By Melissa Nally
“The White City,” with music by Avi Amon, words by Julia Gytri, and orchestrated by Kim D. Sherman, is the story of America’s first serial killer, set against the backdrop of the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. It originated as Avi and Julia’s thesis musical in the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. “The White City” was presented at the 2014 Eugene O’Neill National Music Theater Conference, and five selections from the musical will soon be seen at Musical Theatre Factory’s gala concert “Get Yourself Some New Orchestrations,” in association with The Chelsea Symphony.
The story of the serial killer H.H. Holmes has been fictionalized in other projects recently, such as “The Devil in the White City,” by Erik Larson, which will soon be a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Avi and Julia decided to take a different angle on the story. Instead of focusing on Holmes, they tell the story through the eyes of the women in his life. One is Lucy, the woman he “sets his sights on.” She is torn between her loyalty to the Old West and keeping things as they are, and the excitement for the future that the World’s Fair breeds.
“We say the show is about a serial killer, but it’s also about an exciting time in history. It’s pre-Industrial Revolution, and the whole world over the next thirty years is going to change and never be the same again,” said Julia. This is a central concept of the show: technology is moving faster than ever before, and it can be used to make life better, or in the case of the serial killer, used in ways it wasn’t intended.
Avi and Julia picked songs that showed the range of the show, and what they wanted to hear with the orchestra. One featured piece is the opening number, which Kim punched up with brass. “Being let into Kim’s process was a luxury… I can write something on the piano, and she’ll write a part for the English Horn that makes so much more sense and really captures the energy I was going for,” said Avi.
For Kim, this was the first time tackling the task of orchestrating someone else’s work. “Avi’s musical language is very different from mine. It’s interesting to find the layers of it, so it’s more like a discovery process when you’re doing someone else’s. It’s like a little puzzle,” said Kim. Avi and Kim met backstage at the JCC in Manhattan during a concert series and became fast friends, bonding over baking bread and learning about each other’s music. When Avi and Julia joined the concert, Avi asked Kim to come along.
Kim was excited to make full use of The Chelsea Symphony, even including a part written for the spoons at Julia’s request. The team met to talk about what is going on in each song dramatically, which Kim feels is important context to have for the orchestrations. One of the pieces, “Kiss Me Goodnight,” was the hardest to orchestrate, but Kim was drawn to it and started working on it first. It is an extended sequence with ghosts, extra voices, and fog – Kim found that there were a lot of textures to work with. On orchestrating “The White City,” Kim said, “It’s just about taking it apart, and putting it into colors.”
“The White City” was written with a full orchestra in mind, but has never been orchestrated or presented that way before this concert. “In modern orchestras, they would just say you could do the harp part on the synth. Orchestrations get smaller and more sound-designed, and you lose connection to it. You lose the vibration of it,” said Kim. “We’ll never hear it this way ever again – even on Broadway we would never have this many musicians,” said Julia. Avi added, “We’d love to shoot for half the orchestra.”
Check out selections from “The White City” 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.