by Rob Lester
On Sunday, May 13, Todd Almond (piano and vocals) will appear in an evening of his own songs at The Zipper Theatre on West 37th Street. He will be joined by special guest singers Laura Benanti, Steven Pasquale and Michael Slattery, plus bassist Jeremy Chatzky.
We meet at one of his favorite haunts, a tiny bistroette near his home in the East Village. Todd discusses his early musical influences and his eclectic resume, which includes musical directing shows, concerts and CDs featuring his own songs and the classical side of his voice, art song-style settings of poems by e. e. cummings and other poets, plus playing roles ranging from the cuddly (You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown) to the intense and outrageous (Hedwig and the Angry Inch). Was singing his earliest interest? Sort of.
"I wanted to be in the fifth grade choir. I thought it was the coolest thing ... The teacher told me I 'couldn't sing'." He remembers how that stung. "So, I didn't sing. I just played the piano." This led to an interest in all kinds of music and songwriting, which he says laughingly, included "some early, horribly derivative songs." He studied musical theater and classical voice, enrolling at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. A classmate from CCM, cabaret singer Brandon Cutrell, became an admirer of his talent. Brandon's debut CD, being released in a few weeks, features the two of them duetting on one of Todd's own songs, "We Laugh," a version of which also appears in his musical, People Like Us.
Todd's musical influences are many. "I found I was more interested in musical theater than the rock band thing. That was an important discovery." But all kinds of styles and sensibilities blend easily for him. He smiles when I say I heard someone perform his dark arrangement of "On the Street Where You Live." Todd takes the song, which he sang as Freddy in the Berkshires playing in My Fair Lady and makes the lovestruck guy creepily obsessed - it's referred to as "the stalker arrangement."
Sunday's concert will be in a space named for its history as part of the garment district. "The Zipper asked me to do a concert and I thought - perfect, I love that space. So I went to check it out and I was overwhelmed with its rich, stark, ghost-filled theatricality ... I'm a theater artist at heart. I write songs, I tell stories, I like people to be fully engaged. I want the audience to take part - I like to include them in the mood and energy, but I also want them to walk in and experience something special. "
"I started thinking about ghosts - people who disappear, people who are always around you even though you haven't seen them in years. Something about the Zipper inspired this - it's a place that's full of memories. I want there to be tension between the bound structure of performance and the indeterminate outside forces that move us without our knowing. I decided I wanted two great performers to sing duets - to be the ghosts that haunt this place - to be absolute beauty and love. A friend suggested Laura Benanti and Steven Pasquale, who are engaged in real life, and I thought how perfect! I sent them some songs and they jumped on board. I couldn't be more thrilled. So the concert is a night of my songs - mostly new songs, some older songs that have found themselves again - but presented in this ghost-filled theatrical context. It's going to be exciting with a lot of surprises."
Todd likes surprising people. When N.Y.U. and Theatre Mitu, a company he works with regularly, asked him to re-orchestrate and conduct the 1960s rock musical Hair, he was happy they were open to new ideas. "We did a run at the Skirball. It was the one where the entire cast was bald!" Another recent credit is music for a film WTC which has been playing lately on the LOGO TV network. It's about the aftermath of 9/11. "I wrote the music and sing a song during the love scene. My first love-scene soundtrack!"
Todd's songs are highly emotional and tell dramatic stories, sometimes with lyrics that show despair. Story songs include tales of fights, throwing dishes, cries of aching loneliness, etc. People often assume they are autobiographical. He's had friends hear his new songs and start to worry. "They call me and say 'Are you OK?'" He doesn't like to specify what is based on personal experience and what is not. "There's something nice about the mystery," he smiles. It sometimes amuses him when listeners are sure the strong material must be based on reality. One, titled "Frankie" has caused people to come up and say they know the specific person it's written about, "and I have to tell them Frankie is a fictional person. Not a word of it is true." After hearing a song discussing the Vietnam War, audience members "have come up to me with tears in their eyes saying, 'I was in Vietnam, and you really captured it.'" But it all comes from his head, not actual experience.
Although we hadn't met before the get-together at the coffee shop, just a couple of days later we bumped into each other outdoors where I am reading a book surveying the most depressing songs ever written. Todd laughs and says, "It's my goal to be in a book like that someday." Well, maybe someday, but for now his songs have plenty of life-affirming qualities, too, but granted some are intense.
Todd will be leaving town soon to be in 2 Pianos, 4 Hands in Kansas City. "Then it's back to New York to workshop the new musical Mexico City (also the name of his next solo CD) with director Ruben Polendo. "I am working on about four shows right now as a composer. I'm exhausted! But so happy."
Tickets for Todd Almond's concert are $15. The Zipper Theater is at 336 West 37th St. Sunday, May 13th, 8 p.m. Call 212-362-3101 for reservations. His CDs are available for purchase and sample listening at www.CDbaby.com.