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The Lisps: In Defense of the Musical
Far from parody, FUTURITY is “so heartfelt that it’s shocking”

By Jesse Leaneagh

Bucking band-culture expectations, Brooklyn’s the Lisps have added a nontraditional project to their recording and touring schedule: making a musical. The band prioritizes spectacle over, say, shoegazing, but their work FUTURITY—co-commissioned by the Walker and coming to the McGuire Theater April 26–28—is still “a musical made by people who don’t make musicals.” Telling the story of a soldier’s quest to save humans from themselves by inventing an omnipotent, steam-powered “brain,” the piece melds the Civil War with sci-fi and American folk with indie rock. Bandmates Sammy Tunis and César Alvarez weigh in on why they chose the musical form and how it kept their band together.

Jesse Leaneagh

I’m curious about the transition for the Lisps from making albums as a band to producing a musical. Did it feel natural to take that leap in light of the community of musicians and artists you know and who are a part of your world?

Sammy Tunis

For me, it was thrilling because I’m an actress also. It’s a dream to get to be with my band and also act—to do both of the things that I love. In New York, we’re obviously a part of a community of musicians and theatermakers, but we don’t know anyone else who’s doing what we’re doing. We’ve gotten the attention of a lot of theater people, but I think many fans who already liked the band were in some way skeptical or didn’t understand this project. A lot of our fans came to see the show, and some people went crazy and loved it so much but other people were like, “I don’t get it.” But we still are a band too; we play shows. We released an album before we came to the American Repertory Theater [where FUTURITY had its debut]. We came out with a regular Lisps album.

Leaneagh

Which was Are We at the Movies?

Tunis

Yes. We are trying to do what we’re interested in, when we’re interested in doing it. If we want to put out an album, we’ll put out an album, and if we want to work on another musical or film, that’s what we’ll do.

César Alvarez

When we started as a band, we were really interested in putting on a show. We would go to a lot of rock shows and see bands that were sort of staring at their shoelaces and wearing T-shirts. And we as a band always wanted to raise the bar and do costumes and gags in between songs and do little choreographies and weird concepts for our shows. This was really a growth from that, and it allowed us to go to the nth degree in that direction.

Everybody in the band is really a showperson. Eric [Farber, the band’s percussionist] has been working in the burlesque scene for almost a decade, Sammy is an actress, and I’ve always been doing music for dance and theater. I’ve done a one-man show. I’ve always been interested in multidisciplinary work. It was exciting to get a chance to feel like our band encompassed everything we did, rather than limit what we wanted to do. I think that’s why it’s been the thing that’s sort of kept us together the past four years. It’s been such a large and exciting trajectory.

Leaneagh

Maybe that’s a lesson for other bands trying to stay together. Try something ambitious; don’t scale down.

Alvarez

There’s such a culture of bands: “you’re supposed to do that, you’re supposed to do this.” You put the album out, then you do the tour, then you do the music video. In a way, that can be a very limiting trajectory, because what happens to a lot of bands is they go through those motions and then they say, “OK, we did all those things, we can either repeat or … what’s next?” And I think a lot of bands dissolve because of that. We gave ourselves this completely other thing that turned out to be more of a life project, which is exciting.

Leaneagh

You mentioned film. In an interview for At Length magazine, you said, “A lot of rock bands are making musicals, though I’m sure they’d rather just be making films. I know I would love to turn FUTURITY into a film, because that’s where I think it would live the best.” Do you still feel that way?

Alvarez

Oh wow, that’s old. That was before we had ever gotten to do a production of it. I do think FUTURITY would be interesting as a film, but in a way, it might be more interesting as a series of music videos. Or a long-form music video. I think we as a band are really interested in cinema. So much of the process of writing this musical has been informed by film. That’s what we grew up on; I’ve seen way more movies than I’ve seen musicals. When we go to try to tell a story, you can’t deny how big of an impact that has. We’re all really interested in making video and in making films, it’s just a lot harder in a way.

Tunis

It’s a lot more expensive.

Leaneagh

I was thinking that when you look at the operas or musicals that the Knife and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O made, they probably could afford to have made a film instead but not a lot of bands could.

Tunis

What’s funny is that there aren’t a lot of bands like us making musicals. But there are bands who are famous, who have a lot of money and millions of fans, who do have the luxury to do that. And I think that now because of Green Day, there are a lot of bands interested in making musicals, but one of the things that people have been intrigued about with us is that we don’t have millions of fans or millions of dollars. But we still made a musical, which was hard.

Alvarez

It’s funny reading these interviews with big bands, like Green Day—or I just read an article with John Mellencamp, who’s making a musical with Stephen King, and he was like, “This is so terrifying to put my music onstage.” And I’m like, “You’re John Mellencamp, you can do whatever you want!” But it’s funny how big of a risk it feels, even to really big musicians, to put your music onstage in this narrative fashion. And I think it’s great that these big musicians are trying it, like Regina Spektor, who is working on a Broadway show, or U2, which wrote the music for Spiderman.

Tunis

Trey [Anastasio] from Phish is writing a musical.

Alvarez

And Serj Tankian from System from a Down, too. But what’s exciting is that, actually, it means that musical theater is getting a new look, some new ideas pumped into it. The way that musical theater has been turned into a musical genre is really unfortunate. What we’re doing as a band is inserting our musical language, our indie musical language, into the form of musical theater, which is a really interesting form.

Leaneagh

Your post, “In Defense of the Musical,” on your blog Music is Free Now, sparked a totally right-brain, random question. You quoted New Line Theatre director Scott Miller, who said, “Musical theatre is at its purest and most honest when it admits its obvious artifice.” Do you think it’s possible for a musical to be in denial of its artifice, to be in denial of actually being a musical? I was trying to picture that.

Alvarez

That’s a great question, and one I should probably watch more musicals before I answer [laughs]. But I do think that when people have theatrical experiences—because they’re so used to seeing movies—it can be jarring. There’s not as much tolerance for total stylization as maybe there used to be, like in the ’40s and ’50s during the heyday of musical theater. People tell me, “I don’t like musicals because people just burst into song in the middle of a scene.” It’s so stylized and unrealistic. So I think a lot of contemporary musicals have taken the tack of making fun of musicals. For instance, Urinetown or Avenue Q, they’re really parodies of the form. They’re not taking an authentic, heartfelt approach to using the form. Even in Book of Mormon, which I haven’t seen, they’re approaching the show with the punchline of “Aren’t musicals ridiculous?”

That’s the opposite of what FUTURITY is doing. It’s so heartfelt that it’s shocking. It’s totally earnest. It’s earnest and also completely stylized and unrealistic. Those two things are really an exciting angle for the musical in 2012, and I hope more people notice that. I think you can come to this musical and be like, “This sucked, it’s so stylized and fakey,” but that’s actually the point. I don’t know if that answers your question.

Leaneagh

No, that’s interesting. Are you still hoping to have FUTURITY on Broadway?

Alvarez

What I’m hoping for FUTURITY is that it has a really long life and that a lot of people get to see it and experience it in a lot of different ways. I don’t have the data to know if Broadway is the right place for that life, because Broadway is a really treacherous landscape, especially for a piece as quirky as this one. We’re thinking about many different ideas for the future of this piece, but Broadway isn’t really the goal and hasn’t ever been the goal. As we march along in the development process for this, Broadway is something that everyone is thinking about, but it’s not really the point. We’re thinking, “How cool would it be if FUTURITY had a site-specific life, where it lived in some special place built especially for FUTURITY?” That’s just as exciting as Broadway. But if Broadway could flex or stretch in a way to accept FUTURITY, then I think that could be really interesting. As we work on defining the musical in 2012, what I wrote in that post was: “I want Broadway to come to us, I don’t want to go to Broadway.” The last thing we want to do is change FUTURITY so that it fits into Broadway.

The Lisps, FUTURITY

César Alvarez, left, and Sammy Tunis

Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

The Lisps, FUTURITY

The Steam Brain

Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

The Lisps, FUTURITY

Photo: Sam Hough

The Lisps, FUTURITY

Photo: Sam Hough