Cabaret HotTrax Featured Artists – Alpher & Litt
David Alpher and Jennie Litt are prolific writers, and esteemed members of the New York Cabaret Community. Together, they have performed (or had their songs performed) at 54 Below, Don’t Tell Mama, The Metropolitan Room, The Triad, The Duplex, Urban Stages’ Winter Rhythms Festival, and other venues in NYC. They have headlined at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, The Chamber Arts Festival of Marbletown, Harvard University, Vassar College, Cleveland’s Nighttown, and been featured performers on WAMC Northeast Public Radio’s “Dancing On The Air” with Jay Ungar and Molly Mason.
As educators, they have presented master classes in cabaret performance to the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists, the New York Singing Teachers Association, and comprise the cabaret faculty at SummerKeys in Lubec, Maine. They co-direct an annual student cabaret at Vassar College as part of the ModFest celebration of the arts and hold an annual cabaret retreat in upstate New York called Cabin In The Sky. Litt also teaches cabaret performance as part of the Singnasium faculty.
As a composer, pianist, and recording artist, Alpher cofounded the Rockport Chamber Music Festival (RCMF) in Massachusetts, now in its fourth decade and recently received a special citation for “enriching the cultural life of New England.” He has collaborated with distinguished artists as Marilyn Horne, Dawn Upshaw, Harolyn Blackwell, and Christopheren Nomura. And, an extended collaboration with Thomas Hampson, Jay Ungar, and Molly Mason produced, American Dreamer: Songs of Stephen Foster (1992, Angel), as well as a series of concerts and broadcasts at venues such as Lincoln Center, Tanglewood, and New York’s Town Hall.
Alpher’s classical compositions have had multiple performances worldwide – notably his multimedia work Las Meninas: Variations, inspired by Velázquez and Picasso paintings, and The Walrus and the Carpenter, a jazz-influenced setting of the Lewis Carroll poem. And, his “listener-friendly” music has been compared to Leonard Bernstein’s for its melody and “jazzy bite.”
Learning more about this musical power-couple was inspiring. And, one thing is sure, with Alpher’s erudite music and Litt’s engaging lyrics, you’re sure to have a great time at their shows, and singing their music.
David and Jennie, thank you so much for taking the time to share your expertise with us. Let’s start at the beginning. What drew you to become a songwriter? Did you know as a young child that you wanted to do this? And if so, did your parents or family support your artistic desires?
David: I was drawn to the piano in our house and was composing before I knew how to play it. Yes, my parents were totally supportive.
Jennie: All my life I’ve been torn between theatre and singing on the one hand and writing on the other hand. I sang, acted, and directed in college, but only as an extracurricular; my major was creative writing, and I went on to get a graduate degree in fiction writing as well. Some years later, the urge to sing reasserted itself, and I cast about for a way to incorporate singing into my life—which is how I found cabaret. Making music together is something David and I have been doing since we met at The MacDowell Colony. Not long after David and I got together, I became stuck on the novel I was writing; our musical work together filled that creative void. After a few years of reinventing myself as a cabaret singer and creating and performing several Great American Songbook shows with David, then writing began to reassert itself. I wanted to write songs with David for years before we collaborated on our first song; it took time for me to retool my mind to create on the scale of a song lyric as opposed to the scale of a novel. Once the first olive was out of the jar (as Richard Rodgers used to say), I felt the two warring halves of my creative-self come together, the song lyrics came fast and furious, and the catalog of Alpher & Litt was born. And yes, my parents have always been emotionally supportive of my art, although they would have preferred if I’d also perfected the art of supporting myself.
What was the first song you ever wrote, and how old were you when you wrote it?
Jennie: David and I have two “first” songs. We collaborated on our first song in 1999 a couple of weeks after we met, when we were creating a cabaret show to present to our fellow MacDowell Colonists. I wrote a lyric called “The New Hampshire Black Bear Blues” (I had been followed by a bear as I walked to my cabin in the New Hampshire woods one dark October). David brought it to life by playing a mean blues. Our second “first” song came about in 2005, when I’d been contemplating writing lyrics but couldn’t get started. At the time, I’d just lost 70 pounds (sadly, I have since found them again), and one day found myself writing a lyric called “Where Did It Go?”
How big was I? I’ll tell you straight:
I was as big as a sovereign state;
I wore a size three hundred and eight.
Where did it go?
I’d start each day with Captain Crunch,
His ship, and crew; I’d scoff the bunch.
I’d eat the Sandwich Isles for lunch.
Where did it go?
Each knee was like a dumpling in a giant’s bowl of soup.
I signed up for group therapy; I was the group., etc.
It was way too long, but David worked me to revise it to a manageable length in a recognizable song form, then set it to music and we had our first fully original Alpher & Litt cabaret song!
Who are you musical influencers, both writing, and performing?
David: Robert Schumann, Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein, Bill Evans
Jennie: As a lyricist, I am inspired by the work of Michael Flanders (of the British cabaret team Flanders & Swann, active in the 1950s/60s), Allan Sherman, and Tom Lehrer; Cole Porter, Allan Jay Lerner, and Stephen Sondheim; more recently, Marcy Heisler and Steven Lutvak. I also admire Brecht, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, and (early to mid-career) Paul Simon as lyricists.
My performing influences are diverse. I adore the combination of exquisite vocal technique and conversational, lyric-driven delivery of such artists as Barbara Cook, Judy Garland, Steven Lutvak, and Julie Andrews. I love the sui generis performing personas of artists such as Louis Armstrong, Tom Waits, and Joni Mitchell. I could listen to Ella Fitzgerald for days. I am as inspired by Michael Flanders, Allan Sherman and Tom Lehrer as performers as I am by their work as lyricists. But as a performer, I aspire to be as present as possible onstage simply as myself and hope not to have to watch the post-mortem on video.
Do you have a favorite song or a project?
Jennie: I have a few favorite songs: “The Things That Make Us Sing” is a big song, a power anthem, which we put on our second CD; “Lovers Growing Old,” another song on that CD, for which I fit a lyric to one of David’s melodies (the opposite of our usual way of working); and “A Dream Or A Dream Come True,” from The Mitfords At War, a duet from the musical we are writing.
David: whatever I am working on at the moment.
Tell us about your process, even your daily schedule when working. Do you write every day? Are you inspired by current events or things around you?
Jennie: David and I wrote only stand-alone cabaret songs for the first 14 years of our collaboration. During that time, when one of us became inspired (usually me), we would write a lyric or a melody and present it to the other. We’d work privately on our piece of the action, and then present it to the other for the long process of massaging it into a finished product we could both get behind. We didn’t always get there. Since we started working on The Mitfords At War, we’ve worked lyrics-first exclusively, but the essential process hasn’t changed.
We certainly don’t write every day (what bliss that would be!). When we were writing stand-alone songs, I was inspired by all sorts of things: climate change, a high school reunion, my father’s slow decline, pregnancy, a news story about a manatee sighted, swimming up the Hudson River, or the Bush Administration’s plan to build a power plant on the moon, cars that recognize their drivers, our daughter swinging on our gate, etc. Now that we’re working on a musical, my lyrics are story/character-driven.
David: I don’t have the luxury of writing every day, and my schedule is irregular when I have a project. Deadlines inspire me, as do excellent lyrics or poetry. Current events tend to make me want to stay in bed. Once at work, I just let the music flow, and if it’s any good I edit days later when I can be objective. Most of my work winds up in the trash can, and I celebrate that fact: it means my standards remain high.
What has been the hardest song or project to finish, and why? And, how did you finally get out of this song-writers block?
David: If I have a deadline, I always meet it. I don’t get writer’s block. Being completely satisfied with the final product, however, is another story.
Jennie: I wrote a lyric called “Nothing But A Highway” which was a sort of anti-highway highway song in a sort of country-pop idiom. David, whose background is in classical music and classic musical theatre, was game to set it, but found himself frustrated because he just didn’t get the genre. He made several attempts which were far too simplistic. Then he wanted me to cut some of my favorite lines. It took well over a year for us both to come to terms with what the song demanded of us, but I wouldn’t let him give up (and I did take out those lines) but it ended up being one of our most-favorite songs of all, and the “single” from our second CD—a driving pop song with emotional and intellectual content, backing vocals, and pedal-steel guitar. Check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmytcZgU18k
What are you currently offering on Cabaret HotTrax and What can we expect in the future?
Jennie: We are offering the collected and some uncollected stand-alone cabaret songs, both as mp3s and in sheet music form. We may eventually offer songs from our musical The Mitfords At War as well.
What’s next? Are you currently working on a new project?
Jennie: Our current project, as mentioned, The Mitfords At War, is a musical set in the 1930s and ‘40s, about a real-life family of aristocratic British sisters whose extreme politics and passionate love lives brought them into the inner circles of the powerful men who waged World War II—and tore their family apart. We’ve got a complete score and too much script at the moment and look forward to developing the project collaboratively once live theatre recommences.
We certainly look forward to hearing (and seeing) The Mitfords At War. Until then, please enjoy some of these YouTube selections. And be sure to listen to and buy Alpher & Litt’s songs on their Cabaret HotTrax Featured Artist Page
Drew Minter singing Alpher & Litt’s Luv Schmuv: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Id_xORtsnfo
Matt Walker singing Alpher & Litt’s A Prime Little Number: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QpL3prmxb9U
Jennie singing Alpher & Litt’s “Our Common Ground,” written for Braver Angels, an organization dedicated to fostering dialogue between blue and red Americans: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrV3XEwfMd8
Drew Minter singing Alpher & Litt’s Who Cares: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtM8bhh9lfI
Adam Shapiro singing Alpher & Litt’s The Voyage of the Manatee: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RkDM_Y5j9aI
Alpher & Litt performing Alpher & Litt’s The Cosmic Perspective at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdAO9ABbQqk