There's a new Broadway musical that might help remedy our devastating national fissures. For a few hours, at least, it might replace our sense of "my country/their country" with a vision of unity and cooperation. It might remind us, if only for a little while, how it looks when Americans rely on each other to make the world work.
That musical is In Transit, and it begins performances tonight at Circle in the Square.
True, there's nothing overtly political about the show, which follows New Yorkers throughout the city as their lives intersect in surprising ways. Mostly, these are tales of love and family and enduring connections, with 11 actors embodying dozens of people we might see during a random subway ride.
But consider how the tales are told. Unlike any other musical on Broadway, In Transit is entirely a cappella. All the music and all the sounds are made by the cast members, who use nothing but their own voices.
"We're not only the cast, but we are also the band," says cast member Telly Leung. "We never stop making sound. Oftentimes, you will exit a scene, and you will be backstage changing clothes and singing 'ooh' and 'ahh' for somebody who's singing lead on stage. That's just the nature of this show."
In other words, these performers have to be uniquely supportive of each other. Even if they're just singing a backing phrase or making a sound effect, they have to be in sync, or they could throw off the rhythm of an entire scene.
What's more, the actors have to sing their ensemble parts in the same style. Too many vocal flourishes could make someone stand out in the wrong way. "To be able to sing an 'e' vowel, it has to be the same 'e' vowel," Leung says. "We have to produce it the same way – the way we shape the vowel in our mouth has to be the same, the dynamic of the vowel has to be the same – and that requires all of us to really tune in to one another and listen to each other. It requires an amazing amount of musical discipline."
That discipline – that sense of togetherness – can seem incredibly moving right now. It's reflected by the writers, too: In Transit has a book and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan, and Sara Wordsworth. How fitting that a community of people has worked together to create this script and score.
Still, it's not like there are no individuals in the piece. All the actors have a primary character, stepping out of the ensemble to drive the story for a while. Leung, for instance, plays Steven, whose fiancé Trent (Justin Guarini) is afraid to tell his family about their engagement. "We all have a wonderful moment to shine," says Leung. "In rehearsal, we've been working on the question of, 'How do you grab the spotlight when it's your turn, and how do you then generously shine the light on your other castmates when it's not your turn?"
He continues, "But I think the power of the show, and I think what audiences will be really impressed by, is us as an ensemble. All of us coming together and making this very unique sound together."
With any luck, that coming together can encourage us all, and Leung suggests New Yorkers are especially well suited for this type of storytelling. "I think there's a sense of pride when it comes to New Yorkers, that we are all part of the city," he says . "We do have each other's backs, and I think that's the message of the show. As much as you feel alone in the city, you're not."
From Theatre Development Fund by MARK BLANKENSHIP