NORTH ADAMS -- By recasting the musical as a live band presentation, The Lisps are poised to tell deeper stories with their songs.
The band's performance of "Futurity" comes to Mass MoCA on Saturday, April 27, at 8 p.m.
"Futurity" is a stage musical about an aspiring inventor in 1864, who spends his days breaking up railroad tracks as a solider in the Union Army, but through his imagination and a correspondence with Ada Lovelace, begins to develop plans for a steam-powered artificial intelligence.
The Lisps are a band in the traditional sense, but lead singer and songwriter Cesar Alvarez said their theatrical pursuit seems meant to be to him.
"When I look back at our band, I realize we've been wanting to put on a big show all along," Alvarez said, "and really, it's like when I happened on the idea of ‘Futurity,' it made a lot of sense in terms of how we were evolving. We've always been playing with big performances and characters and costumes."
Alvarez said they would often work performative conceits into shows, and a couple members have stage backgrounds -- singer Sammy Tunis is an actor by training, and drummer Eric Farber has a background in burlesque.
The concept for "Futurity" came as Alvarez's mind wandered while driving his car.
"I was in the South, driving down a highway, and thinking about the Civil War and the soldiers that were in the forest that I was looking at in Virginia," he said, "and thinking, ‘I wonder if any of the soldiers were ever into science fiction?' And I laughed and that was the genesis moment of the idea. It was like these two live wires in my head connected. Wouldn't that be funny?"
"Then I immediately thought that's a really great idea for a concept album for the Lisps, because we make this sort of old-timey music, but we're constantly talking about science and constantly working within a contemporary frame using all these old-timey Americana tropes."
Alvarez began working on the idea, which stretched into five years working on the path from concept album to stage show, and the various performance versions that would evolve.
"I worked on it in isolation and with the band for the first two years of it," said Alvarez, "and at that time I was really just trying to write a musical and I knew absolutely nothing about writing a musical, which is part of why I think it showed up to people as something really contemporary, because it was an outsider musical."
The band performed "Futurity" in several workshop versions, as well as runs at the American Repertory Theater in New York and one at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Alvarez said the collaborators along the way have been crucial to the way the show has been approached, and how they learned to create an effective stage production and stay true to who they are as a band.
"We were confused, we were like, ‘We've got to write the musical, we need characters, this and that,' " he said, "and one of our workshop directors, Meghan Finn, was like, ‘We have to remember that this is a band playing a story. You guys are an actual band and you just trying to tell this story and we want to make sure it continues to be about that.' "
At the ART and the Walker Center, the band put on a full-fledged musical. Other times they have chosen to play the songs straight. Alvarez said that each of these has its issues. With a full production, the DIY charm of the work is lost. When just the music is performed, the loss of story can cause confusion. At Mass MoCA, the band is going to hearken back to Finn's advice, while still making it something that moves forward even as it looks back.
"We're going to be doing a completely new version of the piece that has two new songs in it and has a totally reworked book," said Alvarez. "It's based on a lot of what we learned at ART and Walker Center, and a lot of what we felt like really worked and what we thought didn't work, but also what's exciting about Mass MoCA is we're really returning to the roots of the piece, which is ‘Futurity' as a rock show that me and the band are putting on."
"We're going to be doing scenes, but we're also going to be the band, and where we didn't have a scene, we're going to talk about that. We'll be improvising and flying off the cuff and off the handle, and we're going to have a scene and we're going to play a song that tells the story. It's going to be fun. It's an experiment."
Most importantly, Alvarez feels that the chosen format for the Mass MoCA show brings the band closer conceptually to the heart of the work. If "Futurity," as Alvarez explains, is about "the extent to which the imagination can transcend everything that's wrong with humans" and "asks the question, is the imagination as a quintessential human trait, is it possible to solve all the horrible things that we do as humans," the band mirroring those ideas in their own performance makes the experience more intimate and a fuller one
"The thing that is funny is in the show this Civil War soldier trying to invent this massive almost inexplicable steam powered artificial intelligence which he clearly doesn't have the resources to create. Part of what's fun about watching the band tell the story is that it's kind of the same thing."
"We're this little band trying to tell this ridiculous, enormous story without any resources. I think that's actually really gratifying to watch, because it feels like we're rebelling against what's impossible, which is what the whole musical is about."