This piece appears in the Alliance’s Under the Tent series edition of Encore.
Songwriter Eugene Russell IV reflects on the experience of setting Beautiful Blackbird to music at the Alliance Theatre
As a father of two, Eugene Russell IV is quite familiar with the landscape of children’s music. And when he set out to bring Beautiful Blackbird to life, he knew his music had to have much more flare. Mostly, it needed more funk.
“I purposely went for something that adults would like as well, because as a father of little ones… I don’t know. Some kids’ music can be so annoying, I’m sorry,” the artist says with a laugh. “But I wanted something that grooved that was fun enough for the kids but funky enough for the parents. You know what I’m saying?” So out came the tunes to Beautiful Blackbird, which sit in a genre of “funky, soulful, family music.”
Russell made a name for himself in Atlanta theatre as an actor, but after releasing solo songs of his own and playing instruments in a few plays and musicals, his first opportunity to actually compose for the Atlanta stage came along with none other than the Alliance’s original 2017 production of Beautiful Blackbird. Alliance’s Director of Education Chris Moses approached Russell to compose the score, and the two were in sync about the vision immediately.
“When [Chris] came to me about the show, I wanted to write the music for it. And I said, ‘Listen, Chris, I don’t write traditional theatre music. That’s not my thing — that traditional musical theater sound.’ He said, ‘Good, because that’s not what I want. I want you to do what you do.’ And I said, ‘Cool!’” The two practically finished each other’s sentences through the creative process as one would suggest an idea and the other would adamantly agree. “I said, ‘You want funky? I’ll give you funky.’”
So as a composer, what goes into choosing “funky, soulful, family music” as the best genre with which to tell this story? Russell says the original book dictated its own musical needs to him.
“When you look at the book that inspired Beautiful Blackbird LIVE, the book by Ashley Bryan, the rhythms are obvious. And the colors as well. There’s something about the colors that said funk to me, as well as the rhythm of the language.”
Russell’s songs come from a place of knowing his source material and end goal so well that he follows the needs of the piece itself.
“It’s fun because you get to say, ‘Okay, let’s see where this piece takes me!’ Often, if you kind of get out of the way as the composer, songs will write themselves,” he says excitedly. “And I don’t mean that literally; I wish it was that easy! But if you keep yourself out of it and keep the stories centered, then the story will inform you of what the sound should be, and it will only make sense. I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, of course, that makes sense! Of course this should be in 5/4 time! Of course this needs this instrument or that instrument, because that only makes sense!”
Beautiful Blackbird has always held a special place in his heart because not only was it his debut as an Atlanta theatre composer, but he got to work on it with his wife who was the dramaturg. And as the icing on the cake, their toddlers joined them in the rehearsal room.
“At that time —- they’re six and four now —- but my two little girls were probably, like, three and one. So that was so cool because number one, they got to be in the theatre environment, but number two, they got to see Mommy and Daddy work. And they loved it at the Alliance. It was great.”
As Beautiful Blackbird LIVE gets its wings on a performance space again, Russell has a few things to look forward to, starting with the fact that he gets to join the band this time around.
“I love composing and being the music director,” he says, referring to the roles he took on in the 2017 production. “But there were times when everybody looked like they were having so much fun, you know? And I wanted to play! So I’m excited about being in the midst of other musicians and playing music and having my babies there. I’m really excited about that.”
Most of all, he has been looking forward to the encouragement he hopes the words of the piece will bring to audiences.
“[The lyrics are] so empowering. They’re so needed. There are so many black babies that need these words right now. There are so many other kids that need these words. There are so many adults that need these words right now! I think the message in it is unapologetic and it’s a reminder of the beauty of who you are and how you were made. And in a time where there are a lot of things to be down about or to blame yourself for, I think we need these words in the air. So I’m looking most forward to putting these words in the air again.”
Beautiful Blackbird LIVE is presented as part of the Alliance Theatre’s Under the Tent series, running April 8-18. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.
About Beautiful Blackbird LIVE
Inspired by the Newbery Medal-winning book by Ashley Bryan
Atlanta’s favorite feathered funk band is back! Featuring original music composed by Eugene H. Russell IV and inspired by Ashley Bryan’s children’s book Beautiful Blackbird, this family friendly concert will have you on your feet celebrating the uniqueness of each and every one of us. Shake your tailfeathers and dance to the music!