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Hip for the Holidays: Brendan Milburn '93's Alternative Musical "Striking 12" Hits the Big-Time in New York

In his hit musical  Striking 12, currently playing off-Broadway, Brendan Milburn ’93 is a cranky, burned-out New Yorker determined to spend New Year’s Eve home alone. His plans for a solitary evening are foiled when he meets a quirky door-to-door saleswoman (played by Milburn’s real-life spouse, Valerie Vigoda), who is hawking special light bulbs designed to ward off seasonal affective disorder.

The show itself seems to be having a similar mood-elevating effect on audiences and critics. Though Striking 12 features only three performers – Milburn, Vigoda and Gene Lewin – and the sparest of sets, the New York Times raved that “this modest show is more artfully crafted and engaging than virtually all the standard-mold musicals coming our way these days.” Drawing in part on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl, the musical also offers a “terrific” score and lyrics “alive with wit and humor,” writes reviewer Charles Isherwood.

With notices like that, Milburn rarely spends a night home alone these days. Milburn (vocals and keyboard), Vigoda (vocals and electric violin) and drummer Lewin form the rock-folk-jazz-pop trio GrooveLily. Along with their musical shows across the nation, they write and perform in their own unique form of musical theatre of which Striking 12 is typical. That show’s nightly run at New York’s Daryl Roth Theatre ends, fittingly, on Dec. 31.

In February, the trio will be arriving in Los Angeles to ramp up for another show they’ve been co-writing with Rachel Sheinkin, the Tony winner who they also teamed up with for Striking 12. Sleeping Beauty Wakes is a retelling of the fairy tale, set at a modern-day sleep disorder clinic. This joint production of Deaf West Theatre and the Center Theatre Group will feature deaf and hearing actors on stage, with GrooveLily as the live band providing voices to some of the parts played by deaf actors. “It's pretty wild and wonderful,’’ Milburn says of the show opening March 31.

Wild and wonderful is an apt description of Milburn’s career so far. He wrote his first musical as a high-school project, and he came to Pomona “with the vague idea of branching out academically--physics, philosophy, classics.’’ But then came an opportunity to play piano for Theatre Professor Betty Bernhard’s production of the Old West musical Gold Dust. “I never looked back,” he says. In fact, Milburn wound up writing the music and lyrics for the first show, It’s Just a Stage, performed in Pomona’s then-new Seaver Theatre. “There was something kind of magical about the ‘let’s put on a show despite all setbacks’ attitude among the cast and crew,” he says. “And I can honestly say that I’ve never had quite so much fun in the theatre before or since.”

He met Vigoda, a Princeton grad, while he was playing piano in bars to pay his way through grad school at New York University. Some friends came to see him one night and took him out afterward to see this woman with a violin play at a club. “I was hooked after the first song,” he says. “We started writing together a week later, and we haven’t stopped writing together since.”

He joined the Valerie Vigoda Band, which eventually slimmed down from seven to three members and became GrooveLily. Along the way, in 1998, Milburn and Vigoda wed.

The idea for Striking 12 developed in 2001. GrooveLily had always had trouble lining up gigs in the lean November-to-January season, and Vigoda took a job as the concertmistress for the Tran-Siberian Orchestra, a multi-platinum-selling rock opera/holiday concert tour. Milburn got to thinking his trio could do this, too – make a concert with a story they could tour at all the venues they’d already played.

Friends put them in touch with writer Sheinkin (who won to the 2005 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) and she liked the idea of doing a show for a rock band. She hit upon Vigoda's song "Little Light" from GrooveLily’s 2000 album of the same name, and it made her think of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl.

Then Director Ted Sperling saw a GrooveLily showcase, asked them if they had any musicals they were working on, and booked Striking 12 at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia before they had even started writing. “We wrote like mad, much of it while driving around the country,” says Milburn, noting that GrooveLily played 150 shows that year.

About the writing process: It was either Milburn or Vigoda in the front seat of the van, going back and forth over lyrics, with Sheinkin participating by speaker phone. Or it was Milburn with the Casio on his lap and Sheinkin and Vigoda gathered around in their tiny living room every Tuesday night. “We were under tremendous time pressure for the original production, and if we didn't have a new scene and song once a week, we knew we would be behind,” says Milburn. After the 2002 Philadelphia run, the band went on to perform Striking 12 at San Diego's Old Globe, TheatreWorks Palo Alto and Ars Nova, a small off-off Broadway venue in New York City. Each season, the GrooveLily trio has refined and added new touches to the production.

Milburn and Vigoda find working, writing and singing together is great fun – most of the time. But the inevitable career low points can be rough when both partners are fully immersed in the same work. Milburn says that both the band and their marriage were strained in 2001-2002 as they toured the U.S. and Canada in a used RV and were left “couch-hopping” after their vehicle broke down and they couldn’t afford to repair it. Today, though, the pair are a bit more settled, raising their 14-month-old son, and living in a Brooklyn townhouse when not on the road. One of the upsides of their unusual career is that they can revel together in the artistic high points. As Milburn puts it: “Waking up and opening the paper to find that the New York Times has given your show an unqualified rave is something so sweet and uncertain and delicious--I am so glad to share it.”

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