Music often meets us right where we are in life. No matter your faith background, you have to admit that the gods that be have a hand in everything we do.
Recently, I attended Oklahoma! on Broadway. The show’s Aunt Eller, Mary Testa, took me aback. Her voice struck a chord in me that I cannot shake. My initial thought on hearing her Tony-nominated performance was, “I hope she has an album.”
And to my excitement, she does, in collaboration with Michael Starobin. I’m telling you, the Gods know what they are doing.
Michael Starobin, a Tony-winning orchestrator, provides all the arrangements for Have Faith. He seamlessly gives each song an utterly new facade while preserving its original integrity.
What truly makes this album genius is Testa’s interpretation of each song and Starobin’s combination of classical orchestral techniques mixed with technology. Although Testa did not write these songs herself, she acts as the songwriter as her voice completely rewrites each composition. Mixed with Starobin’s exquisite arrangements makes for a record that is just as relevant in 2019 as it did five years ago when it was recorded.
Have Faith is a masterpiece that cannot be placed into words; it demands to be sung. Many styles of music are touched as Testa lends her voice to Aerosmith’s “Pink,” Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows In April,” and a Bjork/ Rodgers and Hammerstein mash up. Through these pieces, Testa and Starobin tackle dozens of subjects from cultural contradictions, to love and spirituality. This album doesn’t just dare to go there; it’s already come and gone.
I had the extreme pleasure to speak with both Testa and Starobin about Have Faith, its striking innovation, and how their ideas collided to create a musical monument.
- 1. Have Faith is a cohesive album that addresses a distinct set of themes. How did this album come about?
Mr. Starobin: The thing to remember is that Have Faith was not conceived as a recording first. It was conceived as a live show. Mary and I had done a show together soon after we first met in the early eighties. Around 2000, we said, “Let’s do something again.” We slowly started pulling a piece together, and it was about a woman getting through the night, questioning her faith. We did it as a staged performance with costumes and props.
Michael John’s “What If” at the beginning of Have Faith is about all the things that she’s afraid of. That was written for that show, and it captures the fear and fright of the woman before she goes through this journey. In a way, this is a cast album.
Mary Testa: This album came about over a long period of time. We were always trying to musicalize a completely sung-through story, using different songs to create a narrative. We had done another show called Sleepless Variations at Barrington Stage at least ten years ago. Some of the songs on this album are from that show.
Michael wanted to do it all electronically. The stage version was just his computer, piano, and cello. We purposely tried to put together something that resonated and was different. Sleepless Variations was about the way your mind works when you can’t sleep. Some of these songs made it onto Have Faith, and it became a whole new narrative.
We love to smash into something. You know, be really funny and then smash into something serious. We’ve always done that. Like going from “Pink” to “Sometimes It Snows In April.” You are having a great day, and then somebody will fucking die.
- This album was recorded nearly five years ago, yet it’s incredibly relevant today. How does this album speak to the state of the world now?
Ms. Testa: The title is very apt. It’s about finding out who you are, and against all the odds, know that life will throw stuff at you when you least expect it. It ‘s about having faith in yourself to make it through to the end and be grateful. Those are themes that will always resonate, because that’s the human condition, in a way. I think now is a very trying time. It was trying five years ago, but more so now. We had a beautiful president at that time.
The state of the world today is even more dire. Knowledge comes from within. It’s like a microcosm of a macrocosm.
If you don’t believe in yourself and have a spirituality about trying to lift the consciousness of the world, then you’re lost. You have to begin with yourself. I think that’s why it will always resonate, or at least I hope that’s why it will always resonate.
- From a composition standpoint, what is the common thread through each of these pieces? How did you place these songs, which are worlds apart, together?
Mr. Starobin: We were harking back to when music was albums. You sat and listened to all of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club because it was a journey. A lot of people made albums like that, and that’s been very much abandoned nowadays. We were looking to do something in the old-fashioned way of an album being a single conceptual endeavor.
The use of electronics and sequencing was done because this was originally a live performance. Numbers like “Change” and “Heroes” had to be rhythm numbers, and that wasn’t going to work with me just sitting at the piano. I thought, “Let me sequence these and run them off of a QLab.” It provided this energetic rhythm section feel for a couple of numbers.
So you’re doing this big electronic groove thing that’s loud, and in the middle of it, the tuba will start playing. The idea was to make these sharp turns in orchestration sound.
We wanted to create transitions where we’re doing one song, and you suddenly find yourself in another song without an introduction, without being prepared. You think you’re still in the old song, and suddenly, a lyric comes at you, and you go, “Oh wait, I’m someplace else.”
That transition surprise is the kind of jump-cut editing they do in film. You’re suddenly standing there in the middle of the next scene, and a transition hasn’t been provided. Your brain is suddenly spinning. “Oh, oh, where am I? Oh, oh, okay. I’m here now.” It was an attempt to do that musically.
Mary Testa: Everything on this album is deliberate. The “Lost” and “Over The Rainbow” mash up speaks to me about where we are now. We need as a species to get back to that “Over The Rainbow” optimism. Because we are lost I think, spiritually and soul wise…these are deliberate mash ups, not just musically, but idea wise.
- This album touches spirituality in many ways. Can you speak to that?
Mary Testa: I grew up as a Catholic. I went to Catholic school. I saw great hypocrisy from a very early age with the Catholic religion. I am not a practicing Catholic in any way, shape, or form, but I’m an extremely spiritual person. I’ve seen evidence of spirituality all around me and within me.
I prefer to be a spiritual person because I want to believe there’s a greater power than just us. I try and lead a life that is connected to that higher power, so I have no problem making it evident in my work.
- What were the difficulties, but yet similarities, to combining both the classical orchestral approach while embracing the technology?
Mr. Starobin: It wasn’t a difficulty at all because it’ssomething I’ve spent my entire life doing in the theater, using the synthesizer as part of an orchestral sound…
In “Lost,” I play along with the piano, but there are other times where we just let the track play. It’s a lot of fun because it brings a much wider dynamic range to the evening. It’s not only fun to jump in when the electronics come in; it’s also fun when it comes down. When you perform transitions like “Pink” to “Sometimes It Snows In April,” where you go from a loud volume to soft, I try to quietly start playing the introduction to “Sometimes It Snows in April” underneath “Pink” while it’s still loud. So it’s like, “What is he doing? What’s going on there?” I don’t try to overcome it. I don’t wait until it’s clear. I try to do it underneath the loudness. It is revealed by the music fading. It is a lot of fun to use the dynamics of pre-recorded electronics and then switch to live accompaniment and make use of the difference in energy between the two.
- Ms. Testa, your voice is piercing and bold, but it’s also vulnerable and empathetic. “Hallelujah” will have you in tears, while in “Heroes” you sing boldly of cultural inconsistencies. When you are preparing songs like these, what is your creative process?
Ms. Testa: I am blessed with the ability to sing a wide range of songs…I go with what the music calls for. It’s a visceral reaction. Because I can do a wide range of things, like musical theater, I can also do rock, and I can do jazz. I can do a lot of different things. Musically I adapt. Then, as an actor, I take whatever I’m singing and apply what I think is the proper feeling behind it.
- I read where you moved to NYC to solely be an actress, and musical theater just happened. What is your musical training?
Ms. Testa: I trained vocally for six years when I first moved to NYC. I trained with an opera teacher. I also went to Mannes College when I first moved here but never completed anything because that’s just how I am. I pick things up very fast. I don’t really read music, but I pick up stuff fast…My training has been experience.
- Can we expect any new music in the future?
Ms. Testa: Michael and I are very busy. He’s an orchestrator and doing a million things at once. We don’t have any fresh ideas right now. I’m sure at some point in the future we’ll come together and do something. We enjoy working together and collaborating. We don’t have any burning ideas right now. I’m sort of void of ideas. I think I’m exhausted, so I don’t really have any (laughs).
I don’t plan things out; I go with what comes my way. Right now, I’m doing eight shows a week. I don’t know what’s next, but I’m sure something will be next. Something’s always next.
- Last question. Pick one song. Why did you choose it, and what is its story?
Mr. Starobin: If I had to pick one, I’d pick “Lost,” which was a song Mary picked out, just because I find it beautiful. It’s where we combine electronics and live playing. We use a little bit of a Bach cello suite to introduce the song, and then the cello plays a big role within the song.
Ms. Testa: I love “Heroes.” Although I love everything on the album, it’s all purposefully selected. I’m often asked, especially during Tony season, “Who are the people that mentored you? Who are the people that inspire you?”
I’m inspired by everybody. I’m inspired by great performances, but I don’t have any heroes. I find that if you have a hero, you’re bound to be disappointed in them. There are people that I’ve admired, and then I meet them, and they’re jerks. The song “Heroes” is great because the lyrics are very funny, but it’s also really smart and serious. All of these people that we revere were jerks. (laughs)
Bonus: Dang, I was hoping somebody would say, “Sometimes It Snows In April.”
Ms. Testa: I can talk about that one! I’m a huge Prince fan. I miss him dearly. I cannot believe he was taken off this Earth. “Sometimes it Snows in April” always made me cry. I think it’s a beautiful song. I love Michael’s arrangement. I think of a particular friend of mine whenever I sing it. I’d like to do a Prince album of all my favorite Prince songs. I’d like to do a Prince show. I’d also like to do a Frank Zappa show…
In the end, Testa and Starobin weave a vivid image of struggles and triumph with Have Faith, while having a conversation we need now. Through each composition, Testa creates a bold narrative that allows room for fault but requires one to keep looking forward. Starobin’s arrangements give this album an identity that holds the record together as a unit while opening your mind to ideas you may have never seen. Together they created an album that pushes boundaries, socially, musically, and spiritually.
Every listener is granted permission to interpret music, both in its composition and lyrical content. The artists are the facilitator in leading the conversation, but it takes a rather unique voice to lend advice at the same time. That’s where Have Faith will leave you. It listens like an old friend while giving you a pertinent message. The message can change with each listen, but it will always remain profound.
As a simple listener, I am forever grateful I heard this album. As a music connoisseur, this album leaves me speechless. I’ve taken away many messages from Have Faith, but I’d love to leave you with the one I find most important and universal to every human (And yes, Testa approves).
Life is hard and often ridiculous, but nobody makes it out alive. Be kind, fight injustice, and love one another.
Purchase Have Faith at Ghostlight Records.
Connect with Mary Testa:
Connect with Michael Starobin: