A 12ness review I missed.

Yes I know this is from more than two years ago. But we are all living in some sort of aboriginal dream time right now. So I might as well post this. I love the line in this: “Reader, I play bassoon.”

12ness – Theatre Review June 11 2017

It’s been a weekend of enjoying more art “Made in Bethlehem.” Friday night at Godfrey Daniels, I was soaking in the “front porch” feel of good ol’ folk music by Tom and Betty Drunkenmiller with Norm Williams. It was a perfect night for some laid back classics and good stories. I was feeling a bit too much of a summer cold to enjoy any fun on Saturday (especially the Food Truck Boarder Brawl at ArtsQuest), but grateful to feel better to take in a play at the Ice House this afternoon.

Local theatre company, Crowded Kitchen Players premiered an original piece written by local playwright, Charlie Barnett. The play was directed by Selkie Theatre’s George Miller.

12ness is a play that recounts the historical relationship between two influential musicians, Arnold Schoenberg and George Gershwin. The play features wonderfully written dialogue that sounds as natural as if the audience were secretly transported in a time machine to 1937 Los Angeles.

The minimal sets, vintage costumes, and sound design also brought a touch of classic Hollywood that helped the audience sink back in time and get to know the characters even without too much “scholastic” knowledge.

I’ve studied lots of music history, required of my academic music degrees. But it’s not a requirement to know those details to thoroughly enjoy the relationship between the four characters. Yet, all of that knowledge that was crammed into my head for the doctoral comprehensive exams came leaking back to the front of my brain and I was able to catch most of the references to the number 12, and a few double reed jokes seemingly written with full knowledge of the quirky personalities that result from too much air pressure. (Reader, I play the bassoon.)

If you go, here would be my comments to put more context into some of the text:

  1. 12 tone composition (Dodecaphonic)  was designed by Arnold Schoenberg. Otherwise known as “serialism,” a method of composing where notes only relate to each other. 12 tone uses all of the half steps within the octave. Schoenberg came to this way of constructing music after sensing that traditional western harmonic structure had pretty much played itself out. Think about the really long lines of a Wagner theme, and you might understand how the listener can lose the sense of tonal center. It was highly intellectual music; order, form, and function of a serial application also extended to length of note, or sometimes dynamic.
  2. There is a reference to the word “atonal” in the play. Listeners might apply this word to serial / 12tone music in that there is no tonal center typical of western music, such as in the key of B-flat. That doesn’t mean there’s no “tone” to the music.
  3. George Gershwin was at the height of his career in 1937; the same year he died from a brain tumor.

In looking for some ideas for this review, I found this 1 minute comment about Gerswhin by Schoeberg himself. The video features a still image of Gershwin painting Schoenberg’s portrait. If you are so moved, stick around for the video that follows. It’s silent home movie shot by Gershwin, accompanied by Schoenberg’s String Quartet.

The play doesn’t just focus on music. The play also shows how they may have talked about art, the senses, and the creative process. If you ever wonder what artists might be thinking about the way they create, or how they perceive value of their work – this play is a fabulous conversation starter with friends.

12Ness runs for another weekend at the Bethlehem Charles Brown IceHouse, 56 River Street, near the Wooden Match or Artisan. Make a night of it with dinner at any of the lovely restaurants on Main street before hand. Performance begins at 8pm on Friday, June 16 and Saturday, June 17th. The final show is Sunday, June 18th at 2pm.

Notes for further inspiration:

  1. There have been a few academics who have presented research on the relationship between these two composers. This play offers an imagination into their conversations about art. What I found so wonderful, is that these kinds of conversations happen today. Robert Wyatt & John Johnson wrote a book, “The Gershwin Reader” that includes a chapter about this friendship. There happens to be copies of this book in the libraries of all six independent colleges in the Lehigh Valley. I think the next time I go strolling through the stacks, I’ll seek this out.
  2. There is a copy of “Shall We Dance” at the Bethlehem Public Library. I just might pull that one out for a spin.

A Review from Fanfare in 2009

An entire book shelf fell down while I was cleaning today. After all, what else are we doing with our time these days.

And a review from Fanfare, a mostly classical music oriented magazine dropped on my head. I’ve never posted this before, I guess because I didn’t have a website in 2009. Anyway it is a nice review of Chaise Lounge’s Second Hand Smoke CD ( our second. We are working on number eleven now!) Thank you Raymond Tuttle for the nice words.  You can read it by clicking here: Second Hand Smoke Review in FANFARe by Raymond Tuttle

Now we use words…

I was really looking forward to Chaise Lounge’s gig in Charleston, West Virginia, in two weeks. This morning I got a call from Donna Graham, a woman who has supported me and the band for years. Donna is the president of FOOTMAD (Friends of Old Time Music and Dance), and she informed me that the group had cancelled the gig. The coronavirus, of course. We lamented the necessity of the new normal of just bumping elbows as a greeting, and she told me a short story of one of their members who just can’t not hug. I’ve been looking for any silver lining in these flu-like storm clouds, and here’s what I came up with this morning. I said, “Donna, we are just going to have to use our words more if we can’t touch. We are going to have to look right into the eyes of the person we would have hugged and say the thing they need to hear. Mostly that is ‘I love you.'” She said they will re-book our gig as soon as she could, and before we hung up I said, “I love you, Donna Graham,” and she said “I love you, Charlie Barnett.”

19 in Ms. Magazine! By Emilie Surrusco

“19: The Musical” Tells a 100-Year-Old Story Still Relevant for Women Today

For Jennifer Schwed, Election Day 2016 brought the full gamut of emotions.

Like many women across the country, she woke up the morning of November 8, 2016 in a state of expectant elation—fueled by the belief that our nation was on the cusp of electing its first female president. Instead, when she went to bed that night, Donald Trump, a self-avowed sexual predator who routinely denigrates women, was slated to move into the White House.

As she shook off the shock and disbelief, Schwed decided that an America that could elect Donald Trump as president, was an America that didn’t care about women. She decided to table her long-simmering idea of producing a musical about how women fought—and won—the right to vote.

And then the Women’s March happened. Standing between the Capitol and the Washington Monument—part of an infinite mass of well-bundled men, women and children wearing pink hats and carrying signs with messages like “A Woman’s Place is in the Revolution” or “This Pussy Grabs Back”—Schwed changed her mind.

“I realized that these are exactly the stories that need to be heard,” she said.

She proposed the idea to her business partner Doug Bradshaw—and he pegged it “19.”

More than three years later, 19: The Musical is a two-hour musical that chronicles women’s struggle to gain the right to vote—which was finally won a century ago with the 19th amendment to the U.S. constitution. Modeled after Hamilton, 19 brings to life a story that few Americans know or understand.

The main character is based on Alice Paul, one of the key leaders of the women’s suffrage movement.

“I couldn’t believe that I didn’t really know who Alice Paul was. Turns out, very few people seem to know who she was,” said Bradshaw.

19 also incorporates the perspectives of Ida B. Wells, Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, Inez Milholland and others. However, with existing historic material on suffrage in America that is both sprawling and contradictory—Paul herself, unlike Alexander Hamilton, kept very few personal records—Schwed and Bradshaw decided that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to portray a strictly factual account of the movement. They opted instead to occasionally use composite characters or scenes to depict certain relationships and major themes, to move the action along or to give the audience the big picture.

“There are so many conflicting stories, one contingent will say, ‘No it happened this way,’ the other will say, ‘No, it happened this way,’” Schwed said. “There is no one bible of history on suffrage and how these things went down.”

Schwed and Bradshaw—who together founded Through the Fourth Wall, an award-winning theater, film and interactive digital media company—have collaborated on many productions over the years. 19 is their most ambitious to date—and their first musical.

They knew they needed a composer: a third partner who would play a crucial role by writing and producing the music to match their lyrics. They set out in search of a female composer who was well-versed in 1920s jazz. Schwed posted a message to a listserv for women in film and video. Her first response came from composer Charlie Barnett, who happened to be a man.

“I think I’m your guy,” he told Schwed. He later admitted laughingly to not being “a close reader of ads.”

“He’s a brilliant musician,” Schwed said. “And while I originally wanted more women involved with 19, there’s something to be said for men to be excited and interested in elevating it too.”

The threesome got to work writing the script and the songs.

“It’s a genre stew,” Barnett noted. “We’ve created 50-60 songs; we’re on version 15 of the script. Some really good songs ended up on the cutting room floor. As the script evolved, so did the songs. As much as I am a completionist at heart, I had to accept the malleability of this thing, always in flux, always ready to be redone, rewritten, rethought over.”

They then recruited the cast: 19 women and two men, many of whom have stayed with the production from the beginning. Karen Bralove is the oldest cast member at 74.

“If you commit to two years of unpaid rehearsals and a constantly changing script, you’re obsessed,” Bralove said. “I was obsessed with the story of these women. In 1920, my grandmother was alive and she got to vote; my mom was seven years old. I touch history.”

Beginning in late 2017, they began workshopping 19 with more than 30 performances around the Washington, D.C. area. With Barnett on the piano, Schwed and Bradshaw attended each performance. Together, they all held question-and-answer sessions afterwards to elicit audience feedback.

One of the hardest parts to portray was the chief internal conflict that roiled the movement—incorporating women of color. They ended up creating a heated discussion between Paul and Ida B. Wells, an African-American journalist, abolitionist and feminist, about whether or not they would integrate a 1913 march for the vote in Washington. The discussion became the show’s most popular song, “Put Yourself in My Shoes.”

“We knew there was massive racism in the movement,” said Bradshaw. “But as far as we know, Ida never walked into Alice’s office and spoke to her, we completely made that up.”

In the show, Paul argued against integrating the march because Southern white women threatened to boycott if African-American women were allowed to march alongside them. They wanted women of color segregated and walking in the rear. Wells argued for integration because the women’s suffrage movement was about gaining the right to vote for all women. And, as she noted, African-American women were fighting for more than the vote: They were fighting for their lives.

The song begins in Paul’s voice:

“Put yourself in my shoes; we have no time to lose. Only one more shot to change this plot and win the prize for which we’ve fought so hard. Put yourself if my shoes.”

Wells then takes over:

“Don’t talk to me ‘bout your pain. You’ve never seen loved ones slain. I won’t be denied, ignored or pushed aside.”

The song ends with the two of them singing together:

“Put yourself in my shoes. We have no time to lose.”

For Schwed, talking about racism was always an important part of telling the movement’s story.

“This was never meant to be strictly a celebration of the movement,” she said. “When women are talked about they are either perfect or evil. I wanted to walk in the middle of that and say they were human, they were fallible, they made mistakes.”

The show also portrays the beatings, forced feedings, arrests and imprisonment that the women of the suffrage movement endured.

“It’s very emotional,” Bralove noted.

The first full performances of 19 were held at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in November 2019, in front of sold-out audiences. Now, the production goes to New York in search of investors, producers and theater companies interested in staging it. Schwed, Bradshaw and Barnett all believe that the show can teach important lessons about history and women’s continued fight for equality.

“2020 is just the coming out party of the show. We think it should go on for a long time,” Bradshaw said.

Barnett would like to see it become a show performed by high schools across the country.

“It’s the perfect message for what every high school in America should be putting on,” he said.

Throughout the three years of writing, producing, revising and performing—all while maintaining day jobs to pay the bills—Schwed has kept a vision in her mind of the women of the suffrage movement under ice. She believes that 19 is allowing that ice to begin to thaw, bringing new life to the suffragists and their stories.

“The good part and bad part about the show is that it’s relevant,” she said. “The struggle continues.”

For more information, visit www.19themusical.com.


Emilie Surrusco is the founder of Ellsworth Media Group, where she works with organizations and individuals fighting to move a progressive agenda in Washington, D.C. She previously served in a variety of non-profits as a communications specialist, including roles as Speechwriter at the American Bar Association and Press Secretary at Feminist Majority Foundation.

Cantate Chamber Singers

My good friend Vicki Gau is now leading the Cantate Chamber Singers in Takoma Park, Maryland. I heard their concert last night and it was terrific.  The programing was fascinating. Mozart’s Requiem with a variety of other pieces mixed in between the Requiem’s movements.  The coolest one was Victoria Bond’s “Your Voice Is Gone.” Brava!