Regina Spektor’s music often involves a strong element of storytelling — think of the underworld journey of “Grand Hotel” or the hospital pep talk in “Firewood.” The singer-songwriter has also enhanced the storytelling of others, her Orange Is the New Black theme song “You’ve Got Time” being maybe the best-known example. Lin-Manuel Miranda enlisted her for his Hamilton Mixtape project, where she put a maternal spin on “Dear Theodosia” with help from Ben Folds. The list goes on.
All this, together with her New York bona fides — she was recently inducted into the Bronx Walk of Fame — makes her forthcoming run of shows on Broadway especially fitting. Slated for five nights at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, running from June 20th through 26th, it’s a standout (alongside Morrissey’s May run) of the “In Residence on Broadway” series. Spektor spoke recently about her plans for the shows, her relationship with Broadway tradition and her New York roots.
Congrats on your Bronx Walk of Fame street sign.
Oh, thank you! I’m very, very excited.
You’ve been a New Yorker for a while, but now you’re really New York.
It’s home. I was with my parents and my husband last night; we went to Carnegie Hall to hear one of our favorite classical pianists, Evgeny Kissin. And my dad reminded me that, I think it was back in the spring of 1990, that the Bronx borough president, Fernando Ferrer, gave me and my cousin Marcia these little paper-like honors. We got to America [from Russia] when we were like nine and a half, and we got sent to this really beautiful school in Riverdale, both of us, by the community, on full scholarship. We weren’t able to participate in many classes; we couldn’t speak English. We would spend a lot of the day learning English with this wonderful teacher, Mrs. Claudia Hecht, and I guess she nominated us — as young, new immigrant Americans — for some kind of a thing. So we got these honors from the borough president. It was so cool!
This one-ups it, and doing shows on Broadway — you can’t get much more New York than that. How did you conceive of the shows, and how will they be different than your usual concerts?
Well, honestly, I didn’t have the idea; I got invited. Somebody else had the idea.
It’s a good idea.
I don’t think I would’ve had the idea “I’m going to do concerts on Broadway.” I didn’t even know that was a thing! And it might not be a thing [laughs]. I think they’re testing it out. They said it could just be a regular show, but everything in me said, like, “No, no, no” — the whole fun of doing concerts on Broadway is to discover every little aspect of theater I could sort of get my hands on, within a human budget.
The first thing that I did was opened up all the songs — because I have been writing songs for, I don’t know, 20 years? A lot of them I played in bars and cafes maybe a couple of times in my life, and I just didn’t ever play them again. I want to create these little moments in the show that are sort of like my old New York, on the Lower East Side playing those songs. Thank God for the people who used to come and tape my shows, and put them up on the Internet!
Could you name one or two titles?
I have like 50 pieces of paper [with song titles], and I keep sitting down on the rug and trying to put them in these orders! But I can tell you for sure I’m going to be switching them around. Some will stay the same — the songs that are played with the string section and the band will probably not change that much. But if somebody goes to see the show Thursday they’re going to hear [certain] songs, and people who come Friday will hear probably five or six that the other people won’t hear. That’s really fun for me, to have each show be kind of special, where we’re being together, this audience and me, just for this one night. The other thing I’m really excited about is doing a collaboration on a few songs with this really amazing tap dancer.
Yeah! I mean, that’s really Broadway! He’s also brilliant — basically like a percussionist who happens to do it, beautifully, with his feet. It’s really fun to discover how to do dance in a theater, how to do lights and projections and scrims and all kinds of theater things.
There’s some precedent for these kinds of concerts on Broadway. Lou Reed did a run in the Eighties when New York came out; Elvis Costello too. Did you see Springsteen on Broadway?
I didn’t, but I plan to watch it. From what I heard from friends who saw it and loved it, it’s like stories about his life and songs, right?
Yeah. He had a memoir to work from.
This is different. I really am thinking of it as concert with some theatrical moments, but not so much storytelling. I might read a poem, or shine light on a certain moment with a story. But it’s not a scripted Broadway show. I might feel compelled or inspired to talk about something … This is something I remember learning in bars when I was first playing, cause people in a bar, especially if they didn’t pay to see you, and you’re just playing in a corner, they don’t really have to listen to you. Often times there would be din of voices, and it would be kind of sad. I noticed that if I started talking into the microphone to say something about the next song, people would get quiet and listen to what I was saying, and kind of tune in again and listen to the song. But the feeling of playing is just so important to me. It’s always really hard to, you know, to cut away a song to just … talk.
There’s certainly a lot of storytelling in your songs — you have vivid little worlds in “Grand Hotel” and “Firewood” and “Oh Marcello.”
When I finish a song I get the feeling that I’ve just told a story. But I didn’t have to say it.
Will there be any covers? I really liked your version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
That was really special, to do that. But I don’t do many covers. This is going to be my songs. Maybe I’ll have changed some of the orchestrations. And there’s definitely at one song that no one has ever heard before. Then the rotating solo songs, and the dance collaboration. And some sort of, I don’t know how to put it, little theatrical connective tissue between songs so that it feels more like a theater piece.
“They said it could just be a regular show, but everything in me said, like, ‘No, no, no’ — the whole fun of doing concerts on Broadway is to discover every little aspect of theater I could get my hands on.”
I’d read that you were working on a musical, a Sleeping Beauty adaptation.
I worked on and off with that for a while, and then it sort of fizzled. I basically had to learn a lot. I went in really wide-eyed, not knowing anything about Broadway or how projects get made, or how many people have to collaborate together. A lot of really practical details. And some of the things I had to kind of learn the hard way, Like for example, on that particular project, I was just the composer, so I wasn’t writing the lyrics. And one of the big things I learned is that to me, it’s all very interconnected. I’m not a classical composer, so I’m not necessarily the person that should be setting someone else’s libretto to a score. I feel music and lyrics together when I write songs. And so unless I’m writing an instrumental piece, I really have a hard time writing to words that are not mine. But it was very exciting because I loved getting a glimpse into it, sort of behind the curtain, not to pun all over you [laughs].
I think in order for me to do something in that world, which would be exciting, I would just have to make something so my own, then just see if it worked in that world. I’m actually more drawn to movie musicals like Singing in the Rain and Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Those sort of gave me the love of musicals. I didn’t ever go to see musicals on the stage growing up. I only went to the opera or to classical music. Or, like, Jesus Christ Superstar.
That was the first musical I ever saw.
That was my first! I saw that in the basement of a church while still living in the Soviet Union — in Estonia, which was a little bit more, you know, on the way to being more liberal. My dad took me, and we sat on little plastic chairs in the basement of a church, and there was a TV and a VCR, and they put in a tape, and we watched it with the lights on. And I fell in love with it so hard! I didn’t understand a single word, right? We didn’t speak English yet. But I drove my dad crazy begging him to get me a cassette tape of the songs. He somehow got one. We had all of the Beatles and stuff like that, and Moody Blues, ’cause he was really into the underground cassette-tape–trading world, and had a lot of cool music from the West that he’d amassed when he was a student, way before I came along. So he contacted somebody who was an old connection in that world, and got me a cassette. And I was listening to that on headphones in Moscow in my bedroom for probably two years before I ever got to America! It was very precious — my parents probably have it in the Bronx somewhere in their apartment. It’s probably absolutely warped and worn down.
But all that’s to say that I love making records, getting to capture a song just so. You write a song and you hear it one way in your head. So I think probably doing something in the tradition of a movie musical, where I would get to really produce, and pick the voices, and really capture things how they’re supposed to be captured, is probably the road I should take. But I have to say that working on this show puts me more in the headspace to see if I have a story to tell. Because, you know, you don’t ever want to do something just to do it. You want to do it because you have to do it, you know? So if I ever have a story that I have to tell in a musical, I’m definitely going to try.