Currently playing downtown at the Public Theater, February House marks composer-lyricist Gabriel Kahane and book writer Seth Bockley’s first venture into musical theater. The two men, both 30, pursued independent career paths since they first met as students at Brown University: Kahane as a singer-songwriter and composer of concert works and Bockley as a playwright and director. For their first musical together, Kahane and Bockley drew inspiration from the historical confluence of an extraordinary group of artists who made a home for themselves in a dilapidated house in Brooklyn Heights during the early years of WWII.
The curious experiment in communal living was instigated by 34-year-old George Davis, who at the time was fiction editor for Harper’s Bazaar. Davis persuaded a talented, eclectic bunch to move into the house at number 7 Middagh Street, among them English writer W. H. Auden, already an established poet of distinction, who moved in with his young boyfriend, aspiring poet Chester Kallman; up-and-coming British composer Benjamin Britten, who moved in with Peter Pears, the English tenor who remained his lifelong companion; Southern novelist Carson McCullers, who had recently achieved major success with her debut novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; and, most intriguingly, burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, who wrote a bestselling crime novel, The G-String Murders, during her stay at the house in Brooklyn. The artists were in their 20s and 30s at the time, with McCullers, the youngest at 23 and Auden the eldest at 33.
The saga of this volatile mix of young artistic sensibilities, all at crucial points in their careers, is documented in a nonfiction work by Sherill Tippins, titled February House, the name given to the dwelling by writer Anaïs Nin because many of the residents had birthdays in February. We recently caught up with Kahane and Bockley to chat about February House, a musical based on Tippins’s book.
February House certainly features a fascinating group of people. Was there something in particular that drew you to this material?
Gabriel Kahane: What spoke to me about the work as a theater piece is that our three protagonists—George Davis, Carson McCullers, Wystan Auden—represented a theme where we found a contemporary resonance. For Carson McCullers there was this idea of a coming-of-age story and the crippling effect of overnight success. I read Sherill’s book in 2006, when I was 25, and so I really got the sense of resonance there.
Auden, of course, had been profoundly political in the 1930s, up until the beginning of the WWII. He lost his political will after the Spanish Civil War. When I read the book, we were very much at war in Iraq and there were a lot of progressives being kind of idiotic in public and not really giving particular intellectual grace to the anti-war movement. I started to understand how someone like Auden could have great political convictions, have the right ideas in mind and yet not want to associate with what he thought was this intellectually feeble progressive movement. Also having marched against the Iraq War in 2003 and being amid the sweat and stink of people chanting really idiotic slogans like, “Bush is Hitler,” “Jews are Nazis”—all this polemical bullshit—that could really turn you off from wanting to advocate for something you believe in deeply.
Seth Bockley: And there’s this role that a poet, especially Auden, had in 1940, which is comparable with Bob Dylan in the 1960s, which is the kind of expectations associated with fame—that you had to ally yourself with the important issues of the day. That pressure was enormous and I think both artists had a certain period when they resisted that identity quite strongly. This is the moment for Auden where he tries to resist because he was so disenchanted by the virtuous left crusaders in the Spanish Civil War.
GK: And then, finally, with George Davis, this den mother and brains trust of the house at Middagh Street, there’s this fundamental question of to what extent can we choose our family and to what extent can we build family. That for me somehow connects to the question of architecture and how our emotional connections to memory and buildings and place—something that has preoccupied me in my work as a songwriter for a long time. The moment when I knew that I really wanted to do this as a theater piece was when I took a friend down to the site where the house stood. Standing over by this chain-link fence overlooking the BQE and the absence of any marker whatsoever, not only of the house, but of any sort of land—just open air—and trying to reconcile for myself all of the insanity that took place in that house with nothing to mark it by. Maybe, in a way, this piece is about honoring the memory of the lives there.
SB: I came on board a little bit later. For me, what attracted me was the compression of life, of action, the energy of people and a house such as this, which is a natural fit for the theater. This singular location is very appealing to me as a dramatist.
How did you set about writing the book? Was there a lot of research involved?
SB: There was a big period of research, not only historical research, but, because these are artists and writers, it also involved reading things they wrote. We had many versions of the show. One of the challenges is that it’s not about simply teasing something out of it, there are an infinite number of ways that you can do it in this basic concept. We also had to make our own fictional interventions into the historical record. For example, the character of Erika Mann in the musical is really a combination of three historical people. There was Erika Mann and her brother Klaus, who’s actually the one who started Decision magazine, and also Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, a friend of both the Manns and who was the one that Carson fell in love with. It felt very right to make that choice, because Erika Mann was also Auden’s wife.
GK: Something I admire about Seth is that in so deeply absorbing the research and historical record, he’s been able to have that at beck and call and then he’s able to lift from everyday contemporary life, because ultimately we’re telling a story that’s very much about this moment as much as it’s about that moment. He would plant things from 2012 into 1940 in a way that most people would never catch—very often borrowing things from my own life. It takes me seeing the scene 12 times to recognize that that he’d made fun out of me in a scene.
How did you decide to work together?
GK: We were friends at Brown and I think we appeared in one play together as actors, and then, immediately after school, Seth went off to do physical theater in western Massachusetts, but we somehow maintained contact over the years. The idea of working together actually came from another commission, as yet unwritten, for the Signature Theater in Arlington. I had seen a piece that Seth had brought from Chicago, a toy theater opera about Laika…
SB: …the first dog in space.
GK: I was really moved and excited by the notion of toy theater and so we’re in conversation. I mentioned that I was doing February House and at the time it still wasn’t certain who was going to write the book. I speculated to myself that doing a musical would be too conventional or traditional for Seth, but I was very wrong.
SB: I do work in multiple forms as a director and a writer and I sometimes do more experimental work, but I really relish coming to a new form, and musical theater for me was a kind of new form. I think for both of us we approached it a bit from the outside. It was very much an education.
GK: I think that the more we have learned about the form, we’ve tried to honor its traditions while breaking them.
You certainly took on the musical challenge of writing a song for Gypsy Rose Lee. Was the prospect of moving into Gypsy territory daunting?
GK: I remember a particular session with Oskar Eustis [Artistic Director of the Public] and Ted Sperling [Musical Theater Initiative Consultant at the Public] where we’d written the first draft of Gypsy’s song at the end of the first act and they kept referring to “Zip.” We had no idea what they were talking about. It wasn’t until later that I finally went and YouTube’d the song. And now, of course, I understand why anyone who knows anything about musical theater will relate those two songs. I think the song that we have written maybe has only a shadow of the brilliance of “Zip,” but because Gypsy Rose Lee is trying to gain entrance into this profoundly intellectual community, I think it’s the right song for the story we’re telling in that moment. In fact, we did a little bit of research at the Performing Arts library and the song we wrote is based a little bit on one of her own lyrics. She had written this song—that in order for a woman to seduce a man she has to know her politics and literature and so on and so forth. Ultimately we discovered that in 2012 that doesn’t sit so well, so we inverted that.
SB: I think part of the reason why that happened is also because, to us, Gypsy Rose Lee is the sort of pop celebrity of the house—she’s sort of the Lady Gaga/Madonna figure—and because she has that role in the house we felt like it’s much more fun for her to have this enormous status.
What are your thoughts now about February House, looking back?
GK: The thing that was very appealing about Sherill’s book is that it’s very much high-low and not a dull history lesson. You have both this intense preoccupation with very serious ideas and also totally debauched parties; Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears’s room has bed bugs; George Davis sitting naked at the piano with a cigarette hanging out of his ass. It’s talking about serious ideas and then people are fucking and fighting and burning soufflés in the oven. So it was really important to us that the piece both be very intelligent and also very stupid. I think that may also be an expression of who we are as people; we both like to dwell on things in a cerebral way and then also be really dumb. And musical theater I think can be a great vehicle for things that are both really smart and really stupid.
SB: I would make a triumvirate of smart and stupid by adding heart. I feel like Gabe’s music is often intensely lyrical, melancholic, heartbreaking, and intimate, and that’s not the kind of music that I associate either with goofy musical comedy or with serious intellectual drama. Carson is in a sense the heart of the play and heart of the house in our story. The very spare and beautiful banjo-based music that’s associated with her reflects her voice as a writer, and I think it communicates Gabe’s direct emotional connection with the audience.