“Good Vibrations”: The Powerful Joy of the 52nd Street Project
by Wes Braver
Two incarcerated rabbits hop around onstage. They make puns; one is called a “hare-brain,” the other, a “hoptimist,” as they try to find a way out of their situation. They were separated from their families after crossing into the farmer’s garden trying to find food.
The play is called “A Hare Too Far,” by Jose-Maria Aguila, a professional actor who co-stars with an 11-year-old boy named Amari. It’s one of the ten extraordinary plays, each performed by one kid and one adult, that were part of the 52nd Street Project’s July show “Good Vibrations,” for which I composed the songs and incidental music.
The 52nd Street Project is a community-based arts organization that brings kids together from the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in Manhattan, starting at age ten and lasting until they graduate high school. The Project brings theater professionals in to work with the kids and create original plays, songs, and performances that are free to the general public. Radically inclusive and creative, they have been going since 1981 and now work with over 100 students a year.
I have been working with the Project for a few years now in various capacities as a composer, after my grad school advisor, who volunteered there for years, recommended me. I consider it an enormous privilege to work with these amazing kids and the other adult volunteers. For “Good Vibrations,” I wrote music to go along with the lyrics in each of the ten plays. I joined the Project on their weeklong pre-show retreat to Block Island, Rhode Island, where I taught the music and accompanied their rehearsals. I also had the pleasure of playing the songs back in New York City at the Project’s beautiful building on 52nd street, where they moved ten years ago.
The Project was founded by playwright/lyricist Willie Reale, who continues to write plays for the kids in between his other Tony-, Emmy-, and Oscar-nominated projects. For “Good Vibrations,” Willie wrote a play about two puzzle pieces who don’t seem to fit into the mold. This show featured adult writers and kid performers, but the Project often swaps the dynamic, having kids write plays that will be performed by adults, often well-known stars of film and theater such as Edie Falco, Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Cynthia Nixon, Jonathan Groff, and many more. Last year saw the first “songmaking” program, where kids wrote lyrics which were set to music by NYU Graduate composers like myself, and sung live by musical stars such as Judy Kuhn (Fun Home) and Auli’i Cravalho (Moana).
The Smart Partners program helps to form longer-term connections between the kids and the adults. They meet at least once a week to help with homework, play games, and talk about life. The artists themselves are volunteers, the Project itself only employs about a dozen staff members and a few interns who keep things running and supervise the afterschool programs. In addition to these programs, the Project offers several scholarships to help get their kids to college, many of whom may be first-generation college students.
The power of the shows created at the Project’s own Five Angels Theater cannot be understated. (May it be reiterated here that they are free to the public!) Most of the plays are hilarious, sometimes for their random Madlibs style — the mayor of New York City in a recent one was played by a teenaged giraffe who was obsessed with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” — but just as often it’s because of the truth of their comedy. A boy named Christian convincingly played a bird who was too afraid to fly, screaming out the words, “TWEET! TWEET!” when looking over the ledge of a tall building, to huge, genuine, laughter.
Every time I compose songs for these shows I worry whether the kids will be able to sing them. I should stop worrying. Once they “get” a song, there is an energy and an honesty that each of them bring naturally. Even if they are shy singers, by the end of the rehearsal process, they conquer that. The songs become their favorite parts of their shows. It’s where they feel comfortable, they can see the audience bobbing their heads along, or clapping along in some cases. I think it’s an immediate response that makes them think, “I am doing something here that is affecting people.” It gives them power. At the final dress rehearsal, everyone shows up an hour early and they all sing each other’s songs. They have been supporting each other’s work so attentively by this point that they all know every word to everyone else’s songs!
In addition to the hilarity of the plays, many contain deep undercurrents of heartfelt drama. “A Hare Too Far,” with its timely references to the U.S. border crisis, was inspired by the student, Amari, who was reading the news in a current events class at school and was extremely frustrated by the situation. His adult partner, Jose-Maria, asked him if he thought doing a play would help express those feelings and get people talking. “I bet it would,” he replied.
The second iteration of “Good Vibrations” will be performed on 8/17 and 8/18 at 7:30pm, and 8/19 at 3:00pm at The Five Angels Theater at 789 10th Avenue between 52nd and 53rd street. Free to the public. Reserve seats at www.52project.org, and have a look at their schedule of shows for the rest of the year!