s 1985 production of “Big River.”)
McCarter’s producing director Mara Isaacs saw this west coast production. And thus began a re-development for the past three years of a new “Sleeping Beauty Wakes” as a co-production of McCarter with La Jolla Playhouse in California where it will be performed after the New Jersey run. The musicians (a five-piece band) are no longer on stage, and there’s no sign language. Vigoda says, “It’s also good that now the creative team is not on stage. We can sit back and watch and be more objective as the play develops in this new form.”
Also returning to McCarter as director is Rebecca Taichman (from McCarter’s 2009 production of “Twelfth Night”). Vigoda says Taichman and choreographer Doug Varone are “elevating our work to a new level by incorporating fantastical, very theatrical ‘dreamscapes’ along with a vibrant modern dance component.” Some of the original songs remain, but the script and score continues to be revised as they rehearse.
Princeton has played an important part in Vigoda’s history. Early in her education in McLean, Virginia, she managed to skip a grade or two, and found herself receiving an acceptance letter to Princeton University when she was only 14 years old. She explains, “I was always good at test taking, putting marks in those little squares.” Being so young at college did seem strange to her and, she says, “I don’t think I would recommend it.” So, instead of focusing on learning and academics, she admits this time was more about being assertive and having fun. “I was a bit of a rebel.”
She has played violin for as long as she can remember. So, after a year at Princeton, she dropped out to attend a music conservatory. However, she returned to Princeton and “to prove my independence, joined ROTC. I surprised everyone, but it was so great for me. I had been a sedentary quiet little violin player who now was taking orders and giving orders to older classmates. It was great leadership training.” She received a Guaranteed Reserve Duty Scholarship, which meant that she would never be called up for a full-time active duty unless there was a war. “It was the late ’80s; the war situation was very different then. My ROTC duties were like having a part-time job.” In 1987, she graduated from Princeton with a degree in sociology. Vigoda reminds me, “sociology’s about why people do things.” This fits neatly into writing lyrics for “Sleeping Beauty Wakes.” “The story and the music are a lot about choosing to live awake in the world.”
Sleeping Beauty Wakes, Berlind Theater at the McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. Previews begin Friday, April 29. Opening night is Friday, May 6. Runs through Sunday, June 5. Musical by Rachel Sheinkin, music by Brendan Milburn, and lyrics by Valerie Vigoda. Directed by Rebecca Taichman. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.