One of the particular gems on Gabriel Kahane’s self-titled 2008 release was a track called “7 Middagh,” the lyrics of which teased out the story of the residents of 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn. At this address, such cultural icons as George Davis, Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and Gypsy Rose Lee cohabitated as a kind of unconventional family in the 1940s. Additional research on my part revealed more of the tale underlying this artsy commune and, a little later, the news that Kahane would be creating a full-scale musical based on the story in order to fulfill the first commission of The Public Theater’s Music Theater Initiative.
While the above-mentioned track does not appear in Kahane’s eventual full-evening musical February House (a show he wrote with Seth Bockley), its echoes are easy to trace. Within the first few moments of the production, as captured on the cast recording released on the StorySound label* in October, a brief lyrical reference calls to mind that earlier track. Yet in a broader sense, Kahane has once again crafted a collection of songs that navigate complex, sometimes bittersweet emotion across a music bed that floats and, importantly, propels the characters through the text before they drown under the sentiment.
Not to imply that every song carries such weighty seriousness. February House is, at its core, the story of people who are trying to make a home for themselves, and all the silly complications that can entail—arranging the personalities and the furniture into the available rooms (“A Room Comes Together”). Nine voices and the six-musician ensemble take the stage for an intimate tour of lives and love, the quick and witty sung repartee showing off the colorful personalities lashing themselves together within this Brooklyn outpost. That it is a place for the homosexual residents in the group to live more openly is a strong surface statement, but an undercurrent of feeling strange and alone runs deeply and more generally throughout the show and its characters.
These relationships are well complimented by the chamber ensemble, which provides color and context but generally keeps out of the spotlight. A fiddle line adds to a story, an elegantly sober piano empathizes. The song that held me most transfixed was actually a delicate solo outing that features McCullers (sung by Kristen Sieh), accompanied by only a plucked banjo line, during which she meditates on feeling weird and lonely in the midst of a freak show: “There’s a secret part of me gets so silent,/My communion at Coney Island, oh…” Kahane immediately follows that up with an intricate full-cast hug of a song (“Shall We Live Here”); the struggles of writing a line or paying the rent (“Discontent/Talk of the Town”) play out against a world that is marred by the horror of World War Two (“You Sit In Your Chair”). The house fights against bed bugs; the house fights for love.
But the center cannot, or at least does not, hold. McCullers and her husband decide to return to “Georgia.” Britten and Pears make plans to head to “California.” And George Davis, the godfather of the house, sings adieu to this fantasy in heartbreakingly revised/reprised versions of “Light Upon the Hill” and “Goodnight to the Boardinghouse.”
I’ve long been a fan of Kahane’s songwriting. His Craigslistlieder was as clever and quirky as its subject matter, and his first full-length disc provided a photo album of stories that proved a compulsive listen. With February House, he has taken the strengths of those previous projects—smart lyrics, even smarter compositional choices—and played them out across a larger storyboard, creating distinct voices for his characters that still solidly carry the attractive marks of his own.
*An earlier version of this review misidentified the StorySound label as the house label of the Public Theater. It is its own unaffiliated entity.