“Beautiful Dreamer: The Foster Project” at Pitman Theatre
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Rehabilitating the reputation of “pop” music is a tall order, but the musicians of “Beautiful Dreamer: The Foster Project,” commissioned by Alverno Presents, managed to pull it off Saturday night at Pitman Theatre. Ryan Schleicher, curator of the show, called Stephen Foster the “first American pop star,” and also gave the audience an easy-to-digest definition of “pop,” one that rings true: “pop” is shorthand for “popular.” This means that pop music, pop art, and pop culture as a whole is that which reaches across demographic and cultural lines, that which achieves some measure of universality.
Foster was the first American pop star because his songs, in the form of sheet music, found their way into every home in the country with an instrument. The medium of pop music has morphed from sheet music to radio, from radio to records and beyond, but the basic idea of pop music has remained.
Schleicher’s assembled group of musicians spoke to the universal nature of Foster’s work. From jazz-infused to banjo-backed folk, from rock country to loud and punky, Foster’s work was interpreted across a dizzying array of genres. Alongside this visceral show of how universal one person’s work can be, pieces inspired by and about Foster showcased the variety of musicians that have been, and continue to be, inspired by his work.
Bethany Thomas and a choir opened the show with a soulful, skin-tingling rendition of “Oh, Susannah.” Thomas’ voice spans the spectrum from silky soft to raw power, and can move from mode to mode effortlessly. Later in the show she sang harmony parts, further demonstrating the remarkable versatility she’s achieved in her art.
Robbie Fulks performed perhaps the most emotionally difficult piece of the evening (in a show that dealt with subjects no less weighty then death, poverty, and alcoholism) when he took the stage for “Massa’s In The Cold, Cold Ground” with only his banjo, accompanied by a tuba and garbage-can lids. As Schleicher noted after the song, Foster wrote in the minstrel tradition of the mid-19th century. Even “Oh, Susannah” has lyrics that would make most people uncomfortable in its original form. And while a white man writing songs about slaves that would be performed by other white men in blackface seems horrifyingly exploitative from the vantage point of history, as Schleicher also noted, Foster was one of the first mainstream songwriters to even bother trying to capture the perspective of African Americans. He couldn’t have actually done it, but he did try, and that effort can be viewed as part of the long (and ongoing) effort to combat racism in America, despite the language. If Foster was the first real American pop star, it might be because he tried to think of everyone in America as an American.
“Camptown Races” is another of Stephen Foster’s most popular tunes, having been recorded in various arrangements by various artists. Juniper Tar stretched out as far from Thomas’ soul and Fulks’ folk as it could, and drew up a Ramones-esque punk rendition for this show. Ohio MC Blueprint performed “Virginia Belle” with a smooth confidence that raised heart rates. Christopher Porterfield sang the companion to “I Will Not Die In Summer,” titled “I Will Not Die In Springtime,” with a swagger that called to mind country legends.
In addition to works by Foster himself, works that were influenced by Foster or referenced him in some way were part of Saturday’s program. Aaron Schleicher and Jon Langford each performed pieces by Sam Baker. Langford also performed the Handsome Family song “Wildebeast,” about Foster’s early and tragic death in a Bowery flophouse.
Juniper Tar, Christopher Porterfield, and Betty Blexrud-Strigens each performed original pieces of music about Foster’s life, death, and the multiple fronts he battled on during his short life: alcoholism, a bad marriage, and the music industry. The latter wasn’t even yet a monolith, but was still capable of ensuring that the man who wrote “Hard Times Come Again No More” died alone with 38 cents in his pocket.
“Beautiful Dreamer: The Foster Project” was three parts musical performance, one part history lesson, and one part storytelling. Stephen Foster was, and is, an American icon, the first star of American popular (collective) culture.