Two Nuns Walk Into a Cell…

The subtitle of this blog is “A Sprint Down Broadway,” but that’s really not accurate considering this is really a blog about cast albums, not Broadway musicals themselves. There are many cast albums from shows that haven’t run on Broadway and if I want to hear every cast album available, I can’t just stick to Broadway shows. So today I am writing about the cast album of In the Green. It’s a fairly new Off-Broadway musical, having run from June to August of 2019. The cast album was only released a few months ago and I decided to give it a listen.

Oh boy, is it a doozey.

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In the Green tells the story of Hildegard von Bingen, a twelfth century mystic and polymath who, quite honestly, is a fascinating person (I’d never heard of her before) and deserves to have her story told way more often. So, for that reason alone we owe a debt to composer, lyricist, and librettist Grace McLean. She chose a great subject and sent me down quite the Wikipedia rabbit hole.

The musical’s plot is concerned with the 30 years that Hildegard spent voluntarily locked in a monastery cell with her mentor Jutta von Sponheim. Well, it was voluntary on Jutta’s part; Hildegard was confined as a child at the behest of her family. But she stuck it out and now she’s recognized as a saint by the Catholic church, so maybe it worked out for her after all. Anyway, Jutta (pronounced Yuh-tuh) is played by McLean herself while Hildegard is played by three different actresses, each representing either her hands, her eyes, or her mouth. There is also a fifth actress on hand to play Shadow, the personification of Jutta’s darkest secrets. And that’s it. Refreshingly, this is a small cast of all women.

The music is definitely a departure from anything I’ve heard on this journey so far. The album opens with “O Virga ac Diadema,” which sound like an ancient hymn because, well, that’s exactly what it is. In fact, “O Virga ac Diadema” is one of two songs in the show whose lyrics were written by the real life Hildegard some 900 years ago. I think that’s pretty cool! I mean, hey, you’re not going to get that from Hamilton. Actually, for how modern the music is throughout the show, McLean does a pretty good job of giving it a medieval church music feel. She’s created a pop show but included plenty of chant motifs at the same time. The effect is somewhere between an ancient Mass and Hadestown, but still closer to the latter.

Especially chanty are the actresses playing Hildegard’s hands, eyes, and mouth: Rachael Duddy, Hannah Whitney, and Ashley Pérez Flanagan. These three mostly speak in unison as they are different parts of the same “broken” entity. We’re lucky for that because the actresses’ voices harmonize beautifully together. Actually, all five actresses give gorgeous vocal performances all through the cast album. The music itself is definitely unique, with the closest to a traditional show tune probably being the beautiful “Sun Song.” McLean’s score screams “THIS IS EXPERIMENTAL,” but mostly in a good way. This is not the kind of show you’ll want to listen to for fun, but it does have a lot to say about wanting to be the best version of yourself and that’s nothing to sneer at.

I do want to say that you shouldn’t let religion scare you away from this album; the Almighty is barely mentioned. While In the Green is a musical about nuns (and one of them a saint at that!) the theme has much more to do with the earthly experience of trauma than church. Think of it as being about a kind of medieval therapy. I found it surprisingly enjoyable, especially the songs “Ritual,” “Light Undercover,” and “The Ripening.”

In the Green is exactly the kind of musical I hoped to discover when I started this blog. It’s quirky with something to say to which we can all relate. I hope we hear more from Grace McLean as a composer in the future. She’s really got what it takes.

Musical: In the Green

Cast Album I Listened To: 2019 Original Off-Broadway Cast

Music and Lyrics: Grace McLean

Opening Performance: June 27, 2019, Claire Tow Theater, New York City

Highlights: “Ritual,” “Sun Song,” “Light Undercover,” and “The Ripening.”

Overall Impression: This is a gorgeous effort to bring attention to a woman who’s been unfairly ignored for nearly a millennium. While the album isn’t perfect, it does its best to showcase the tremendous talent of its cast and composer.

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