A Future(ity) After Harvard

"Futurity" PHOTO: Julieta CervantesMusic professional Madeline Smith '14 discusses the road from Harvard to working on Futurity: The Musical in New York City. 

By Jake Stepansky '17

During her years at Harvard, Madeline Smith '14 had an expansive music career as a member of the Radcliffe Pitches, a theatrical music director and a proctor for the Freshman Arts Program. (She also wrote for this blog.) Now, she’s breaking hard and fast into the New York theater scene, working on exciting and groundbreaking works. Brandon Jacobs Jenkins’ An Octoroon is a recent highlight. Smith has joined forces on the music end with Cesar Alvarez, who taught the popular course Emerging Musical Theater last year at Harvard, through the development process of Futurity, a new musical presented by Ars Nova and SoHo Rep. The work has garnered critical acclaim in such stalwart publications as the New York Times and The Village Voice. As someone hoping to pursue a career in the arts, I aspire to follow a path similar to Smith's. I chatted with her about her time at
Madeline Smith '14 PHOTO: Ben AronsHarvard and about working with Alvarez. An edited version of our conversation follows. 

In three sentences or less, can you describe Futurity to me?
Futurity is about whether we can use imagination and creativity to fix the problems of the world. We’re telling that story through a civil war soldier who dreams up a machine that could create world peace. It’s based on a concept album by a band called The Lisps, fronted by Cesar Alvarez.

How have you been involved in the production?
I’m the associate music director and the score supervisor; I also did all the vocal arrangements. They built the musical upside down. They took an album that has these songs, hired 10 actors who played instruments, and then asked them to bring their instruments to rehearsal. Cesar would play the songs and their melodies, and then the musicians would improvise and play music based on those songs. My job was to make a score out of what happened in that circle. I’m sad that it’s made now, because the making of it was so exciting.

What did you learn at Harvard that was valuable to you when working on this production?
This score in particular is not so much about complicated music; it’s three-chord folk songs. It’s not about complexity of harmony; it’s about texture. If you have a trumpet play the same time as a cello, what does that sound like? At Harvard, I learned so much from Richard Beaudoin’s theory classes – he’s a genius, one of the best professors at Harvard – and I definitely drew from his classes. I also "Futurity"gained so much from the experience of arranging a cappella music, because these are folk songs that soldiers sing while they’re walking down the road. I would build earthy four-part harmonies, so my experience with a cappella was super helpful for that.

How does Alvarez’s work as a director and creator differ from his work as a teacher?
Cesar’s class was very similar to being in rehearsal with him in a lot of ways. Cesar started his first class at Harvard with a room of 15 theater kids. We were all thinking: “I know what musical theater is. I’ve had Sweeney Todd memorized since I was 7. If anyone knows about musical theater it’s me.” He picked up his guitar and improvised an eight-minute song about absolutely nothing. Then we were all thinking, “What is going on? Who is this crazy man?” It totally, in that moment, rocked my world and made me realize that there was a different way of creating these things. Fast forward two-and-a-half years, and here we are in Manhattan with amazing top-of-the-line creative people who have these amazing off-Broadway and Broadway credits, and we’re still sitting in that circle and making stuff up. Cesar is so open and so not possessive of his work, and so willing to try anything. That’s what attracts such amazing people to him and to his projects.

Futurity, which is presented by Ars Nova and SoHo Rep, runs through Nov. 15 at The Connelly Theater, 220 E. 4th Street in New York City. For more information, click here. The show premiered in 2012 at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard.