Did George Harrison steal from The Chiffons? A judge ruled that his 1970 hit, “My Sweet Lord” was “virtually identical” to The Chiffons’ 1962 hit “He’s So Fine.” But, though the ex-Beatle had to pay up, the judge softened the blow by ruling it was “subconscious plagiarism.” For his part, Harrison had claimed that “My Sweet Lord” was actually based on “Oh Happy Day,” a hymn that’s in the public domain — so not a case of theft but of inspiration.
The “My Sweet Lord” vs. “He’s So Fine” case is just the most famous of a whole slew of accusations of musical plagiarism — The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” vs. Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen,” Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ “Blurred Lines” vs. Marvin Gaye’s ”Got To Give It Up,” even “Happy Birthday to You” vs the Hill sisters’ 1893 song ‘Good Morning to All” — that can serve as background to “Original Sound,” an original play by Adam Seidel that’s running at the Cherry Lane through June 8th. In its own low-key entertaining way, “Original Sound” forces you to think not just about the music business, but about the nature of the creative process.
The play focuses on two musicians who begin in conflict. Ryan Reed (Jane Bruce), 24, a blonde who hails from Oklahoma, has recently become pop famous, and is under pressure from her new high-powered record company to come up with a hit album full of her original songs. Feeling blocked, she Googles her name on the Internet and discovers a “dis” (as in disparaging) remix of one of her singles by somebody named Danny Solis, who on his web page calls her a “no talent fake ass pop star.” Danny (Sebastian Chacon), 22, a Latino from Queens, was just fired from his stepfather’s “shitty Mexican” restaurant for insulting him; he abruptly moved out of his family’s home because his mother wanted him to stop trying to be a musician; and he got kicked out of the home of his sister (Cynthia Bastidas) because he punched her husband, for announcing that Danny’s birth father Tommy would be barred from visiting his grandchildren. He is now camping out with this friend Kari (Lio Mehiel). Ryan doesn’t know any of this when, in part in retaliation and in part out of desperation, she steals a catchy tune from Danny’s web page and gives a version of it to her record company. Her theft gives Danny an opportunity. His friend Kari, pretending to be his manager, negotiates an agreement with Ryan’s actual manager, Jake (Anthony Arkin.) In exchange for a non-disclosure agreement and a promise not to sue, Danny will not just get credit on the song, and royalties. He will also collaborate with Ryan on several songs for her album.
The heart of “Original Song,” and much of its joy, comes from that collaboration, which shows an initially wary Ryan and an overeager Danny settling into a groove that involves actual music-playing. Both Bruce and Chacon are themselves skilled musicians, as well as appealing actors.
There is a twist near the end of “Original Sound” that might have seemed too far-fetched if the actual stories of musical collaboration and conflict weren’t themselves so over-the-top. It features Danny’s father Tommy, portrayed by Wilson Jermaine Heredia, the original, Tony-winning Angel of “Rent.” It’s a pleasure to see him back on a New York stage.
The designers do a terrific job in the small Studio space at the Cherry Lane. Justin Townsend’s set features two carpets that strongly evoke record albums, the scene changes are filled with a light show courtesy of Kate McGee and a rocking mini concert by sound designer Nathan Leigh. Sarita Fellows’ costume design, which includes a series of music-themed t-shirts that Danny wears and some well-placed tattoos, feel spot-on.
Part of what makes “Original Sound” so entertaining is the dialogue.
Kari complains that she feels used by Danny, left behind while he pursues his latent pop dreams:
Kari: It’s like I’m in the rear view mirror.
Danny: You’re not in the rear view mirror. You’re like right there in the front mirror.
Kari: The front mirror is called the rear view mirror.
Danny: That’s not what I meant.
Eventually Kari decides to stop complaining: “I accept you for who you are—an incredibly selfish person.”
And then there’s this exchange between Ryan and her manager.
Ryan: I want to make music that is true to me.
But all I do is get pushed around by a producer who wants to make my songs sound like they should be in a car commercial.
You know how much money you can make having your songs in a car commercial?
Ryan: Oh Jesus Christ.
Jake: Yes, Jesus Christ welcome to the music business.
Dialogue like this is as much part of the original sound of “Original Sound” as the music.
Written by Adam Seidel; Directed by Elena Araoz; Music direction by Daniel Ocanto.Scenic design by Justin Townsend. Costume design by Sarita Fellows. Lighting design by Kate McGee. Sound design by Nathan Leigh.
Cast: Anthony Arkin, Cynthia Bastidas, Jane Bruce, Sebastian Chacon, Wilson Jermaine Heredia and Lio Mehiel
Tickets: $56 – $86
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Original Sound is on stage through June 8, 2019.