Gene Lewin and I went to Princeton High School together, dare I say, 25 years ago? Even back then he was an animal on the drums and chewing up the stage under the superlative direction of the legendary studio band leader Tony Biancosino. Destined to become a musician, Gene is now in a band called GrooveLily, with Valerie Vigoda on electric violin and her husband, Brendan Milburn, on keyboards.
When I learned GrooveLily was coming to Princeton to play in a new production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at McCarter, I had to know, was Gene still as funny and warm and charming as I remembered him? The answer is a definitive yes, as I discovered over breakfast with GrooveLily last week in the Tap Room of the Nassau Inn. (Valerie, a slim, attractive strawberry blonde, ran all the way to the Nassau Inn from the house McCarter has rented for them near Lake Carnegie. You’d never know she had a baby five months ago.) They laugh as hard as the day is long, tease one another ferociously, interrupt one another shamelessly, eat off one another’s plates, and ponder how they came to be doing Shakespeare upon McCarter’s stage.
U.S.1: Gene, you graduated from Princeton University in 1984 and earned a masters in jazz and commercial music from the Manhattan School of Music in 1991. Valerie, you grew up in McLean, Virginia, and graduated from Princeton in 1987. Brendan, you grew up in San Francisco, earned a bachelors in music for the theater from Pomona College in 1993, and an MFA in musical theater from NYU in 1995. Valerie, did you and Gene meet at Princeton?
Valerie: No we overlapped by one year. We actually didn’t meet until we were both alumni.
Brendan: The very short version is that Valerie and Gene met at a party sometime in Boston after they both graduated from Princeton. But they didn’t start playing music together until I met Valerie in June, 1994, at a club in New York called Tramps, where Valerie was playing with the Valerie Vigoda Band, the seven-piece band she started in 1994. I tried to join the band and started dropping off tapes at her apartment. I joined the band before Gene. Gene started subbing on drums in late 1994. We were still making the transition from all the Washington, DC, musicians; Valerie had just moved up here. And slowly over the course of the next several years we developed into a trio with electric violin, keyboards, and drums, and Gene joined fulltime in 1997.
U.S.1: Who came up with the name GrooveLily?
Valerie: I came up with the name in 1995, when it was clear we were becoming something more than just the Valerie Vigoda Band. I wanted a name that was one word, visually striking and memorable, and something that reflected what we strive for in our music: something irresistibly rhythmic and lyrical, funky and beautiful — so the image of a dancing flower popped into my hed and seemed perfect — a GrooveLily.
U.S.1: What did your parents do for a living?
Brendan: My father played jazz piano for an improv comedy group while he was getting his masters, then he went on to become a professor of music theory and composition at Rice University. My mom did a number of things including rock ‘n’ roll publicity.
Gene: My dad was a professor of electrical engineering at Rutgers and got his Ph.D. at Princeton, and that’s how we ended up here. He also always played music. All our dads are musical. My dad’s a jazz flute player, never did it as a career but always played very actively, in fact, he played a three-year weekly gig right here in the room we’re sitting in now. My mom worked for a few real estate agents in Princeton. She also ran the Susuki Gallery, which used to be next to Good Time Charley’s in Kingston. It was run by her and her friend, Sue, so she was Suki of Susuki.
Valerie: My dad was and is the society jazz piano player for the DC area, Georgetown, Middleburg, that whole scene. He’s amazing; he’s an encyclopedia of pop music from 1910 to 1980. He knows all the songs that are on the tip of everyone’s tongue but you don’t know the words; he knows them. Even in a room of opposing factions, Republicans and Democrats, he has them all around the piano by the end of the evening. He does selected shows now, and recently did a show at the Kennedy Center. He went to George Washington University and met my mom at a piano bar. My mom actually worked for the government for a long time on Capitol Hill as an assistant to many different senators and Congressman and eventually worked overtly at the CIA.
U.S.1: I Googled you and found that girl.com in Australia describes your music like this: “GrooveLily plays smart pop, with a contagiously effervescent sound that combines a sharp wit with intelligent song writing. Unabashedly combining elements of rock, jazz, folk and popular music, their vocal harmonies weave through a lush musical landscape textured with keyboards, drums, and the blazing electric violin of lead singer Valerie Vigoda.” Is that accurate?
Valerie: Well, actually, we wrote that. I think they lifted it from our press kit.
U.S.1: How did GrooveLily and McCarter start this collaboration for Midsummer Night’s Dream. Did someone see you at a club?
Valerie: There’s an annual conference called the National Alliance for Musical Theater, which showcases eight new musicals a year at Dodger Stages in New York, and draws representatives from regional theaters all over the country and some international.
Brendan: On October 3 and 4, 2004, we did a 45-minute showcase version of our musical, “Striking 12” [an original musical based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl”]. I can’t remember anybody’s name but I can remember those dates.
Valerie: In the audience were Mara Isaacs from McCarter Theater and Michael Gennaro from Paper Mill Playhouse. Later, they started thinking about what they would want to do with us, and eventually they settled on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as a co-production.
U.S.1: But they were still not sure what they were going to do to use GrooveLily?
Valerie: Well, we’re still not sure what we’re going to do. (Laughs.) They still didn’t have a director. They had a play — and us. But we had met Tina Landau a couple of years ago. She had seen GrooveLily in San Diego, when we did “Striking 12” at the Old Globe Theater. Our director, Ted Sperling, is a very good friend of Tina’s. So here we were doing pop-rock musical theater.
U.S.1: You’re really kind of in a genre by yourself.
Valerie: It’s a niche. We tried to fit into the music industry, and we kept butting our heads up against a wall, finding that every time we would audition for a record company they really liked us but they said we were too theatrical. Eventually we gave up and said, you know what, we’re just gonna be who we are. Suddenly, the theater world starting opening up to us.
U.S.1: So then what happened with Midsummer? I understand Tina Landau started a fairy club with her nephew when he was three. So I guess she’s perfect for this project.
Brendan: She’s also really into her nieces and nephews. She brought them to a rehearsal and said, tell us if you don’t understand what we’re doing, because this is all for you guys.
Gene: There were some kids at the event we did at the Princeton Public Library last night. Tina was excited and said to them, even though there’s language in the play that you guys probably won’t understand, we want you to understand this production. She’s not dumbing it down but she’s making it clear.
Brendan: I think this production would work for a child six or older.
Gene: I think that the way it’s staged, you can understand the action. I mean I think that’s true of “Midsummer” anyway. Because I’ve seen it many times, and I am so not a Shakespeare person, and I’ve understood the story whenever I’ve seen it. But this is the first time I’m starting to understand the text.
U.S.1: So are you on stage the whole time? I understand that the production is your dream. How would you describe that?
Brendan: We’re on stage every moment except for about 45 seconds close to the end. Tina was given the text and the band, and she had to find a way to put them together. So her notion was that this production is GrooveLily’s dream. It springs from the minds and the music of the band. The show begins with the three of us in an ersatz rehearsal studio with beer bottles scattered around. Suddenly things start to get weird. The overture begins, we’re not yet playing. The studio starts to break apart into three separate pieces. Gene’s drumsticks start to float, flowers grow under my keyboard, Valerie start to rise into the air, and we begin to play along.
Gene: And after that a couple of things start to happen that don’t happen in regular GrooveLily gigs.
Brendan: And then there’s a sudden change, and we’re in the play proper. I think visually and sonically it will be clear that it’s our dream. We also play parts in the play, we’re the rough handicraftsmen of Athens.
Gene: When we first come on in that scene we’re a little confused, like, are we in a dream? What the heck’s going on? In the Q&A last night someone asked whose dream is the show? But ultimately last night we realized it’s really Tina’s dream because she’s the one who said, ‘I’m designing the light cues so it’s my dream.’ (Laughs.)
U.S.1: So you’re having fun.
Valerie: It’s really fun.
Brendan: It’s a blast.
U.S.1: How is this different than your normal GrooveLily life, going to gigs and doing musical theater?
Brendan: Having to pay attention to a cast of 19 at every moment. We act a little bit, we play a lot of music, but we’re there to listen, watch, and react. At every single minute. We are integrated into the fabric of the story at a level that we’re not used to.
U.S. 1: That’s a lot of responsibility.
Gene: In some ways it’s less pressure than a normal gig where we’re the only three people onstage but in other ways it’s more — first of all we’re not as used to it and second of all we want to serve the play as much as possible so we’re all much more exhausted I think after two hours of this than after two hours of rehearsal with just us.
Valerie: I’m used to being the only mobile one in the band, and can do whatever I want in terms of where I want to go but here if I do that, if I don’t actually make it to the mark by a certain part of the music —
U.S.1: Are you blocked like actors are blocked?
Brendan: Sort of. Tina’s not big into blocking but that’s —
Valerie: There is traffic flow. And there are moments of dancing.
U.S.1: How did you determine where there should be music in the show?
Brendan: In terms of where there’s a song in the show, we worked with Tina a little bit like the composer works with the book writer on a musical.
Valerie: There are 15 to 20 original songs in the show. There are songs that are completely original with our voices and other songs with our music with the Shakespeare text. And a lot of underscoring.
U.S.1: This is a little off subject, Valerie, but is there anything you can tell me about being an Army lieutenant that connects to any of this? Were you ROTC in college and why did you do that?
Valerie: For the scholarship — Princeton is an expensive school.
U.S.1: So what responsibilities did you have after you graduated?
Valerie: After cadet training in college and during the summers I had officer training at a base in Indiana, then I was in the National Guard. I was a “weekend warrior.” I was never mobilized but my unit was on the short list for mobilization in the first Gulf War. For me it was like a part-time job. I wanted to have some financial independence. I was lucky enough to get — I don’t know if they still do this — the one scholarship per state per year for a guaranteed Reserve Duty scholarship, which I got for New Jersey. I knew that being a career military person was not in my plans but this scholarship guaranteed that I would be a reservist. And at that time being in the reserves didn’t necessarily mean you were going to be shipped off.
U.S.1: Is there anything from that experience that has played into your current career?
Valerie: I had no idea when I got into it that it was going to be such a valuable experience. I started, as a child, basically as a classical violinist. I wasn’t the coolest girl or the most assertive person but suddenly as a cadet in training I was being thrown into situations where I not only had to take orders and carry them out immediately, sometimes doing things I wasn’t necessarily always good at — I had never done push-ups, I had never been in a tank, I had never done obstacle courses, and so that was a big challenge. But I also learned how to give orders. And that has served me so well in this creative field.
U.S.1 (to Gene and Brendan): Is she bossy?
Gene and Brendan: Yes.
Gene: Let me modify that. She is not bossy. She is assertive. And mostly not about us. She takes charge of us, although we all have moments of that, it’s mostly just that she, you know — Brendan and I are just more passive, you know.
Brendan: You know when you’re standing at a hotel desk and they don’t have your room ready? The person who deals with that is her.
Valerie: They call me the Justice King. And I think my Army training had a lot to do with that.
Brendan: A mousy 14-year-old girl she is no longer.
Valerie: In this industry you run into personalities of all kinds, and it helps to have had experiences like I have. For so many years we were struggling and struggling as musicians, and I think that that sense of determination and sense of, you know, I can’t give up because if I don’t accomplish the task, there’s no question, there’s no option of failure, I’m just going to keep going no matter what. That came from the Army.
U.S.1: Gene and Valerie, what do you remember about where you used to hang out in Princeton when you were in high school and college and now that you’re back, where have you been? What do you see that’s different?
Valerie: Princeton’s grown so much.
Gene: Hoagie Haven’s still here.
Valerie: But not Woolworth’s.
Gene: And Harry’s Luncheonette is gone. That’s very sad. The library is a completely different building.
U.S.1: What do you think of the library?
Valerie: I love it. It’s gorgeous. The library is unbelievable. My son loves the fish tank.
U.S.1: What is it like to be here 20 years later?
Gene: Well, I’m staying in an apartment on Palmer Square, and it’s surprisingly similar, feeling-wise. There’re enough of the same things — P.J.’s is still here, and Winberie’s is still here. I feel completely comfortable. I mean, I think once you spend 22 years of your life in a town, which I did, it’s still a part of you.
U.S.1: Anything else you notice, anything on campus?
Valerie: There’s just a lot more buildings. And the music building is huge — it’s glorious and gigantic. I love it.
U.S.1: Valerie, your son, Mose, is five months old. He’s going to get mobile soon.
Valerie: I know. Right now he’s just kind of squiggling backwards.
U.S.1: Now, you’re an interesting kind of working mother. How do you do it?
Valerie: Brendan’s mother, my mother-in-law, lives with us. She’s wonderful. We live in Brooklyn. In fact, Gene’s about to move to Brooklyn.
U.S.1: How has becoming a mother changed your life?
Valerie: It changes your focus. We used to play 150 concerts a year, traveling all over. Now we’re here in one place for six weeks, which is great. Then we go to LA for a new production of Sleeping Beauty with Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood, California. It will be similar to Midsummer, with us onstage. There will be hearing-impaired and non-hearing-impaired actors. We’ll do a workshop of it this summer.
U.S.1: Will you learn sign language?
Valerie: Yes. And I’m excited for Mose because we’ll be there just at the age when he’ll begin to pick up language, and he can learn sign language too.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” through Sunday, April 9, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Previews Wednesday and Thursday, March 22 and 23. Opening night, Friday, March 24. 609-258-2787