For her Broadway residency, Regina Spektor is revisiting her club-playing years, reviving the songs that never made it into a recording studio.
A couple of weeks ago, the singer-songwriter Regina Spektor was shown into a soundproofed rehearsal studio in midtown. “Let me know what you think of it, Regina,” the proprietor, a man in a black baseball cap, said. “Because you’re very fussy—and that’s a compliment.” Spektor, who wore a striped blouse, zip-up boots, and strawberry-colored lipstick, sat at a grand piano and played some resounding arpeggios. “This feels nice,” she announced. “Really nice.” The guy left her to the room. “I love pianos,” she explained, with an air of private wonder. “This is a Yamaha. Usually, people are, like, ‘The piano I pledge allegiance to is Steinway.’ They’re my peeps. And the way they sound is very, very special. But I’m not an élitist piano snob.”
Spektor is an élitist piano snob only where it counts. Since her breakout, in the downtown anti-folk scene of the early two-thousands, the Soviet-born singer has combined dazzling musicianship with an ethereal, offbeat presence—her accent brings to mind a Russian Betty Boop—and lyrics that go in unexpected directions. Her 2006 album, “Begin to Hope,” includes the breathy, upbeat single “Fidelity,” in which she uses her voice like a percussive instrument, and a ballad sung from the perspective of Delilah, about Samson. The theme song she wrote for “Orange Is the New Black” is headed into a seventh season of worming its way into viewers’ brains. Lately, she said, she has had “a very prestigious couple of months.” In May, she was inducted into the Bronx Walk of Fame, alongside the boxer Iran (The Blade) Barkley and the planetary scientist Carolyn Porco. As part of a Russian-heritage event at Gracie Mansion, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared June 11th, 2019, Regina Spektor Day. And, this Thursday, she makes her Broadway début, with a five-night residency at the Lunt-Fontanne.
The Broadway gig, she said, is a chance to mash up what she likes about playing solo with what she likes about playing with an orchestra, plus a few extra bells and whistles. She has been reluctant to use video effects in her concerts, but this time she’ll have an LED screen; she described one video as “little abstracted squares of light, and they’re kind of blurry, and then they come more into focus, and you realize it’s these buildings, and it’s windows in buildings, and it’s over a span of time, so it’s time-lapse, so they’re turning on and off, and it becomes this kind of blinking little almost dance.” There’s also a tap dancer, Caleb Teicher, whom Spektor met while performing at a National Symphony Orchestra event. When I told her that I found it hard to imagine tap with her songs, she squinted with delight and said, “Well, if you can’t imagine tap, then wait till you imagine Lindy hop.”
Spektor has dabbled with Broadway before, less successfully. In 2009, she was announced as the composer of “Beauty,” a musical version of “Sleeping Beauty.” But the project fizzled. Spektor hadn’t realized that writing a Broadway musical was a years-long process, and she made the “enthusiastic yet rookie error” of agreeing to write the music but not the lyrics, which were handled by Michael Korie. “For such a control freak, I’m very collaborative,” she said, but it frustrated her not to write the words to her own songs. Also, she said, while writing for Broadway she felt the pull of three “C” words: conservative, conventional, and commercial. “The things that I loved about the project initially were a lot of the crooked edges,” she lamented. “I love outsiderness. I love strangeness. It’s where I feel at home, and I think the world, for the most part, is very strange.”
Spektor was born to a Jewish family in Moscow, in 1980, and started taking piano lessons when she was seven. In 1989, during perestroika, the family immigrated to the Bronx. (Hence her spot on the Walk of Fame.) Her parents didn’t have money to pay for more lessons, but one day her father befriended a subway violinist with a Yiddish accent—he was a Holocaust survivor who went to their synagogue—and the man’s wife, the pianist Sonia Vargas, wound up giving Spektor free lessons for years. Spektor did not return to Russia until 2012, when she toured the country with her sixth album, “What We Saw from the Cheap Seats.” “It’s such an incredible place, and what Russia has sort of given to the world, art-cultural-wise, is awe-inspiring,” she said, then let out a long sigh. “At the same time, it’s such a history of suffering and oppression, the brightest kind of lights burning and then being purged and gulagged and oppressed and murdered and gotten rid of. I guess you can’t really separate it.”
After studying composition at Purchase College’s Conservatory of Music, she began playing in clubs in downtown Manhattan, including the SideWalk Café and the Knitting Factory, and in 2003 self-released the album “Soviet Kitsch.” For her Broadway concerts, she has been revisiting her club-playing years to revive songs that never made it into a recording studio. Since she always played from memory and didn’t write her songs down, she’s been relying on fans who have uploaded amateur recordings online. (Ushers at the Lunt-Fontanne may be aggravated to know that Spektor is pro-bootlegging: “I’m absolutely for it. It’s a great, great thing.”) One neglected song that she excavated, by fan request, is called “Loveology.” On her phone, she pulled up a recording that someone called slicknick1986 had posted on YouTube, from a concert on October 17, 2004, at the defunct Lower East Side venue Tonic.
At the studio, a trio of musicians—a cellist, a violist, and a violinist—arrived. They were there to rehearse “Loveology” for Broadway and for an appearance on “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” Revisiting her old songs, Spektor said, has been like rooting through old clothes, “where one old thing will fit perfectly and another old thing you’re, like, Ooh, I can never wear this again. But I’m happy it exists.” The instrumentalists tuned up, and Spektor sat at the Yamaha and played through the song’s lilting, cryptic first line: “Oh, an incurable humanist youuuuu are.” She stopped abruptly. “Shit. I have to get it back in the body.” She adjusted the air-conditioning, asked for less reverb on her mike, and tried again. The notes just weren’t coming out right. She listened to the YouTube video of herself, then announced, “I figured out what the problem was. I was playing the left-hand part with the right hand.”
The “Late Show” had given her a time limit of four minutes and thirty seconds, even though the original version is nearly six minutes long. “I think I’ve gotten it down to four minutes and forty seconds,” Spektor said. “But if they’re really serious about that, I have to work hard.” She asked her publicist, who was sitting nearby, to check with the producers about those extra ten seconds. “Maybe I can just do the whole performance thinking about the time and not make any art at all,” she said, growing frustrated. She lowered the piano lid so she could see the musicians, and they tried the song again. As the strings came in, she smiled.
“Very nice,” she said. “Delicious, crunchy chords.”