The Oldenburg Suite
Book and lyrics by James Feinberg, music and orchestrations by Matthew Dylan Rose
Friday, Jan. 3, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Jan. 4, 7:30 p.m.
John J. Cali School of Music
Montclair State University, 1 Normal Ave.
Montclair Theatre Project, montclairtheatreproject.org
By GWEN OREL
One brother was a world famous sculptor.
The other brother ran the Museum of Modern Art.
The relationship of sculptor Claes Oldenburg to his brother Richard, and the relationship of Pop Art to the heady time of the 1960s and 1970s, inspired MHS grad and Brown University student James Feinberg to write the book and lyrics to “The Oldenburg Suite.”
The sung-through concert, which will have two performances this weekend at Montclair State University, takes place from 1969 to 1981.
Claes Oldenburg is known for his enormous sculptures of everyday objects, such as a lipstick or a trowel. MoMA, meanwhile, was threatened with bankruptcy, and other issues.
“Both Claes and Richard were trying to determine how the public saw them,” Feinberg said.
For Claes, MoMA represented the kind of institution that was anathema to art: yet he needed their money, Feinberg said.
An on-again off-again commission also strained the brothers’ relationship.
Feinberg wrote the book and lyrics, and Matthew Dylan Rose wrote the music. The pair had collaborated before, notably on “Boy Meets Girl” at Montclair High School in 2016. During the initial phase of this collaboration, the two were on different continents — Google Docs was a big help, Feinberg said with a laugh.
“The Oldenburg Suite” made its debut at the New York Musical Festival this past summer, where it won best concert. The show, which has since been revised, is the second production of the Montclair Theatre Project, which debuted in 2018, with a comic show from Miranda Ferris Jones and Vanessa Dunleavy.
THE MONTCLAIR THEATRE PROJECT
Betsy Harris, one of the founders of Montclair Theater Project, saw “The Oldenburg Suite” at the NYMF, and immediately thought it would be a great second show for the new organization.
The Montclair Theater Project is “like a pop-up shop theater,” said Harris, with no regular space and thus no overhead.
When her daughter Amanda Harris was a senior with the Montclair High School SVPA, she had noticed alumni coming back to see shows and wondered what there was for the theater kids to do during the summer. She realized Montclair did not have a lot for young budding artists: there are opportunities for children and high schoolers, but few for young artists in college and beyond.
She began talking with other SVPA parents, and MTP was born. Though it had been inspired by the need for programs in the summer, the MTP founders quickly decided to present work year-round.
“Our hope is to do a combination of classic, contemporary and new works,” Harris said.
“The Oldenburg Suite” was fun, upbeat, with an interesting storyline, which was locally grown.
There’s an excitement about it too, with several budding artists as well as some Equity actors.
They decided to do it in early January because college students would still be home.
“It’s a great weekend, before a lot of kids go back to school, and a lot of kids will know people in the show,” Harris said. “It’s a good interim time, everybody’s looking for something to do.”
MSU has been very helpful in getting the production off the ground, Harris said.
MTP does not yet have a schedule for its next production: the board will meet in January to figure out how it will select work going forward.
“This is the first go, selling tickets and promoting,” Harris said. “We’ll reassess, right afterward. Right now, it’s very fluid.”
Feinberg, in his final year at Brown University, knew it would be a sung-through musical, like “Les Mis,” from the start.
“Visual art is about feeling,” he said.”It’s about it’s personal experience, and you can get that more easily through the kind of emotional heights you can get in the musical as opposed to a play. At least that was my reading of it. And also a lot of the people in the show like Andy Warhol were heavily involved in the sort of rock scene that was going on downtown in late 60s, early 70s, like the Velvet Underground and all those kinds of bands. And I saw the central thrust of the storyline about attempting to define your own relationship to your public as being essentially a rock and roll storyline. It’s all about presentation and self reinvention.”
As he worked on it, he envisioned it not so much as a sequence of scenes but “a series of emotional highs. It just didn’t make sense for anyone to stop singing. Things were coming too fast.”
The two-hour musical has a cast of 10, who will be in chairs, and stand when they sing. A
five piece band accompanies, and art will be displayed using slides.
Feinberg and his partner Matthew Dylan Rose began working on the show in the summer of 2018.
Originally, Feinberg and Rose thought of the show as a concept album; in the theater, the audience won’t have a tracklist in front of them, so they have been revising the show to make the exposition clearer.
The company are primarily a new cast as well, some through MSU. Feinberg hopes this production will help him understand even further what works and what doesn’t.
He and his composer have submitted the project to different theater labs, including the Sundance Theater lab and Playwrights Horizons.
The period during which “The Oldenburg Suite” takes place is such a rich one that it was hard to leave events out, he said, but he sometimes had to. Try as he might, Feinberg could not find a way to sneak in the incident where someone breaks into MoMA and spray-paints the Pablo Picasso painting “Guernica.”
But other moments of history spoke to him, and to the show: there is an ’80s-style synth-pop song that represents MoMA inventing the museum audio guide.
The challenges of writing about a tumultuous time in history inspired Feinberg.
“I think all the time, whenever I go to a museum, come out thinking, I’ve got to write about that.”