“Bright Star” doesn’t sound like most Broadway musicals. There’s that banjo, for one thing, not to mention the autoharp and the mandolin. If you’re trying to describe the production’s sound, it’s probably easiest just to go for the shorthand and call it a “bluegrass musical.”
But the creators of “Bright Star” really wish you wouldn’t.
“I’m frustrated we’ve been put into a thimble of a genre,” said Edie Brickell, who co-wrote the score with Steve Martin. “We have some bluegrass instrumentation, but it spans a lot of different genres. If someone said to me, ‘Want to go to a bluegrass musical?’ I’d say, ‘No thanks.’”
The project’s unusual score is one of the things that makes it stand out in a crowded field — and helped earn it five nominations at the Tony Awards, including one for new musical, one for score and one for orchestration. But its unclassifiable nature is also one of the things that makes it hard to sell to potential ticketbuyers.
“It’s been very difficult to describe what kind of music this is,” said producer Joey Parnes (“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”). “It’s not bluegrass, but it has elements of that. It’s not country, but there’s a couple of twangy moments. It’s sort of Americana, but no one knows what Americana connotes. There are some songs that are full-out Broadway-ballad style. But overall the score has a sound unto itself.”
“To me, vocally, it’s akin to jazz and gospel and soul,” added Carmen Cusack, the Tony nominated-actress giving a breakout performance in the show.
Whatever you call it, that sound is the product of an eclectic team of collaborators that ranges from New Bohemians frontwoman Brickell to multihyphenate funnyman Martin to Peter Asher, the musician, manager and producer whose career has spanned Beatlemania, James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. On the road to Broadway, orchestrator August Eriksmoen and music director Rob Berman came aboard too.
Brickell and Martin had known each other more than 20 years when Brickell, who prefers to socialize by making music rather than going to lunch, suggested they write songs together. So Martin, a banjo player, composed a series of banjo tracks, which Brickell then used as the foundation for her own lyrics and melodies. “Every time he sent me a banjo track I had an idea,” she remembered. “There are some musicians you just have a chemistry with.”
Asher, who’s known Martin since the comedian opened for Ronstadt in the 1970s, heard the tunes at a dinner at Martin’s place — and immediately suggested making an album.
“I said then that I didn’t think it should be a straightforward bluegrass album,” the producer said. “Some of those songs didn’t sound like bluegrass songs. They became more melodic in a pop, straightforward way. We loved the idea of pairing the banjo with strings, and opening up the sound palette.”
With Asher in the mix, the songs gained not only strings and percussion but also marimbas and pipes and vocal harmonies. They were released on Martin and Brickell’s 2013 album “Love Has Come for You,” which Asher produced.
Then came the musical. As the songs and the story (with a book by Martin) evolved over the course of tryout runs at the Old Globe (in 2014) and at the Kennedy Center (in 2015) prior to Broadway, orchestrator Eriksmoen found himself tasked with finding the stage equivalent of the album’s genre-bending sound, maintaining the naturalism of the approach while steering clear of predictability and overt theatricality.
In the process, he was confronted with some unusual challenges. “How do we use a drum to make the sound of someone slapping their thighs?” Eriksmoen remembered wondering. “How do I get something that sounds like someone stomping on a back porch with a boot on?”
Those questions led to some unexpected answers — like the fact that the musical’s drummer never uses a sticks. Instead, he’s got a collections of spoons, flicks and brushes, as well as a rute, which Eriksmoen describes as resembling “a bundle of twigs.”
Microphone placement also affected the sound, as did certain kind of beaters for a drum pedal. In one case, the percussionist beats on a drum case instead of an actual drum. Meanwhile, the musical’s second conductor spends a lot more time playing autoharp than he would in pretty much any other Broadway show.
“Everything we’re doing up there is treated to sound like it’s not a refined instrument,” Eriksmoen said. “Which took a lot of refinement.”
On top of that, there was also the “acoustical nightmare” of coordinating the sound from a 10-piece band that’s divided into three different spots onstage and backstage — with five of its members in an onstage house that keeps moving around.
All those issues have been solved now. The remaining challenge is getting audiences to come: The musical’s entirely original storyline and indescribable sound would be hurdles even if this weren’t the season of “Hamilton.”
Since the Tony nominations last month, the box office for “Bright Star” seems to have gained some steam. But with weekly sales still hovering below the $500,000 mark, “Bright Star” could still use a boost from a well-placed performance on the Tony telecast, which could raise its profile for audiences both in New York and nationally.
In the meantime, the musical’s score is already expanding the show’s reach, thanks to an original cast recording that has landed at No. 1 on Billboard’s bluegrass album chart and no. 2 on its cast albums chart. Which just goes to show that despite its challenges at the Broadway box office, “Bright Star” has managed to find its appreciators — and they’re as cross-genre as the tunes themselves.