An Indie Rock Musical Grows in Brooklyn

At the end of their rehearsal on the eve of opening night, the cast of the original musical, Futurity, is rehearsing that last item on the checklist: the bow. A chorus-line actor who plays both a Union soldier and a scientist from the future -- a change made with the tossing of a rifle and the donning of a lab coat -- asks, "Would it be cheesy if, on the mic, we thank the band by name?"

To cheese or not to cheese is the fine line toed by The Lisps, the Brooklyn-based folk rock outfit whose guitarist, en lieu of bouncing back after the band’s sophomore release to record another album, scored a full-out musical. What slouchy, 28-year-old Oberlin grad writes a musical these days? "I hate most musicals," conceded César Alvarez, who with a moppy head of curls and a little kid's earnest smile, recalls a scraggly boy-version of the lead from Annie. "So I decided to write a musical that I would like." The project contributed toward his graduation from Bard's MFA program, where it was received with skepticism, grimaces, and finally convinced smiles. The members of the faculty, Alvarez explains, "have spent their whole lives rebelling against the encoded structures of music." And what's a more alluring target for rebellion than that most hokey of American art forms, the bouncy, happy musical? Parents love 'em.

If Futurity can be termed an act of rebellion, it is a rebellion of sincerity in the sea of cold-shouldered, indie irony. On one end of the indie-rock spectrum there are folksy vaudeville, almost hippie-ish acts like The Decemberists, Joanna Newsom, and every other dude with a harmonica. On the other there’s synth-heavy, proto futuristic bands such as Interpol, The Rapture, and all the beanpole groups in Comme de Garcons button-downs who tour with a strobe light. While both veins are a rebellion against Beyonce's pop -- fleeing, as they do, toward other eras -- they remain part of an indie, underground culture. Which is exactly where America’s happiest, strummiest art form -- the musical -- does not belong. In the context of his snooty graduate program, Alvarez snickers, "writing a musical is considered avant-garde." Or wait; that's not the right word choice. "It's naughty!"

Even in the context of other musicals, The Futurity is naughty. Markedly absent is snappy Jets v. Sharks choreography; the dance moves on view here can best be described as slovenly. (There's lots of outright floor-rolling.) At the front of the stage, Alvarez, the lead, sings into a mic stand and plays guitar throughout, such that you never forget this is just kind of a band playing music. The production feels something like the staged, costumed, over-the-top Sufjan Stevens tour for Seven Swans, an effect which is enhanced by the band's va-va-voom blonde muse of a lead singer, Sammy Tunis, a trained actress, who in a fey, beige knit snow cap and a sparkly white sweater of princess-puff-ed sleeves, recalls a little winter swan.

The orchestra is headed by the Lisps' drummer Eric Farber, who spent two weeks crafting a home-made drum kit. (It includes tin watering cans that at times he plays gently, delicately, with knitting needles.) Bassist Jeremy Hoevenaar doesn’t get a solo (he’s only allowed to rock out after curtains). The rest of the way through he finds himself constantly plucking at a jaunty, rhythmic bass-line meant to recall the thundering rhythms of trains rolling over a track. For the musical, the Lisps enlisted the help of Kyle Forester of Ladybug Transistor, who has forsaken his standby Casio keyboard for a church-y pedal organ, as well as the brother of Alvarez’ fiancé, who plays the banjo. Hence the band’s typical sound: a messy, vaudeville-esque roar scrumming below giddy, uplifting melodies.

The plotline of Futurity is designed to combine an old-fashioned glam with the emptiness of contemporary technology; to recall vaudeville orchestras while looking forward to a synth-heavy future bereft of human strummings. Union soldier Julian Munro (Alvarez) finds himself out of battle and ripping up railroads in Southern Virginia, a dull task that lets his mind wander. He begins to conceive a novel whose protagonist -- The Inventor -- creates a machine that will end all machines. Its task is to invent its own progeny. Called "The Steambrain," it's a forerunner for the computer.

So Futurity's scenes wander in and out of Munro's head, from a Virginian battlefield -- where his Union soldier cronies sit on stumps, polish guns, spit and holler -- to the sterile labs of a 19th Century conception of a future Utopia, a mudless world running on pure, efficient steam. "It's a folding of worlds," Alvarez explained, "like what I do in my music."

At the point in rehearsal when "The Steam Brain" is supposed to activate, keyboardist Kyle Forrester toys around with an electric cord and unleashes a "whop!" of sound that recalls a bath bubble popping. "Who did that?" Alvarez asks, looking around. It sounded right. He’ll keep it.

Futurity premieres January 9th at the Zipper Factory and runs through January 10th. Tickets are available here.

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