BWW Interview: Shaina Taub Rejuvenates OLD HATS

Singer-songwriter Shaina Taub is smitten by master clowns Bill Irwin and David Shiner in the current revival of OLD HATS, a valentine to vaudeville shtick and old time-y sight gags.

Baggy pants, clown shoes and faux fisticuffs are all on the menu, augmented by Taub's original music and lyrics. Her infectiously peppy tunes belie her lyrics, which zing of mortality and existential angst. Band mates (Mike Brun, Mike Dobson, Aaron Johnson and Hiroyuki Matsuura) are in on her cosmic jokes and it's all in good fun. Taub gleefully plays piano and accordion and the others accompany her on washboard, reeds and zippy percussion.

The revival, which originated in the same theater in 2013, played in San Francisco before returning to New York. Audiences are again being rewarded with old-fashioned silliness, hat tricks, rubbery-limbed antics and a heart-tugging sad clown routine. In the mix are a debate (good timing!), commiserating commuters with matching pill boxes and a western movie set peopled by (mostly) willing audience members.

"It's a master class every night for me," Taub said before a recent performance. "One of the biggest lessons I'm learning is how to balance having fun and working hard and rigorously. They're playful, spontaneous and disciplined all at the same time.

"They've taught me how important it is to enjoy yourself in whatever you do," said Taub. The clowns engage in tom foolery and slapstick, disappearing in oversized costumes in which they appear to shrink and grow. Taub's music runs counter point to the glee onstage.

"Grief sleeps at my feet next to doubt. Don't have the heart to kick them out," goes one song. "Hats off to everything that leaves a scar for reminding me who my friends are. Here's to the chaos," goes another.

Taub's eclectic style encompasses pop, jazz and blues-y influences. One song in the show is reminiscent of Tom Waits, whose work inspired hers. She composed most of the show's songs around the duo's skits. "When I first brought them to Tina"-director Tina Landau-"she picked a small handful and I used those for the core," Taub said. "I wrote the rest inspired by the guys' combo of light and dark, playing on our common humanity. It's all about mortality in an upbeat way."

Taub was familiar with the skits before she wrote the songs. "I knew I needed a certain kind of energy. It wasn't a full-blown musical with a narrative, but needed to be cohesive with subjects and topics that resonated with the clowns," said Taub.

The show is fast-paced and physically demanding. The clowns, in their 60s, are in amazing shape, she said. "Their endurance and stamina are incredible," Taub said. "They go to the gym, do yoga and meditate. It's a demanding show for me, too. I've developed stamina for a long run-like training for a marathon. I'm more honed now and able to maintain a sense of improvisation and spontaneity." Taub also does yoga and warm-up exercises to keep pace. "I get a lot of sleep and don't go out much," Taub said. "I don't have much of a social life."

But there is much in the show that fills a void for her. "There are so many moments I love in the show. I love getting to dance next to the clowns. It feels like I'm having a lucid dream. They're such legends. We play off each other more than when we opened in San Francisco," said Taub, 27. "It's fun to pass the ball back and forth to each other.

"We have this relationship where we're genuinely having fun. Even on a crappy day they put me in a happy place," Taub said. The skits don't require lines be memorized, and there's no cookie-cutter feel to the show. "Words change night to night but the beats don't change. If something happens in the audience we make a joke out of it," she said.

For one bit, Shiner picks a mock-fight with a front row audience member. One performance was filled with school kids. "This school boy didn't hold back when Shiner picked on him," Taub said. "He didn't just sit and take it the way most adults do. It was pretty funny."

The costumes in the show are also fun to wear, she said. "The costumes and designer"-G.W. Mercier -"are great to work with," she said. "My personal style is pretty laid back, but there's this gold dress I really love. They wanted me to wear these high heel boots but I got them to make me really cool sparkly sneakers. I'm trying to find a way to keep them," Taub joked.

Performing with Irwin and Shiner has been one of the most rewarding experiences she's had. "They are two of the kindest, most generous people I've ever met. They are so sweet and thoughtful to everyone in the building. They have no ego at all. I have so much respect for them. They're legendary masters."

OLD HATS is playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street through April 3rd.

Photo Credit: Genevieve Rafter-Keddy

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