Spring Guide 2012: The Public Theater Hosts the Musical February House
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
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'One Man, Two Guvnors'
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'Rapture Blister Burn'
Performances begin May 11
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Performances begin May 15
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'Love Goes to Press'
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Performances begin May 31
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