Spring Guide 2012: The Public Theater Hosts the Musical February House

Britten gets bedbugs

In 2006, the songwriter Gabriel Kahane took a walk through Brooklyn Heights and passed the fruit streets—Pineapple, Orange, Cranberry—until he came to Middagh Street. He turned left and followed the numbers down until the lane ended in a chain-link fence. "Where 7 Middagh would be is just open air," says Kahane, chatting with his collaborator, Seth Bockley, over coffee and cheese slices at his Ditmas Park home.

7 Middagh Street, a dowdy Queen Anne, disappeared in 1945, wrecked to accommodate the BQE. But just a few years earlier, it had housed one of Brooklyn's most remarkable domestic experiments. Rented in 1940 by the fiction editor and bon vivant George Davis, its bedrooms soon boasted W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee.

Paul and Jane Bowles crashed there briefly, as did Richard Wright, the children of Thomas Mann, a performing chimpanzee, a circus family, bedbugs, and Salvador Dalí. The diarist Anaïs Nin named the domicile "February House," after the birthdays of several residents.

Although gone for more than half a century, that famed address will be rising anew in February House, a musical with songs by Kahane and book by Bockley, which begins previews at the Public Theater on May 8 under Davis McCallum's direction. The songs vary from '40s-era tunes to folk numbers, jazz riffs, and contemporary classical passages.

As soon as Kahane read Sherill Tippins's group biography, also called February House, and visited the site, he suspected that this vanished manse could make a play. Kahane began with "7 Middagh," a rueful song that originally appeared on his 2008 self-titled debut. "They drank in the bar/And wrote in the parlour," Kahane sang of the house's roommates. Later that year, he reconnected with Bockley, a Chicago playwright and friend from Brown, and the two embarked on their musical-theater debut.

Kahane, rumpled and resplendent in a wooly hat and ski sweater, calls himself the Dionysiac partner, while referring to Bockley, in a pressed button-down and slicked-back hair, as the Apollonian one. Certainly, they might seek help from the divine in meeting the work's considerable challenges, which include, in Bockley's case, writing dialogue that Auden could plausibly speak, and for Kahane, composing music Britten might sing—considerable feats for 30-year-old musical ingenues.

Both did immense amounts of research, reading interviews and archival documents, as well as dozens of books. "We read a lot of Auden, a lot of McCullers," Bockley says. "We have a first edition of George Davis's novel." Adds Kahane, "And a wonderful edition of Benjamin Britten's letters."

Bockley and Kahane tried to treat these storied characters "as human beings, not as luminaries. We had fun showing their quotidian life, arguing about the coal bills and the sherry." For his part, Kahane developed "a kind of musical shorthand" for his characters and worked to render the songs "simultaneously challenging and accessible."

So many artists in such proximity proved both inspiration and obstacle for 7 Middagh's tenants. Gypsy Rose Lee wrote a best-selling murder mystery and McCullers began work on The Member of the Wedding. But Paul Bunyan, a musical collaboration between Auden and Britten, received damning reviews. "It's terrible," says Kahane.

Clearly, Kahane and Bockley want their own piece to fare better, though they admit that a section in the play where Auden and Britten read those reviews taps into their own anxieties regarding February House's success. But so far, critics have been kinder. During a trial run at Long Wharf Theatre, the Hartford Courant observed, "For all the second-act flaws, this is the most fascinating, beguiling, original musical I've seen in years." For first-time buyers of a vanished house, that's an encouraging appraisal. "February House" starts May 8, The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, publictheater.org

'Massacre (Sing to Your Children)'
Performances begin April 3

Who among us hasn't dreamed, however fleetingly, of offing a neighbor? Imagine the benefits—no more leaks, no more noise, duplex possibilities. The seven citizens at the heart of José Rivera's play at the Rattlestick make that dream a troubling reality. They conspire to kill their town's scourge, a rapist and murderer. Yet it's only after his death that real turmoil begins. Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, rattlestick.org

'One Man, Two Guvnors'
Performances begin April 6

With a cherub's face, a fiend's wit, and an insatiable appetite for comic roles and fried food, James Corden has established himself as Britain's top funnyman. Will New Yorkers think so? The proof is in the pudding—and the soup, sandwiches, and sides—when Corden takes on the lead role in this remount of the hit West End show. Based on a Carlo Goldoni commedia and reset, courtesy playwright Richard Bean, in 1960s Brighton, the play includes cross-dressing, method acting, and some appalling cocktails. Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, onemantwoguvnorsbroadway.com

'Uncle Vanya'
Performances begin April 26

In a letter to a friend, Anton Chekhov wrote, "All I wanted was to say honestly to people: 'Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are!'" He couldn't have prepared a better or more moving illustration than Uncle Vanya, a play about frustrated desires and truncated hopes. David Herskovits will offer a sly revival of this melancholy comedy, the centerpiece of the current Target Margin Season. Here, 145 Sixth Avenue, here.org

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