A new musical about protest music on stage at San Diego Rep.
January 19, 2012 6:12 p.m.
Todd Salovey is director and a writer of "A Hammer, A Bell, and A Song to Sing." He is also the associate artistic director at San Diego Rep.
Vaughn Armstrong is an L.A.-based actor performing in "A Hammer, A Bell, and A Song to Sing."
Dave Crossland is an actor and musician who also performs in the musical.
Related Story: Rolling With Changes At San Diego Rep
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. A new workshop production at the San Diego rep celebrates the creativity, passion, are and commitment of America's protest movements from the American revolution to Occupy. This musical, a hammer, a bell, and a song to sing, had to rely on an extra dose of creativity, passion, and commitment itself during a last-minute reinvention. I'd like to welcome my guests, Todd Salovey, directing a hammer, a bell, and a song to sing. He is also associate artistic director at San Diego rep. And Vaughn Armstrong is an LA-based actor performing in A Hammer, a Bell, and a Song to Sing. Welcome to the show.
ARMSTRONG: Thank you, happy to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Dave Crossland, who performs in the musical. Welcome.
CROSSLAND: And an actor, too.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, Todd, you spent a year writing a musical. That is not currently what we're going to see on stage in the lyceum.
SALOVEY: Well, I got very, very interested in creating a piece of theatre in which the audience would sing along with the performers. And it would be based on the life and work of Pete Seeger. I grew up on Seeger's music, and my parents introduced me to him when I was a little kid. And I found myself in recent years watching YouTubes of Seeger and the weavers, and getting so emotional while I watched them. And I felt -- I have to do a play about this. I want to capture not only the music but also the spirit that you can use music to make a big difference. So I worked a year, created a piece that we were very happy with, and we found an act res for that piece. Actually, three people to play a young Pete Seeger, a middle aged Pete Seeger, and Pete is new 92, and an older neat Seeger. And that's what I came into rehearsal to work on.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. So you all came into rehearsal to work on that play. Walk us through the events that followed. You cast the musical, you're four-days into rehearsal, and you get a phone call.
SALOVEY: You're bringing back my trauma.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: That's why you're here!
SALOVEY: It's really funny. We had had great rehearsals, and the guys, the three gentlemen in the cast, including Jim Moony who's not here with us, are the three guys were clicking so beautifully, musically, and the scenes that they were doing, and Vaughn came up to me that morning and said Todd, I just want you to know, I love working on this play. I can't remember working on a play I loved more than this. And so at 10:30 that morning, we got a phone call, and it was actually Pete Seeger's grandson, Tao, what I really respect and admire, saying to me, my grandpa is really not comfortable with a play about himself. And you should know, the family had already approved our doing it. We'd been in touch with them quite often. But at the time that we started, he just didn't feel comfortable with a play about his life.
CAVANAUGH: Has he such a reticent sort of a person?
SALOVEY: It's funny. When a public person is uncomfortable with something about the. But I think Pete has always been about the music, and folk music from across America and the world, and about the causes. And his own fame is something that was a result but not a wanted result of all of that. And to do a musical about him would really be, I guess in his mind indulging in that fame. And they just made a polite request, he's don't do the piece about us.
CAVANAUGH: Todd, you already told us it was trauma for you. I have to hear the reactions of Vaughn and Dave. Vaughn, you were there, and you heard this news. What did you think?
ARMSTRONG: Well, we were expecting a positive call. We could ask questions of Tao about his grandfather and such. And you know, we had all come down to do our version of this great guy. And it was a blow. We thought, wow, are we going home now? You know? That's the end of it? Because we had enjoyed working on the music and working with each other so much. We just -- all kind of bonded immediately in the project. And Sam Woodhouse came in and just said well, I'll tell you what, guy, let's pretend we're 25 and just make something up. He said let's use Todd's structure and put a new piece together that isn't about Seeger. So that's what we did. We found different kinds of protest music and the different subjects we thought were different. There are some we didn't get to include because time did not allow. But two hours after we got the phone call, we're writing another piece.
CAVANAUGH: So I just want to get David in. Dave, what a remarkable opportunity to be handed on the heels of -- we got to wrap this thing up. And there it is, write me a new play. Put this thing together.
CROSSLAND: Yeah. It -- after we kind of got over the initial shock of it-- well, I think we sat around and just started talking about what attracted to the play to begin with. And all these little stories unfolded about our lives and how we got to where we are now and the way we think of things and what we care about, and it was just this very organic sprouting of a new play just out of that, you know?
ARMSTRONG: Much of that conversation ended up in the script.
CROSSLAND: Yeah, and Todd is diligently writing down notes with this Mona Lisa smile.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CROSSLAND: And really, I think it's caused -- created something that's really personal, and that's why it's having such an impact. We have had really great responses every single night we've done this. And I think people attach to it on a personal level. And I think it's because of that.
CAVANAUGH: Well, are let's hear the kind of music that was the inspiration for your creativity for reinventing this play. This is a really famous protest song, and this version is by Mahalia Jackson, it's Down by the Riverside.
(Audio Recording Played)
CAVANAUGH: Isn't that fabulous?
CROSSLAND: Can I just say we do it exactly like that? It's amazing.
SALOVEY: We actually quite Mahalia Jackson in the play. She says there's nothing more beautiful than hearing a people do their own music. But when you sing someone else's music, you capture the soul. You understand something about the soul of those people. And that's I think part of what's so exciting to us about doing all this music. It allows us and the audience to become part of other people's stories.
CAVANAUGH: Right. And you know, we call these things generally protest songs, but they're movement songs, they're songs about people who want to make progress in some way in their lives and communities. Is that what attracted you to this whole genre?
SALOVEY: Well, are it feels like now that we live in a very cynical and discouraged time where people feel like we can't make changes. When we did the first workshop of the Seeger show, we sang all these songs, first of all, as soon as we started to sing the civil rights songs, people started to weep. And afterwards, I said what was that about? And our marketing director said to us, I was thinking when did I stop thinking that I could make a difference? And this music, I think connects us and reconnects us to the courage to step forward and make the community better, make our lives better, make things better for the country.
CAVANAUGH: There's such a rich tradition in this country of music like this. How did you go about narrowing it down?
ARMSTRONG: Well, we put a bunch of posters on the wall and kept looking at the different ideas. And what we felt would fit the dynamics of the piece and tell the story best. We started with the revolutionary war and went through songs that made change in our nation up to today. And that's kind of it.
SALOVEY: And we also picked songs that we love. I mean, I love hearing the play every night because every song touches my heart. A lot make my toe tap, many make me want to sing along. And someone -- you know, actually Bob Filner saw the show on opening night and he said to me, well, I was part of marching in the '60s and these songs have us courage, when things looked bleak, they made us feel we could go on and be strong. And I think that's the effect of the songs we've chosen.
CROSSLAND: And really, it's been a trip because you do these shows, and when you have a whole hall like that singing together, and you feel the belief that people have, and it's not often in our lives that we have an opportunity where we really feel on a deep level, you know, a commonality with other people who want to make the world the best place it can be. And really everybody does if they're red or blue or white. Everybody wants to make it the best it can be.
CAVANAUGH: That's a point that I wanted to make. You do, therefore, encourage the audience to sing along.
ARMSTRONG: A lot of times we don't even have to encourage them. They jump right in! And it seems as though they leave joyfully empowered, as though they feel that they can make a difference when they walk out of there. They're just dancing out of the halls.
SALOVEY: We have a sequence where we sing this little light of mine, and in rehearsal, we had choreographed a way of teaching it to the audience. And we kind of did it verse by verse. So Dave would actually sing the first couple verses then ask the audience to repeat it as if they didn't know it. What happened in the first couple previews, are the audience then sang the next two lines. We realized some songs we just don't even need to teach.
CAVANAUGH: I'm curious, what songs did you choose to represent the current Occupy movement?
SALOVEY: Hmm. Interesting question. I think the occupy movement is something represented visually in the play, and represented in some photographs that we project in huge images on the screenful one of the questions we kept asking ourselves is, why isn't there more music now? And I think that's one of the challenges and really one of the lessons of the piece. We actually end the piece with a quote that says if there were more music, people wouldn't be so angry at each other. If there was more music, there would be more dialogue. If people could sing together across culture, across generations, across political allegiances, they would find ways to speak to each other more respectfully.
CAVANAUGH: That's interesting. So do you, in a sense, think that this is something that we've lost in America? The ability to put our deepest feelings about politics and about the progress of the human race into music that has a sort of grassroots feel that everybody can just sing along?
CROSSLAND: I would hesitate to say that we've lost it, but I would say that it's been hibernating, you know? And that's the thing. And I think that's part of why this is an important piece, what Todd said about the occupy movement, I think Tao Seeger mentioned at one point that he felt that if there were more music involved in that movement, it would be received differently. You know? And I think also to Todd's point about the cynicism of our times, we have a whole generation that's growing up that believes that a political debate is you get somebody on the right and somebody on the left and they insult each other and yell at each other, and that's a legitimate political debate. We have this whole concept of red and blue. It's crazy. When really we're all Americans, we're all people, and we all are facing the same problems from different angles. But what was the question?
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: You did quite well, Dave. Thank you.
CROSSLAND: Thank you.
ARMSTRONG: It does seem as though everybody is so angry at everybody. And one of the quotes from Tao Seeger is when you're hearing music, it's just very hard to get that angry.
CAVANAUGH: That angry, yeah let me ask you, Todd, this is -- I've seen that this is a workshop production. What are you -- are you still refining? Are you still going on and creating this as you go?
SALOVEY: Well, as the guys will attest, yesterday I put some changes into the play. I love that the rep does new plays as workshops. When you premiere a play, it suggests that the play is done. And it's a very difficult thing to create a new piece of theatre. It usually takes several productions to make a really wonderful piece of theatre. What we do as a workshop is we keep listening to the audience, keep listening to how the audience reacts. Personally, I like to listen to sequence and flow. I just ask myself, is it building for me? Is my interest rising? Is the audience's interest rise something so we keep changing and tweaking and modifying. And as Dave said, are the audience by the end of the play every night, they're cheering, they're singing, and they get the message, and they really love it. And palpably, you just feel people coming up to you saying oh! That really surprised me, and I forgot how much I loved these songs, and you know, there are some songs the audience puts their arm around each other, and sings with us, and we just keep trying to orchestrate the experience for the audience and refining the message, and finding the right songs, and I'm just -- it's a blessing that that's an ongoing process through the entire time the play is running.
CAVANAUGH: How interesting this would be to take a video of your play and send it to Pete Seeger, see what his reaction would be.
SALOVEY: I think they'd be really proud of it.
ARMSTRONG: I think he would. He's mentioned with great respect, and you know, we use him as the -- I don't know, the icon of our freedom in music. But we don't make him the center of the piece.
SALOVEY: But I feel we're capturing the spirit of what we brought to our community in song.
CAVANAUGH: The San Diego rep's workshop production of A Hammer, a Bell, and a Song to Sing, runs through January†29th at the lyceum theatre in Horton plaza. Thank you very much.
SALOVEY: My pleasure.
ARMSTRONG: Thank you.
CROSSLAND: Thank you.