Original Sound Casts Doubt on the Idea that a Sound Can Ever Be Truly Original
Adam Seidel's new play takes on the contentious issue of ownership in the music industry.
Who wrote "Greensleeves"? While romantic (and inaccurate) legend attributes the English ballad to King Henry VIII, its true author has been lost to history, an unfortunate fate that might have been avoided had there been robust copyright law in Elizabethan England (or so entertainment lawyers would have us believe). Adam Seidel's enthralling new play at Cherry Lane Theatre, Original Sound, casts doubt on the notion that such laws exist to protect artists, dampening the intellectual property echo chamber with a wall of soundproofing foam and a great story.
It's about Danny Solis (Sebastian Chacon), a young DJ from New York. He used to live with his sister, Felicia (Cynthia Bastidas), until he got in a fight with her husband. Bye Felicia! He now lives with Kari (Lio Mehiel), a major fan of his work whose dad happens to own the building in Queens where Kari lives. Danny has a dedicated online following, but he's nowhere near as popular as Ryan Reed (Jane Bruce), a hot new pop star recording an album for a major label. But when Ryan drops a single that sounds exactly like Danny's track "Sway," he knows he's been ripped off. He weighs his options: He could embarrass her on social media; he could hire a lawyer; or he could harness this lightning strike of plagiarism to power a professional music career.
A former music journalist, Seidel thrillingly dramatizes contract negotiations and jam sessions, making them accessible and exciting for the lay viewer. Underlining the fungibility of creativity, he has collaborated with Bruce and music director Daniel Ocanto on a couple of songs (including "Sway") that let us hear the creative evolution and judge for ourselves.
Luckily, he has two good musicians in Bruce and Chacon. The latter particularly impresses us with a piano solo composed by Armen Donelian (but based on an earlier work by Mongo Santamaria). Chacon has a surplus of charisma and an irrepressible smile that makes you want to root for Danny. Bruce endows Ryan with the exact opposite, glowering behind dark sunglasses and her ever-raised iPhone. Under the nuanced direction by Elena Araoz, we watch as Danny slowly cracks her shell, transforming Original Sound into something more complicated than the star-versus-upstart story we think we see coming. Both of these musicians emerge as distance swimmers, paddling across a sea of failed ambition and trying not to drown.
Sharks infest that sea, like Ryan's manager, Jake (a world-weary Anthony Arkin). With two sleeves of fading tattoos peeking out from under his collared shirts (telling costume design by Sarita Fellows), we get the sense that he wanted to be the rock star, not the guy who books travel for them. And then there's Danny's dad (an intense and erratic Wilson Jermaine Heredia), a man who almost made it big before being screwed over by his record label. We wonder if the son can learn from the mistakes of the father, or if he's fated to repeat them.
The centrality of the recoding studio remains ever-present in Justin Townsend's set design, which Araoz easily transforms into other spaces through confident blocking and with the help of Kate McGee's simple yet effective lighting. A constellation of overhead LED tubes pulse during the transitions, which sound designer Nathan Leigh underscores with Billboard hits — popular songs which we swear we've heard, at least partially, in other songs.
Original Sound raises the uncomfortable truth that all culture is appropriated from somewhere else before being remixed and rebranded into something "original." It also demonstrates the impossibility of fitting something as amorphous as artistic collaboration into the square box of the law. We like to believe that our laws and contracts exist to protect artists, but mostly they just protect the person who can afford the best lawyer, and that's usually not an artist at all. It's more likely to be someone rich and powerful — like a king.