If you haven’t yet experienced the writing of Shaina Taub, well, it’s time, and here’s your chance: a workshop of Taub’s first full-length piece, The Daughters, performed by current NYU students under the leadership of director Sam Pinkleton. This badass musical tale of Zeus’s three daughters and their ultimate rejection of immortality has already gone through several different incarnations, including one at CAP21 in New York and another at the Yale Rep. This stage of The Daughters‘ development is by no means the most emotional or intricate, but it’s a good chance to hear some of the show’s strongest numbers simply presented in a very bare-bones workshop performance.
Taub’s voice is a necessary one in the musical theatre scene, drawing inspiration from the world of music, rather than the world of theatre. So many musicals, labeled “rock musicals,” “folk musicals,” “rock operas” or whatever else somehow come short of the genres of which they claim to be a part. Time and time again, they fail to escape that ever-recognizable musical theatre sound, whose lame imitations of instrumentation and vocal quality force it to forever only hint at songs we actually hear on the radio.
Taub is one of the only writers I know to evade this phenomenon. How she does it is simple: she just writes music. Taub writes good songs first and worries about the story and characters in workshops like this one. And because she’s a veritable singer-songwriter outside the theatre, the music we hear in The Daughters is real soul, recognizable indie rock, blues, and R&B that we’d buy as such.
Beyond stylistic fluidity and mastery, the most exciting element of Taub’s writing is powerhouse vocals. I don’t mean a final high F heralding the end of a belter ballad. This is ferocious 4- or 5-part harmony written in the rafters of the female voice, not slammed at the end of a song to impress, but scattered throughout, used, appropriately, as an expression of human need/desire/desperation/joy in musical bursts that are loud, resonant, piercing, and immediate.
Taub’s instrumental writing certainly deserves mention as well. Taub blends fierce contemporary vocal styles with detailed, unexpected nuances in instrumentation. This workshop may only have keys, a piano, and percussion, but there’s a lot going on in that small band. The most notable example is Aphrodite’s chilling second ballad “Brave Enough.” Aphro (Sylver Wallace) riffs delicately around her jaded self-depracation, but the accompaniment tells a different story. While Wallace spends much of the song in her vulnerable female falsetto, the keys plod along darkly and heavily, revealing the ever-present current of terror that courses through a young woman facing unexpected motherhood (as well as unexpected mortality). The percussion, however, is what makes this song so uncomfortable. Percussionist Hiroyuki Matsuura utilizes several different pieces throughout this song and the show, but his eerie, jarring cymbal slices in “Brave Enough” are like musical shots of adrenaline. Fun instrumental details are peppered throughout the show, and tightly executed by both Matsuura and Trevor Bachman (keys/piano/music direction).
Old Daughters favorites from earlier drafts including “Brave Enough” and Athena’s rebellious “Child” steal the show this time around. It’s these tried-and-true numbers that carry the mystery, depth, and heart that was characteristic of the concert-style, more nonlinear previous incarnations of the piece. The goal of this workshop at NYU seems to be the development of a clearer story. While the workshop succeeds in this, the fascinating, loosely-tied-together, deep character analysis that was The Daughters, sadly, no longer exists.
The workshop certainly is a workshop in every sense of the word. It’s not terribly clean or tight. The students feel very young in their roles, which adds a dramaturgically intriguing immaturity to each of the characters, but also leaves one craving the adult darkness hinted at within the music. However, this is not true of actor Michelle Berry, a third year at NYU in the role of Artemis. Berry is constantly “on” and constantly aware of her body in space, which can’t be said of every young actor in this piece. Her dialogue is fierce and powerfully directed. She has an inherent, genuine sexiness and strength in this role, but none of the self-awareness or haughtiness that often accompanies those qualities. She’s simply a mature performer. In a particularly strong scene with the youthful Orion (Angel Lin), Berry says, “I can’t take care of you!” and in that voice you hear a woman wise enough to know she is too young to be responsible for another.
Each young woman, however, has at least one laudable moment of performance, and each one undeniably has an unstoppable voice.
This incarnation is indeed a mixed bag, but just remember it’s a workshop, jam out, and have fun.
The show runs through this coming Friday at Tisch School of the Arts. Tickets are probably limited at best, but even if the show is sold out online, it’s worth a visit to the theatre to try to get in.
Click below for tickets, dates, time, show details: