By Kenneth Jones
The nonfiction book "Nine Lives," a biography of nine New Orleans residents and their relationship with the fabled city, has inspired a song cycle and forthcoming album. Broadway actor and first-time theatre producer Michael Cerveris is in the early stages of helping to turn it into a theatrical musical.
Songs from the project will surface Feb. 27 at Symphony Space on New York's Upper West Side. The 6 PM performance will be presented as part of Thalia Book Club, referencing Dan Baum's bestselling post-Hurricane Katrina book "Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans."
Baum, Tony Award winner Cerveris (Assassins, Sweeney Todd, In the Next Room), songwriter Paul Sanchez and lyricist-librettist Colman DeKay will give a behind-the-scenes early look at their stage adaptation of the book, which has been billed as a "multivoiced biography" of New Orleans people between 1965 and the Katrina era; the Hurricane ravaged the Crescent City in 2005. More than 1,800 died.
Cerveris told Playbill.com, "At this point, 'Nine Lives' is just a stunning song cycle with endless possibilities for theatrical realization. The source material has a Studs Terkel aspect to it, but we envision something with a stronger narrative thread than, say, Working. In some ways, it's a story of a vivid and multifaceted community, not unlike In the Heights, but possibly less conventional in its story telling than a traditional book musical — a Hair orFela! kind of experience, perhaps.
The fun part is, as with New Orleans itself, there are no rules and we want to honor the chaotic and singular beauty of the city itself as Nine Lives tells us what it wants to be. The one thing I know is that we have to continue to nurture the project in as organic and authentic a way as it has grown thus far.
Cerveris, who is a producer of — and perhaps a future performer in — the project, added, "I'm determined and fighting to ensure that the early development of the project has to also benefit and involve the New Orleans theatre community — and the theatres and individuals in New York that I'm talking with understand and embrace that notion."
"Nine Lives," the book, was written by author Dan Baum, who was sent to cover Hurricane Katrina for The New Yorker. After filing several stories for the magazine, Baum realized that there was a much bigger story to be told. He said, "The longer I stayed in New Orleans, the more I understood that huge as Katrina was, it is hardly the most interesting thing about New Orleans. New Orleans is the most unusual place I've ever been — complicated, sensual, self-contradictory, hilarious, infuriating — and it was the place itself, not the tragedy that befell it, that I wanted to write about. We finally settled on interweaving the life stories of nine New Orleanians — rich and poor and in between, black and white and in between, male and female and in between. 'Nine Lives' begins in 1965, right after the last time a big part of the city flooded during a hurricane. By this we want to say: New Orleans was there a long time before Hurricane Katrina and it will be there a long time after."
Soon after the book's release, Paul Sanchez and Colman DeKay began writing a song cycle based on the book. The immediate result, to be released on Mystery Street Records March 1, is the album, "Nine Lives, A Musical Adaptation." The disc includes 108 of New Orleans' finest musicians, among them Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, John and Lillian Boutte, Michelle Shocked, Harry Shearer, The Dixie Cups and more, with a special singing performance by Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
Cerveris told Playbill.com that he will appear on the coming season of the HBO drama series "Treme," set in post-Katrina New Orleans. He and "Treme" cast members Wendell Pierce and Lucia Micarelli are also heard on the "Nine Lives" album.