Taking it several steps beyond the “singer/songwriter” pigeonhole, Jon Caspi presents an original theatrical piece based on his album EDDIE KNOWS, for two shows this weekend at The Showroom.
By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit January 19, 2010)
You would think that there’d be no taboos standing in the realm of rock and pop performers — after all, this is a genre in which some of the leading practitioners have allegedly smoked their late father’s ashes, eloped with their pre-teen cousins, literally gotten away with murder, and had more things pumped or pried from various orifices at hospital emergency rooms than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
For all that, there’s still a stigma attached to appearing overly educated — you can compose a score for Twyla Tharp, perform with a chamber quartet or even write a book, but don’t let the crew from Cribs into your home before you take those diplomas down off the wall.
In an increasingly crowded field of locally based singer/ songwriters, however, Jon Caspi tends to stand out — by being good at what he does, sure, but also by virtue of his uncommon artistic ambitions. This, after all, is the guy who created the 2009 indie CD release Eddie Knows!, a “rock novel” that’s taking on a pretty interesting half-life of its own, about which more in a moment.
Here in a scene in which few if any performers are doing it for the money, it’s the day job of Jon Caspi — or, to be more specific, Dr. Jonathan Caspi, Ph.D. — that adds an extra dimension to his work. A professor at a major institution of higher learning and a specialist in the fields of child development and family studies, the good doc has published articles in prestigious journals, spoken at international conferences, and has conducted public workshops in family dynamics at such places as the Red Bank Public Library.
While Caspi neither attempts to conceal his “double life” nor fines his band for not addressing him as “Doctor,” his field of study and scholarship manages to play a part in endeavors like Eddie — a song cycle that follows a disillusioned young guy through damaged relationships, self-destructive behavior and ultimate redemption — with each song a “chapter” that touches upon themes ranging from infidelity and infertility, to depression and the the things that define a modern American family.
Almost one full year ago, Caspi dropped in at the Red Bank Library for a presentation of a different kind — a live performance of all the songs from Eddie; to this date the only such performance he’s given. Luckily, in the audience for that show was Mike Sodano — filmmaker, music fan, and soon to be proprietor (with Nancy Sabino) of the downtown Asbury Park movie house known as The Showroom.
If you’re even so much as a casual visitor to our oRBit, you’ve seen us heap praise upon Mike and Nancy’s “nifty nickelodeon” for its envelope-pushing energy, abundant ideas and collaborative special events — most recently with ReVision Theatre Company and the neighborhood bookstore words! This Saturday night, January 23, the Cookman Avenue theatre hosts the world premiere of an all-new theatrical presentation — a blend of rock concert, live actors and video — adapted from Eddie Knows! and featuring the music of the Jon Caspi Band plus a cast headed by a young veteran of network TV and Broadway.
Sodano and Sabino, who “saw Jon play down the street at the Twisted Tree Café, and were so impressed that we started following him around,” have taken an active role themselves with this production; serving as producers and involving themselves in everything from auditioning actors to creating original video material.
Both of Saturday’s performances of Eddie Knows! (7:30 and 10pm) have, unfortunately for curious new fans, sold out — but we wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear about an encore presentation in the months to come. In the meantime,Continue Reading to find out more about the double life of Dr. Jon, straight from the man who knows.
RED BANK oRBit: I know that it’s somehow never kosher for a pop musician to cop to being a Ph.D., but just to get it all out in the open, ARE you in fact the Jon Caspi who’s done presentations on topics like Bullying, at places like the Red Bank Library?
JON CASPI: I am — I’m a full time professor at Montclair State, in the Department of Family and Child Studies. I’ve done child development, family counseling workshops — the event in Red Bank that you referred to was actually about Sibling Aggression. I should also mention that I’ve got two books on that topic under contract to Springer Publishing — as soon as I get around to completing them!
The Red Bank Library was also the setting for your first performance dedicated to the songs from EDDIE KNOWS, and it seems you’ve made the place a regular stop, even though you’re based out of Keyport as I recall.
I’m not in Keyport anymore — I recently moved to Holmdel. But ever since I did that thing at the Red Bank Library, which was the only time prior to now that I played all the songs from Eddie, it’s become my hangout. Now I kind of use the place as my office — the staff there are really great.
And that afternoon performance at the library inspired you to take it a step further, and create this multimedia theatrical experience around the songs?
What got it going was that Mike, from The Showroom, had been at the library show — he compared me to Harry Chapin and Jimmy Buffett — and he approached me with the idea of doing it as a play; he told me that he and Nancy were opening a theater and that they would like to have something to do with Eddie Knows!
Backing it up just a moment, what was the whole genesis of the concept album in the first place? It’s always been a tricky thing to pull off, and it’s something that very few people attempt on a local or regional level.
I’ve always liked the idea of story in song— I guess I listen to too many Springsteen and Billy Joel records — and Eddie Knows! actually relates back to a song I recorded for my last CD, called “What Does Eddie Know?” That song was about a guy who thinks that his girlfriend and his best friend are having an affair, and it sort of leaves you wondering what’s going to happen next; what his reaction is going to be.
It turned out to be a popular song for me; people would sing along with it when I played it live. And then one day I was listening to the radio, and a band was in the studio talking about how characters from one project can continue on into the next, and I started thinking about Eddie and his girlfriend; where their lives could have wound up a few months or years down the road. It kind of morphed into this entire rock novel, where each song is a chapter in a larger story — although each song also has to be able to stand on its own as a self-contained piece.
So how do you sum up the basic plot of EDDIE KNOWS?
Well, Eddie and Ginny — his girlfriend from the first song — break up; he leaves her and he enters into a depression, while his father tries to coax him back into the world. He meets a woman named Sheila, who he falls in love with, although they’re unable to start a family because she’s infertile.
Ginny returns to the story; she comes back into his life with a child, and tells Eddie that this is his kid. Eventually he comes to terms with it, and he and Sheila start a family, along with Eddie’s child with Ginny. They become a modern American family.
That’s just a very basic description, though; it gets a little more complex — for example, we learn that Eddie is not such a great guy. He was not that good to Ginny when they were together.
Tell us about the format for the show; how you fleshed out these songs with actors and other elements — I understand that the folks from The Showroom have taken an active hand in the show’s development.
What we’re doing is not so much a traditional play as a multimedia conglomeration of sorts. There’s a lot coming at the audience, with the live band, the actors and the visuals — I’ve never seen anything like it.
About a quarter of it is video, interactive interviews and background elements, shot by Mike with Frank Cristofano and Anthony Alfonso — who’s done things likePunch-Drunk Love; Law & Order SVU. Mike and Nancy have been great from the start; co-producing it for me. They were there with me — along with Gary Wien, who has a small part in the production — conducting the auditions, helping to cast the show. All I knew about auditions is what I saw on TV shows — I was afraid we’d wind up with nothing but American Idol wannabes.
We cast four actors — and we might possibly cast a fifth before the show is finalized — but for Eddie, we cast Craig Lawlor. He’s a musician, he plays drums with an Asbury group, he’s also appeared on As The World Turns — and he’s got a history in Broadway shows. He was the ten year old Tommy on Broadway.
For the ex-girlfriend Ginny, we cast Theresa Fowler, who’s got good experience, doing lots of Off Broadway. Carly DeLuca is the new girlfriend Sheila, and Eddie’s father is played by an actor named Patrick James, who just has this long and impressive list of credits.
And the band is the configuration of The Jon Caspi Band that you’ve played out with?
I’m on vocals and guitar; Doug Lane is also on guitar, with Ken Kraut on bass andJimmie Mizell — he’s also with Holiday Express, and recently played with Rob Thomas, Jason Mraz, Southside Johnny — on drums.
Sounds like it’s coming together smoothly, although I’ve talked to enough people in my time to know that’s seldom the case.
I almost didn’t do it at all — between my full time job and my books, I didn’t think that I could devote the kind of time the project needed. It was my wife who persuaded me by saying that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; some people spend their whole lives trying to get a play produced…she said, why not take them up on it?
Watching the project take shape now, have you gotten to thinking about a possible life for it beyond this weekend’s shows in Asbury?
When I see how good the show is, I think about life beyond the initial run. I can see how an exciting idea can just take over your life. I don’t know what’s coming up, but it’s been cool.