Village Song: A Washington Square Park Police Riot, Malcolm X, Allen Ginsberg, A Tree and A Cookie

I grew up in Greenwich Village, and live there still, which is one reason why I was thrilled by the five musical numbers of Village Song, all set in the Village, all about either historical events in the neighborhood, or current aspects of it,  and each written by a different team of songwriters studying in the Village, musical theater graduate students at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, who each introduce their song and explain its inspiration.

This is the first of three episodes of Village Song from Rattlestick Theater, in partnership with Village Preservation. It will stay live through March 6.

from Dan Drasin’s 1961 documentary, Sunday,

“Play”
Lyrics by Sam Norman 
Music by William Karras

Washington Square Park has been a gathering place for folksingers since the 1940s, and the Village a center of the folk music explosion, when in 1961 the new parks commissioner Newbold Morris in effect banned them from the park; they needed to apply for a permit to play in the park at the time, and Morris denied the application. Izzy Young, in charge of  the Folklore Center on MacDougal Street, organized a peaceful protest on August 9, singing songs, including, slyly, the Star Spangled Banner. Police roughed up and arrested the singer-demonstrators, which was captured on film by Dan Drasin, who created a 17-minute documentary.

Norman and Karras use footage from that film as their backdrop for this perfect pastiche of an early 1960s folk song, complete with guitar and harmonica, and some 60’s-style hyperbolic lyrics sung by Bela Kawalec”:
I’ll sing you a jingle that started out small
But slowly grew into a rallying call …
We were singing through tears at the end of a gun
Because they told us that we couldn’t play

“Trust”
Book and Lyrics by Katie Hazdovac
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Dahlak Brathwaite

Before his book “Roots” became a landmark television series, Alex Haley was best known as the co-author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, based on lengthy interviews with the Black leader…in Haley’s Greenwich Village home. “Trust” comes closest to an excerpt actual musical, with songwriter Brathwaite portraying Alex Haley, saying at the outset “The Autobiography of Malcolm X almost didn’t exist. Malcolm and I got off to a very poor start,” followed by a scene between him and Chibueze Ihuoma as a wary, distrustful Malcolm X, given to charismatic political rants, rather than anything personal about his life that Haley could use for the book. In the middle of one such rant, Haley says: “I wonder if you’d tell me something about your mother.” And that triggers the song:
She was always up always on her feet
Trying to stretch a can or a loaf
Trying to give us something to eat
With the tragic incidents in his childhood explaining the stirring (and tuneful) repeated refrain “I just don’t trust them”

“Greenwich 1957”
Lyrics by Clare Bierman
Music by Joshua Vranas

Allen Ginsberg was one of the original beatniks and a famous resident of the Village, and is best known as poet for “Howl” and “Kaddish,” the latter inspired by his mother and completed in 1959. The songwriters imagine the poet (portrayed by Lyle Smith Mitchell) walking through the neighborhood thinking of his mother, which helps him conjure up the lines of his famous poem.
How strange it has been these years, how strange it may always be to share in your sidewalk but to walk it alone.
I feel the footsteps of your history pushing me from one block to the next

“Grow in the City”
Lyrics by Mikey Rosenbaum
Music by Brooke Trumm

Bela Kawalec, Alex Becker and Katie Hazdovac portray trees in the Village, who seem ambivalent about their roots in the neighborhood, and the change around them:
It’s pretty lovely as a city tree. There’s always sky above me…
It’s hard to grow, grow in the city.

“Face on A Cookie”
Lyrics by Maggie Moe
Music by Earl Marrows

The songwriters, spurred by the Funny Face Bakery on 7th Street, create a comic ditty about a man (portrayed by Andrew Strano) who lives a Walter Mitty existence as a brilliant student, world-famous astronaut and a statesman (or maybe the character is realy supposed to have accomplished all these things), but what he most aspires to is having his face on a Funny Face Bakery cookie, hence the refrain:
Someday you’re going to see, a cookie made of me
I just want my face on a cookie

In their introduction, the songwriters promise us “a taste of the musical magic of Moe and Marrows,” which does have a ring to it

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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