Q&A with Marisa Michelson - Composer of Tamar of the River

Marisa Michelson is an enormously talented young composer who is winning legions of fans in the Broadway/music theatre world. She received a 2011 Jonathan Larson Award and was the only woman to receive a 2009 "American Musical Voices: The Next Generation" Award from the Shen Family Foundation. She also garnered a Global Arts Village grant to study Indian Hindustani Singing in India (how cool is that?). Marisa sang with Meredith Monk (see her "Influences" below) in Songs of Ascension at BAM , and theatre titan Maury Yeston is a HUGE fan.

Marisa's new musical, Tamar of the River (co-created with lyricist/bookwriter Josh Cohen and directed by Daniel Goldstein) starts previews Saturday, September 21. If you're in NYC and a fan of ground-breaking musical theatre, you should check it out. More info and tickets at tamaroftheriver.com.

And now - a peak behind the curtain with Marisa... 

1) What was your spark of inspiration for Tamar?

I wanted to write a story with a strong and powerful woman at the center, a woman who goes on a real inner journey as well as an outer one. For source material, I went to the biblical women, and found the story of Tamar. Our piece now has very little to do with the biblical Tamar, but originally, she provided inspiration. When I went to Israel five years ago, I traveled to Neve Shalom (oasis of peace), a village co-founded by Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinian Arabs to demonstrate that the two peoples could live and work together peacefully.  Neve Shalom was physically beautiful, emotionally moving, and spiritually inspiring.

2) What was your process in creating the musical world for Tamar?

There is nothing more alive and exciting to me than the human ability to communicate through the voice and body.  I began by using my own voice to explore the intense beauty and pain that is awakened within me in response to the natural world.  I spent time outdoors listening to the wind and trees and, yes, to rivers! When I really listen, the natural

elements speak to me, and I try to transform what I experience into music.  It has been my intention to create for the River a musical Being-ness that is primal, earthy, passionate, but also spacious, light, airy, elusive.

3) How did you start writing music?

I started writing classical piano pieces when I was eight years old, then tried my hand at some Tori Amos-like singer songwriter stuff, and then had the opportunity to attend NYU’s summer musical theatre writing program for high school students. I just loved being able to express the emotions of characters beyond myself.

4) Who are your major influences?

Meredith Monk composes and creates from her body.  Her work is primal and touches me deeply.  Adam Guettel’s rhythms, his melodies.  Novels bring me to tears:  currently Nicole Krauss’ “The History of Love” and David Grossman’s “To the End of the Land.”  The psychologist and great humanist Erich Fromm.

5) What impact do you hope Tamar will have?

I guess, most of all, I want people to come out of the theatre asking themselves questions. 

From the smallest actions to the largest ones, can we be conscious, aware, connected in every moment to what it is within us that chooses to act? What compels us forward, onward ever onward, despite life's uncertainties? Is it ever really possible to "know" something? Must we necessarily relegate feelings and senses to a lesser realm than rational thinking?  Or is there a third kind of "knowing," grown out of recognizing and cultivating our uniquely human capacity for both intuitive listening and also rational thinking?

This may seem a bit abstract, but I keep coming back to this quote from the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna tells Arjuna:  “Know when to act and when to refrain from action, what is right and what is wrong, what brings freedom and what bondage.  One who is free from attachments, and who has mastered himself and his passions attains the supreme perfection of freedom from action.”