Composer, actress and accordion player Shaina Taub will hang up her squeezebox – temporarily, rest assured – this Sunday when her acclaimed Shakespeare in the Park musical adaptation of Twelfth Night closes its month-long run, bringing an end to a two-year journey that had the now-29-year-old songwriter working with everyone from non-professional performers in all five New York boroughs to the artistic directors of Manhattan’s Public Theater (Oskar Eustis) and London’s Young Vic (Kwame Kwei-Armah).
No end-of-summer blues for Taub, though – well, not a lot anyway – as the 2009 NYU grad and original cast member of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 forges on with two fantastically intriguing projects: She’s collaborating with Elton John on a musical version of The Devil Wears Prada (he’s writing the music, she’s on the lyrics, Paul Rudnick has the book), and she’s continuing development of her own musical about the women’s suffrage movement (Jill Furman, a lead producer of Hamilton, is on board).
Deadline recently spoke to Taub, whose second solo CD – Die Happy, with the single “Huddled Masses” inspired by the Emma Lazarus poem – is now available on iTunes and Amazon. Here, she reflects on summertime Shakespeare, secret histories and what it’s like to work with the man who wrote “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Deadline: Twelfth Night is closing Sunday, but you won’t have much time to mourn. Let’s talk about Elton John. How did The Devil Wears Prada come about?
Shaina Taub: The producers gave me a call, asked if I was interested, and I was extremely interested. I loved the movie, I always have, always thought it would be an amazing musical. And I’m a huge fan of Elton’s work, obviously, for so many years, and it just felt right and worked out. I’ve been working on that since the spring, and I went to London earlier this summer and wrote the first batch of songs with Elton. It’s just a thrill. He’s an incredible artist and so kind, and so open, and so collaborative, and it’s just been a really powerful experience to work with a legend who really is an artist who loves making music and loves to collaborate with new people. It’s just been a wonderful experience so far, and I’m excited to keep going.
Deadline: It must be an odd feeling to think of yourself as going where Bernie Taupin went. It’s got to be sort of intimidating.
Taub: It is, but it’s thrilling. Usually I write music and lyrics, but to focus on creating lyrics that will work with his melodies, I’m learning so much. I feel like I’m going to grow a lot as an artist, and feel doubly lucky that it’s a story and characters that I love, and that I think really belong onstage, a story where two women are at the center of it, and the main plot has to do with their ambition and their business and power. That’s a story I haven’t seen a lot in musicals onstage.
Deadline: What can you tell us about the adaptation? What will be different from the movie?
Taub: We’re early enough in that process that I would hesitate to say too much, but I think we all love those characters, we all love Miranda Priestly and Andy Sachs, and to me it’s about doing justice to that story and those characters, and also heightening them for the stage. Finding that balance with any adaptation between giving fans what they want and helping to look at it in a new way. I feel that way with the Shakespeares as well, these time-worn classic plays that people have seen over and over again, and know and love. I want to honor that, but I also want to bring a new perspective.
Deadline: I was wondering if you saw any connection between Shakespeare and The Devil Wears Prada?
Taub: I think about my squad of leading ladies – Viola, Rosalind, Andy Sachs, Alice Paul, who is in the women’s suffrage musical I’m writing – and the thread is these young women trying to change the world and get sh*t done and succeed. Wear the pants. I feel like there’s a sisterhood. They all feel akin to each other. They’re talking to each other. I feel that in my own life as well, so these characters all feel like they’re reflections of sides of me. One of the things that really drew me to The Devil Wears Prada is I identify with the Andy character, coming to the end of my 20s, and that thing of moving to New York as a young adult and just having big dreams and trying to make it all happen, and having to test your values against what you come up against. Just really figuring out who you are as a grown-up.
Deadline: Is the suffrage musical based on real people?
Taub: Yes, all the characters are real, historical figures. The main characters are Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt, who were two of the main activists, especially in the final push of the suffrage movement during World War I, leading up to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
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I’m focusing in on that final chapter starting in 1913, when Woodrow Wilson got in office and all the way through to the end of his term, which was basically kind of the final aggressive chapter of a movement that lasted through three generations of women. It began in the 1840s with the Seneca Falls Convention, and Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They had died by the early 1900s, and did not live to see the final push for the amendment. And Alice Paul, she was the mastermind that engineered the picketing in front of the White House – they were the first American citizens to do such a thing, and really was a big part of the history of civil disobedience and direct action and nonviolent protest in this country. And the more I learn about her, the more I see how instrumental she was in bringing those tactics to America.
Deadline: How is it that most of us don’t know that history?
Taub: It’s unbelievable that it’s not a seminal story taught every day in public schools across this country. The fact that I didn’t know about Alice Paul until my mid-20s, when a producer told me about her and about this project, is shocking to me. I’ve been hungry for a story like this to tell, I’ve been looking for it my whole life, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, it’s been in my back yard the whole time.”
You have to wonder where is this narrative and why is it kept from us? It’s who’s writing the history books, and this larger invisibility of the female narrative in American history. It’s no accident to me that this is a story we don’t know.
And why I’m interested in making this into a piece of drama is that these were not perfect hero-warrior women. They had a lot of shortsightedness and a lot of conflict within the movement, shortsightedness about race and class. They made mistakes. But I’m interested in delving into the complexity of that and examining them as full human characters with strengths and weaknesses.
Deadline: I remember watching Ken Burns’ documentary on Prohibition a couple years ago and being surprised at the connection between the temperance movement and feminism. It was women saying, “We’re not going to have men come home drunk and beat us anymore.”
Taub: Isn’t it crazy that misogyny runs so deep that the better solution for domestic violence was to ban booze, as opposed to directly address the violence?
Deadline: Who are your collaborators on the suffrage musical? And when can we expect to see it?
Taub: The two co-lead producers are two amazing women who commissioned me to write this: Jill Furman, who’s one of the lead producers of Hamilton, and Rachel Sussman, who initially brought the idea to me. And Leigh Silverman is directing it.
It’s definitely my passion project and the thing closest to my heart. We have another election approaching, obviously, and also the centennial of the 19th Amendment is coming up in 2020, and I think we’re hopeful that we’ll get the story out there in time for all that.
Deadline: And will you keep the accordion?
Taub: I love accordion. I have Comet of 1812 to thank for the accordion, because I learned it for the role that I played in that show. And then I played it in the production of The Tempest, and then I played it in Old Hats (starring Bill Irwin and David Shiner) and Hadestown, and Twelfth Night, so it just sort of made its way into every show I did. I was playing it eight times a week for two years, and that was the best boot camp I could have. It’s the biggest delightful surprise of my musical life.
Deadline: But it’s got to be heavy, and in this heat, outdoors doing Shakespeare in the Park. Actually, though, I’ve never lifted an accordion, so what do I now?
Taub: Oh, it’s heavy, but I now have a smaller model than the one I used in Comet. That thing was a big, honking monster. With the new one, I can dance around when I play.