Some personal insights from Grace McLean on ‘In the Green’ and her December livestream concert

In everything singer-actress-writer-educator Grace McLean does, she brings her unique blend of creativity, passion, introspection, intelligence, and talent; she is a true original, with historical insight and a post-modern sensibility of cutting-edge experimentation. The recipient of a 2017 Emerging Artist Award from Lincoln Center and a Writer-In-Residence at Lincoln Center Theater, where her first original musical In the Green – a reflection on the early life and inner life of Medieval saint, mystic, and composer Hildegard von Bingen – was commissioned and produced, McLean was recently recognized for her work with a 2020 Richard Rodgers Award and a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical.

Grace McLean. Photo by Ted Ely.

In addition to her latest successes with In the Green (which was published by, and is now available for licensing through, Dramatists Play Service Inc.), McLean’s other notable credits include her roles in the Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Off-Broadway’s Cyrano, Alice by Heart, and Sleep No More, performances with her band Grace McLean & Them Apples in the 2015 and 2016 Lincoln Center American Songbook series, and a tour of Pakistan and Russia as an artistic ambassador with the US State Department. And her voice can be heard on Ghostlight Records’ releases of The Liz Swados Project and the original cast recordings of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Alice by Heart, and In the Green (with orchestrations by McLean and Kris Kukul, and music direction by Ada Westfall), currently out in digital and streaming formats.

This month, McLean returns to the stage in a new virtual concert, Live From Rockwood Music Hall, streaming on Monday, December 14, at 8 pm. Presented with 1080p HD multi-camera video, 100% of the audience will be viewing the event from the safety of their own homes and listening to the music in soundboard-quality audio piped directly into their speakers or headphones. The set list will feature selections from the 22 haunting songs of In the Green (scheduled for physical CD release online and in stores by Ghostlight on Friday, January 15, 2021), along with original music from her upcoming solo album.

Grace was gracious enough to take time out of her busy schedule to share her thoughts and background on the concert, her music, and her flourishing career.

Can you give our readers an idea of what to expect in the Rockwood concert?

Grace: I’ll be playing with my amazing band (Justin Goldner on bass and Hiroyuki Matsuura on drums) for the first time since February and I’m so excited to be making music with them! We’ll be playing some old favorites, including music from our first two EPs, journal songs, as well as music cut from In the Green, and new music from our forthcoming first full-length album.

Is there one song in the show that’s your favorite to perform or that you feel best expresses who you are as an artist?

I loved performing “The Ripening” from In the Green, which is Jutta’s last song in the show [the older Benedictine anchorite and daughter of Count Stephan II of Sponheim, to whom Hildegard was professed as a child]. She’s at her most vulnerable and honest in that song, and it’s one of the few songs I wrote for the show that didn’t change too much from its first draft. Many songs for In the Green got rewritten or cut or combined or massaged to match the moment that required them, but “The Ripening” came out sort of simply and purely.

What’s the biggest challenge and greatest joy of performing virtually?

The biggest challenge of performing virtually is that I don’t get to feel the people who are watching with me. What’s so amazing and essential about live performance is the interaction with the audience – normally I’m talking to them, looking people in the eye, we’re making jokes together, there’s a palpable exchange of energy that is just impossible to achieve in the virtual realm. However, there’s this incredible opportunity to reach more people when performing virtually. I know there have been people from England, Belgium, Russia watching some of what I’ve been able to share since the lockdown, and it’s heartening to know that even though our bodies are not in the same room, I’m still able to connect with people across the globe.

What’s your first creative memory?

I remember writing songs as a wee lass – my mom actually recently came across lyrics one of the first “songs” I wrote, stashed in an old music book of hers (she’s a singer).  Maybe I put it in there thinking she’d sing it at one of her gigs! I also remember writing songs to or about my friends – I remember writing a kind of heartbroken ballad about a break-up with a friend when I was around eight!

Is there one particular artist, show, song, or style that has been the biggest inspiration in your career?

It’s very hard to choose just one, but I will say that I got into looping because of Reggie Watts. A playwright friend of mine had been working with him and showed me some of his YouTube videos back in 2007, just when I was beginning to start to think about writing music; to see him make a choir, beat, adventure of his own voice was incredibly inspiring to me as someone who knew how to play a few instruments, but not well. The idea of capitalizing on the instrument I knew best, my voice, was very exciting to me.

Grace McLean and the cast of In the Green. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

When did you first become interested in Hildegard von Bingen and what is it about her life that most inspired you to write In the Green?

I studied Medieval art in college and first came to know Hildegard through her illuminated manuscripts. She wrote three books of visionary theology, and in them she included pictorial representations of her visions. She was producing a personal feminine symbology in a time when the personal was rarely depicted in art, and she was doing it boldly. The more I studied her I found that she took that boldness into all avenues of her life – creative, political and personal. She was an extraordinary woman who lived an extraordinary life – but it was her early life that became the real sticking point for me.  Her seemingly boundless activity and hunger for expression began when she was in her forties. Before that, because she was locked in a monastic cell with another woman, little is known about her because, well, she was essentially a hermit. The fact that she was so young when this hermitage began (her family gave her as a tithe to the church when she was eight), and knowing that her formative years were spent in austerity and darkness, made me wonder what about that situation would have thrust her into such a flurry of activity once she left the cell. And so In The Green became a sort of origin story.

Do you see any parallels between her experience in the Middle Ages and our current times?

I think In the Green speaks so much to what many of us are experiencing in this particular moment, having to isolate ourselves and to give up so much of the activity of normal life. I think being cut off from the comforts we’re accustomed to is forcing us to face the darkness in our lives in personal, cultural, and systemic ways. It’s deeply uncomfortable, but sitting in that discomfort can be an opportunity to heal.

Do you have a vision that you hope manifests in 2021?

I don’t make resolutions, but I normally name my years – a few years ago was “The Year of the Feast,” in which I sat down at the table of the year and intended to sup gratefully at the meals of experiences set before me. This year was “The Year of the Child,” which was about learning to really listen to and care for myself. I don’t yet have a name for 2021, but it might have something to do with composting . . . I think 2021 might be about transformation and reanimation through a dismantling of composites and a return to the elemental.

Thanks, Grace, for giving our readers a preview of the concert and the background of your music and writing. Congratulations on the well-deserved acclaim you’ve received, and all best wishes for the holidays, the New Year, and the concert!

Photo by Shervin Lainez.

Live From Rockwood Music Hall streams on Monday, December 14, at 8 pm. For tickets, go online. Upon purchase, you will receive an email confirmation and access to the concert, which allows viewing for 48 hours, and tipping options for the venue and the artist.


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