June ’12 Offbeat Cover Story – Nine Lives: A Life of Its Own

by John Swensen

Paul Sanchez is frowning. The latest cast and crew for a performance of the music from Nine Lives: A Musical Story of New Orleans is onstage at the Contemporary Arts Center during a final rehearsal, and something is not quite right. Sanchez paces quickly around the theater, chin in hand, listening intently and trying to imagine what he wants to happen. Meanwhile Matt Perrine is directing the band, gesturing to the string section and nodding encouragement. Suddenly Sanchez gives the time out signal.

“That’s an eight count before you come in,” he says. The band plays the section again and Sanchez smiles.

“That’s perfect,” he beams. “Now, let’s go to number six on your hit parade.”

This time it’s Sanchez singing the part of Dr. Frank Minyard, who becomes the city coroner during the musical. The singers, playing a chorus of junkies languishing in the parish jail, assemble to add a dirge- like chorus and warm up with a few turns of “Whoa-ee-oh, Whoa-oh” from The Wizard of Oz. The jocular mood continues when Sanchez begins singing and, realizing something is wrong, blurts out, “Why does it sound like we’re wrangling cats?” This time Perrine offers direction, instructing Sanchez in the finger-snap count off that starts the piece.

The loose humor covers up day-of-show tensions. Shamarr Allen, who is doing a massive in-store that day at the Louisiana Music Factory, can’t make the rehearsal. Sanchez sings his part on “We Are the Band” for now, but somebody jokes nervously, “Is Shamarr going to be here tonight?”

“Don’t worry about Shamarr,” Sanchez says. “He never misses his mark.”

Another day-of-show problem involves one of the singers, Tara Brewer, who woke up with laryngitis. Arséne DeLay, John Boutté’s niece, takes over the role for “Now That Kathy’s Gone,” which means she’ll sing three different characters in that song alone.

DeLay’s voice is extraordinary—she is a Boutté, after all—but combined with her acting ability and her passion for the story, she has the capacity to steal the show.

“We have to depend on each other,” says DeLay later in the backstage dressing room. “Paul is a great judge of character. We’ve done this enough times that the people he’s going to ask to come in are people who know what they need to do and are all going to be team players. Today Tara woke up with no voice. We have to be prepared for that. I’ve dealt with that in theater where somebody has broken their leg and somebody has to come in and do the role on the spot. I’ve spent a day cramming an entire role. We are soldiers of the story.”

This rehearsal scene reminds me of numerous films about stage productions in progress, usually derailed by lack of funds but saved at the last minute by white knight investors and/or the producer’s canny machinations. But the Nine Lives musical is more Bertolt Brecht than Busby Berkeley; it’s a socio-political play with funny but sharp edges, a story based on Dan Baum’s book Nine Lives that follows a cross section of New Orleanians between hurricanes Betsy (1965) and Katrina (2005).

This is the sixth time the music from the show has been staged in New Orleans. Each performance has been a kind of workshop to help shape the ambitious 39-part song cycle. Narration current ties songs together in a way that dialogue will once it’s written. This will be the most streamlined version yet in terms of cast: nine singers and a band comprised of Alex McMurray on guitar and banjo, Eric Bolivar on drums, Bill Malchow on keys, Craig Klein on trombone, Ray Moore on clarinet and saxophones, musical director Perrine on bass and tuba, and Sam and Jack Craft on strings. Shamarr Allen plays trumpet on the four songs he wrote, while Sanchez, the co-producer and co-writer of the songs with lyricist Colman deKay, plays guitar, performs the role of one of the principle characters, and serves as the narrator.

The rehearsal is crucial because two singers are performing main character songs for the first time. The difficult part of John Guidos, who transforms into JoAnn Guidos over the course of the story, will be played by former Deadeye Dick frontman Caleb Guillotte, while the part of the luckless Belinda, a girl from a poor neighborhood who yearns for a better life, falls to Margie Perez. Guillotte looks perfectly comfortable, while Perez brings such sensitivity and vulnerability to her reading of Belinda that actor/writer Vatican Lokey, who does a wickedly funny turn as a priest, hugs her spontaneously after one of her numbers.

Perrine has the most difficult job at the rehearsal because he has to write different arrangements for every performance. “Every show has different instrumentation,” he explains, “so each time I have to write new arrangements.”

The complete recorded version of Nine Lives: A Musical Story of New Orleans was released earlier this year, an album project that in itself is a watermark in New Orleans music history. Mark Bingham and Wes Fontenot recorded and produced it at Piety Street Recording, and it features a who’s who of local New Orleans musicians, including the late drummer Herman Ernest III in what would be his last session, John Boutté and a host of family members, Tom McDermott, the Dixie Cups, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Glen David Andrews, Harry Shearer and Treme star Wendell Pierce. Michael Cerveris sang the role of John/JoAnn on the record and brought it to life onstage in previous productions, but he is currently in the cast of Evita on Broadway. Even in absentia, Cerveris looms large in the project because he is in the process of putting together a team to stage Nine Lives in New York City.

This unlikely project owes its existence to the relentless experimentation that Sanchez has applied to his musical career since leaving Cowboy Mouth in the tumultuous year following the flood. Sanchez lost his house but not his bearings, determined that he would reinvent himself in his 50s.

“When I left the Mouth, we’d been playing the same songs, virtually the same set for 15 years,” he says. “The first gig I did at d.b.a. as a solo act I had an anxiety attack. I didn’t know who I was going to be after the flood. All I knew is I didn’t want to be that guy again. I wanted to learn about all forms of New Orleans music and find out where I fit in.”

Sanchez began taking guitar lessons from John Rankin, and soon he was not only able to sit in with a wide range of New Orleans artists he wanted to play with, but to feature a bunch of them in what he began calling his Rolling Road Show. His performances became a songwriters’ showcase that changed personnel and content from show to show.

The conceptual growth Sanchez experienced through this method left him open to experimentation. When Los Angeles screenwriter Colman deKay visited Sanchez one Jazz Fest, the two decided to write a song together. The result, “Exit to Mystery Street,” became the title of Paul’s first solo album. Then they collaborated with John Boutté on the song “Good Neighbor.”

It was deKay who came up with the idea to make a musical out of Nine Lives. “I read Dan Baum’s book and told Paul he should read it,” says deKay. “He said he didn’t want to read any more flood books and I kept saying it’s not a flood book. It’s about New Orleans.”

Sanchez changed his mind and the two collaborated on the first song for the project, “Feel Like a Lady.”

“I made a couple of calls,” says Sanchez. “Called Matt, got Debbie [Davis] to play the part of the straight woman, got John Boutté to play the part of the drag queen, and I played the part of John Guidos. We recorded it in a day, sent it to Dan Baum. He wrote back and said, ‘I’ve never heard of Paul Sanchez but I’m a big fan of John Boutté and I love Matt Perrine’s Sunflower City, so sure you can have the option.

“I insisted we had to write it sequentially,” says Sanchez. “I had to develop musically along with the piece, so we started with ‘Fine in the Lower Nine.’ I wanted it to be like a Fats Domino number. I would sit down and start writing and I would start laughing, and that’s when [deKay] knew I had something. I’d sing him a verse and a chorus and we would elaborate on that. Sometimes I would finish the song without him and say, ‘I left this part empty. I need four lines here. They have to be this long.’ He’d always come back with great stuff. In the case of ‘How Very Like Sweet Anne,’ Matt turned in a baroque arrangement, so I had to write new lyrics. I had to write four different stories, so I went to Colman and said, ‘I’ve written for the girls. I’ve got what Tara needs to sing. Harry Shearer is going to be here in an hour and he doesn’t even know he’s singing this. Go write me some lines. He would go out on the porch and come back with these fun lines for Harry to sing.”

“When Paul told me he was going to produce a musical based on Nine Lives, I thought he was crazy,” says Perrine. “My vision of that is you put all your money, time and effort in and it always ends up being an utter failure.”

But Sanchez was working with the Threadhead Foundation, who helped arrange for a grant to produce the record from the Pepsi Foundation. “When Paul got the Pepsi grant, that changed everything,” says Perrine. “And it came with a deadline. I had to write 20 arrangements in 30 days. Paul gave me some rough demos, basically just hit a chord, sing the melody line stuff, and I worked from there and wrote the arrangements. I’ve never done anything like this before, but I’ve written for string sections, for big bands and done a lot of ensemble work, so I knew I could handle it.

“I would come up with a basic idea, write a simple piano part, we’d talk it through and change it until we agreed on a final idea. Then we’d have a rehearsal. It’s a whole process. We were going into Piety Street and studio time is expensive, so you have to go in and get the work done. When Paul heard it for the first time in the studio, it was really the first time he’d heard it. There was no time to correct it in the studio, so if there were changes to make, they had to be done after the fact.”

Alex McMurray remembers Perrine writing arrangements during a stay at deKay’s house while the Rolling Road Show was playing in Los Angeles.

“Paul was trying to write these songs, and he was sending them around looking for people to play the parts,” says McMurray. “It grew so quickly, it seemed to happen all at once. I think he had some other role in mind for me at first. I think he wanted me to play Billy Grace.”

McMurray ended up singing Tim Bruneau, an aggressive cop who opens act two with the hard rocking “Jump Out Boys” and has a transformational experience after Katrina when he finds a dead woman on the street and tries to find a place to bring her body, then sings “You and Me,” a duet with her ghost, played by Arséne DeLay.

“On ‘Jump Out Boys,’ I looked at it as a song, didn’t think too much about the character,” he says. “It’s a Who-type song. It’s hard to get a breath singing it. ‘You and Me’ was the first thing we did in the studio. I met Arséne that day and we clicked right off the bat.”

Michael Cerveris was a Broadway star dating back to his critically acclaimed debut as the main character in Tommy when he met Sanchez in 2006.

“When I first came down to New Orleans, I went to the House of Blues and Paul Sanchez was the opening act,” Cerveris says. “I became a fan of his on the spot. Paul’s wife Shelly was working on the film I was doing, and she invited me to Paul’s gig at d.b.a. In New Orleans, you find yourself doing a lot of things you’d never do elsewhere, so Paul provided me with my New Orleans singing debut.

“He didn’t know anything else I’d done. He thought I was a young actor. I had read Nine Lives, and I thought it was a fantastic idea for a musical. He asked me if I would be interested in playing one of the parts and said my main character starts life as a man named John and over the course of the show becomes a woman named JoAnn. I laughed and told him it won’t be the first time I put on a dress for a role.”

Sanchez realized during the recording sessions that the musical covered virtually all aspects of New Orleans music except for hip-hop. “I called up Colman, and he said we should write a rap song,” says Sanchez. “Two 50-something white guys writing a rap song? That’s not going to solve our problem, so I called Shamarr and told him I needed a rap song written right before Katrina about Ronald Lewis, who runs the Mardi Gras Indians and Second Line museum The House of Dance and Feathers. He says, ‘Uncle Ronald? I live right around the corner from his place.’ So he wrote this heartbreaking piece. He also wrote a great song about a Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade, ‘King for a Day.’

“Colman and I had written a song called ‘These Pies,’ a funky piano-based Dr. John kind of groove about Chicken and Wilbert having an argument, but it was the weakest song we wrote and the one that rang the least true. I sent it to Shamarr and said, ‘It’s your story. You’re trying to play music and the drug dealers are trying to get to you.’ What he came up with, I’ve been told by a few people, is Shakespearian.”

It’s showtime. Allen still isn’t in the theater and in his comments to the audience on cast changes for the evening, Paul notes the possibility that he might not make it. Then Sanchez begins his narration:

“Though Nine Lives was a story about nine people, it’s your story. It’s our story. It’s a story about how a community comes together. Floods come in many forms. It might be disease, or the loss of your job. That’s what Nine Lives is about—survival.”

The musical unfurls beautifully, and when Allen struts onto the stage to sing “These Pies,” he is greeted with boisterous applause. Just like in that Hollywood script, he’s there in time to pull it off. The band is superb; the singers, even better than rehearsal, and Allen is brilliant, an electric presence whose trumpet solos spill across the borders of the songs that contain them. Arséne DeLay is spectacular, the absolute discovery in this cast. Nine Lives is her chance to establish herself as a major New Orleans artist.

“I was doing this in Los Angeles but struggling to be seen,” she says. “This is the show that brought me back home.”

There will be another performance in September at Tulane and several Nine Lives concerts in other cities. “Future productions will be even more streamlined,” Sanchez predicts. “Songs and characters may be cut, and other songs may be written, but the record stands as its own document. What it becomes as theater is going to be something different. But Nine Lives as a concert already has a life of its own.”