October 22nd, 2018
Most people know of Edna St. Vincent Millay as a Pulitzer Prize winning poet—one of the first women to win in her category—but as a Vassar alumna, my initial exposure to her wasn’t her poetry; it was hearing stories of her rebellious antics at a prim and proper college in the early twentieth century, when she attended the school. The famous poet nearly didn’t graduate due to her penchant for skipping class, staying out past curfew, and kicking chandeliers (In contrast, the closest I ever got to disciplinary action was when my acapella group was written up for singing too loudly in the College Center on a Saturday night). When I heard that there was going to be a new musical, Renascence, about Edna St. Vincent Millay, written by composer and Broadway music director Carmel Dean (with whom I also happen to share an alma mater—grad school at NYU), I was immediately intrigued. Although this is the first major production of a musical written by Carmel, she has worked as musical director and/or vocal arranger on numerous Broadway shows, including If/Then, American Idiot, 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and Everyday Rapture. I recently sat down with Carmel in the courtyard of the Henry Street Settlement, to discuss her love of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry, what it was like to adapt the poems into songs, why the poet was a hundred years ahead of her time, and more.
What was it that first drew you to the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay?
I hadn’t heard of Millay until I applied for the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program [at NYU]. Part of the application [for composers] is to set the poem “Time Does Not Bring Relief.” I fell in love with the poem. I loved setting it, and I loved what her words evoked in me as a composer. So I just always had Millay’s volume of poetry close to the piano for when I wanted to write an art song. Every time I wanted to set a poem, or if I just wanted to write a song, I’d open [my volume of her] poetry, and I would look for something that spoke to me, whatever I was going through in my life. I have found that so much of her poetry lends itself to being set because it sets beautiful, lyrical lines. It’s quite classically structured in rhyming patterns. So it was never really challenging to set it. I would just have to find the right mood for the text, and then figure out how to turn it into a song.
What has it been like for you, having trained at NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, which emphasizes a collaborative writing experience, to collaborate with a long-deceased poet instead?
I actually really love it. I also, obviously, love collaborating with other people, but there was something about just letting my music come out the way that I wanted it to in the moment. There were often challenges in that because poetry can be quite dense. The hardest part was making sure that the words were still singable, and that the listener would still be able to understand them. But in terms of not having a collaborator there, I actually quite enjoyed just being by myself. Although, I’ve gone up to visit Steepletop, where she lived, in Upstate New York and I often joke [that those are] my collaborator meetings, where I just go and visit her grave, and we have a little bonding time.
You mentioned that sometimes her poetry can be quite dense. How do you approach setting such dense text when you are writing for a medium like theatre, in which the audience presumably will only hear the song once?
I was really conscious of that, especially as this theatre piece started taking shape. I knew that I would have to build space into the music, when appropriate. I have a few little tricks that I use, [such as] adding a vocalise, an “oo,” an “ah,” a “hm,” just something wordless to give the audience’s ears a break from the dense language. That also helps in conveying an emotion, so that I could let the music do what the words were trying to do without the audience having to really work hard to understand this language. I have really made a point to write a lot of rests into the music because, in the same way that vocalise gives the listener a break, rests can actually be part of the music too. The silence can be musical; it will allow certain things to land and have the weight that they need. It is something that I’ve very much been aware of in the composition of this piece. I don’t want to alienate the audience. So I have been very conscious to hopefully take care of the audience that way.
Has it been challenging to turn your Edna St. Vincent Millay art songs into a book musical?
In a way, this is a jukebox musical of art songs. I started out writing all of these art songs that I felt would just stand alone. I would pull them out for a concert once in a while. But when I had a dozen of them, I gave Dick Scanlan a CD of the demos that I had recorded. I thought, “I wonder if there’s anything in these Millay songs.” And I gave them to Dick, who agreed to direct [a presentation for York Theatre’s NEO concert series]. But he also famously said, “Direct what?” He realized he needed to put his book writer hat on and help me figure out what the actual story was that we were telling. At that point, he had the brilliant idea to focus on the poem Renascence, to have that be the crux of our story. And so we figured out how to use the pre-existing songs in the telling of this journey that [Edna St. Vincent Millay] went through as an artist to create this epic poem, Renascence. I probably had another six to eight song moments that I needed to find, so we selected the poems that best suited those moments. It was a real mix of creating something from scratch and yet using existing material.
This was not the first time that you’ve collaborated with Dick Scanlan. The two of you worked together on Sherie Rene Scott’s musical, Everyday Rapture [for which Carmel was the Music Director].
Yeah, he was the co-book writer on Everyday Rapture, and we became firm friends on that. He’s been like a mentor to me. I really gave him that CD just for some thoughts. I wasn’t composing full time. I just wanted him to hear my songs. I think deep down I hoped it would lead to something, but that wasn’t my first objective. It really was just to bond with Dick as an artist, and to have a conversation about my own creations.
It’s so nice to hear a story of somebody not being boxed into just one aspect of the music industry. You first encountered Dick Scanlan through your music directing, but it sounds like he was able to see past that and view you as a composer too.
I think that speaks volumes about Dick, because it’s human nature to give people labels and to pigeonhole people, and assume that if they’re good at one thing, then that’s the only thing they’re good at. But as artists, we all are constantly pushing our own boundaries, exploring new ways to tell our stories and to create art. For me, I always had the two things happening, but the writing was never visible because was I was so ensconced in the music directing. Now I’ve done a 180, and I’m definitely moving forward as a composer. It’s been very scary to do that, but also very liberating. And it’s thanks to Dick, because he really has enabled me to take this big leap.
What is it like for you in rehearsal now to have somebody else [Geraldine Anello] music directing your work?
It’s so weird. But Geraldine is a wonderful music director, and we’ve known each other for a few years. We actually worked together on another show, where I was the supervisor and arranger and she was the music director. So we already had a relationship, which was great. But it has been hard for me to take off the music director hat that I’m so used to wearing, and give my work over to someone else in that department. At the same time, of course, being a composer, it’s still music. You’re still speaking the language of music, and you still have musical ideas and thoughts, so it’s hard to completely remove that music director part of me. It’s been a very big learning curve, and a great experience for me, to really step into being a composer.
Have you found that people treat you differently depending upon whether they know you as a composer or a music director?
This is my first experience as a composer, and I’m working with such wonderful collaborators in Jack Cummings and Dick Scanlan, and they’re so respectful. They’ve treated me as an equal, and really empowered me in my transition and encouraged me to step into owning this new thing that I am doing. They’ve been nothing but supportive. I’m so used to being one of the few women in the room; that’s not so much the case here. Jack and everyone at Transport Group is very much committed to equality, and gender equality, and opportunities for everyone, and opening up what has traditionally been a male dominated room. But from show to show, even as a music director, I will often be the only woman—or one of the only women—in the room. And I’m so thankful that the conversation is being had now; we really have to be responsible when we’re hiring creative teams, looking for diversity in voices and experiences. It’s so important, and it feels very exciting to be telling this story right now about Vincent [Millay].
Can you talk a little bit about your impressions of Edna St. Vincent Millay the person, as opposed to Edna St. Vincent Millay the poet?
She was a real boundary pusher. Dick thought of this great line: “This is the story of a woman who lived one hundred years ago, one hundred years ahead of her time.” She was so unapologetic in everything that she did. She firmly believed in her talent. She firmly believed in her power as a woman, and as a sexual being. She firmly believed in speaking her mind. I just love thinking back to how she owned her gifts and owned her womanhood. She owned who she was. She owned her person. One hundred years ago, it was not common for women to have that kind of confidence; it’s hard to believe that we are still having the conversation today. We have scenes that were set one hundred years ago that could be set right now, because it’s the same issue, in that it’s a woman owning her power, not feeling bad for speaking up, and saying what she wants. So it’s been fantastic exploring this story right now. Musicals take a long time to develop, and there have been times when I was like “Oh, I just want to do the show now…” But I think it’s a real gift that it is happening at this very moment because of what is happening culturally and socially and politically. I think it’s going to resonate. I hope it resonates even more strongly now than it would have done five years ago.
Was there anything that you were surprised to learn about her?
I didn’t realize how daring she was. She was very political. She was openly bisexual. She also had very complicated relationships with her family, and with lovers and friends. A big theme in this show is how, when you are an artist, you have to make a choice between your art and your family, or your art and your lover, or your art and anything else that you may think is holding you back. That was a cool theme to explore, because, as artists, we all go through that. Another cool thing about her is that she wanted to be called Vincent. She was like, “None of this gendered definition here; I want you to call me by my male middle name.”
Do you have a favorite poem of hers?
I have to mention the poem “Renascence” because it’s the title, and it’s the linchpin of this piece. It’s actually more than just the title poem;—it’s what the poem represents. “Renascence” means rebirth. The poem was so groundbreaking and so metaphysical. It’s spiritual, it’s intense, and it’s over two hundred lines long. It’s almost impossible to believe that a nineteen-year-old girl who’d never left her little, rural hometown of Camden, Maine would be able to write something like this. At age nineteen, she wrote this epic poem that blew everybody away because of its depth and its complexity and the scope of certain language. She entered it in a contest that everybody told her she was going to win. This was a contest that was going to pull her family out of poverty, because there was a huge cash prize. It was something that was going to put her on the map, open all of these doors. And then she didn’t win. So we explore what that meant. It is about the rebirth, and the resurrection, and what do you do after you’ve had that moment where you think this is the end.
You mentioned going to the cemetery where she’s buried. Have you gone on any other research trips for this show?
I’ve been up to Maine a few times. She grew up in Maine and a lot of her earlier poems speak to the nature of Maine and how beautiful her home state is. Another one of my favorite poems in the show is called “Exiled.” She describes the rocky cliffs, and the ocean waves crashing, and the wrecked and rotting [ship] hulls. I grew up on the coast in Australia, which, granted, is a long way away, but I have the same love for and pining for the coast. So I’ve been up to her hometown in Maine a few times. That’s very much a part of the show, what she left behind. Her family all stayed in the same town, while she went on to become a really big deal in New York City.
There’s an interesting a parallel in the way that you present both yourself and Edna St. Vincent Millay as women who grew up in a coastal town and then came to New York City to pursue creative writing.
Yeah, I have. It was accidental, or subconscious. I didn’t know that about her while I was setting the first poem, so it was a cool discovery. There’s definitely a parallel between somebody leaving and not really looking back, but I would like to think that I have a much stronger relationship with my family; I certainly haven’t pushed them away or sacrificed any of those relationships. But all of us as artists who come to New York, we have to make those choices to leave our families behind.
It’s very fitting that this show about a woman coming to New York City is premiering at a theatre on the site of the Henry Street Settlement, a settlement house from the turn of the 20th century that would’ve been a significant cultural center when Edna St. Vincent Millay first came to New York City. Was that intentional in any way?
I think that was a happy accident. Transport Group moves around a lot. They do their productions in many different places in the city. Coming down here and walking into the theatre for the first time, everyone was like, “Oh my god, this is perfect.” Then we found out that it was built right around the time that our piece is set, and it just seemed so fortuitous. There are a lot of strong females in the DNA of this place and this piece.