Paul Sanchez is relieved to return to music with 'Nine Lives' performance
A professional musician for most of his adult life, Paul Sanchez typically spends his summers on tour. This summer, under normal circumstances, he would have also closely monitored the progress of "Nine Lives," the New Orleans-set musical he co-created, as it is developed for the Broadway stage.
But this summer was anything but normal for Sanchez. In April, his wife of 20 years, Shelly, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent a double mastectomy.
With Shelly facing a long and difficult recovery, he couldn't stand the thought of leaving her to go on the road. So he swallowed his pride and called up an old friend who owns an office supply company.
"I told him my only previous job experience was strumming and drinking,'" Sanchez recalled recently. "He said, ‘OK, I'll put you out as a salesman.'"
On weekdays, Sanchez dresses in "office-looking business clothes," solicits customers and sells desks, chairs and other tools of the 9-to-5 grind he had long avoided.
But with Shelly now cancer-free, he is easing back into the creative life. He wrote a theme song for this week's annual luncheon of the Cancer Crusaders, a local, all-volunteer non-profit that raises money for cancer research.
And on Tuesday, he and his all-star cast of 10 musicians and 11 singers stage "Nine Lives" at Dixon Hall on the Tulane University campus. Tulane is sponsoring the performance; admission is free and open to the public.
"I'm thrilled to have a chance to do it again," Sanchez said. "I hope the concert will be part of the New Orleans music scene for a long time, regardless of whatever happens with the theatrical version."
Fronting the "Nine Lives" cast again represents a return to normalcy after what was a very difficult season for Sanchez.
"It was a summer wherein whatever high-falutin' ideas I had about myself and my career came crashing down in flames," he said. "All I wanted was for my wife to stay alive, and for me to have a job where I could sit in the evenings and watch the sun set with her. I didn't care about the rest of it.
"We made it through the summer alright doing just that. And now everything else is coming back into focus."
Paul Sanchez's life in New Orleans music encompasses both solo albums and a long tenure with Cowboy Mouth. After his acrimonious departure from that band, he assembled a local all-star ensemble called the Rolling Roadshow, and also toured as a solo act.
His path has not always been easy. He and Shelly lost their Gentilly home to Hurricane Katrina. Since the storm, Sanchez has battled a seizure disorder.
Though he was initially reluctant to pursue a creative endeavor that dealt with Katrina, "Nine Lives" could potentially wind up the defining work of his career.
It was screenwriter Colman DeKay who suggested they compose music based on New Yorker staff writer Dan Baum's best-selling 2009 nonfiction book "Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans," which follows nine New Orleanians between hurricanes Betsy and Katrina.
They conjured 39 songs. Sanchez assembled more than 100 musicians and singers – including Mayor Mitch Landrieu – to record them on a double album. Threadhead Records, the non-profit coalition of local music fans that has funded multiple recording projects, released it early this year.
In conjunction with musical director Matt Perrine, the song suite was adapted as a narrated concert featuring the likes of actor Bryan Batt, vocalists Arsene DeLay, Debbie Davis and Vance Vaucresson, trumpeter Shamarr Allen, guitarist Alex McMurray and singer-songwriter Jesse Moore.
Michael Cerveris, the Tony Award-winning actor who initially played "Nine Lives" transsexual John/JoAnn Guidos, is now a producer of the theatrical production. He is currently starring as Juan Peron in the Broadway revival of "Evita," so will not be part of Tuesday's performance at Tulane.
Instead, former Deadeye Dick frontman Caleb Guillotte will take on the role. Preservation Hall trumpeter Mark Braud will also join the house band on Tuesday.
Since the initial "Nine Lives" performance in 2011, Sanchez and company have tweaked the presentation.
"The narration comes more into focus every time we do it. Each time, I understand the need for less talking. There's only a moment that needs to be painted before each song. The audience has the intelligence, and the songs have the structure, to give it the rest."
As Hurricane Isaac reminded him, "the particulars of the story, the names and the places, aren't as important as what they go through, and the emotions of those moments."
As a producer, Cerveris solicits investors for the "Nine Lives" theatrical production. So far, Sanchez said, he has raised more than $500,000 toward the tremendous start-up costs of developing, building and rehearsing a Broadway-worthy show.
Cerveris also introduced "Nine Lives" to The Public Theater, a respected off-Broadway institution that specializes in grooming new productions. In January, several Public Theater principalsattended a private performance of "Nine Lives" at the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music in the Musicians' Village. Among them were artistic director Oskar Eustis and playwright Lisa D'Amour.
Eustis commissioned D'Amour to write a script for a theatrical "Nine Lives." She knows the setting: She grew up in Harahan and attended Dominican High School. Her parents, brother and sister-in-law live in New Orleans; their Broadmoor homes flooded during Hurricane Katrina. D'Amour and her husband split their time between a house in Broadmoor and an apartment in Brooklyn.
"She has an emotional and tangible commitment to the city, and an understanding of it," Sanchez said. "Every other time I got together with a potential director or writer, I had to explain New Orleans from the ground up: What is a Mardi Gras Indian? What is a social aide and pleasure club?
"To have somebody who understood it was great."
So far, D'Amour has written the first quarter of the "Nine Lives" script. The complete play will likely retain only 15 or so of the concert's 39 songs.
"I thought I would mind songs being cut out, but I could see why she was cutting," Sanchez said. "It enhanced the story and brought it more into focus. The characters have energy and life."
Questions of song selection were rendered irrelevant to Sanchez when his wife was diagnosed with cancer. He was prepared to give up music entirely.
"I made a silent deal with the universe that I would give up the thing I loved most in life if I could keep the person I loved most in life."
And so he went to work peddling office supplies. One customer who was also a fan didn't recognize him in business attire.
"She went, ‘You don't look like you.' I laughed and said, ‘That's OK. I don't feel very much like me either.'"
He also joined the Screen Actors Guild – his portrayal of himself in "Treme" helped qualify him – and turned up in a few local commercials. In a memorable turn for Whitney Bank, he depicts a grinning handyman cleaning a light fixture.
"Shelly laughed every time that commercial came on. She's like, ‘Did the director happen to mention that it looked like that guy had never cleaned anything in his life?'"
After undergoing a double-mastectomy in May, Shelly was given a clean bill of health. No chemotherapy or radiation was necessary.
"She's back to her job, and life, and friends, and me," Paul said. "As far as having cancer, we were very lucky."
When he "started to come back to sanity," he realized the deal he had made with the universe was "absurd.'
"Eventually the universe was going to take music, Shelly and my own life, so I should enjoy all three of them while I had them."
Thus, he's once again living "Nine Lives." This week, Eustis, Cerveris and D'Amour are scheduled to meet in New York. If all goes according to plan, once the script is finished, the musical will set up somewhere to workshop – possibly in New Orleans, to take advantage of Louisiana's tax credits – and then debut at the Public Theater in 2013.
If "Nine Lives" eventually is a hit on Broadway, Sanchez and his fellow composers will reap a substantial windfall in royalties.
"The lessons I learned in Cowboy Mouth is that the music business is hard," Sanchez said. "People that work hard get taken advantage of by people that they love and trust.
"When we started writing these songs, I intentionally included John Boutte, Matt Perrine and Shamarr Allen. I figured if it ever made money, we'd all share in it. My hope is that Lisa writes a great script, it turns into a smash hit in New York, and all of our lives are made easier.
"I'm old. I'm 53. But it would be nice if my music made enough money that Shelly and I could enjoy each other's company and not have to work our balls off."
Even though he's writing songs again, he's still not ready to go back on the road.
"Time gets more precious when you realize how little there is. I don't want to be someplace else telling Shelly goodnight on the phone.
"That's another benefit of ‘Nine Lives.' If it continues to grow into something that works in one place, and I have to go there, she can come with me, and we can still be together."
Keith Spera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3470. Follow him on Twitter at KeithSperaTP.