Next Monday, June 20th, Sixth and I will showcase Nine Lives, The Musical Adaptation, a concert which follows the stories depicted in the novel Nine Lives by Dan Baum. Nine Lives tells the stories of nine individuals in New Orleans during the time period between Hurricanes Betsy and Katrina in 1965 and 2005, respectively.
Singer/Songwriter Paul Sanchez wrote music for the concert along with Colman DeKay, and Sanchez is joined by author Dan Baum and all-stars Tony Award-winning actorMichael Cerveris (Sweeney Todd, Assassins), and musicianArsene Delay to bring these stories to life next week. The Vinyl District was lucky enough to catch an interview with Paul Sanchez in anticipation of the show.
Read the interview, then enter for a chance to join us as we take a journey through the many styles and stories of New Orleans. We have a pair of tickets to give away. Details after the interview.
Many people (including myself) were born after Hurricane Betsy or were otherwise minimally unaware of the event. Thanks to the 24 hour news cycle everyone was painfully aware of Katrina, but can you enlighten us to the parallels and differences between the two events? Did it seem like history was repeating itself in a way that should have been preventable?
I was a boy when Betsy hit and while in both instances the levees breached in the Lower Ninth Ward and flooding was catastrophic. My Uncle Andrew lived in Arabi which is south of the Lower Nine. He had a boat and went through his neighborhood rescuing people from their roof tops just like you heard about in the flooding of 2005. Well, in 1965 Walter Cronkite was like Google and Huntley-Brinkley were like Facebook. We didn’t have 24-hour news or access, but those voices were the voices from the mountain, and folks listened so the country knew. I think television has gotten more efficient at combining the news with what is being sold on the commercials between the news, so the stories and drama are amped up, but it’s just business for the news shows.
Folks died in attics and in the flooding during Betsy and just because it wasn’t as great a number of people or because less folks saw it, doesn’t make the dying any less real for those gone or any less painful for the ones left behind.
In the instance of Katrina, the flooding was far worse and the reasons are many. For one, there was far more land mass between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico in 1965. In the last twenty five years alone, Louisiana has been steadily losing the equivalent of one football field every fifteen minutes, so what used to be miles and miles of wetlands between here and the Gulf is now gone, and the Gulf of Mexico is lapping at our shores.
It was/is preventable in that the wetlands can be restored but time is running out [and] another big storm, a direct hit in New Orleans will rewrite history and geography. The levee system was poorly built by the Army Corps of Engineers and needs to be fixed. The countless canals built by the oil companies between New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi River have allowed for intrusion from the Gulf and the erosion of the wetlands, and without the annual flooding of the river into those areas, which occurred naturally before the storm, the wetlands will continue to erode.
Actually, it is in the best interest of Big Oil and the federal government to get a handle on this because the oil companies have billions invested in oil rigs from New Orleans to the Gulf, and if those companies invested along with the government in controlled flooding of the river south of New Orleans, they would be helping rebuild wetlands in areas they still have working oil rigs.
The same thing happened after the flood of 1927, and it changed the nation demographically. Farm workers had to move to cities to look for jobs, southern folks headed north and west. Out of it came the evolution of jazz as it spread from New Orleans to Chicago, New York, and finally west to Los Angeles.
After the flood, I feared for the evolution of New Orleans music and encouraged John Boutte to write his own material about his life growing up in the Treme because I thought it important that folks hear about it. I’ve watched as younger talent like Shamarr Allen begin to reinvent what people think of as New Orleans music. I’ve watched Glen David Andrews take the traditions of brass band and gospel as he turns every stage into splinters with his intensity. The flooding and the wanderings it’s aftermath has caused have created what we love most in New Orleans, a mix or gumbo if you will, with a new flavor. A few new spices to use, but the music lives in our hearts, minds, souls, and in the very land we walk on and are buried under.
It was incredibly difficult times, we became the symbol of despair to the entire world, and the frustration we lived through day to day life was nearly unendurable. The fact is, we got used to living with less, we looked past the debris and saw poetry in the music, we saw past the tears into hearts filled with hope for a better tomorrow. We needed to, in order to make it through the day.
In the six years since, things have changed. Other parts of the country and the world have endured immense disasters and tragedies of their own, and when they lift their heads from their own sadness and despair, New Orleans has now become a symbol of recovery, rebuilding, renewing. It is a noble and special place to be, and we are a people who embrace the thought of music and community lifting others.
It’s clear that the role of music is vital to the beating heart of New Orleans, so the choice of a musical about the stories of the lives of the people who lived through both is obvious. However, over the span of forty years styles of music have changed significantly as trends evolve. How does your work handle such a breadth of time and viewpoints?
Those forty years happen to coincide with my conscious awareness on the planet as a person and an artist. The characters were clearly drawn in the book by Dan Baum, and we stayed true to his work and their words. Musically we researched decades and styles on YouTube. What that character might have been listening to or playing while they lived their lives.
I was six when Hurricane Betsy hit, my father died that same year. In 2005, my mother died and Katrina hit. Dan had chosen the two dramatic bookends of my life as his dramatic bookends for Nine Lives and the fact that it was other peoples’ lives I was writing songs about freed me to deal with my forty-something years on the planet honestly, tearfully, defiantly, and safely through the eyes and lives of the characters from the book.
It was a thrilling challenge as I strolled, metaphorically, through the New Orleans of my youth, reconstructing all I had lost in the flood in the way I know best: songwriting.
I think Dan Baum told a compelling story. I dig the songs Colman deKay and I wrote for it. Where it goes from here and what incarnations it will take, I honestly think are limitless creatively; only finances can change that arc. I think it could be abstract theater, a Broadway musical, a film, a ballet. I don’t wish to limitNine Lives or it’s future, so I say simply that it will be.
When boiling a biography’s volume of voices down to 24 songs adapted for live performance, you must have had to make some difficult choices in what aspects to emphasize. Do you feel like there’s any unfinished business with any of the stories told? What do you wish you could give more time to, if it were available?
There is a Volume Two being recorded in January 2012. Another 14 songs to fill out the story arc. We would have recorded them on this release but finances dictated that we choose 24 songs. We chose the songs that we felt best told the story of the characters but also could stand on their own away from the piece because Colman and I knew 24 songs was not the finished piece. It is a lovely representation or musical adaptation in this case.
We will deal with fleshing out the stories of Wilbert Rawlins Jr., Belinda, Joann Guidos and Billy Grace on Vol