Gabriel Kahane Builds His Dream House
The acclaimed songwriter discusses his much-anticipated new musical, February House.
The work is based on Sherill Tippens' biography, February House: The Story of W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee Under One Roof in Wartime America, which recounts what happened when these disparate artists shared a brownstone in Brooklyn in the 1940s -- an idea formulated by George Davis (who later became famous for marrying Lotte Lenya after Kurt Weill's death).
"The actor Henry Stram gave the book to me some years ago and said it might make a great musical," recalls Kahane. "Soon after, the Shen Family Foundation and the Public talked to me about a commission, and when I brought this idea up with them, everyone was so enthusiastic. One of the things we found compelling at the time was that we were entrenched in the Iraq war, and the musical is, on some level, about how artists respond to war, and whether or not we have an obligation to take a public stance."
The personal, as well as the political, was on Kahane's mind. "Carson's story struck me in how she struggled with the overnight success she faced after the publication of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. She ended up drinking a lot and faced some health problems," says Kahane. "But on the most fundamental level, it's about this group of outsiders coming together, and briefly succeeding, if ultimately failing, to become their own family."
Before putting pen to paper, Kahane did copious research, beginning with checking out the books in Tippens' bibliography, before moving on to other works, including discovering notebooks of Auden's, in which the poet even logged who ate what in the house. "It felt like writing some big college research paper," says Kahane. "Of course, we needed to deviate from the historical records in order to create our poetic truths. So while all the show's major thematic ideas are true, who said what to whom has been invented."
While Kahane has found success as a pop musician and composer of art songs -- performed by stars such as Audra McDonald -- musical theater was not earlier on his radar. "I went to this peculiar high school in Santa Rosa, California where we did plays like A Bright Room Called Day and Mad Forest. I thought musicals were shit," he says, with a laugh. "It wasn't until I went to Brown University where one of my colleagues harangued me to write a musical that I even relented, and only now do I feel that musical theater writing is a long-term goal."
Not surprisingly, finding the right songs for these unusual characters was a big challenge for Kahane. "I think I originally wrote about 60 songs, about which maybe 22 remain in the piece," he says. "I started more in an operatic direction; the first piece for Carson was a legit soprano aria, but it didn't feel right. I really resisted using folk music for her, but about four months into the process, I picked up a banjo and quickly wrote the song that's now the centerpiece of her musical voice. I think the score's eclecticism is not alienating -- if anything, I want the show to be accessible to people who know nothing about these real-life figures."
The music, as it turns out, also influenced the casting of the production, which features such performers as Stanley Bahorek, Julian Fleisher, Stephanie Hayes, Erik Lochtefeld, A.J. Shively, Kacie Sheik, and Kristen Sieh. "The book scenes are really challenging -- one could make the case that this is a play with 22 songs -- so we wanted actors who could sing and not vice versa. We even sent out our casting breakdowns that way, and some of the actors we chose said they would not have felt comfortable auditioning if it hadn't been for that."
Kahane says he's not expecting to make too many major changes to the piece between the Long Wharf and Public runs, but he's grateful that the show didn't debut in New York. "We've had this really safe place to do previews and a tryout, where we've made changes practically every day up until opening," he says. "It really gave us the chance to edit and get inside the text."