“I’m going to Bing it up,” Harry Shearer says. He’s in a vocal booth at Piety Street Recording as his voice drops into a fruity, Crosby-esque baritone:
Here comes old Cedric.
He’s had a fabulous year.
A hush fills the room as his
young wife draws near.
He pimps her out freely to
advance his career
and you’re their king at Mardi Gras.
He’s portraying Rex member George Montgomery, and he’s singing over Tom McDermott’s harpsichord to Kevin Griffin’s Billy Grace, Grace having become the Rex captain and King of Carnival in 2002. The litany of dirty little secrets is so new that producer Paul Sanchez didn’t get a chance to send Shearer a demo. Instead, he’s behind the mixing board singing him a guide vocal so Shearer can cut his part a line at a time.
“The King of Mardi Gras” is just one song from Nine Lives, Sanchez and screenwriter Colman DeKay’s adaptation of Dan Baum’s 2009 book. Nine Lives tells the stories of nine quintessential New Orleanians living between Hurricane Betsy and Hurricane Katrina, which interested DeKay so much that he approached Sanchez with the idea of making a musical.
“I said no,” Sanchez says over coffee. “I said, ‘I don’t want to read a Katrina book. I’m trying to get over it.’”
When DeKay finally convinced him to read it, he not only relented but was inspired. “I was lying in bed and a song popped into my head. I ran downstairs. He was on the phone long distance to L.A. I said, ‘Hang up, man. We’re doing this.’”
Since Nine Lives has no central plot, a staged drama—much less a musical—would seem unlikely, but Dan Baum saw it too. “When the book came out, I sent a copy to Randy Newman saying, ‘Let’s write an opera about New Orleans,’” Baum says. “Never heard from him.”
DeKay points to the 1982 play Working, based on the Studs Terkel book of oral histories. “You don’t have a traditional narrative structure,” he says. “If you look at the city as a central character, there’s a lot of connective tissue there.”
The songs are theatrical and so are the performers. Tony Award-winning actor Michael Cerveris sings John Guidos, who becomes JoAnn before the book is finished, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu—who has a background in musical theater—sings in the finale. John Boutte shares a song with Treme’s Wendell Pierce, who sang their song first as a baritone then, at Boutte’s urging, in his normal register. After that take, Boutte took him aside and said, “You’re an actor, baby; act.” The next one was the keeper.
When Sanchez and DeKay finished writing earlier this year, they weren’t sure what came next. “Maybe the Threadheads might put up $6,000, and we make a little cabaret record,” Sanchez says. Instead, the project won a Pepsi Refresh Grant for $50,000, which allowed them to work at Piety Street and employ more than 100 musicians, including a who’s who of area musicians.
One was Irma Thomas, whose long-time drummer was the father of one of “The Nine”—as Baum refers to them—Wilbert Rawlins, Jr. “We called him ‘Computer,’” she says of Rawlins, Sr. before it’s her turn to track. “He could remember anything.”
She’s in the studio to cut “It Could Have Been Worse,” and Sanchez and DeKay can’t stop smiling, hearing her sing their words. “I need a few takes to wake up my voice,” she says after the first take, though it sounds just fine to them. “Stop me before I get into bad habits.”
Will Nine Lives make it to Broadway? Michael Cerveris plans to get it to the right people. “I don’t fix my car,” Dan Baum says. “I don’t do my own dental work, and I don’t know anything about writing or staging musicals and these guys do. Unless they’re going to do something wildly antithetical to the spirit of the book, I trust them.”