Preview: February House

A new musical at the Public Theater gathers mismatched artists under one roof.

Photograph: Joseph Moran

Composer Gabriel Kahane learned a few things in the course of writing February House, a new musical created with librettist Seth Bockley that opens Tuesday 22 at the Public Theater. Lesson one: W.H. Auden, a lead character in this fact-based tale of a bohemian boardinghouse in Brooklyn Heights around 1940, was a much richer, more complicated figure than he’d guessed from the few famous poems he knew. Lesson two: Don’t fear the banjo.

“The first piece of music I wrote for the show was a song called ‘Can I Admit to Myself?’ for Carson McCullers, about her grappling with her marriage,” says Kahane, a 30-year-old wunderkind songwriter-composer as comfortable in coffeehouses as the concert hall. Kahane’s initial impulse for McCullers—the eccentric Georgia-bred author who also occupied the famous house for a time—was a thorny art song for a soprano. It wasn’t working, and so out came the five-string.

“I had really resisted the banjo, because it felt like such a cliché—like, Southern writer equals banjo,” admits Kahane. “But the moment we wrote her Coney Island song, it was like, ‘That’s Carson,’ and everything proceeded easily from there. That song also opened up a kind of folk register, which now makes up about a third of the score.”

To be clear, Kahane’s banjo-driven songs are yearning, Sufjan Stevens–style ballads, not “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” The rest of his score is similarly character-driven: Numbers for another resident, composer Benjamin Britten, have an aptly Brittenish polytonality, while those for Gypsy Rose Lee (another resident, believe it or not) sport a show-tune sheen.

The story of these unlikely housemates seemed to cry out for music, says Bockley, a Chicago playwright who has worked primarily in spectacle theater with troupes like Redmoon. Drawing largely from Sherill Tippins’s 2005 nonfiction book, also called February House, Bockley found a story in “the emotional life of the house’s rise and fall, and to me that is best illustrated in music. And the very internal journeys that the characters make are really suited to music theater, as opposed to drama.”

These 20th-century luminaries crossed paths under one roof thanks to George Davis, a former novelist and Harper’s Bazaar fiction editor who rented the old mock-Tudor brownstone on Middagh Street in 1940 and filled it with a roving cast of creative types. “When we started out, we were drawn to the character of the house itself,” says Kahane. “But the deeper we got into it, the more we realized that our protagonists were going to be those members of the household who were really undergoing transformations in their lives and careers.”

Auden, in particular, was at a moral crossroads, disenchanted by both the right and the left after the debacle of the Spanish Civil War, and hesitant to choose a side in a conflict that he, and compatriots like Britten, had avoided by coming to the U.S. (He and Britten also happened to be unwitting same-sex-marriage pioneers, with varying degrees of success.) McCullers, for her part, was seeking refuge from her fraught marriage to a fellow alcoholic while struggling to follow up her phenomenal success, at the tender age of 23, with The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. As for erudite ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee, she joined the gang to crank out a pulp novel, The G-String Murders—and, it turns out, to pay the bills when the other boarders came up short.

These characters may have coexisted in real life, but can they live together onstage? As director Davis McCallum puts it, “Finding the right tonal balance for the show is one of the big challenges that drew me to it. You go from one character singing, ‘I get such tingles when furniture mingles’ to someone anguishing over the rise of Nazism in Europe.”

Kahane had one more lesson to apply to February House. It came while he was writing “Bedbugs,” a hissy-fit duet for Britten and his partner, Peter Pears. “I learned from Craigslistlieder that the word sandwich is always funny,” says Kahane, referring to a popular early work in which he turned Craigslist personal and roommate ads into edgy modernist art songs. “When I was writing the bedbug song, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, in Craigslistlieder, whenever I say the word sandwich, people think 
it’s funny.’ ”

February House is at the Public Theater through June 10.