'Nine Lives' continues its journey from page to stage - Times Picayune
On Saturday night, Paul Sanchez stood at the back of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, watching “Nine Lives” come to life. Over the past two years, Sanchez, his collaborators and benefactors have raised and spent more than $150,000 to transform “Nine Lives,” New Yorker staff writer Dan Baum’s best-selling 2009 chronicle of nine New Orleanians between hurricanes Betsy and Katrina, into a “concept cast album” and, maybe, a musical.
In 2011, Threadhead Records released a double-CD of 24 songs, most written by Sanchez and screenwriter Colman DeKay, with lyrics lifted directly from Baum’s book. Produced by Sanchez and recorded at Piety Street Recording in Bywater, the collection features 109 musicians and vocalists, Mayor Mitch Landrieu among them.
Later this month, Threadhead will release “Nine Lives: A Musical Story of New Orleans,” an expanded version of that double-CD containing the full complement of 39 songs.
Saturday night, two dozen musicians and vocalists rendered all 39 songs live for the first time. They included Sanchez, Bryan Batt, Harry Shearer, “Treme” actor Clarke Peters, trumpeter Shamarr Allen, guitarist Alex McMurray, singer Jesse Moore and bassist and musical director Matt Perrine.
The invitation-only audience consisted of 150 friends, family and sponsors. At least three real-life characters from Baum’s book were on hand to witness their stories turned into song.
The setting, in the Ninth Ward’s Musicians Village, was laden with symbolism. The village, and its multi-million-dollar Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, are a result of post-Katrina rebirth and renewal. Three participating musicians — Allen, Moore and saxophonist Calvin Johnson — walked to the gig from their nearby homes.
Saturday’s show and the forthcoming CD culminate two years of emotional, and expensive, effort. When the budget for a previous “Nine Lives” performance fell short, Sanchez auctioned off an acoustic guitar he used during his years in well-known band Cowboy Mouth to raise an additional $1,200.
He and the Threadhead team essentially have taken “Nine Lives” as far as they can on their own. If it is to become a full-scale theatrical production, they’ll need help.
To that end, Saturday served as an audition for The Public Theater, the acclaimed off-Broadway theater that specializes in developing nascent productions. The Public Theater delegation included its artistic director, Oskar Eustis, and board member Andi Bernstein.
If The Public Theater, or another organization, decides to produce “Nine Lives,” the result could be the most distinctly New Orleans theatrical production in New York since “One Mo’ Time” in the early 1980s. And it would represent a triumph for Sanchez and the community of musicians “Nine Lives” has come to represent.
“It’s going to take somebody with the theatrical know-how to string these storylines together, and structure them,” Sanchez said. “It’s going to take someone with enough patrons and money to devote time to that, and then even more money to actually bring it to a stage.
“I feel like we did a wonderful job of staging it. I’m proud of what we did. So we’ll see.”
Colman DeKay first suggested to Sanchez that they write a musical based on Baum’s book. With the author’s blessing, Sanchez and DeKay embarked on a marathon of writing, transposing Baum’s prose to melodies and rhythms. Music ranged from the campy, “I Will Survive”-style disco pulse of “Full-Time JoAnn,” to the comic harpsichord of “The King of Mardi Gras,” to the slashing, Who-like clatter of “Jump Out Boys,” to the brass-band strut “To Be Continued.”
Fully realizing that their vision would require dozens of musicians and far more money than Sanchez could raise on his own, he tapped well-heeled friends. The Threadheads, the far-flung association of New Orleans music fans that has facilitated scores of local albums via a non-profit record label, stepped up. Scott Shalett, a former New Orleanian now living in Washington, D.C., managed a successful campaign to win a $50,000 grant from the Pepsi Refresh/Do Good for the Gulf contest. Later, Whole Foods Market chipped in $15,000.
The recording sessions at Piety Street, chronicled by Sanchez in long posts on the“Nine Lives” Facebook page, yielded many goosebump moments. Characters sprang to life in songs drawn from the interwoven storylines of the book’s nine primary protagonists.
Sanchez hopes the album that resulted follows the same, inverted path as “Jesus Christ Superstar”: A soundtrack yields a theatrical production.
“With 39 songs, you get to know who these people are,” he said. “It plays like a New Orleans opera.
“I hope it turns into more. But that’s beyond what I know how to do as a writer. It’s beyond the connections I have in the business. And it’s certainly beyond my financial resources.”
“Nine Lives Live” was first staged at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre during the 2011 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell. With no set, costumes or dialogue other than lyrics and narration, it was more concert than musical.
The show was tweaked for a second staging, at the French Quarter Tipitina’s in October. For those first two performances, Sanchez played guitar in the house band and sang the part of Orleans Parish coroner Frank Minyard.
On Saturday, he again portrayed Minyard, but relinquished his spot in the band to Sonia Tetlow, another Cowboy Mouth alumni, in order to host the very special guests from New York.
Tony Award-winning actor Michael Cerveris initially pitched “Nine Lives” to The Public Theater. Cerveris first met Sanchez while in New Orleans shooting a movie, and subsequently became enamored of the city and the “Nine Lives” project.
“He’s a guy with a big heart, so humble that you wouldn’t know he’s achieved as much as he has in New York,” Sanchez said. “He’s seen what I’ve gone through and what New Orleans has gone through, and he wants to help both me and the city.”
On the CD, Cerveris, soon to star as Juan Peron in a Broadway revival of “Evita,” sings the part of John/JoAnn Guidos, the transsexual proprietor of Kajun’s Pub; on Saturday, he inhabited the role, singing about a misplaced vibrator as the real Guidos looked on.
It was one of many voices in this “New Orleans opera.” McMurray rocked “Jump Out Boys” as former NOPD officer Tim Bruneau. Chase Kamatta, daughter of singer Leah Chase and a veteran of local theatrical productions, inhabited the role of Belinda Carr.
Arsene DeLay, a member of the extended Boutte family, sparkled as the voices of Irma Thomas and Marie, the body that Bruneau drives around after Katrina. Vance Vaucresson, whose family sells sausage at Jazz Fest, hammed it up in multiple roles, including high school band director Wilbert Rawlins Jr. and Mayor Dutch Morial. Allen and Craig Klein set off sonic fireworks in a trumpet and trombone duel during the instrumental “Katrina and the Flood.”
Whether any of these musicians/actors would be involved in a “Nine Lives” theatrical run remains to be seen — assuming there is a theatrical run. For now, Sanchez and company must wait and see whether “Nine Lives” lives on.
“I literally have tapped out every resource I have, including my own, to stage it the few times we’ve staged it,” Sanchez said. “If somebody like The Public wanted to develop it and spend money on it, then that will be where ‘Nine Lives’ goes.”