SPOTLIGHT ON “THE FIREBIRD” WITH MUSIC BY LISA WHITSON BURNS, WORDS BY CHRISTOPHER STASKEL, AND ORCHESTRATED BY MATT AUMENT

By Melissa Nally

It was a month after handing in the charts that orchestrator Matt Aument got to meet Lisa Whitson Burns, who composed the music for “The Firebird” with words by Christopher Staskel. They bonded over a musical figure that Matt added to one character’s song that ties it to another, both to be featured at the Musical Theatre Factory gala concert “Get Yourself Some New Orchestrations” in association with The Chelsea Symphony.

“The Firebird” is the first full-length musical that Lisa and Christopher wrote, when they were paired together for their thesis musical in the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. It’s about a woman who adopted a child from Russia, and then sent him back less than a year later with a note saying he was psychologically disturbed. While this may sound draconian, it is based on a true story that made international news in 2010.

The musical incorporates the lesser-known part of the adoption scandal: the adoptive woman’s own mother, who flew with the boy to D.C. and put him on the plane. “There’s not a single quote from the adoptive mother, they’re all from her own mother,” said Lisa. “We’re exploring the triangle between the boy, the adoptive mother, and this grandmother figure.”

The team is presenting five songs at the concert that span the show. Lisa and Christopher selected songs they thought would be most exciting to hear fully orchestrated – a first for their work together. Matt and Christopher met once to talk through the show, and then armed with the score and a video of the dance workshop, Matt set to work to translate their music for The Chelsea Symphony. Lisa had heard Matt’s orchestrations for another show, “Tamar of the River,” and thought of him immediately for this collaboration.

The piece mainly takes place in the dreams of the adoptive mother, and the boy, Kodiak. “They have very different theatrical languages to them. Kodiak’s are more colorful and done through modern dance: abstract, broader strokes,” said Christopher. Lisa added, “His have a lot less text, and hers have songs that are more dense in terms of text, and more book. There is no book in his dreams – it’s all music and dance in a very thick texture of music.”

For Matt, that meant pulling together a couple of different styles. For Kodiak, his orchestrations are based in the strings, woodwinds, and percussion figures other than the drum set. The mother’s musical style is more “traditionally theater-y.” One of the pieces they’ll be presenting is “Speedily A Tale Is Spun,” a song that took Matt three days to orchestrate. It was cut from the show, put back in, cut again, and put back in again – and is now one of the songs Christopher and Lisa are most looking forward to hearing with the orchestra. It focuses on the bureaucratic nonsense surrounding the international adoption process, and evolves into a Russian circus.

Matt uses all members of the orchestra for the most part – including the banjo, which “fit in one of the more chaotic sequences nicely.” They also gushed over having a harp, something that the other teams were equally excited about. On going back to a smaller pit after hearing the score with a full orchestra, Matt said, “That’s always described as the saddest part of any rehearsal process. You have the sitzprobe, and the actors get to sing with the orchestra and everybody hears it for the first time. And then you go back into tech that night with just the piano…and everything feels bad.”

After four years of working on the show, which has included three dance workshops, three readings, and another workshop, Lisa and Christopher are ready to see a production of “The Firebird.” Each stage of development has brought new and exciting revelations: seeing Kodiak played by an age-appropriate actor, realizing that his dreams should be told through narrative dance, and hopefully, now hearing it with a full orchestra. Christopher said, “I imagine that the orchestra is going to be the same thing again – a new dimension that changes everything, and gives us insight into the story we’ve been working on for so long.”

Check out selections from “The Firebird” along with four other scores to be featured at the gala concert event “Get Yourself Some New Orchestrations,” the launch of an exciting new series which pairs emergent musical theatre writers with Broadway orchestrators to commission stunning new orchestrations of their shows. Excerpts from four new musicals (and one reimagined favorite!) will be brought to life by the 35-piece Chelsea Symphony and a cast of Broadway stars. 

When: Monday, November 9, at 8pm

Where: Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Music Center (129 West 67th Street, New York, NY 10023)

Tickets available here

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