Managing Editor Betsy Ladyzhets loves Beat poetry and strong female characters. Naturally, she has a lot to say about NOMADS’ “The Other Side,” a new original musical by Eden Gordon (BC ’19), after attending the show’s first performance last night.
Two weeks ago, my American literature class read “Howl and Other Poems” by Allen Ginsberg. During one of our class discussions, Professor Vandenburg asked: Does Ginsberg’s verse exclude women? I raised my hand and said something like, “As someone who’s read Ginsberg’s entire biography and knows about his homosexuality and his tumultuous relationship with his mother, I think he’s just writing about his own experience, not anyone else’s, so I can forgive him for mostly leaving women out of it.”
After seeing NOMADS’ “The Other Side,” I now realize I was too kind. This production, a new musical by Eden Gordon, BC ’19, about two women left behind by the Beats Generation, delivers a raw, emotional picture of what happens when men preach unity while failing to practice it, driven by strong characters and gorgeous music.
In the first scene, self-described narrator, poet, and “wolf mother” Diane di Prima (Elli Furukawa, BC ’19) introduces the Beats and the “women who stood behind them”: Joyce Johnson (Taylor Faires-Cordona, BC ’19) and Elise Cowen (Daisy Mayer, BC ’22). Both women attended Barnard College in the 1950’s; Elise dropped out her junior year, while Joyce failed her graduation by one class. The musical, inspired by Joyce Johnson’s memoir Minor Characters, follows these two women from their experiences at Barnard, through their romantic involvement with prominent Beat poets (Elise with Allen Ginsberg, Joyce with Jack Kerouac), and into the early 1960s, concluding after Elise commits suicide in 1962. The women are close friends and their lives run in parallel to each other. Both of their relationships fail – Elise’s because Allen Ginsberg is homosexual, and Joyce’s because Jack Kerouac is an alcoholic who can’t manage to stay in one place – yet lingering attachments prevent the women from pursuing their own creative careers.
Although the plot of this musical largely followed the progression of time, it moved without clear logic or solid temporal markers, leaving me largely disoriented. One moment, Elise is convincing Joyce to ditch the Barnard quad and “take the one train to the stars;” the next Joyce is leaving school and Elise is in love with Allen; then, suddenly, years have passed and both women are tired and exasperated by their lovers. Although the show constantly speaks of Joyce and Elise’s close friendship and the actresses portray this friendship powerfully, they rarely interact on stage. Instead, they’re constantly thrown into scenes with their respective boyfriends. I felt for both characters individually but didn’t quite connect to their friendship, which claimed to be a central tenet of the show.
But all of my confusion fell away when an actor began to sing. This show shines in its music; Eden Gordon has been writing and performing since before she came to Barnard, and her expertise is evident in every number. Each piece, from “Downtown,” an exhilarating song that convinces Joyce to leave the quad for new adventures, to “I Could’ve Been/Snow,” a heartwrenching lament of all Elise has lost, brought the characters’ emotions to life with evocative melodies and meaningful lyrics. The show’s dialogue often felt melodramatic, even for the Beats, but when overlaid upon nimble piano and plaintive violin, it was poetry in motion. The emotions of these musical numbers were heightened by choreography (by Nick Hermesman, CC ’19) which used self-contained yet powerful movements in the small black box space. My favorite moments included Joyce carefully stepping through a circle of lecture chair-desks as she sang about feeling trapped in a housewife identity in “Precipice,” and the Beats men forming a loose circle like drunken CC boys at a frat party in “Open Your Mind.”
Incredible music requires incredible voices; Taylor Faires-Cordona and Daisy Mayer were, without a doubt, up to the task. Faires-Cordona has the range of a Broadway star, able to fully enunciate through fast-paced numbers and belt it out when Joyce really started to go in on Jack Kerouac. Even a few mic failures couldn’t get her down. (For a moment, I thought the audience was going to give her a standing ovation after “What Kind of Man.”) Meanwhile, Mayer brilliantly portrays Elise’s tragic fall from a swaggering, feisty college drop-out to a self-deprecating lost girl suffering from depression.
Although “The Other Side” is centered upon women’s experiences, the most memorable character after the two protagonists was Allen Ginsberg, played by Adam Glusker (CC ’21). Allen Ginsberg in this show is an angel in verse and an asshole in life. He draws Elise into his world, then casts her out as he begins a relationship with Peter Orlovsky (Rafael Lippert, CC ’21), whom Allen appears to worship for his body and little else. (At the end of the first act, Allen asks Peter what he would add to a new world order. “I think there should be more flowers,” Peter says. “Genius,” Allen replies.) Glusker’s performance is infused with a melodrama so heightened, it’s often comical. Yet he also lets slip moments of vulnerability, first showing Allen’s internalized homophobia, then revealing his true love for Peter when their relationship is redeemed near the end of the show.
The set of this show underscored its focus on writing as a means of self-definition: black structures covered in handwritten pages served as benches and tables, and more handwritten pages were hung on fairy lights at the back of the stage. A writing desk, used by Joyce at the beginning and end of the show, stands out from the black and white of the other set pieces – an effective parallel to her emergence from the background when she begins to write her own narrative. The writing even comes off the stage and into the audience’s hands near the beginning of the second act, as ensemble members hand out copies of poems by female Beats writers. This moment was upstaged and deprived of its power by the forthcoming song, “Shoot Up,” which portrays William Burroughs’ murder of Joan Vollmer. Diane di Prima, the show’s so-called narrator, also serves as a set piece: she mostly wanders around the stage staring at various characters. Her moments of dialogue and song are meaningful, but seem out of place considering di Prima has no actual interactions with Joyce and Elise besides some kind of “appearing in a dream” framework.
This show’s structure clearly prioritized thematic arcs over tangible plot; the relationships moved either too quickly or not quickly enough to fully tell a story. But the musical still hits its emotional beats. It builds up how trapped and powerless Joyce and Elise feel in comparison to the men in their lives until both characters reach their breaking points with passionate power. I’m not normally a crier at shows, but I teared up five times in the second act.
“I’m just a person trying to find some words to express what I feel,” Joyce sings in the finale. And this show, although it doesn’t have a traditionally happy ending, believes that Joyce can find those words. She can write her own story, bring her minor character self to a grand stage (or at least, a Barnard black box), and find a place for herself in the beauty of the world. If she can do it, the finale suggests, so can everyone else.
Photo via Jeanette Pala