The book of Abraham
Dog & Pony gets a music man with teeth.
Prior to composing the score for Dog & Pony Theatre Company’s production of God’s Ear, Abraham Levitan’s exposure to theater had been pretty limited. “I went to see Cats and fell asleep,” the songwriter recalls. “I also saw Starlight Express and managed to stay awake.” The only play he’d been personally involved in was a sixth-grade staging of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown; Levitan, now 31, memorized the single line of noncanonical Peanuts character Wally.
Though he was quickly kicked out of that show for missing rehearsals, his interactions with Schroeder, Snoopy and the gang far outnumber his dealings with the cast and crew of Jenny Schwartz’s surreal melodrama God’s Ear. “I’ve chosen ignorance,” Levitan says. “I deliberately wanted to be a hired hand, working totally isolated. The first time I’ll see what they’ve done with my songs will be at the opening.”
Best known to Chicago music fans as the frontman and keyboardist for the band Baby Teeth, the Louisville-raised artist formerly known as Pearly Sweets—Levitan stopped using the pseudonym when rock colleague Bobby Conn convinced him his real name was even more ridiculous—became involved in God’s Ear after he was approached by actor David Dietrich Gray, an artistic associate with the dynamic storefront troupe Dog & Pony (of last year’s hit Henry Darger performance piece, As Told by the Vivian Girls). It’s no surprise that a marriage would be arranged between New York–based Schwartz’s whimsical relationship drama and the principal songwriter of a band known for a quirky, theatrical style of pop music (music critics have worn out comparisons to Elton John, Todd Rundgren and Queen). It’s also no surprise that Levitan accepted the proposal. All three members of Baby Teeth take on ambitious side projects (including Levitan’s home music-lesson business, Piano Power, and guitarist Jim Cooper’s film-scoring work); last year, Levitan released a solo album and completed his “52 Teeth” blog project, which presented a new song every week for a year.
“It was an interesting challenge to put music to [Schwartz’s] words,” the Logan Square rocker explained, “especially because they told me nothing, requested nothing, and I worked completely independently.” The collagelike play—which explores a couple’s grief after the death of their son by juxtaposing comical, absurdist and heartbreaking scenarios—has a strong musical element. The show’s critically lauded Off Broadway run last year featured a different score (by Michael Friedman, resident composer of New York’s downtown troupe the Civilians), one that Levitan has intentionally avoided. If the producers remain true to Levitan’s demo tapes, this version’s suite of songs will recall “Closing Time”–era Tom Waits. Although the tunes may have hints of Sondheim-esque structure, the composer explains that that stems less from a tribute to a master and more from a necessity of working with Schwartz’s meter-ambivalent lyrics.
The “legitimacy” of theater work may allow Levitan to indirectly address one of his pet peeves. Despite his penchant for funny stage banter, an embrace of amusing dance-pop aesthetics and borderline-ludicrous Baby Teeth lyrics such as, “Sedition’s easy, baby / Like the forefathers who discovered America” and “You’re either on the swim team or you’re not,” he bristles at the idea of labeling his music “joke rock.”
“That’s one of the reasons I changed my name, so that lazy journalists wouldn’t put me in that ghetto,” Levitan explains. “ ‘Joke rock’ means to me that the lyrics and arrangements stomp on the musical merits of the work rather than complementing them. If it’s the kind of song that produces a real emotional response, then it’s not just a joke.” The songwriter hopes this philosophy well serves the emotional weight of God’s Ear.
Though Levitan realizes his ignorance of the musical-theater canon may present a roadblock to becoming a respected theatrical composer (“I guess I’ve heard the Fiddler on the Roof and Chess cast records. Does Mamma Mia! count? I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard Abba Gold”), he says he wouldn’t mind finding himself in that line of work five years from now. “As you hit your thirties and your knees start to go, you look for work that’s physically less demanding than gallivanting down the highway to play for half-empty rooms.”
For the time being, Baby Teeth remains top priority. On Saturday 28, the band hits the Bottom Lounge, playing tunes from its forthcoming album Hustle Beach (Lujo Records). Levitan also will visit the Viaduct Theater this weekend to learn what director Krissy Vanderwarker and her troupe have done with his latest creations—and to see if his own work holds his attention any better than Andrew Lloyd Webber’s kitty ditties.
God’s Ear opens Saturday 28.