The Transformation of Miracles~Lost and Found: Marla Mase talks inspiration behind her songs, the themes that emerged, and where she hopes to take her new record

Marla Mase. Photo by Blair Bauer

Researching the Brooklyn-based playwright and singer-songwriter, Marla Mase, I had learned that the Huffington Post and Chorus.FM had reviewed her previous records. I listened to Marla’s latest concept album she had released with her label, True Groove Records, in October 2016, Miracles~Lost and Found. I felt moved and nostalgic for a time when I had an affinity for power-pop punk tunes that replayed endlessly in my head throughout the day.

Tracks like “Dreamland” and “A Gun” contain driving power chords and major chords that move in rapid duplets. Lyrics in these choruses, such as We are living in a dreamland, and in “Truth Comes Down” where Marla talks – rather than sings – the truth comes down in unison with the short and accentuated beats produced by the drums. The song that stood out to me the most was “A Gun.” Marla seems to be almost playfully singing in an alto range, There’s a boy right here he’s holding a gun/ A boy right here he’s holding a gun/ He wants to be in a gang, and wants to go ‘bang’/ He wants to be someone.

Some music theorists who possess a penchant for classical music or jazz would say that this musical composition is simplistic. Attentive listeners of popular and rock and roll music would say that this musical composition has a potential for marketing success.

While Marla’s Miracles~Lost and Found strikes a chord with me – no pun intended – she is not necessarily a stickler for writing music both compositionally straightforward and intriguing enough to be enjoyed by a market saturated with mainstream genres. According to a review Chorus.FM had written about one of Marla’s previous records Half-Life, “It’s obvious that spoken word and poetry looms large in her most recent release, but the problem is that poetry and other forms of writing intended to read and spread a message don’t always lend themselves to good, listenable music.”[i] This criticism written in 2014 about Marla’s old record got me to listen to Half-Life. This particular record has a very different tone and style compared to Miracles~Lost and Found.

My research on Marla’s musical repertoire led me to a few questions: did Marla define herself as a musician or a performer; what inspired the change between the fusion of eclectic funk, rock and experimental fusion, and spoken word of Half-Life and the power-pop and post-punk inspired Miracles~Lost and Found; and what concepts was Marla looking to convey? I welcome Marla Mase to a full-length feature interview on Music Historian.

When I asked Marla about her musical background, she explained, “I think of myself as a writer first. I have always been a writer and a performance artist. I write many plays [and] that’s where the music part originates. I did take many years of piano lessons.

“When I was younger, I used to joke and say ‘I should be a rocker, but I don’t really write music.’ But I do come from a musical family. My mother writes music, and my brother is a songwriter, sister-in-law and so was my grandfather. That’s how I started getting into all of this stuff.”

I wondered how Marla made the connection between music and playwriting.

“I was writing plays, one woman shows, monologues and performance pieces for about ten years or so. Then I fell into a super hard time. I basically broke. A lot was going on with my family, my daughter was sick for years and finally it caught up to me. I mean it was 24/7 of constant anxiety. Then I discovered that when I sang, I [experienced] a minute of release. So I started to sing. Then, I would go to my acting class and perform and started singing other peoples’ tunes. It was healing.

“Then I started writing a ton of songs, they just came to me, and I was putting them in my one-woman shows, performing them a cappella. I knew I needed a musician. A friend of mine introduced me to Tomás Doncker, an amazing songwriter/guitarist/producer. We began working together, first on my shows, then on albums and eventually we ran the label together. He just really believed in me and my work.”

Marla’s story so far explains how she got started in music professionally. Afterward, more opportunity began to follow. “The windows open very quickly,” she said again. “We released the first album and the soundtrack to the one woman show (Brief Night Out), and then I released another album, Speak, six months later.”

It was not long before Marla started receiving attention from other musical professionals. During a sound check, a woman spotted Marla. This individual brings American prodigies to China and brings talent from China to perform in the United States. Although the woman admittedly said that she found Marla interesting, and liked what she did; the meeting between Marla and the curator of performance talent (if I may), did not immediately produce leads.

“We met, it did not work out. She was looking for more classical stuff. Literally [though], a year-and-a-half later, she called me and said “I never forgot you, Marla. I have a friend who is part of the UN.” Then boom! The next day I was going to China with my band for International Day of Peace.”

For this musician, it seemed like a world of yes started emerging. I then became interested in what ignited the switch from spoken-word poetry against rock and roll music, to power pop punk tunes. However, keeping in mind that Marla is a writer first and foremost, a blogger must also think about influences and inspiration that do not always parallel music.

“When I released Brief Night Out, Speak and Half-Life, those are all very niche; there is a lot of spoken word, rock and roll, and mixes. Miracles~Lost and Found is more of a traditional album. On the surface, it is more song-oriented; you can sit down and listen to the ‘nice’ songs. With the other ones, maybe somebody does not want to hear spoken word. I just go where ‘it’ tells me to go. I write according to what I think, by my inspirations. In a lot of press written about me, they say that I am a genre-hopper. I have written Reggae songs and all sorts of genres. For me, as an artist, you just write what makes sense. That’s where there is a lot of mixes, the change.

“With Miracles~Lost and Found, the inspiration was… this story I had heard.” Marla shared the story with me – a religious fish butcher, during his work one day had a spiritual experience. A fish had started talking to him. The fish told him The Messiah was coming. Naturally, the main character became frightened. He began yelling “kill all the fish!” He started chopping up all the fish but then accidentally cut off his hand.

Marla had heard this story years ago, and she thought, “…‘this guy was praying for a miracle his whole life, and waited for a sign of the Messiah. Then it happens, and he freaks out. He cannot handle the miracle.’ That’s when I thought of writing about this entire concept for an album, Miracles~Lost and Found. How many things happen in our lives that we don’t recognize as a call to transcend? Or, we pray for this stuff, but when it happens, we say ‘No!’ Either you don’t notice it, or you can’t handle the hugeness of it.”

Regarding the difference in musical composition between the previous records which Marla mentioned and this latest one, she and her producer, Tomás, collaboratively decided to make the songs simpler. According to the playwright, both she and Tomás had the following attitude about Miracles~Lost and Found: ‘Let’s keep it simple, and to the point. Too much talking these days.’

When Marla describes Miracles~ Lost and Found in greater detail, she says “…I have two or three-minute songs, whereas, on the old albums, I have six-minute, half-funk, spoken word [songs]…with Half-Life, a lot of it was written with the beats first. Tomás and [True Groove Sound Engineer/Producer/ and Partner in the Label] James [Dellatacoma] would give me some of the beats and instrumentals, and I would write the lyrics around those. Most of the time, it is me coming in and [saying], “Hey, I have an idea for a song,” and I will sing a melody.”

On Miracles~Lost and Found, listeners can expect to hear Marla structure her vocalization more around the harmonies in the music and the chords created on a piano or guitar. After learning about how Marla composed her lyrics in the previous record Half-Life, I wondered whether, in Miracles, she focused first on writing the music and then the lyrics.

“Sometimes it is the lyrics; sometimes it is the melody. For example, the song “Always” was [already] together. My mother, who is suffering from Lewy Body Dementia, wrote a line in my notebook – ‘Now is the time we must say goodbye.’ Her condition makes her not be able to read and write. As soon as she sees a blank page, she thinks it fills up with words, just like in Harry Potter – there is a blank page, and then words just appear. I was trying to show her [and tell her], “You actually can write, Mom. If you close your eyes, you still know how to write.””

Marla came across this notebook again one day while in a coffee shop. She revisited the sentence her mother had written. Thinking about the sentence, Marla then puts a melody to it, which is the same melody within the track “Always” on Miracles. Another melody which had stayed inside of Marla’s mind for a while was the verse in “A Gun.”

“I don’t play the guitar, but sometimes, when I was alone in my house, I would just take out the guitar and play around on my own. I would always have this [melody] “There’s a boy over there, he is holding a gun…” [she sings the song]… Every time I stayed there alone, I would rant and make up a song. Then I said, “That gun song is coming into this album. It’s amazing because it is one of my favorite songs, and I have listened to people who say they like it. This song has been in my head for years, and I thought “Why?””

While Marla brought the melody and lyrics for both the verses and the chorus in “A Gun,” Tomás brought in the cello and orchestra into that song. Regarding the message, Marla asserts that this “A Gun” is not a pro nor anti-gun tune. The artist does share that at the time this song was written, the massacre in Paris (November 2015) had already taken place. She finished the demo and said to Tomás, “I just got a really weird feeling.” An hour later, on her smartphone, she sees the news about the shooting. If I put myself in Marla’s shoes, I would have gotten frightened, even if I am aware that these two occurrences – the massacre in Paris and the composition of a song titled “A Gun” – have no connection to each other.

Moving on, I remember that Miracles~Lost and Found had been defined as a concept album. I wondered about the themes in the record, and I correctly picked up on one – disillusionment. I learned that while I picked up correctly on the theme, it held little to no relation to Marla’s motivations for the songs on MiraclesMarla with a Megaphone. Marla Mase. Photo by Blair Bauer.

“Parts of Miracles~Lost and Found refer to what I have gone through, like dealing with depression, people in my life who are depressed, suicidality, and addiction. “Dreamland” was initially written as a reaction to my Mom being sick. She would say, “What is it all for?” Then I added in ‘I am hungering for more.’ We fight and battle; we do all of this in life, then we die. Not to be negative but, what is it all for? I think the disillusionment in the song is ‘we are living in a dreamland, let’s just pretend it is all right,’” says Marla, reciting a lyric in the chorus.

Something quite common among songwriters, which Marla also emphasizes is that sometimes you are not entirely aware of what you are writing. After Election Day 2016, “Dreamland” seems to have taken on a new meaning.

“We played at the Bowery Electric two days after the election, and I was pretty upset about the results. When I sang “Dreamland” to the audience that night, I did not feel it was about my mother then, but about people, all of us in America. Maybe that is what we have to do, pretend [everything] is all right, so we can get through. Then maybe that is a bad thing because we are trying to numb ourselves, like with the media.” Marla specifically refers to frivolous stories that receive attention. One story that comes to my mind is the one Time Magazine (online) covered about fathers doing ballet with their daughters.[ii] The artist expresses that the purpose of this type of reporting is to help people pretend that everything is fine, or feel distracted.

“Obviously as a whole, it is not the first time it has ever been done…,” says Marla. “You throw something one way, distracting people of the world from what is important.”

Another theme which emerges on Miracles~Lost and Found is the rude awakening. One example of a song that embodies rude awakenings is “56 Trees.”

“On the surface, I see a song that would be on the soundtrack for a film, like that Christopher Guest movie, the one that made fun of folk songs,” she explains. The film Marla refers to is called A Mighty Wind.[iii] “I feel the song seems a little bit [like the] sixties, but then there is this weird operatic thing [that happens]. I wrote this years ago as a reaction to a headline I saw – 56 trees were removed for fashion week at Lincoln Center.

“It sounds like I am this super tree-loving environmentalist, which I never really was, and then half-way through, the song equates the removal of trees in the middle of the night to people disappearing in the middle of the night. Where ever they live, in countries all over the world, people are told to move. But now, I am just thinking, that today, this could apply to what is happening with immigration. Boom: family gone! You are just thrown out. When this album, at least for me, when it was done, I felt like ‘Wow, there is a lot of depth in it.’”

Marla’s explanation about her motivations and themes that have come out of her songs is a prime example of how artists think when it comes to creating music. During my studies as a music history undergrad, I received the advice that many successful musicians and composers hid their real inspirations from the public. As a music blogger, I continue to ethnographically investigate how musicians and singer-songwriters create music.

When talking about original inspiration, writers must decipher what could be shared with a reader to create a cohesive story. The same also applies to writing music. Marla’s choice to keep the songs on Miracles~Lost and Found straightforward, appears as a suitable example. Even with lyrics and music, which to some might seem simplistic and partially politically-charged, even without meaning to, there is a candor behind Marla’s messages.

Marla’s next step for Miracles is to create a theatrical concert adoption of this record with Lisa Milinazzo. Lisa had expressed an interest in directing her, especially after she had heard Marla’s music.

“When I did Miracles, I thought that I would like to create a show out of it… I had written Lisa years ago… I met her via someone, and I had talked to her about Brief Night Out. We were not friendly. Then, we hired her for a Broadway-bound musical, Diana and Navy and the Golden Tooth written by Phoebe Nir who is an artist on our label. She (Lisa), had directed the concert version of that, so we got re-introduced. Then we became friends. Now, we are very good friends because of that show. I was in [it], and I produced it. I was [also] in the show as a narrator character.

“She said, ‘I want to direct you, I think you are interesting.’ Her husband is [also] a fan. I gave them my music from Speak. They said ‘We love your music!’ I thought, ‘Wow!’

“We are doing it, and we will work [together] on the dramaturgy. Lisa is influencing where it goes, and it is great. I like collaboration… there is only so much that can come out of my mind just working with someone else. She thinks it is really important. For me, I just want to do another show.

“She says it has to happen now because of the situation and it is pretty timely. We plan on putting up in June.”

Aside from performing and writing plays, Marla also owns two party-planning businesses, PARTYpoopers and PartySWANK, where she has produced over 3,000 events in the last 25 years. I asked Marla what inspired her to take the risk of starting a business. Her honest answer was “craziness.”

“Years ago,” she began to explain, “When I first started getting into acting and loved it, I started thinking why don’t I act in my theater? I can do it myself. I was not yet producing anything, we [Marla and her husband] were living in Tribeca at the time before what it is now. There were many empty storefronts. I was with my husband at the time, Isaac. I told him “I want to get a space where I can do my theater.” He then came up with the idea of doing kids’ parties. I was not sure why because we did not have children then.

“And, I thought ‘I don’t know. Really?’ That morning, when he woke up and said it, there was a big kids’ fair on our block, on Duane Street. I thought ‘That’s so weird, it must be a sign!’ Then, we just opened the business, and I never thought I would have done it if I did not want to open my theater. It was not anything I never really thought I would… this is the weird thing, everything I am doing in my life, I never really thought I would be doing.”

Like any entrepreneur, Marla’s journey in owning her own business was long. “There was a period where I felt mad because I thought it [the business] took me away from doing my artistic stuff. Now, it all goes together. It does not take up all of my time. The way I balance it now is so much better than I ever did. At first, we had a venue; I used to own thousands of costumes. I got rid of everything, and now it is all me being an event manager. I am the middle man; I know who to hire, and when you know any good director [for example], you know to hire the right people. It works out, but you must have good taste.”

It seems like Marla would like to continue to work as an event manager for parties. Regarding her efforts in music and performance, she plans to release the theatrical concert adoption of Miracles and see where that takes her. She is also developing a memory play that she wrote (along with members of her family) called “The Pill.” Tomas Doncker and James Dellatacoma did the sound design and her mom wrote the music. Marla expresses the first reading of it as a “huge success.” She also says, “People came out laughing and crying. I feel very excited about this piece. It has super strong legs.

Marla at the Dodge Poetry Festival 2014. Photo by Blair Bauer“I just want to keep putting out good work. To me, Miracles~Lost and Found is just one of many things I do. I am not downplaying it. I love the album. It’s not like that album where I am very performance art-y. Maybe some people think it is edgy and they hate it, or they believe that it is hip and cool; this for me, is a treat to say ‘This is an album for me to put on and hear a song, and then hear the next song.’ ”

Music and art, in general, take on a strange life. A singer-songwriter may have a particular motivation for a song in mind, and when they listen to the completed version of their song, it tells an individual story. However, if an artist performs that same song during a time within an environment where plenty of uncertainty, and even fear, fills the political and social landscape, their music can have new meaning. As a musician, playwright and performer, Marla does not seem rattled by this transformation. I would even say she welcomes it, and I would be curious to see how the theatrical concert adoption of Miracles~Lost and Found pans out.

Endnotes

[i] Music Reviews Staff Writer. (April 26, 2014). “monoblogue music: “Half-Life” by Marla Mase.” Chorus.FM. Retrieved from http://monoblogue.us/2014/04/26/monoblogue-music-half-life-by-marla-mase/ on March 11, 2017

[ii] Lang, C. (February 16, 2017). “These Dads Doing Ballet with Their Daughters is the Only Thing You Need to Watch Today.” Time Magazine. Retrieved from http://time.com/4673637/dad-daugheter-ballet/ on March 25, 2017

[iii] A Mighty Wind (n.d.), Retrieved March 25, 2017 from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Mighty_Wind

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Apollo Run’s “Here Be Dragons” Saga: Bass player Jeff Kerestes Shares the story from start to finish

Apollo Run (Left to right: Jeff Kerestes, John McGrew and Graham Fisk)

The most successful bands establish a memorable sound, the one that encourages listeners to return to performances and purchase the group’s music. In the process, artists might find that the music they create does not fit a label. Jeff Kerestes, a professional bassist of the Brooklyn-based band Apollo Run, briefly explains this experience.

“When we changed the band’s name to Apollo Run we did not know how to categorize the music. It was all new to us, the three part harmonies, the bass, the drums… We were wondering “what’s here?” Let’s explore it.”

It was at this moment the band decided to name this phase of their musical development “Here Be Dragons.”

“In the old maps,” explains Jeff, referring to maps of the globe dating as far back as the 1500’s, “signs that read “here be dragons” were drawn to represent uncharted territories. The music was uncharted territory for us.”

In Music Historian’s full-length band interview for May, Jeff talks about how Apollo Run’s “Here Be Dragons” exploration started; where the course has taken them; the possible conclusions of their journey; and what awaits the band in the near future. It is my pleasure to welcome Jeff to Hear; Don’t Listen.

The Beginning: John McGrew and the Sit Backs

One night in 2007, the Arizona-native with a jazz degree from Arizona State University, was celebrating his one year anniversary of living in New York City. Through the husband of a friend, Jeff learned of a band that was looking for a bass player – John McGrew and the Sit Backs. Jeff joined this group in December of that year. Here, he met singer John McGrew and drummer Graham Fisk.

“John and Graham hit it off right away,” recalls Jeff. “The band also had another bass player, a guitarist and keyboard player.

“In this group, all the songs were fully-written by John and the members of the band would play these songs and perform under the moniker John McGrew and the Sit Backs. At that time, John was working a day job just to pay the band. In New York, there is almost nobody that will play another person’s song for free.

“Eventually though, paying the band became expensive, and John decided to leave his day job and do music full-time. Since John McGrew and the Sit Backs was the best experience I had at the time, I decided to stay, and so did Graham.

“Afterwards, John decided he wanted to change the name of the band because all three of us would be writing songs, not just him. We were ready to create a new sound.”

At this point, it was 2009, and John, Jeff and Graham decided they wanted to bring a new approach to music making – one in which all three members could use their ability and talent to the fullest and tie it together into a series of songs.

The Middle: Developing Ideas and Completing Songs Together Apollo Run at the Bowery Electric, April 5th, 2013

“One of the most exciting parts about Apollo Run is that we all write, and we will bring different ideas to each other.

“For example, John and Graham were both in a Cappella groups in their college years. Sometimes, John will have a great a Cappella line, and we’ll develop a song from there or, he will come to us with a song that is almost finished, and we’ll complete it together.

“Graham also writes songs on piano, and sometimes he will come in with a song that he has not finished, and we will hone out the rest of the parts – the vocal harmonies, the bass line, drums and the key board.”

Jeff enumerates on this example through a few stories about some of the songs on “Here Be Dragons” vol. III.

“One of the songs on our last record, “Sirens,” we wrote while we were on tour. I was playing chords on a ukulele during the car ride. In this time, we created the hooks of the song. Then, when we halted for rest stops, we would refine the lyrics and the vocal lines.

“For “Desire,” Graham came in with a partially developed idea for the song. We composed fifty to sixty percent of it in the studio. By the time we finished the other songs for the third volume; we had to complete “Desire.”

“This was one instance in which we were putting too much thought into how a song is “supposed to sound.” When this happens, it becomes very difficult to complete the song. Once we played the song several times through though, it came out right. We played [“Desire”] until it felt right.”

Naming the Band: “Many names can put you in a box and we did not want that”

Prior to recording any of the “Here Be Dragons” records, the band applied the same intuitive effort behind finding the band’s new name.

“Naming the band was difficult,” recalled Jeff. “We really wanted our music to dictate the name and not the other way around. For example, when you hear the name Led Zeppelin or Pearl Jam, you think about the music of the band, not their name. The words don’t mean much on their own until you define them with music.”

“We did not feel we could categorize our sound,” adds Jeff. “Many names can put you in a box, and we wanted to avoid that.”

Listeners will have a difficult time putting Apollo Run’s music neatly in a category. One might feel that the opening piano melodies to “Autumn Song” that paid homage to art songs from the Romantic period; or that the doo-wop-feel of “That’s How it Felt” belongs more to pop; or that the “Devil in Disguise” makes a slight nod to the swing-jazz genre.

The eclectic sounds of each “Here Be Dragons” album might also make listeners wonder what made the band chose the name Apollo Run. For this simple reason: it felt right.

According to Jeff, all the members liked the mythology behind the Greco-Roman God Apollo, who ruled music, poetry, and light. In addition, John who is also an astronomy enthusiast repeated the phrase “Apollo Run” to himself several times. The more he heard it, the more confident and comfortable he felt with the name.

The Music: “You never know where your inspiration is going to come from…”

(Left to Right) John and Graham at the Bowery Electric As my conversation with Jeff continued, I became curious about what influenced the lyrics behind their songs. I learned that for these three musicians, “influence comes from everywhere.”

“You never know where your inspiration is going to come from; it can be from literature to what’s going on politically. A couple of our songs are inspired the book series The Game of Thrones. Sometimes John will come to us and say, “I wrote a new song, it is inspired by The Game of Thrones,” says Jeff jokingly.

Then, some of the inspirations for Apollo Run’s songs come simply from gazing up at a clear night sky.

“Our song “Stars” is basically John’s take on what he hears from looking at the stars. As they twinkle back and forth, John hears they are singing “oh-way-oh,”” explains Jeff.

Apollo Run plays on romantic imagery while celebrating the union of many musical ideas. In addition, fans’ responses to the band’s music have been supportive and unusually phenomenal.

This brings me to what might be the beginning of the end to a great expedition, a possible musical theater production of “Here Be Dragons.”

The End: A Theatrical Reception?

During the summers, John, who has a background in musical theater, works at a drama camp in Oakland, Maine called Acting Manitou. Every year, John helps students put on a play. According to Jeff, “the kids really liked Apollo Run’s music” and they wanted to make a play using the band’s songs.

“Last year, the kids asked whether they could put on a play using Apollo Run’s music, and they did,” enumerates Jeff. “Graham and I went to perform the music for the production. The result was amazing.

“The play takes place in a dystopia. In the story,  a ruler is overthrown and then another ruler takes over. The replacement, however, turns out to be much worse than the initial leader. During this story, there is a love story taking place between two characters. The play references the many faults and issues within our society.”

“After the experience, we decided to bring the play down to New York City and invited Broadway actors for a reading.”

At the moment, the musical has only developed to a reading of the play by professional actors. John says “I do not know where it will go from there.”

Beyond the Saga: A Fourth Album with a New Focus

If the “Here Be Dragons” saga does not end with a big bang, then fans can look forward to a fourth album in the near future. Jeff says the band is in the process of creating a new record that will focus on this idea: now that the territory has been explored, it is no longer uncharted.

“We are currently in the writing stage,” he explains. “The songs are very exciting right now.

“The album’s title will depend on the shapes the songs will take.”

Apollo Run (left to right): John McGrew, Graham Fisk, and Jeff Kerestes In the meantime, the band continues to receive a positive reception from fans all over the country. Jeff recalls Apollo Run’s first national tour from November, which was to promote their third volume and first full-length album “Here Be Dragons” vol. III, as a career milestone for the group.

“That was pretty big for us,” enumerates Jeff. “We started on the west coast in San Francisco, then drove all over the country for a month. We traveled to my hometown in Arizona, then to San Diego, and several other places before concluding the tour in Maine.

“Our fans traveled great distances to come see us perform, and it was rewarding to see them enjoy our music.

“We love what we’re doing and taking that everywhere with us is great.”

Jeff also invites fans to watch Apollo Run’s music videos for the following songs on “Here Be Dragons” vol. III that just premiered today on their website – “Devil in Disguise,” “Bending the Light,” and “Act IV.”

Apollo Run reminds listeners that while establishing a solid sound is a necessary component for a successful band, creating music is not about fitting neatly into a category. Reflecting on my interview with Jeff, I realize that a band’s potential relies on their ability to explore new musical territory despite the uncertainties or possible dangers. Apollo Run’s exploration helped them arrive to the destination they sought – a definition of their sound. In addition, their expedition contributed greatly to their artistic development. The result is the complete “Here Be Dragons” trilogy.

What awaits Apollo Run fans after the HBD saga remains a mystery, but it is one that listeners will look forward to discovering. One thing is certain. The band will apply the same virtuosity, dedication and meticulousness to each song and its various components. As Jeff says, “Many bands are known for doing one thing really well in their music. We work to making everything sound well.”

Musical Theater Today with Mallory Berlin: The Lead of A Doll’s Life Shares Her Experiences, Thoughts and Advice for Young Performers

As a musician who played classical piano and sung in several women choir groups, I truly love to sing. However; being a professional vocalist is not in my future, mainly because I cannot master the skill that all classical and opera singers need for a successful performing career– acting.

Mallory Berlin*

I have known actress and casting director for The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective, Mallory Berlin for years, and she can attest that the most prevalent career roles for professional singers in the performance world are either in musicals or operas. Mallory fills me in on some of the tougher realities for individuals looking to make it as a singer and actor.

“Before I started working with The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective, I would go to auditions for several different productions. As an actor or actress, you are required to wait for long periods of times outside of studios or theaters, and even then, you might not even be seen by the casting crew. Usually, many non-equity performers arrive at 4:00am and stay until 5:00pm, just to sing an 8-bar song.”

Further in our conversation, Mallory also talked about additional ways a professionally trained actor or actress can gain the experience they need so that they are not just investing their time in waiting for a call back from an audition. In our conversation for Music Historian’s Hear; Don’t Listen, Mallory talks specifically from experience. She graciously shares stories from her journey in musical theater, and how she found opportunities in the most unexpected places.

Specializing in a popular style can work against young actors and actresses

Mallory’s professional training as a performer didn’t start in the theater, but in the music school at Ithaca College. She says, “When I got to college, I knew I wanted to perform, act and sing, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted a degree in musical theater. I did know that I wanted to continue singing, so I auditioned for singing lessons at the music school.

“I passed the auditions, and one of the professors, Jennifer Haywood, suggested that I should sing opera. This was something that I had no idea I could do; and she thought I would be great. So, I decided to audition for a spot in the music school.

“Once I was admitted, my advisor said to me, “We loved your audition, and we think you’d make a great music teacher.” I had never thought of myself as a teacher, and I was excited by the idea.

“From then on, the bulk of my college career entailed education and vocal training. By my junior and senior year, I realized I could be a cross-over artist and perform in a variety of mediums including opera, musical theater, and regular theater.”

Being a cross-over artist is a great professional strength for Mallory. Here is why:

“The most popular type of singing today includes belting pop and rock and roll,” explains Mallory. “While this type of voice is in demand, most actors and actresses who specialize in this style have to compete with other performers that sound the same.”

Specializing in a popular style can work against young actors and actresses, especially when they are the 50th person in line for an audition and have to perform the same monologue or 8-bar song that previous auditionees presented. Having a different sound though will not guarantee an actor or actress better chances for being cast.

To help myself, I had to make my own acting opportunities

“In classical music, I am a lyric mezzo- soprano. I have sung roles of little boys, children and occasionally men in opera. In the musical theater world, I am considered a soprano only because I do not have that belting pop voice.

“In purely theatrical roles, I am a character actor. Most people who fall into this category are typically cast to play comical roles. In my case though, my style of singing and acting doesn’t satisfy many casting directors in other theaters because character roles are usually assigned to women that can belt.

“Currently, nobody is producing plays for character actors that have classical voices. So, to help myself, I had to make my own acting opportunities.”

Networking is the key to making it in this industry

Mallory received a lot of sound career advice from experts in the performing arts during her studies at Ithaca College. One of the most important pieces of career advice was “always network.” Mallory enumerates:

“The most important thing I learned is that networking is the key to making it in this industry. Meeting people, making a good first impression and getting involved with different projects will help you in the weirdest of times.

“In my career orientation course at Ithaca College, a professor told all of us, “Look to the person on your left, and now look to the person on your right. One of these people will be in the position to help you find a job in the future.””

One of these individuals that helped Mallory tremendously did not sit on either side of her in the lecture hall but instead, shared a stage with her in Daniel Guyton’s original production, Where’s Julie?

The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective Icon*

“I was very fortunate to meet actor and playwright, Steven McCasland. We first met at the Author’s Playhouse in Bay Shore in the summer of 2006 during the production of Where’s Julie? From that point forward, we started talking and got to know one another. Then, we lost contact for a while.

“About a year after I graduated from Ithaca College, Steven asked me to sing in the benefit for the new theater company he was creating called The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective. He also asked me to audition for the role of Viola in his upcoming production of Twelfth Night. After I got the part for Viola and sang in the benefit concert; Steven recognized my credibility and then cast me as the Queen of Hearts in play he wrote of Alice in Wonderland.

“That summer, he asked me if I would consider joining the Executive Board. The position that interested me, and one I thought I was well-suited for, was the Talent Director. So, I started at Beautiful Soup as an actor, and then became a part of the Executive Board.

The Official Poster of Alice in Wonderland by the Beautiful Soup*

“Who would have known that meeting somebody at a low-budget theater would have lead to opportunities that made a huge difference in my career path? It’s been a great adventure so far, and Steven has really given me a lot of great opportunities that I wouldn’t have had anywhere else. I cannot thank him enough.”

Nora in A Doll’s Life: the Defining Role for a Character Actor and Classical Singer

Aside from working the business-end of the Beautiful Soup Theater Collective, Mallory’s opportunities ranged from playing Viola (Twelfth Night) to the Queen of Hearts (Alice in Wonderland). Her most recent role was Nora in A Doll’s Life.

A Doll’s Life is a musical with a book and lyrics written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with music by Larry Grossman. The musical is based on a play by Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House. It originally premiered in 1982 and it was a flop. In 1994, The York Theater re-premiered a slightly different version of the play. The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective is the third theater to have produced this play since its premier.

“For the Beautiful Soup’s production, Steven wanted to firstly create a version of the musical that only focused on Nora leaving her husband and finding herself. Secondly, he wanted to combine both ending scenes from the 1982 and 1994 productions.

“We made sure to get permission from the play’s composer, Larry Grossman and Adolph Green’s wife, Phyllis Newman to create this new ending.”

The Beautiful Soup's Production of A Doll's Life*

Since Steven decided to narrow the focus of A Doll’s Life strictly on Nora’s journey, Mallory adopted the same attitude as she prepared to act the part.

“When I researched Nora’s part, I was struck by the humanity in her character. She was raised her entire life to do what men asked of her, but has no knowledge of what she likes until she ventures into the world to find herself.

“Nora also wants to teach her children something genuine about life, and she does not want to return home until she feels she really knows what it is like to work, have power, start a business, and more.

“She makes several mistakes in her journey, and she learns from them. I really tried to live in the moment of that.”

I saw Mallory perform the role of Nora in A Doll’s Life back in February, and her performance was impeccable. She has found the perfect theatrical character that can facilitate all of her different talents. The character of the lead role is dramatic, and sings like a soprano. As a character, Nora is ambitious, subtly manipulative and innocently sexy for a woman who was once raised to live like a doll.

Mallory Berlin (Nora) and Alex Pagels (Eric) at The New Ohio Theater*

As I thought about more about Nora, I realized she is a timeless character. We have all experienced a time in our lives when we were programmed and taught to operate in a single structural manner, only to get out into the real world and see that in fact the only rules we need to follow are the ones we make ourselves.

In addition, some of the plays we consider timeless are performed by character actors and classical singers. Musicals with these actors and singers include My Fair Lady and A West Side Story. In addition, Mallory also taught me that what is popular isn’t always timeless.

What Musical Theater Experts Have to Say

“Although there is a large demand for singers who can belt out pop and rock vocal styles; many musical theater experts say that this style will be dated in 20 years, especially since musical theater changes through the generations.

“In the 1950’s, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals were popular, and my voice is considered very appropriate for their work. During the years between the 1980’s and now, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s work became popular – and his works included that belting pop, rock voice that has since become the norm.

“I do know however, that the musical theater sound will change because if you look at audition tapes from the 80’s they are far different from those in the 90’s and even from those after the year 2000.”

Mallory’s Final Suggestion: Be Nice!

Several artists can attest that the popular demand for certain musical theater works, vocal styles and actors will change in later years. Although the industry will change, the landscape for all performers, actors and opera singers will still be competitive. Here is what Mallory suggests to all young actors:

“When you’re in school, you don’t have to be friends with everybody or like everyone, but you should be nice to them. And I can say this is relevant in the job world in so many ways.

“As the talent director for the Beautiful Soup Theater Collective, I do occasionally contact individuals I went to school with regarding auditions. If I remember things about a respective individual that I feel didn’t help them, for example, they didn’t treat me with respect, then I ask myself, what will make them treat me with respect now? Or what will make them treat the director with respect?

“When I do meet individuals who I went to school with that were nice to me, and I like their audition, I can put in a good word for them, and hopefully help them out in a small way, like recommend that they come in a second time.”

*All photos were published with permission*