12 DECEMBER 2014

[NEWS] Sheryl Crow expands her range, writing the songs for stage’s ‘Diner’

Sheryl Crow photographed in her recording studio and barn in Nashville,Tennessee. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

By Peter Marks in Nashville
December 11
The Washington Post

When Gene Kelly gazed into the camera, 9-year-old Sheryl Crow of Kennett, Mo., imagined he was getting ready to sing just for her. “I loved him so much that I wrote him: ‘Gene Kelly, care of Warner Brothers,’” she recalls, laughing. The swoon hadn’t worn off by the time a signed autograph finally arrived nearly a year later. “I thought, ‘Just wait, please wait, for me to grow up.’ ”

It was the dreamy Gene Kelly in “Brigadoon,” the movie version of the Lerner and Loewe musical, that Crow saw on TV and fell hard for. The production unfolding around him enthralled her, too. “It was everything: the story, the romance, the fantasy of it,” she recalls. “But also I think the music. There’s something about melodies that can really change the molecules, change the emotions. Songs like ‘Somewhere’ or ‘Who Will Buy?’ — Ohhh! — that you just go around singing.”

Crow is sitting in the handsome main house on her rambling property of hills and stables south of downtown Nashville, humming bits of those songs, from “West Side Story” and “Oliver!”, and tracing the long trail that has led her to compose the musical version of the cult movie “Diner.” Crow was approached by Barry Levinson, director of the 1982 film, to write the songs for the show — the coming-of-age story of a group of buddies in the Baltimore of 1959 — which began preview performances at Signature Theatre on Dec. 9. With Levinson writing the book and Kathleen Marshall staging it, the hope is that this new “Diner” — focusing not only on the young men but also, freshly, the women of the story — will find a home on Broadway.

First, though, musical-theater novices Crow and Levinson have to gauge what they’ve got during the world-premiere seven-week run in the 275-seat theater in Shirlington, their first opportunity to do so in three and a half years of endeavoring to make Levinson’s beloved characters sing. Tickets are now selling briskly, but there have been some “stumbling blocks” along the way, as Crow defines them: most harmfully, the scrubbing of a Broadway run, announced by the show’s original producer, that was to have begun in April 2013.

That proved to be wildly, presumptuously optimistic — the piece was simply in no shape to be staged back then — and a setback psychologically. Crow says she felt she was being placed on a pedestal early on, kept away from industry people who might have offered both her and Levinson sounder advice. But a new trajectory for the musical was established under a new producer, Scott Landis, who steered a tryout run to the Tony-recognized Northern Virginia company and Crow and Levinson to a lower-pressure start-up. “Ultimately, it’s made us sort of the underdog,” Crow says. “So I think both of us are now, more than being nervous about it, we’re much more anxious about getting it up on its feet. So we can really see what we have.”

If it’s a coup for Signature to be able to roll out a show with such famous names attached, it’s a hugely meaningful moment for Crow, who joins Cyndi Lauper (“Kinky Boots”), Elton John (“The Lion King” and “Aida”), Paul Simon (“The Capeman”) and Sting (“The Last Ship”) in the growing ranks of recording stars who have taken up side pursuits as musical-theater composers.

“I just never thought that it was an option,” the Grammy-winning Crow, 52, says when asked about a Broadway segue. “There were people who wrote musicals, and then there were people that were in the pop or rock world.” Her faith in crossovers was bolstered by the Broadway success of her own hero and early champion, Elton John, to whom she owes a lot. “He talked about me in Rolling Stone and on NPR, about this girl who made this record,” she says, “and it changed the scope of my career.”

“Diner” has allowed Crow to explore her musicality through characters in a way she has never gotten to in a stadium or concert hall, and so the process for her has been especially stimulating. “It’s been a great exercise,” she says. “I call it an exercise because it’s not like anything I’ve ever done.” Of course, potential hazards exist, of a variety that some of her pop and rock cohorts have run into: The talent that has earned them a following in their own field isn’t easily applied to the matrix of story, dialogue, music, movement and design that is the modern musical.

“It’s not like the movies, where you can rely on the camera to capture facial expressions,” she explains. “It’s a whole different thing, and Barry and I have learned a lot. There’s no slow moment of looking into somebody’s eyes and knowing their emotion. It is more like: Lay that story out.”

Crow composed the songs for “Diner” on piano and guitar at home in Nashville, where she is raising, on her own, her two boys, Wyatt, 7 and Levi, 4. Her spread is a place out of a child’s, not to mention a country singer’s, dreams: One counts 10 horses residing in her stables, near which Crow has built her own recording studio, a rustic sanctuary on whose walls hang her collection of guitars. (She erected a small chapel a few steps away; at the moment, a young man is sprawled on the floor of it, sorting the pieces of the boys’ more than 100 Lego sets.)

She settled in Nashville several years ago, looking for a community of musicians and a refuge. After a “very public” breakup with Lance Armstrong and a breast cancer diagnosis, Los Angeles became an unlivable fishbowl: “Suddenly I was like Kim Kardashian,” she says. Now she finds she’s permitted to kick off her boots and be Sheryl: “That tradition still exists here, and it doesn’t exist anywhere else I’ve ever found, where you go to a dinner party and you eat, and the next thing you know, it’s 2:30 in the morning and you’ve all been sitting around playing guitars.”

Crow has stepped back, too, from the political activism she’s been known for, a devotion on display most visibly through her performance at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. “There came a point where I felt like the energy I was putting into it was just becoming part of the noise out there,” she says, adding that she has paid a price for broadcasting her ideals. “There were a lot of radio stations that wouldn’t play me because of who I was perceived to be.”

So now, Crow sticks closer to home where causes are concerned, working, for example, on a project to attract corporate support to public school classrooms. “My sister is a teacher, and my other sister was a teacher as well. We know what it’s like to try and live on $30,000 a year.”

She has a hard time letting ideological incivility pass, even now. While touring in the South last summer with Rascal Flatts, one of the band members jokingly announced that President Obama was in the house, “and the audience booed. And you know, that’s difficult for me. I just walked up to the mike and said: ‘Oh no, no, no, no, you need to pray for the president. I don’t care what side of the aisle you stand on, you need to pray for the man who is leading all of us at this moment.’ ”

Crow herself started out as a music teacher in the St. Louis suburbs, and in a way, her involvement in this period-specific musical is a summoning of her own past — at least the early part of it that was consumed with the study of music theory and composition, tools she never expected again to rely on so heavily. A phone call one day from Levinson set her on this new path. He’d been listening, he told her, to “Leaving Las Vegas,” a song on her 1993 first album, “Tuesday Night Music Club.”

“You get a sense when you listen to her songs that they are great stories,” says Levinson, who set up a meeting with her in New York to discuss a collaboration. “And just to redo ‘Diner’ wasn’t that interesting to me. I wanted to see how much we could open it up, and now, we could open the door to the female point of view.”

The idea had enormous appeal to Crow, who admired the movie, a character-driven mosaic of post-adolescence forged from Levinson’s own memories that established him as one of the sharpest cinematic voices of the ’80s. She went back and watched it again and this time, had concerns.

“I think the second conversation was when I said: ‘Barry, I love the movie. Nothing happens in the movie. It’s just people talking. So how’s this going to work?’ ”

Finding a through line for the stage proved unnerving early on. Levinson, an intuitive director who for the movie version often resorted to improvisation, was no more schooled in the rigors of this process than she was: “Barry said, ‘Yeah, look at the movie script and write five or six songs where you think they might fit, and then let’s get together.’

“So I spent about six months with this script, walking around like an amateur actor with a script in my back pocket just going: ‘What the hell? What am I doing?’ ”

The breakthrough for Crow occurred after she begged for and received an outline of the show. She stayed up all that night composing. The next morning, she called Levinson and said, “I’ve written five songs.”

One of them was a song for Beth, a number that validated for Levinson his instincts about broadening the perspective of “Diner” to account for the aspirations and frustrations of young women in the late 1950s. In the movie, Ellen Barkin — an acquaintance of Crow’s — played Beth, who is trapped in an unsatisfying marriage to Daniel Stern’s immature Shrevie, and it was with Barkin in her head that Crow wrote “Tear Down This House.” The song has become an anthem of sorts, she says: “All of the women in the production appear, representing all the housewives in the world, asking the question: ‘Am I a person now, or am I just a figure of this person’s existence?’ ”

Levinson became a sounding board she trusted utterly. She sent him snippets of herself playing songs into her iPhone, and “he would do a little just like chiropractic adjustment and I’d be on my way.”

Locating, too, a musicological outline in the styles of the period — doo-wop, early rock-and-roll, the sounds of Frank Sinatra and Frankie Avalon — Crow discovered a teacher’s pleasure in both the research and, later, in giving homework to the actors. She asked each of them to listen to great singers — Sinatra and Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick — whose voices were in Crow’s head, too.

Now, she waits for an indication of how memorably the new music of “Diner” fills the heads of people she doesn’t know. Ideally, she says, they will be thinking of Beth and Shrevie and Fenwick and Eddie and Barbara, and not, specifically, of Sheryl.

“If they leave with songs that stick with them,” she says, “I’ll feel vindicated.”

SOURCE: The Washington Post


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