Songs From An Unmade Bed: Comfy and Playful

When discussing the blurry line that sometimes barely separates musical theatre from the classical performing arts, shows like Sweeney Todd (musical or opera?), Candide (musical or operetta?) and Movin' Out (musical or ballet?) generally come to mind. Now you can add lyricist Mark Campbell's Songs From An Unmade Bed to the list.

Call it a musical if you like, but Campbell and director David Schweizer have taken what is usually regarded as a classical form, the song cycle, and given it a theatrical spin while maintaining its traditional roots. Usually one thinks of a song cycle as a piece where one composer sets several non-musical works to music (i.e., five Shakespeare sonnets, ten Ogden Nash poems, seven Dorothy Parker suicide notes...) and has them performed, without staging, in a concert hall by a vocalist and musicians. The form is reversed here, as Campbell has penned eighteen lyrics and sent each one out to a different composer to musicalize. The vocalist is now an actor playing the same role throughout the piece, but this is not a one-man show, as musicians carry equal weight in the performance. (As evidenced by the company curtain call of singer and musicians, something you'd rarely find in a theatre.) A stage hand even appears a couple of times to help prepare the stage, a common occurrence in classical concerts.

Campbell's lyrics -- sharp, effervescent and conversational -- all deal in one way or another with the experiences (romantic, sexual and otherwise) and observations of an optimistically single gay man, presumingly living in New York City. Lacking narrative, the collection bounces from topic to topic with an appealingly easy flow. There are no great epiphanies or dramatic revelations. Even when exploring mortality and heartbreak, the mood remains as playful as a pillow fight.

"I could die here tonight. / All alone, here in my bed", sings our hero at the show's commencement. But before the proceedings can make the slightest turn towards self-reflective poetics, Campbell's sly humor enchants:

And when my body is found
Cold and prone, here on my bed
In more than its current state of decay,
They'll all look around,
At my drab life,
And instantly rule out foul play

Romantic escapades covered include the first time seeing a new lover naked ("You are utterly attractive / Have a wonderful frame / But there's you with clothes - and you without - / And they're not quite the same."), dating a marginally talented musician ("He plays for pleasure / And not for art / He plays in private / And that is smart.") and wondering how a partner learned that great new sexual move ("When did he have that business thing in Akron? / Though it's not like I really care / And anyway that's too advanced for Akron / Unless he met some Brazilian there.").

Although the orchestrations are uncredited (save for three songs orchestrated by Greg Pliska), they provide a unifying sound that keeps the material feeling like a complete score, rather than a collection of songs. The 18 composers, listed below, provide a nice assortment of melodies, but it's the densely worded, rarely repetitive, lyrics that dominate each song. The result sounds more like poetry set to music than theatre lyrics written to be sung.

Indeed, vocalist Michael Winther seems to have been cast for his knack with a lyric, as the score makes few extraordinary musical demands. Although he possesses a pleasant and strong musical theatre voice, Winther's major strengths for this piece are his fine phrasing and humorously intelligent presence. The on-stage musicians (music director Kimberly Grigsby on piano, David Gotay on cello and Shane Shanahan on piano) are fully lit by lighting designer Brian H. Scott (another example of the concert quality of the evening) and are occasionally called upon to contribute to the show's casual charm. Costume designer David Zinn dresses everyone in comfy PJ's and Neil Patel's set is an enormous bed, many well-placed cream-colored sheets, and a funky assortment of overhead lighting fixtures. The overall visual is quite adorable.

At just over an hour, Song From An Unmade Bed seems a little short for a full off-Broadway production, but perfect for the featured piece in a classical concert. In fact, it also seems timed perfectly to be considered a cabaret show. Perhaps another line is being blurred.

Composers contributing to Songs From An Unmade Bed include Debra Barsha, Mark Bennett, Peter Foley, Jenny Giering, Peter Golub, Jake Heggie, Stephen Hoffman, Lance Horn, Gihieh Lee, Steven Lutvak, Steve Marzullo, Brendan Milburn, Chris Miller, Greg Pliska, Duncan Sheik, Kim D. Sherman, Jeffrey Stock and Joseph Thalken.

 

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: David Gotay and Michael Winther
Bottom: Michael Winther

 

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From This Author Michael Dale

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