Nellie McKay in A Play is a Poem (Photo by Craig Schwartz)
The playwright told her to “stick to the standards,” and singer-songwriter/actress Nellie McKay did in fact include “In My Solitude” and “The Sunny Side of the Street” in her song selections as the singer in playwright Ethan Coen’s new A Play is a Poem, which is running through October 13 at The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
But Coen was joking, of course. As much a fan of McKay as she is of him, Coen, along with the play’s director Neil Pepe, knew what they were getting from McKay, whose own songs and musical biographical plays (including I Want to Live!, the story of Barbara Graham—the third woman executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin, and Silent Spring: It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature, an exploration of environmental pioneer Rachel Carson) can be as exhilarating as the five short one-acts that comprise A Play is a Poem.
For McKay always surprises musically, having covered everything from Doris Day in her acclaimed 2009 Normal as Blueberry Pie--A Tribute to Doris Day album to 1960s hits (My Weekly Reader, 2015), while consistently putting out collections of her own endlessly engaging original songs. And as Coen has stated that he and McKay are essentially the same person, it’s hardly surprising that she’s found the experience of inserting her songs and herself into his theatrical concept “such a delight.”
“He’s so willing to try things and experiment—which is almost unheard of,” says McKay. “Both Ethan and Neil would allow us all to try things, too.”
Coen has also said that they gave McKay no guidance when it came to her songs.
“I always respond to what’s already happened—like being on a train and looking backwards,” she says. “They tend to look forward and foreshadow. But I just sent my stuff in, and maybe they had some ideas and feel for where it fit in.”
As her songs are used to fill the brief time between the set changes for Coen’s one-acts, they all run about two minutes in length.
“I couldn’t believe it when I first got to the theater and saw how enormous the stage is—and how many people it takes to move the props,” McKay continues. They’re big and solid, and that’s real furniture—very heavy. Even the fake grass is very, very heavy.”
Besides the two standards, McKay wrote all the songs in A Play is a Poem, including “Unknown Reggae,” from her 2010 album Home Sweet Mobile Home, and “Yodel” and “G.E.S.,” from her 2006 album Pretty Little Head.
“It’s more of a throwback,” she says of “G.E.S.”: “I do it so rarely, and it works really well on the xylophone.”
While McKay always plays piano and ukulele in her shows, the xylophone is something new for her on stage.
“I’ve played vibes since high school,” she says, humbly adding that she’s “not very good” at the four-mallet grip she employs in A Play is a Poem, “but I get away with it for this.” She tried to do a marching xylophone bit on the song “About Yul,” but the xylophone rack contraption they came up with proved too cumbersome.
“About Yul,” incidentally, leads into the evening’s final play, “Inside Talk,” about the unnerving process of writing and submitting and rewriting movie scripts within commercial constraints, in particular, a concentration camp “boy meets girl Auschwitz thing” romcom with a “random lobster creature” killing a Holocaust survivor and characterized as “Das Boot on a train.”
“My mom worked as Yul Brynner’s second assistant on Broadway in The King and I,” recalls McKay, who sings the song in the manner of Marlene Dietrich, replete with German accent and words, and Lotte Lenya reference.
“He’d come off stage during ‘Shall We Dance’ and run to an oxygen machine for a few breaths and then come back dancing! I basically translated into German some of his offstage dialog between him and his assistants for the spoken-word bit, and Ethan wrote some fun German dialog—but I don’t know if it’s real German or Ethan German!”
Other songs likewise work as genre pieces, like “Yodel,” which sets up the opening play “The Redeemers,” which is set in Appalachia.
“I think the trouble with the show is that it’s not long enough!” says McKay. “Everything’s special about it: In the quick-change booth offstage I’m just cackling listening to the dialog, which is hysterical and profound and pithy and on-point--and being in it is paradise. Just don’t tell Ethan that it really doesn’t need music!”
Indeed, the only problem for McKay, a devoted vegan and animal activist, is the costume change after every number.
“I’ve had to stop eating the Impossible Whoppers from Burger King!” she admits.
Meanwhile, McKay has a new EP, Bagatelles, coming out on October 11. It’s a companion release to Sister Orchid, her album of jazz/pop covers from last year, and offers “kind of light morsels of songs to whet the whistle for something more full-length next year.”
“I’m also bracing myself for my next show,” McKay concludes.
"The Best Things in Life are Free," from Bagatelles