SFCM Helps Prog-Rock Legend Jon Anderson Realize New Marc Chagall Musical
The former Yes frontman was living in France in the 1970s when he met Chagall, and began writing songs about the painter, which SFCM students helped give voice to this Winter Term.
By Alex Heigl
Legends from two very different mediums were onstage at SFCM in January, when former Yes frontman Jon Anderson's musical about the life of modernist painter Marc Chagall got a workshop courtesy of Opera and Musical Theater Chair Heather Mathews.
"I wanted to give students the experience of working on a new musical with a living composer in a very expedited fashion," Mathews said of the unique project. "They had the music, they had the book, but they only had five days, and singing over tracks like these is different from singing with an orchestra, so that was new for them as well."
Color of Love had been percolating in Anderson's mind since he met the legendary painter in the south of France in the late 1970s, a meeting arranged by the pair's mutual friend, Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman. "I met Chagall on his 90th birthday," Anderson said. "And we just kind of smiled a lot at each other." Anderson visited the artist at his home, where he would play guitar and sing for him, and soon was writing songs about Chagall's extraordinary life, aided by famous French pianist Jacques Loussier, winding up with about 20 minutes of music he envisioned as more of a ballet or dance piece.
Eventually, Anderson wound up in New York explaining his musical to Herman Krawitz at the American Ballet Theatre. "I can see it: All the art that he did, and music and dancing and singing and la da da," Anderson continued, recalling his pitch. "And then I realized behind him, he was sitting at his desk, behind him was a photo of Chagall. So I said, 'Oh, you've got his photograph there,' and Herman says, 'Yes, I'm managing him.'" From there, the idea eventually evolved from a dance piece into a musical, and then into a multi-media experience utilizing projections of Chagall's paintings.
"I've always loved that aspect of a performance, even with my work with Yes. You're on stage in front of 10,000 people and the people on the back see you as a little one-inch guy singing and waving," he said, laughing. "So why not put on some laser beams? it just seemed a logical thing because people pay money, so you want to give them a great show visually."
SFCM's involvement in the project began last summer when Mathews was contacted by Quay Hays, who was working with Anderson on the book for the musical. Intrigued, she pitched it as a project for Winter Term, SFCM's annual opportunity for students to step outside their usual areas of study and began the challenging process of making the music and visual aspects of the performance work within those parameters.
"Some of the pieces that are in the show used John's recorded vocals," Mathews explained. "He has a very unique sound with a lot of electronics and synthesizers, so a workshop with just piano would not have been good enough. So we worked with Eric Ronick, who's a composer and keyboardist who's worked with Panic! At the Disco, and he was very instrumental in making the mix we used for the show that the students sang over."
Two physical canvases onstage and two projections displayed Chagall's paintings as the musical moves through his life. "In John's mind, even a workshop version of this couldn't be done without the visual," Mathews said; the performance's projection design was done by Peter Crompton, with projection mapping by Frédèric Boulay.
For one of the students involved in the performance, there was a personal dimension to her participation "Yes is one my dad’s favorite bands, so the Yessongs album was required listening on many a road trip," Natalia Hulse said. "One mention of Jon Anderson has him reminiscing about the Yes concert he went to in 2003, along with a full writeup of every member of the band." Hulse portrayed Bella, Chagall’s first wife, who even after her passing was the artist's muse. "Part of the role included a beautiful duet with the actor playing Chagall that Jon Anderson described as 'all the things Bella never got to say to him while she was alive,' Hulse continued. "It is a touching moment in the show and I am so honored I got to bring that moment to life."
Ashley Troester, who played Vava, Chagall's second wife and sang the show's closer, the reprise of "Such Is A Man," described the compressed time frame of the workshop as "crazy, stressful, but also really empowering that we could perform something we were proud of in such a short time. To see it come alive and grow every day was so inspiring to me as a performer." Troester and Hulse are both voice students studying with Catherine Cook.
As for what she's learned from the project, Hulse said, "We as artists hold a power that we often forget about. There is a certain risk involved in creating something new and my takeaway is that if you have people that are willing to give everything into putting up something new, the effort is worth the risk."
Learn more about studying Opera and Musical Theatre at SFCM.