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Interview: Lisa Loeb Joins Pandemic Stories in Together Apart, Where a Zoom Box Becomes a Stage

Loeb explains how this quarantine project came to be while remembering her days scoring plays for Ethan Hawke.

Lisa Loeb's sensitive acoustic sound was made famous by her 1994 hit "Stay (I Missed You)," featured in the film Reality Bites. But Loeb's creative arsenal does not begin and end with a guitar and a microphone. "I take tap dance classes, and jazz, and musical theater classes," she says, describing the socially distant and masked tap lessons she's been doing in her backyard during quarantine. "I just don't bring that necessarily into my life as a singer-songwriter."

That part of Loeb's history, however, was pulled to the surface in August 2020 during a virtual musical-theater reunion for Brown University alumni (Loeb graduated in 1990). As one who self-identifies as "goal-oriented" and constantly juggles several independent projects at once, the Zoom exchange naturally gave Loeb a new creative idea. She ended up spearheading the development of Together Apart – a collection of 10 seven-minute mini-musicals, all unfolding in Zoom meetings. Each one chronicles a different experience of the pandemic, becoming part of the larger pastiche in a way that Loeb compares to the musical Working.

Together Apart is in the middle of a two-week run on Broadway on Demand, with proceeds benefiting the Actors Fund – but Loeb's theatrical work will surely continue from here. "I'm excited to be back doing musical theater and helping other people tell their stories," she says. And lest you think this hefty undertaking precluded other quarantine projects, guess again. "I learned how to use a curling iron. It's a very important skill as a performer," says Loeb proudly. "And I'm still working on chicken."

Lisa Loeb
(© Juan Patino)

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Is it true that the idea for Together Apart came together during a Brown alumni reunion?
It was the musical-theater reunion that happened in August, which started everything. Brian Herrera – who's now a theater professor at Princeton – asked everybody to go around and tell everyone your name, what year you graduated, your favorite musical theater memory, and what you're doing now. As we went around the pages and pages of faces on Zoom, I realized, between their ebullient musical theater personalities, they talked about everything in their life. There were people who were excited to see each other, people who were scared, people who were concerned about how they were going to do theater now, how they were going to work with their students. I kept thinking to myself, Let's not just talk about musical theater. Let's write a show!

What was the response to that proposal?
Everybody said, "I want to be a part of this." From the very beginning, we decided everybody should be involved who wanted to be involved. There were some people who you recognize from TV and theater and are more well-known, but it was exciting that there were people who helped write the plays and act and write the music who maybe haven't done this for a while – people who are doctors and executives who it was just in their heart. We tried for a few months to have meetings about what the story would be, and little by little we realized the best thing to do was let people tell their individual stories and make that a longer piece – kind of like the musical Working. So we have 10 mini-musicals that all take place between the lockdown in March and the election.

What are some of the topics the pieces touch on?
We hit a lot of different experiences that ranged from the mundane and the humorous to really serious heavy topics like the murder of George Floyd and anti-Asian racism. I think we all respectfully worked together to challenge and support the group to tell the stories – and to make sure that there was thematic coherence connecting through the pandemic. As we started writing the plays, we realized we really wanted to give back to our community as well. We decided to raise money for the Actors Fund because there are so many out of work actors and people behind the scenes who we're friends with. We just really wanted to be a part of that community and to try to give back.

Tell me about your personal theater background. People typically know you as a singer-songwriter so may not know you have this theatrical side.
I grew up as a theater person. I was a dancer, I took every acting class, I did all the school plays, I studied theater in New York City and in London. I did a lot of theater in college, but my music took off more than my theater took off. I was always cast as a young person. I got cast as the Newsboy in Working, I got cast as the child in Philadelphia Story. I didn't get to play a lot of older characters. But with music I was able to write songs, record them, perform them live— be very much proactively independent and create my own career. With theater, I was cast or I wasn't cast. A few years after I graduated, I got the song on Reality Bites and it ended up going number one. So that was really more what I followed, but along the way I would study acting or audition for different things.

For a while, your music career intersected with the theater world – isn't that right?
Back in the early days when I lived in New York, Ethan Hawke had a theater company called Malaparte, and I would write the music for the plays. In one of the plays I actually played the music live, which was a mistake. I realized I need to record this so I'm not sitting here for every single performance.

How has the process of creating Together Apart affected your own experience of the pandemic?
It definitely has confirmed my idea that when something is difficult and doesn't go the way you planned, there are always other solutions and other ways that you can find strength and connection. Not only did I connect with people I kind of knew and got to be much better friends with them. I learned more about collaborating because I collaborated with so many people of different backgrounds and different experiences. To be a part of this also confirmed that the process is really important. We would wake up at 6:30 in the morning to meet about the structure of the plays, and then meet at 11:30 at night after I put the kids to bed to talk about the color of the poster. But it was worth it because it was so great to connect with these people and hear what they had to say. The process itself becomes really important. It's not always about the final product.

To watch Together Apart and to donate to The Actors Fund, click here.


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