Friday, October 14, 2011

Michael Holland's Putting a Spell on Broadway: An Interview

Several years ago, a friend insisted I had to see Gashole. I actually misread his e-mail invitation as Gash Ole. Turns out, it was not a Mexican drag act. I was too sick to go to the theatre, sneezing and coughing almost non-stop, spraying more toxic air than a beauty-pageant hairdresser. Sitting in the second row, the performers should have had Haz-Mat suits, and I should have stayed home. I’m glad I didn’t. Gashole (aka Michael Holland and Karen Mack) should be regulated by the FDA—they were good medicine. I became an instant fan and make it a point to catch Hole-O-Matic a few times a year. The premise of the Hole experience involves a fish bowl, harmonious wit, witty harmonies, and several dozen songs you don’t know all the words to (and neither do they) filleted, K-tel style, and reassembled into 2-minute comedic plays. Each mash-up is a complete journey. The mad genius behind each musical Frankenstein is Michael Holland, who commands the keys, the guitar strings, and the snark with equal finesse. But Michael is only a partial Gashole. He has now orchestrated his way into the Broadway revival of Godspell at Circle in the Square. Michael is more than the man behind other people’s music, though. He premiered an original musical, Hurricane, at the NYMT festival in 2009 and has released multiple CDs of original music. And there’s so much more to be heard from Michael Holland.
RS: How many years have you been doing Gashole (Hole-O-Matic)? Tell me about the history of that collaboration with Karen Mack?
MH: Unbelievably, Gashole has been terrorizing audiences for ten years now! The short version is that Karen and I were booked to perform at an arts festival in the legendary showbiz mecca of Indiana. They wanted an hour-long set of about a dozen hits from the 70’s – but we were only able to narrow it down to 34, so we just did bits of those, all mushed together. I had recently moved back to the city from Provincetown, where I’d had a group called Comfortable Shoes… a group, it should be mentioned, that I did not name. Anyway, I’d already been experimenting with the phenomenon of mashups with that project – ‘5th Dementia” is one medley that comes to mind – so I just took the idea a little further for the 70’s gig. The show was a blast, so when we got home we decided to do it at Don’t Tell Mama. Luckily, Sidney Myer, who books the room, decided to let us, and we decided to call it Gashole, for reasons that elude us in retrospect. We planned to run it for three weeks and be done with it, but it proved popular and kept getting extended, so many times that we had to come up with new versions. So we had an 80’s sequel, Ice Gasholes, the seasonally-themed Gashole: Summer Wind (think about it), and our holiday edition, Gasholy Night, among many others. The latest incarnation, Hole-O-Matic, draws on our last decade of mayhem, where the audience designs the show by picking cards from a 130-plus-card Rolodex of mashups, solos and the occasional original tune, and throwing them into a big bowl to be picked at random after we finally show up. It’s all very glamorous.
The two of you have a rapport that is intimate, intuitive, and you seem to entertain one another as much as the audience. Do you think Gas Hole will be an ongoing part of your career regardless of what else happens, and how do you see your collaboration evolving?
Define “career.” We certainly never expected it to last this long, but as long as people keep turning up, who are we to deny them their twisted tastes? From our perspective, the show never gets stale, since it’s different every time, and we’re able to add new material whenever we feel like it, which is fairly often. Besides, the same kinds of things still make us laugh, and we like the same parts of mostly the same songs, so why stop? We’ve been able to develop a loyal if demented following here in New York, but we’ve also had incredible experiences performing in Europe, the Caribbean, and St Paul, Minnesota. Now that’s an itinerary.
You also do solo work. Talk about your solo work and CDs.
I started out on the singer/songwriter track, and was able to release four self-produced CDs on a couple of small labels, from 1993-2003. Most are out of print at the moment, though a couple, Darkness Falls (1999) and Beach Toys Won’t Save You (2003) are available on iTunes and the like. I also arranged and produced Comfortable Shoes’ Happy Joy, not to mention Karen’s disc, Take That. I’ve got enough material in the vaults for another ten albums at least, but lately my fortunes appear to lie elsewhere. I love making the things, and the whole studio process, but I’m not as crazy about the watching-them-trickle-out-of-my-apartment part. Maybe some day I’ll do another, but nothing’s planned for the immediate future….
What was the process of writing Hurricane (your original musical) and getting it produced like?
I got the idea in 2004, while another show I had written music and lyrics for was playing at the New York Fringe Festival. I grew up in Southern New England, and had heard stories about the Great Hurricane of 1938 from relatives all my life. Basically what happened was that a huge hurricane hit the coast of Rhode Island completely unannounced – there was one kid at what was then called the National Weather Bureau who saw it coming, but no one would listen to him. I knew the story, but had never considered musicalizing it till then. As soon as I thought of it, I tried to put it out of my mind as impossible, but the idea kept waking me up in the middle of the night, literally for months, until I caved in and decided to try solving it. Karen had produced the Fringe show, and so with her help, we did a few readings, went through a handful of directors, and eventually wound up with a sold-out NYMF production in 2009.
What is happening with that project?
Well, we made a lot of noise at the festival. A cast of 30 can do that, as well as word that you kill the kids onstage! I mean, come on – 5,6,7,8! So right now I’m in talks with a producing team, trying to map out what’s next. I can’t talk about it much more than that, but stay tuned.
What other original works are you currently working on?
After Godspell opens, I’m supposed to write music and lyrics for a new show, if we can work out the details, but it looks like it’s happening. I’m also writing a new show called Lady, with Eric Bernat, who collaborated with me on the book of Hurricane.
How did your involvement with Godspell come about?
Stephen Schwartz has been a friend for years, and a great supporter of my work. One day I got an email from him, saying something to the effect of “I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve submitted your name as a possible orchestrator for the Broadway revival of Godspell.” I mean, the nerve, right? So I had to submit a couple of spec arrangements to the team, and I eventually got the gig.
The show is now in previews. Is your work basically done or are changes being made?
The bulk of it is done, but little tweaks have been happening as all the elements come together. Of course, it’s probable that audience reaction will dictate changes as well, which could mean anything from minor adjustments to full-scale upheaval. But that’s what the preview process is for, and it’s all pretty exciting. The cast is incredible, and they sing their faces off.
With your work in Gashole, you get to play with the best 30 seconds of a song. With Godspell you have to deal with the entire score. What’s that like?
I just take the best 30 seconds of each song, and then repeat 6 times. Actually, these particular songs are as much a part of my musical vocabulary as any of the pop in Gashole. The Godspell cast album was a very important one in my formative years. The main difference between this job and the ‘Hole is that I now have ten voices to play with instead of two, and a whole band of amazing musicians to flesh things out. And I don’t have to be the boss: the musical director is Charlie Alterman, who is brilliant and hilarious – it’s all pretty deluxe. And I have managed to include at least one Gashole-style mashup to the proceedings!...
So, what’s next for you and where can people see you?
Godspell opens at Circle in the Square on November 7, so you can see me there! Gashole will be back up and running shortly thereafter at Don’t Tell Mama (scene of the crime), so check your local listings. Also, I’m hoping in 2012 to put together at least one evening of some of my talented friends singing my songs somewhere; that’s in the planning stages as we speak. And of course, be on the lookout for Hurricane and Lady news… has been under construction since 2002 – sounds like my motto – but it may actually get born now that I have a real, big-boy job!


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