When Gwen Stefani wrote her 2003 hit song “Just a Girl,” chances are she didn’t have the struggles of a 19th century female pianist in mind. But Randall Kramer and Theresa Quinn did.
The duo collaborated on a new musical, “Talk to Me Now,” which opened on the MusicalFare Theatre stage Wednesday night. The bold show, which pulls from a broad swath of singer-songwriter material from the past half-century, chronicles the lives of two women separated by 200 years, but united by a common struggle against a stubbornly patriarchal society.
It juxtaposes music by the likes of Ani DiFranco (who provided the title number), Melissa Etheridge, Shawn Colvin, Norah Jones and many others with snippets of pieces by Robert Schumann, Beethoven and Mozart to plot the emotional journey of its two main characters. They are Clara Wieck Schumann, the put-upon wife of the famous composer who is gradually succumbing to dementia, and the fictional Gretchen Talty, a modern-day musicologist and performer dealing with her father’s mental deterioration.
In a conversation in the MusicalFare lobby shortly before one of the final rehearsals for the show, Kramer and Quinn admitted that the idea of a 19th century woman performing songs like Etheridge’s “Come to My Window” and Stefani’s “Just a Girl” might temporarily throw audiences for a loop.
“My belief was that these songs are so good and these words are so strong, that as long as we hold to the real emotions that she has, we can do contemporary music with a woman in 19th century dress,” he said. “The idea is that the dichotomy actually makes the songs more interesting.”
Kramer and Quinn’s version of “Just a Girl,” for instance, emphasizes its deeply cynical lyrics and turns it into an expression of Clara’s deep frustration at not being paid for a major performance. “Come to My Window,” instead of being an anthem for modern sexual liberation, becomes an expression of longing and frustration sung by a young woman to her (much) older lover.
“When you say that to somebody, or they see that on paper, they look at you and go, ‘Really? Clara Schumann’s going to sing Melissa Etheridge?’ ” Kramer said.
“I think the first big surprise is ‘Come to My Window,’ because that’s really first time that we do that. And then from there on in, I think you accept it as a convention,” Quinn added, noting that the circumstances of Clara’s character can give modern songs a different and sometimes deeper texture.
“Just a Girl,” which is a feminist anthem embedded into a straight-ahead rock tune, was a perfect example.
“When you just read the words like poetry, they were perfect because she’s ticked and she’s saying, you can’t trust me because I’m just a girl, you can’t give me any rights, I can’t be trusted with them,” Quinn said. “It’s very cynical. She’s being treated like a second-class citizen.”
Choosing music for the show that made sense, Quinn and Kramer agreed, was a daunting affair. Aside from a couple of numbers, neither of the major characters was particularly concerned with love. And that, Quinn said, nixed whole swaths of available material.
“We didn’t want love songs. We found that female singer-songwriters tend to write quite a bit about love. But we had a story, so we started with the story and then we searched for songs. And it was hard,” Quinn said.
But what they settled on, after a pair of crucial workshops and a longer-than-usual rehearsal period was a musical that they’re confident will unite the concerns of two women two centuries apart.
“We looked at the two women and we looked at the issues that female singer-songwriters write about,” Kramer said. “We realized that society has changed and societal restrictions and challenges have changed, but the emotional challenges are the same.”