'Frozen' Songwriter, 'Pitch Perfect' Music Director on Making Broadway's First A Cappella Musical
They say to write what you know, and that’s exactly what the writers behind In Transit have done with their new Broadway musical. The production, which follows New Yorkers of all walks of life through the lens of city’s subway system, begins previews Nov. 10 at Manhattan’s Circle in the Square Theatre — and is particularly notable because it’s Broadway’s first a cappella musical. But despite the show’s relatable themes and the current trendiness of a cappella, In Transit has taken more than a decade to come to fruition.
“Sometimes you’re taking the local, not the express,” explains songwriter Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Frozen). She says she and fellow writers James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, and Sara Wordsworth conceived doing a show “like a love letter to New York” shortly after 9/11, when they were all young adults living in the city and gigging around town as an a cappella group. “We were starting to write songs about our lives and sneaking them into our set,” she says. “These original songs were really connecting with our audience, because they were very relatable things about what it is to be young in New York and trying to get somewhere.”
As she hopped from temp gig to temp gig, Anderson-Lopez continued to pursue theater. “I was a temp and a performer,” she says, “and now one of the main characters in the show is an actress who is a temp. And I think I wrote some of her songs that are in this Broadway show at my temp job!” She also found inspiration during commutes to her home in Astoria, Queens: “I have to say, the performers on the N train were really vivid characters.”
After years of false starts from investors and scheduling conflicts, the production launched Off Broadway in 2010, receiving multiple awards. But it wasn’t until after that that In Transit‘s writers approached arranger Deke Sharon, who worked on Pitch Perfect and The Sing Off, to elevate the show to the next level.
“My first question was: ‘Can I have four more voices?’” says Sharon, who wanted to add additional harmonies to flesh out the tunes. “I didn’t want to overreach, but at the same time I was like, ‘We want to fill a Broadway stage.'” Per his request, the cast grew from seven to 11 members.
But all those additional voices didn’t remedy the more basic problems presented by an a cappella musical. “When you’re making a film, you can do anything,” says Sharon when comparing the experience to his work in film. “What has to happen on the Broadway stage is basically perfection and these triple-threat actor-singer-dancers, have to add a fourth threat: They need to sing in perfect harmony.”
(The In Transit cast, from left, Chesney Snow, Gerianne Pérez, David Abeles, Nicholas Ward, Margo Seibert, Justin Guarini, Erin Mackey, Steven ‘HeaveN’ Cantor, James Snyder, Mariand Torres, Telly Leung and Moya Angela.)
That presents some physical challenges. “People on stage need to breathe like humans,” he says. “On the stage, it’s necessary to make sure no one passes out! We are attempting to do the impossible with the impossibly talented.”
To fill out the cast, the production team had to make some tough choices, because idiosyncratic voices don’t mesh well with a cappella. “We did have to pass up on some incredible, virtuosic performers because they had such distinct vocal styles,” Anderson-Lopez says. Sharon is more blunt in describing why they were less interested in “your Ethel Mermans and your Judy Garlands and Liza Minellis”: “You can’t have any divas.”
Ultimately, Anderson-Lopez is thrilled In Transit came together in the a cappella format she had initially envisioned. “A cappella is this incredible metaphor, because you have to be tuning in to the other people and you have to be listening,” she says. “When we jump into the subway we’re one place and we’re going someplace else and [on] the subway we try just try to exist — or ignore our existence — between stations and really life is all about being between stations. That’s what we’re really trying to say with this piece.”
You can exclusively see rehearsals footage from In Transit in the video above. For more information, visit the show’s website.