Collaboration

There is a moment during Crossroads (or The Piano of Death) that hits me harder than any other. It is when Mary Casiello sings the word "cross" during the song "Sing, Angel. Sing." And what gets me isn't just the perfectly chosen note she hits, but everything that went into making that note happen.

You see, "Sing, Angel. Sing." is a song with a lot of history. In February 2009, several musically inclined friends of mine encouraged me to participate in the annual RPM Challenge, a month-long event dedicated to getting musicians of all experience levels off of their asses and into their recording studios. The goal was to create a full album's worth of music in 28 days. But I couldn't get it done. I didn't even really try.

What I came up with instead, in the months that followed, was a short story called "The Silver Family Singers," which I jokingly referred to as "liner notes for an album that doesn't exist." It was a companion piece to the novel I was working on (and that I am still working on, in fact), and though I enjoyed writing it, I never expected anything musical to come of it. I was content for the album it described to remain imaginary.

But those musically inclined friends of mine were not content. February 2010 rolled around, and my friend Phil Kliger took me aside and told me that we were going to make this thing happen for RPM 2010. I took the descriptions of the songs from "The Silver Family Singers," wrote the lyrics, and then shipped them off to Phil. And then he, despite having just become a father, did the rest.

All of the songs Phil came up with were amazing—I still have dreams of seeing them played live someday, perhaps at a release event for the novel, should it ever come out—but "Sing, Angel. Sing." was the standout from the moment I heard it. He took words that I thought might be trite or clichéd, words that I'd written in a mad dash to meet a deadline, and put them to music that made beauty out of their simplicity. His wife Nicole sang the lead, Phil sang background vocals and played guitar, and I liked to imagine that the two of them, brand new parents at the time, put the whole thing together during one of their daughter's quick naps, just like the protagonist of the song, Veronica Silver, would have done.

It was nearly two years later when "Sing, Angel. Sing." returned to my consciousness in a big, bad way. I was putting the finishing touches on a script that would be performed alongside Mary Casiello's music as part of a benefit for Astolat Arts, the brainchild of our mutual friend Crystal Lisbon. The script was about the aforementioned Veronica Silver, a favorite character of mine, and we were looking for a way to bring a third song into the mix. Mary had already written songs to open and close the benefit performance, but we wanted to marry the music and the play even more closely together. I don't remember when the idea to use "Sing, Angel. Sing." came, or where it came from, but once it was there it wasn't going away.

I remember feeling hesitant sending the mp3 of the song off to Mary. It wasn't that I was ashamed of what Phil and I had done—quite the opposite!—but I've always been uncertain of my own taste. At any rate, she had a piano arrangement back to Crystal and me in what seemed like no time, and I was haunted by what she'd come up with.

The first time I heard it, due to a trick of my phone's music player and the way the demo was mixed, I heard only the music, but that was already good enough for me. I figured she was planning on adding the vocals later, or something. But then, after discovering the glitch, I heard the whole thing, with vocals, and I was swept away. Maybe it was because I didn't know Mary as well at that point, but the first thought that crossed my mind was, "I actually had something to do with this?"

It's a thought I've had many times since.

Though I majored in writing and theater in college, I moved definitively in the direction of fiction writing in the years that followed, as the support network necessary for putting on shows dissipated and the hermit side of me took over. Though I'd loved the idea of collaboration, I didn't feel like I had many people to collaborate with: my college friends had all moved home, my best friend was off to study abroad, and I was too busy climbing the corporate ladder to collaborate or play with anyone but myself.

That's changed in the last few years, as I've discovered groups like New Hampshire Media Makers and communities like the one at The Players' Ring in Portsmouth. In fact, it might be because I've spent so much time collaborating over the past few years that I haven't finished the solitary work of that aforementioned novel. But, I digress.

Here's the point I want to make: Every time I hear Mary begin the second verse of "Sing, Angel. Sing.," every time she sings, "You can't hit that ball. / You can't make that toss," I steel myself for what's about to happen, for the chill that's about to run down my spine and the tear that's about to roll down my cheek.

"You can bear a child," she sings. "But you can't bear the cross."

I wrote the words, Phil wrote the music, Mary hits the note, and magic happens. Every time.

You don't have to do everything yourself. Sometimes -- often, in fact -- it's better that you, as Ringo sings (or Joe Cocker, if he's more your speed), "get by with a little help from [your] friends."

Collaboration. As my grandfather would have said, "That's the ticket."

N.B. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that part of what makes the moment a magical one is the work done by the fantastic cast of the play to build up to the moment. I wouldn't shiver as hard if not for the superlative work of Elizabeth Locke, Cassandra Heinrich, Paul Strand, Teddi Kenick-Bailey, and Elise Williams.