Southern Comfort: The Ladies of Songbird

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(From left to right) Kacie Sheik, Kate Baldwin, Erin Dilly and Lauren Pritchard

Lauren Pritchard grew up in Jackson, Tennessee, about two hours away from the music capital of the country so it’s no surprise that Pritchard is a celebrated singer/songwriter. She’s written for Panic at the Disco, performed alongside Fall Out Boy and Matt Nathanson, and is currently on a national tour under her stage name Lolo.

However, her roots are in the theater (She was in the original Broadway cast of Spring Awakening) and country music—the two writing challenges she’s (professionally) never conquered. Until now.

“I thought it would be a struggle, at first,” Pritchard says of tackling the style. “But what I realized was that through the osmosis of growing up in the heart of bluegrass and country music, it was a part of me that has always existed. This might sound cheesy, but I feel like it was my destiny—it just took me a minute to get there. As soon as I opened Pandora’s box, it was like, ‘Oh shit, this is what I’ve been missing.’ It felt like a huge relief.”

Enter Songbird, a musical fable inspired by Chekhov’s The Seagull about a group of friends and family who toil away their lives in a bar, bemoaning the dreams they never achieved. Michael Kimmel, who wrote the musical’s book, approached Pritchard about three years ago with the idea, and after a sold-out concert presentation at Feinstein’s/54 Below in June, the musical will have its world premiere Off Broadway at 59E59 in New York, with opening set for October 28.

Before a long day of tech rehearsal on the Friday before she leaves on tour, Pritchard meets up with three of her leading ladies: Kate Baldwin, Erin Dilly, and Kacie Sheik at the Paramount Hotel. (When asked if she ever considered performing in the show, Pritchard laughs and says no.) The four immediately fall into a familial rhythm, and Sheik even calls Dilly “Mama” throughout the interview, as Dilly plays her mother in the show. The pair run off to get coffee and waters, and upon their return, Baldwin holds up her iPhone flashlight to aid Dilly’s makeup application for the photoshoot later.

Sheik was the first of the three to sign on for the project, and Pritchard wrote her first song for the show with Sheik in mind. Sheik’s major Broadway credit is Hair, which has more of a rock ‘n’ roll vibe, so the country/folk world is a new one for her onstage—one that she feels very at home in as she’s also a singer/songwriter.

“It’s very me,” Sheik says, adding that her own songwriting is in a similar vane of Pritchard’s songs for this show. Sheik plays Missy, a hometown girl who grew up around singers and refuses music for her own life to her mother’s dismay. “The story and the music are both close to my heart. When these incredible performers pick up their instruments and open their mouths to sing these gorgeous songs and tell this sweetly sad story of their lives, it’s when I exhale and tear up.”

Sheik was part of the concert presentation, but Dilly and Baldwin joined later. Baldwin plays Tammy, a washed-up country star returning home, and Dilly is Pauline, Tammy’s childhood best friend who gave up her music dreams to be a mother.

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Pritchard is the only one of the four with Southern roots and just moved back home to Tennessee in February. When she was 15, her mom would drive her into Nashville multiple times a week to sit in on songwriting sessions for big-time country music writers for artists like Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. While Pritchard grew up listening to Martina McBride and Shania Twain, she says that her favorites are some of the more classic performers like Patsy Cline and George Jones.

“I was able to just be very honest from my own perspective of my southern upbringing and what that is,” she says. “Every character that we have in our show, I know who that person is.”

However, the designation of a “country musical” makes the entire group a little uncomfortable as the musical styles vary, and they’re not even sure whether to call it a musical. Pritchard settles on the term “musical piece” as “the songs don’t drive the story; they comment on the emotional value of each moment,” she explains.

“Songwriting is illogical. It literally comes from nothing and so you can’t try and put a process together about something that doesn’t make any sense anyway,” explains Pritchard of how she works. “For ‘Heart Costs,’ I literally sat at a piano with a voice memo going and sang out all in one go. I was going through a terrible break up and really feeling all the feelings and it was just stream of conscious out of my mind.”

“I like wait for that song to come,” Baldwin says, jumping in. “It’s just so cathartic to say those words and to be in that moment, but to hear that was your process for even that one individual song, that’s what’s so you and so individual and such your sound.”

However, Baldwin was initially slightly nervous to sign on as she calls herself “revival girl” and is known for her legit soprano voice and performances in shows like Finian’s Rainbow. She had heard about the project from Dilly, as the two are friends and share an agent, and called her as she was trying to make a decision. (Baldwin’s first show in New York was with Dilly at Encores! for Babes in Arms.)

“I was like I’m not cool, Erin,” Baldwin recalls. “I can’t do an Off-Broadway show. This is a leap for me. And I don’t understand country music.”

Pritchard gave Baldwin a bunch of artists to listen to, and Baldwin even ended up singing a Dixie Chicks song in her solo Feinstein’s/54 Below show. Dilly refers to the rehearsal room as a “love bomb,” and when she was working on a workshop of the piece, her father fell ill and she almost had to leave in the middle to go be with him. Her mother encouraged her to stay per her father’s wishes, and she flew home as soon as the workshop presentation was over to be at his bedside and played one of the songs, “Tammy’s Lullaby,” for him. “It was maybe the last song he heard,” Dilly says. “I played it for him on Saturday afternoon and he died at five o’clock on Saturday.”

That was the song that also solidified Baldwin’s participation in the show, as it was a moment of redemption for this character, who is based on Arkadina in The Seagull and has been pretty despicable up until that number.

“I can see that maybe some piece of me could have chosen career over everything and let go of the things that are so dear to me—my husband, my child, my family ties,” Baldwin reflects. “There are choices you make in your life and sometimes you don’t even know that you’re making the choice. So Tammy has made some choices that Kate did not make.”

Dilly and Baldwin are especially excited to be working together again, particularly since they haven’t had many opportunities because they’re often cast in similar roles.

“As you get older you become more and more yourself,” Baldwin says. “Because when you’re in your twenties, you’re like, ‘Who do you need me to be?’And by the time you’re forty, you’re like ‘I’m fucking who I am. You’re not gonna change me.’”

“I’m just getting more eccentric,” Dilly adds with a laugh.

And Pritchard, for one, is excited to be achieving her dream of being a musical theater composer/lyricist at such a young age and wants to show other women—young and old—that a career as a writer is possible.

“I always wanted to be a composer and lyricist, but I always thought that’s probably a thing I won’t get to do until I’m 50,” says Pritchard, who starting doing theater when she was 7, wrote her first play when she was 11, and would even compose her own songs for piano recitals. “I’m so excited to have this opportunity if for no other reason than to show all the other young women out there that you can totally write a musical and it can open Off Broadway. It’s not a man’s world and women can do it too, even if you’re young. I didn’t know that for a while. You may not know how to get there. You just have to begin.”

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Makeup by KeLeen Snowgren.