Cesar Alvarez asks questions musicals (and songwriters) answer

by Kyra Atekwana '14

What stories need to be musicalized?

How do we make sure that every element of a song adds to the storytelling?

How do we get the music to answer the questions the lyrics ask?

What is the purpose of a hook?

Whenever our professor poses questions like these, I scribble frantically, rushing to write down the answers to these questions and a few fleeting thoughts on the answers before the inspiration leaves me. Visiting professor César Alvarez, a member of The Lisps and writer of Futurity, asks these questions to get me and 15 other students in Drama 169x: Emerging Musical Theater thinking innovatively about songwriting and storytelling in musical theater.

"This course is me sitting down and trying to put together a class about what I am most interested in," says Alvarez.

I sit with him on the Science Center Plaza. He is in Cambridge on Mondays only since he’s currently working on a production of The Good Person of Szechwan at the Public Theater in New York City. We meet during his office hours prior to class. Construction noises and a theme from the musical Once being played on one of the pianos placed nearby by the Play Me I'm Yours project underscore our meeting.

"I’m interested in looking at the way musicals are built," he says. "How does the changing musical landscape of the 21st century allow us to tell stories in a new and authentic, contemporary way?" I jot down this question. I am in the class, after all, and as an aspiring musical theater writer, it’s something to keep in mind.

In class each week, Alvarez assigns a set of parameters to think about as we write a song that we will perform for our classmates. It can be as general as "write a song that tells a story" to something more specific such as a recent assignment to: "record a song based on a non-poetic text." It inspired such projects as a song about anxiety created by layers of test preparation materials from an LSAT prep book, the musicalzation of a page from a Stat 110 text book, several songs about thesis research and one from a to-do list.

Our next task: Make a video of a song or write a song (or six songs) using six Vines.

"There’s so much orthodoxy around how musicals are built that people feel like that’s the most important thing about writing musicals," he tells me. "It’s the connection between the music we really, really love in our lives and the stories we really are trying to tell where there’s this interesting possibility and space where I think the contemporary musical should be."

With this sentiment in mind, we prepare our pieces each week. While not every student is a seasoned performer or adept musician, each student brings his or her own strengths to the class, excelling in some areas and learning to improve in others. "Our habits are what have gotten us this far," Alvarez often tell us.

But the questions he poses and the assignments he gives stretch and challenge us. They take us out of our comfort zones. We are forced to rethink how we let our habits, impulses and experiences shape the music we make and the stories we tell. This class is about taking stories and making them songs and taking songs and making them stories. We start with questions and we end with questions, but sometimes a few questions are what you need to get at the answers you have to give to the world.

[Caption: César Alvarez (center) with Anise Molina '14 and Fiona Kyle ART/MXAT '14]