Summer! Guys selling water bottles on street corners, crowds at the Rockaways, the perfume of baking garbage, and lots of theater giving up the ghost. But even as behemoths like King Kong and My Fair Lady head into the sunset, this is turning into quite a season for musicals — especially those of the ingenious, auteur-driven, not-your-grandma’s variety. Octet and A Strange Loop, both remarkable trips down unsettling rabbit holes, are holding down the fort on West 42nd Street, and now they’re joined by Grace McLean’s propulsive, haunting In the Green and David Cale’s vivid We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time, a musicalized memoir that starts off lyrical and charming, only to kick straight through your chest about two thirds of the way through. With emotional ferocity and admirable compactness (none of them has an intermission), all four of these shows are testing the capabilities of their form. Their writers are grappling not only with the stories they have to tell but with what — and what else — a musical can be and do.
Under the elegant, just-playful-enough direction of Lee Sunday Evans, In the Green tells a speculative version of the extraordinary story of Hildegard von Bingen, a woman whose immense vitality and creativity are only in tiny part exemplified by the fact that you can, 840 years after her death, browse the music she wrote on Spotify. Hildegard was a powerful abbess; a composer; a Christian mystic and visionary; a linguist and author (of over 400 letters, multiple treatises on theology and science and natural history, and the first known mystery play); and, eventually, a saint. She was also given to the Catholic Church by her parents as a child and spent 30 years of her life, starting sometime in early adolescence, locked in a cell with her mentor, an anchoress called Jutta. If In the Green sometimes plays as a superhero’s origin story — a kind of Batman Begins for medieval Christian feminism — there’s a reason for that. Hildegard led an entire life of seclusion and self-discipline before emerging to pack several more lifetimes of accomplishment into her remaining years, leaving a record of herself and her works that’s near miraculous for a woman who died in 1179.
McLean concentrates her lean, sonically arresting musical on the three formative decades Hildegard spent shut up with Jutta, trying, as In the Green puts it, “to become whole.” Here, when the young saint-to-be arrives at the cell — gorgeously envisioned by set designer Kristen Robinson as a looming cylindrical tower on a graceful revolve — she’s in literal pieces. Wielding eerie, rough-hewn puppets (by Amanda Villalobos) of an eye, a mouth, and a hand, three excellent performers split the role of Hildegard, turning her into a chorus of young voices and bodies, all vibrating with the superhuman energy of the woman yet to come. Rachael Duddy, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, and Hannah Whitney are a captivating trio with a beautiful vocal blend. Together, they balance and eventually overwhelm McLean, who plays Jutta as a straight-backed taskmaster with ice in her purring voice and a fanatic’s glint in her eye. The musical delves into the lost corners of these women’s histories: It wants to know what they might have suffered, what the world might have done to them to spur such radical isolation.
It’s probably unavoidable that the answers McLean comes up with for Hildegard and Jutta’s source traumas feel a little humdrum, even in their intentional sensationalism. Tidily assigning a backstory for a person’s internal messiness is never really as satisfying as we think it will be: It’s the not knowing, or the almost knowing, that’s compelling. The fact that McLean gives her heroines wounds from the war on women is also double-edged: It’s certainly believable — and a dismal reference point for how little we’ve progressed in almost a millennium — and yet it also seems to betray the disinclination of a modern secular perspective to truly contend with the massive power of faith as a motivator for action. For all their imaginative capacity, theater folk sometimes have a hard time believing in believers.
But if In the Green doesn’t always thread the needle with its narrative, it makes up for it with its score. Medieval Christian mysticism was amazingly physical — a weird and wild paradox of reverence for chastity and self-denial, combined with rapturous, semi-erotic records of the spiritual experiences of its visionaries — and McLean creates a musical texture for Hildegard’s story that flows straight from the body. Along with orchestrator Kris Kukul and music director and band-leader Ada Westfall, McLean builds the beds for her songs out of stunning live looping. As Jutta — harnessed as if for battle in Oana Botez’s simple, spot-on costumes — she clicks her tongue, claps, grunts, and even spits, and her fleshy vocalizations build into ecstatic rhythms, foundations over which the cast’s voices can climb upwards like ropes of green ivy on a stone wall. Along with only four musicians, including a wine-dark cello and jangling qanun, the vocal loops bring something of Hildegard’s own music and her own philosophy into the play’s aural landscape: The abbess wrote songs that aspire like cathedrals, all pure voices lifting heavenwards, and she preached what was in her time a remarkable message of interconnectedness. “We are a part of something / We are integrated,” sing Hildegard and her followers as In the Green reaches its climax.
But McLean is savvy with her story’s crescendo, ending it not with an affirmative exclamation but a question mark. The wonderful Mia Pak — who doubles in two parts that bring out the shadowy flip side of Hildegard’s doctrine of “Living Light” — gives the play its coda, a kind of disturbance in the force for its, by the end, famous and powerful protagonist. Pak is immensely watchable, with a sibilance in her warm, muscular voice that makes your heart catch a little, and she keeps things grounded and nuanced in what could become a simple story of hero-worship. Darkness and light, In the Green implies, are not opposing poles but yet another infinite loop.
In a sense, In the Green and We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time are both stories of extraordinary women. But one of those women made an outsize mark on the world while the other — before her son made a musical that fights for her immortality — left behind no more than would fit inside “one small manila envelope.” The British-born David Cale has been performing monologues and music in New York and across America since 1979, when he took flight from his homeland like one of the birds that weave their way persistently through his work. His breakout 1986 solo play, The Redthroats, told the story of a young Englishman coming to America, but Cale has never been explicitly autobiographical until We’re Only Alive, a musical memoir that finds the virtuosic performer playing himself, his brother, his father, and his mother. Stepping into the bodies of his parents — whose unhappy marriage ended in a shattering act of violence — Cale performs a delicate, funny, heart-twistingly generous combination of eulogy, seance, and exorcism. Most movingly, he searches for the essence and voice of his mother, a woman who might in her soul have been an artist, but whose life was kept small and cut devastatingly short.
“You’ll never be a singer because you can’t sing,” says Cale’s conjuration of his father to his childhood self, a boy who adored Petula Clark and Judy Garland, but who had the misfortune to be born and raised in Luton, an “infallible punchline” of a city — gray, grubby, suburban-industrial, and morbidly depressing. (“The only Northern town in the South,” Cale sings of it. “Every day it feels like winter / Mocked in plays by Harold Pinter.”) But there’s something in his father’s dismissal, as blunt and mean as it is: Like other incredible performers who have more wandering minstrel or sideshow raconteur than Pavarotti in them, Cale has a voice that warbles, strains, flutters, cracks, and soars. He’s not going for flawless or classical or even consistently beautiful. What he’s got is character — a depth and range of expression and a life force that pours out of him like the frothing mouth of a river. He may have tried his hand as a rock front man in his youth, but he was always going to be a theater creature.
In We’re Only Alive, Cale starts quaint, even borderline twee, consciously using lightness and lilt to lead us down the garden path toward some very dark things. He’s the only person onstage and — backed by a lush sextet led by the co-writer of the show’s music, Matthew Dean Marsh — he talks and sings to us of his boyhood in Luton. Of the makeshift “Bird and Animal Hospital” he put together in his family’s backyard shed. Of his two wily grandmothers who slipped him the pocket money he used to buy hundreds and hundreds of tropical birds to fill that shed — “African and Australian finches, canaries and doves.” Of his little brother, Simon, who hid in his room, fiddling with electrical wiring and painting model planes. And of his parents, Barbara Arnold and Ron Egleton — one a working-class girl with creative talent and romantic aspirations, the other the bullied and bullying alcoholic son of a nasty but wealthy businessman with mob connections. They met at a dance for employees in Luton’s hat factories. They had two sons. They lived in the suburbs. What ultimately happened in their house feels like something out of a Greek tragedy.
Cale’s play isn’t a tragedy, though — it’s a kind of passage. It’s unblinking and curious, vulnerable and open-hearted without being soppy. Its writer-performer’s light, outward-looking touch turns notions that might become trite in another storyteller’s hands into little gems, quotidian moments tinged with astonishment. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Cale, playing his mother, watches out a window as his prepubescent self runs naked through their backyard at night to stare up at the window of the boy next door, a boy who’s shunned in the neighborhood for being gay. “Is my 10-year-old boy trying to seduce the 15-year-old next door?” Barbara thinks to herself, not with panic but with bemused wonderment. “Have I given birth to the Little Lolita of Luton?” Cale’s embodiment of Barbara is a meticulous, loving slow burn. Its sadness is that it’s a patchwork of speculation: Who was this “invisible woman”? This stifled artist? This troubled housewife who had to get dentures at 35 and who once took her son to the movies to see Liza Minnelli in Cabaret, and told him afterward, over lemon-meringue pie, “One day you’re going to realize the potential in me that never saw the light of day”? “I never thought about it this way before,” says Cale as Barbara, his eyes flashing with realization, “but if you have a child and the child survives or endures, you don’t completely die … You live on in the child. I mean, I’m looking at you right now.” And the miraculous thing is, something shimmers through her son, and she is.
Director Robert Falls and scenic designer Kevin Depinet keep things crisp and spare so that Cale and the musicians can fill out the world for us. There’s something guileless and refreshing about Cale’s lyrics — he writes short lines, full of repetition, with a notable shortage of neurosis and tongue-twisting cleverness. The songs come when they have to, when someone is reaching, struggling to break out of themselves. They’re about longing, freedom, and glimpses of the weird and beautiful. They are the flight of wingless creatures. At one point, Cale tells a story of his drunken father singing along at a Liza Minnelli concert, and though the story itself is so appalling and sad and layered with human ugliness that it lurches near to absurdism, it matters that Cale’s pity for Ron Egleton doesn’t extend to giving him his own number in the show, to really letting him sing. Ron’s song is a desperate facsimile. He’s hopelessly earthbound. Yet part of the brave, gentle wrestling of We’re Only Alive is Cale’s exploration of the ways in which he carries both his parents — his aspiring mother and his sinking father — with him. Like Grace McLean’s vision of Hildegard von Bingen, Cale travels through brokenness not toward a specious attainment of wholeness but toward light, toward turning the pieces of himself into a prism.
In the Green is at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center through August 4.
We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time is at the Public Theater through July 14.