June 12th, 2018
In the new musical Songbird, loosely based on Chekhov’s The Seagull, a once well-known country music star returns home to help her son launch his own career, and some major emotional complications ensue—it is based on Chekhov, after all. Songbird has music and lyrics by Lauren Pritchard, who made her Broadway debut as a teenager in the original production of Spring Awakening. Having written and played music growing up, she went on to pursue a professional career as a songwriter, both for herself and for others. Songbird, her first musical, and had its Off-Broadway premiere at 59E59 Theaters in 2015 and is now playing at Two River Theater in New Jersey. I recently spoke with Lauren about adapting Chekhov, her songwriting process, and the ways she feels gender affects opportunities for women.
Let’s go way back to when you first started writing Songbird. I know it’s based on Chekhov’s The Seagull. How did it come about?
There’s a lot about Chekhov’s writing that, at the time that he was writing it, was very revolutionary, because there was a simplicity to his writing about real life that people had not really seen before. And there was a frankness to the way that he was writing about real life, and there are very real life issues that happen in a lot of his work, and especially in The Seagull. And it’s very relatable.
It’s interesting when you read the story of The Seagull and you see all these themes of heartbreak and loss and suicide and abortion, and these kinds of issues that have never gone away. They’re still current issues that we all deal with all the time. And so I think, as a starting place, that was something that really drew us to the piece, because it felt as though we were writing about something that still really mattered to all of us in one way or another.
And then from there it just kind of went. I grew up in Tennessee and Michael [Kimmel, book writer] doesn’t really know a lot about Tennessee, but knows that, without sounding cliche, the country music world is, especially from a song writing perspective, an industry that makes a lot of money off of heartbreak, which is true. I don’t even know if anyone would be able to count the amount of songs that exist about heartbreak in country music. So putting those things together was the initial jumping off point for us.
When you sit down to write and you’re composing a song, how do you start?
My songwriting process is a lot more stream of consciousness. For this writing process, some of it was very specific and then some of it I was writing blind, meaning I knew generally what a song had to be about, but we didn’t know where [in the show] some of these songs were going to go when we were initially writing it. I was like, I’m writing the material and then we’re kind of figuring out where those things should go.
And so for a lot of the writing process, I would sit down and I would start to formulate all kinds of ideas—singing, playing piano, playing guitar, and humming melodies is where I usually begin. I start humming melodies. I start spitballing words. I have a recorder going the whole time. Depending on the day, sometimes it can be two hours of me sitting there recording ideas, creating melodies, and then after I feel like I have gotten enough of a ballpark of ideas, then I’ll go back and listen to the recordings through, write down the words I’m saying, and pick out melodies that I like.
That was a big part of the process because I had never written a musical before, and so I really didn’t know what the hell to do. I just kind of let the music guide me, and that was a very helpful way to do that.
I’d imagine there’s a big difference between when you’re writing songs for a musical and when you’re writing solo stuff in terms of the dramaturgy. How did you navigate that?
Though I’ve been a solo artist for a large majority of my life, I have also written for other people, too. But even that is different than writing for a musical simply because, at least when you’re writing for another artist, you generally know who that person is. I did a bunch of work with Panic! at the Disco, and when I was doing that work, I knew I was writing for them so it made it more focused immediately. And writing for myself, I’m in my own brain so I know what I want to say, at least some of the time. But it was a completely different experience writing for this musical because there were no faces, there were no voices yet, and the script wasn’t even completed. And so it wasn’t even like I could read a story first and then base it off of that.
A lot of what guided me in the writing process, especially early on as we were really forming the show, was understanding that these characters all had a couple of similar motives. They were all very driven—some were driven by fame, some were driven by money, some were driven by love. But they were all very driven. So that was a very helpful throughline. And the other thing was all of our characters are suffering in some way. And they have this longing to them. Those two throughlines really helped write the music. Also, understanding that we had to have certain moments of joy that you experience in and amongst life because life gets hard. No matter who you are or what you go through, you will go through very difficult things in your life, and amongst those difficult things there will be these moment of joy. So really trying to understand that and write to that as well. And then, as the story came together, I was able to write in a more focused sense like, “Oh, this character needs this specific song about defiance,” or, “We need a moment where they’re just celebrating and they’re singing a drunken bar song.” After a while, that stuff became more focused and clear. Early on it was interesting.
Tell me about how you wrote one of the songs.
I write very quickly, personally. Not all people work this way. This is very specific to me. I have very meticulous ways of working, and my number one thing as a writer is I get bored very easily, which is probably not a good thing. And when I say that I mean when I’m writing, if something is really not catching my attention, I’m very quick to move on because I recognize it as something that means I need to explore other options. That doesn’t mean I won’t necessarily come back to it over time, but moving quickly through my writing process is helpful.
One of the first songs I ever wrote for the show is the song called “Cry Me a River.” That song, specifically, was an interesting one, because one of the very first decisions Michael and I made was that we wanted Kacie Sheik to play our Masha. That was something we knew early on. We both knew her from previous work experiences and we loved her, and we knew she was going to be our perfect match for that.
I know her very well, so I also had her voice in my mind, which was very helpful, and so I wrote the song for her in probably 45 minutes. Masha—she’s called Missy in our story—is an eternal pessimist who is the opposite of Kacie Sheik. One of her first lines in the Chekhov is the one where the character says to her, “Why are you always wearing black?” and she says, “Because I’m in mourning for my life.” She’s like the original Goth girl, the original emo, long before that was ever a term. But also the Masha character has this very dry sense of humor. She’s very funny. She’s very dark. And in the song “Cry Me a River,” the lyrics are, “Go on and cry me a river like I cried for you. Go on and let your heart just bleed. I will be moving on like you made me do. Go on and cry me a river like I cried for you.”
The theory of that song was taking this dark emotional side of her, but also she has this like stick up her middle fingers kind of attitude of the world, even if she’s still hurting. I wanted to be able to capture that in the song, and then already having a good understanding of what Kacie’s voice is like, it made the writing about Kacie. But I began with the words and then I went from there. I started humming various melodies. The song gets sung by the lake after everybody’s been drinking for hours, so I wanted it to have a sultriness about it that kind of happens after you’ve been up for too long and you’ve had one too many glasses of wine or something. I think we’ve captured that in Kacie. Kacie’s an incredible singer, the way that she uses her physical body when she’s singing is pretty amazing. So watching her sing the song is very exciting.
You did the show at 59E59 Theaters a few years ago and are now doing it at Two River. What are the things that you feel like you most want to accomplish with this production? What have been the most rewarding things about going back and working on it more?
There’s been a lot of really amazing stuff that we learned. The Seagull is a story in the theatre community that is incredibly well-known. It’s been around a very long time. It’s arguably Chekhov’s most well-known piece. It’s a thing that people really know very well. One of the things that we learned at 59E59 is when you’re telling a story like that, it’s kind of like retelling A Christmas Carol—you’ve got to understand that, to a certain degree, you’re not reinventing the wheel. That doesn’t exist anymore after a show gets done enough times. But what we definitely want to do is tell something that feels like you’re looking through a new lens at an old or a very familiar piece. I definitely think we did that at 59E59, but here at Two River, physically we have the space to be able to tell the story in a much clearer way than I think some of it was at 59E59.
And we’ve had the time since then to be able to refine some of the character development, as well. Ultimately, I wouldn’t change anything that we did at 59E59 because it was beautiful and also it taught us so much, and we were able to take everything that we learned from that experience and figure out how we need to make some of these characters and their journeys a lot clearer. Because also it’s a lot of story. There are ten characters and it’s a true ensemble piece. It’s not one of those shows where we see a boy and a girl and follow their stories the whole time and that’s kind of it. It’s a big story, and everybody’s involved and everybody’s feelings are involved, so keeping that in consideration is not easy.
But I think that we’ve done that so far. We’re two and a half weeks into our rehearsal process right now. We did our first full run through on Saturday and it was so exciting to see that these changes we’ve made are already making everything really come together in the way that we were crossing our fingers and hoping it would.
As I’m sure you know, in musical theatre, there is a lot of conversation about the lack of female songwriters, particularly female composers. So I wanted to talk some about your experience that way in your career thus far.Have you felt like you’ve encountered things that are gendered?
Yeah, absolutely. I was super lucky very early on for some of the things that happened in my life and career when I was still in high school and early college age. I was given an opportunity to jump into a world where I was immediately seen because of some of the things that I was involved in. So I will always be the first person to acknowledge that I, in a lot of ways, have had it easier than other women I know because of some of those things that happened early on. For whatever reason, they happened to me. I’m still not quite sure how I got as lucky as I did, but I’m very grateful for it.
That being said, I will say that nine times out of ten, I still have to sometimes remind people that I’m in the room. Sometimes there’ll be a room full of men and they’ll all just gather together and confer among themselves, and not even walk over and approach me. And I’m one of the main people working on the thing. That’s very strange to me.
There are times where you’re not being seen, you’re not being heard. And that’s really frustrating. My Songbird environment is like an alternative universe because it is the most considerate, kind space I’ve ever had the opportunity to work in. It’s been an amazing and emotionally helpful place. There have also been times in my life where I’ve been in collaborative situations where all of a sudden, my stance as a female collaborator or creative gets jeopardized because all of a sudden the person thinks because I laugh at their jokes that I’m fucking hitting on them or falling in love with them or something, which is really annoying. It doesn’t happen that often. I get to be a bit more choosy these days about some of the things I want to do or some of the people I want to work with. But that shit still happens all the time and it’s really weird when it does because you’re like, I just want to be here and to create. I have no interest in pursuing you whatsoever.
It still feels like we have to remind people that they need to hire us, which is confusing to me. I don’t know why that is, but sometimes it feels like we still have to have these conversations like, don’t forget to call the girls first before you make any decisions. That’s very strange to me. Sometimes I’ll be in workrooms and it will be mostly women, and I feel so encouraged and I go, yes, nobody had to remind these people to call the ladies. They just did. They did it on their own. They knew to do that. Good for them. And then sometimes and I’m in a room and it feels the exact opposite. So I’m not really sure how we fix that.
That was actually going to be my next question. What do you think would make it easier?
Well, I think that my general note—and I think this is just for women-related stuff, not just for female composer land but also just lady stuff in general—is that I just wish that we had to prove ourselves less. It still feels like we have to jump through ridiculous fucking hoops, and why? We’re not any less qualified than any fucking dude you’re going to hire. We’re not. Not even a little bit. But it still feels like we have to do an enormous amount of talking and proving and convincing people in positions of power who make the final decisions of who works on a project or who works on a job. And that’s frustrating. I think one of the things that maybe is difficult about it is that I think some of those people who wind up making us feel that way, I don’t think that they realize that that’s what they’re doing half the time. I think sometimes how it feels is that, because they’re giving us the opportunity, that in and of itself should be enough, but it’s not, and having to prove ourselves constantly is exhausting, honestly.