The Curran, Oakland School for the Arts and FUN HOME join forces with GLAAD to celebrate Spirit Day with an inspiring video of the Tony-winning musical's anthem of inclusiveness, "Ring of Keys." Kevin Sessums takes us behind the scenes.
Inside a converted garage on a side street in Oakland, there is a hum of hormones and harmony as teenage students from Oakland School for the Arts ready themselves to record the moving ballad “Ring of Keys” from FUN HOME, which won the Tony for Best Musical in 2015 and opens at the Curran on January 25th. Written by composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Lisa Kron, the song has become an anthem for outsiders who experience that moment of recognition when, as children, they see themselves in the world for the first time and realize that they are not alone. In the case of the musical it is the childhood moment when Alison Bechdel, the author of the graphic novel on which the musical is based, sees an old-school butch lesbian in a diner who is wearing that ring of keys on her belt and sings to the older woman, “Can you hear my heart saying hi?” It is a revelation about identity more than sexuality.
“Ring of Keys” has become an anthem for outsiders who experience that moment of recognition when, as children, they see themselves in the world for the first time and realize that they are not alone.
The teenagers in the Oakland recording studio might be outsiders in other schools but at OSA they are the resident stars. They have come here after school to lay this soundtrack to the video that many of them will also star in later in the week - along with the soloist, OSA junior Barbara Deveaux Griffith - that will be a collaboration between the Curran and GLAAD to celebrate the latter’s SPIRIT DAY, which is a campaign against bullying and a show of support of LGBTQ students across America.
Later in the week many of these same students will sing back-up for Coldplay’s Chris Martin’s tribute to Prince at the Fox Theatre as the climax to the Notes & Words concert, now in its seventh year, which benefits the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. OSA has a way of combining doing good with its commitment to furthering the experiential training it so invaluably offers as part of its curriculum. The students crowd around the piano in the recording studio waiting for the school’s musical director, Solas Lalgee, to arrive. They start riffing on “Purple Rain,” a song that will be part of Chris Martins playlist when they are not quoting lines by Tony Kushner from Angels in America or singing snippets of songs from AVENUE Q. Chris Martin. A playlist. A recording studio. Kushner. Riffing on a Prince song. AVENUE Q. The Curran. GLAAD. It’s all just another day of after-school activities at OSA.
It is still an anthem about identity and otherness but... soloist Barbara Deveaux Griffith and director Ezra Hurwitz take the astoundingly moving work and move us in new ways with it.
A couple of days later the students have crossed the bay to Geary Street where the Curran is located in San Francisco. They will begin shooting the video in the theater in the midst of its renovation as well as at David's Delicatessen, a diner across the street. In the musical, the song “Ring of Keys” is sung by that childhood version of Bechdel, but in this video - directed by Ezra Hurwitz, a former dancer with New York City Ballet who brings a sense of grace and movement to the video shoot - the song has been reimagined to be sung by Deveaux Griffith, an African American teenager and who sees a version of herself that is closer to her in age. The ring of keys is no longer attached to a belt in a way that heralds one’s utilitarian butchness but is refashioned in this new narrative into two large hoop earrings worn by the older version of the young woman now singing the song.
It is still an anthem about identity and otherness but is now tinged a bit more by the stylish pull of attraction and even, yes, sexuality. The song takes on sensual contours that it could not really attain when sung by a young child. But is that not the mark of art - the ability to retain its meaning even as it is being engaged with differently by other artists? Singer and actress Deveaux Griffith and director Hurwitz take the astoundingly moving work of writer Kron and composer Tesori and move us in new ways with it.
At the end of a long day of shooting the students line up across the beautifully lit stage to sing yet again this stirring version of the song arranged by Ben Wexler that they are using in the video. I am reminded of the musicals RENT and A CHORUS LINE as they line up and, indeed, FUN HOME, fits into the historic, groundbreaking panoply of such musicals. It is both a family musical because it so expertly maps the emotional landscape of one particular family but it is also a startlingly bold statement about inclusion and the ephemeral nature of life itself and the connections we long to make in this overly connected yet oddly disconnected world we all have come to live in.
I see myself in those kids onstage - just as the person singing this song sees herself in that older woman. But I also continue to bond with the Curran itself... being renovated in order to be even more welcoming to the community it anchors - like those disciplined, talented kids onstage - is becoming its better self.
Sitting in the Curran watching Hurwitz and all these talented OSA students home in on the heart of the song, I not only see myself in those kids onstage - just as the person singing this song sees herself in that older woman - but I also continue to bond with the Curran itself. A place being renovated in order to be even more welcoming to the community it anchors, the Curran - like those disciplined, talented kids onstage - is becoming its better self. “Can you hear my heart saying hi?” it seems to be asking me. I can. I do.