NEW YORK — Who doesn’t love a greatest hits album? They’re crowd-pleasers for casual and obsessive fans alike, they’re jam-packed with all your favorite songs, and they offer a perfect gateway for the uninitiated.
The American Repertory Theater may be aiming for such a collection with its cabaret-style musical, “ExtraOrdinary,” which begins performances Friday for a two-week run at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge. The show pays homage to songs and stories from the musicals, both classic and new, that have been produced at the ART in the 10 years since Diane Paulus became the theater’s artistic director and made the incubation of new musicals and music-driven theater central to her vision.
Still, Paulus cautions, “The show is not just a cabaret, and it’s not just a trip down memory lane. It’s pulling together seven performers who have a history with our theater to dig into the power of musicals. It’s really going behind the scenes to see what is powerful about a song, what is powerful about music and words and the way they interact.”
Songs from “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” “Pippin,” “Waitress,” “Jagged Little Pill,” “Natasha, Pierre, & The Great Comet of 1812,” “Prometheus Bound, “Witness Uganda,” and “Burn All Night” will be among the spotlighted selections. The “ExtraOrdinary” company features seven actors who have all appeared in ART shows over the past decade, including Terrence Mann (“Pippin”), Bryonha Marie Parham (“Porgy and Bess”), and Mj Rodriguez (“Burn All Night” and “Trans Scripts, Part 1: The Women”). Guest stars will dip in and out throughout the run to perform with the cast and sing some surprise songs. Patina Miller, who won a Tony Award in Paulus’s revival of “Pippin,” will join for the first weekend.
In a midtown Manhattan rehearsal hall, the “ExtraOrdinary” cast whirls around the room while belting out the lyrics to a song that riffs on the rousing and rambunctious opening number from Dave Malloy’s Tony-nominated “Great Comet,” seen at the ART in 2015 and on Broadway in 2016-17. Rather than introducing the characters from that show, this version deploys new lyrics to look back at the 33 musicals and music theater pieces that have been staged at the ART during Paulus’s tenure.
During a break in the action, Mann works with choreographer Abbey O’Brien to perfect the execution and timing of a comedic gag that happens during the number, while Paulus, music director Lance Horne, and writer Dick Scanlan talk through some revised lyrics with a few cast members. It’s a little glimpse at a new show coming to life, which has become a regular occurrence at the ART under Paulus. The ART’s message to artists with whom they collaborate? “Bring what you do, don’t assume you have to follow a formula, and help us push the art form to new places,” Paulus says.
Central to “ExtraOrdinary” are the personal narratives of the cast, which is rounded out by Kathryn Gallagher from “Jagged Little Pill,” Matthew James Thomas from “Pippin,” Melody Betts from “Witness Uganda,” and Brandon Michael Nase from “The Black Clown.” The songs are woven together musically by Horne, while a script has been crafted by Scanlan based on interviews and conversations with the cast.
“It’s going to give audiences an opportunity to get to know who the performers are personally,” says Paulus, who is directing. “The cast members are bringing their personal histories to the show. That means their history at ART, the shows they did, and what it feels like to be singing these songs today.”
Rodriguez, who’s gone on to stardom as a transgender den mother to a group of outcasts on the FX television series “Pose,” says she and the cast will be sharing “personal stories and struggles that we’ve gone through and that are specific to our experiences as different types of human beings, and then tying together those personal narratives with the music. So for me as a woman of color and a woman of the trans experience, I’ll be tackling those topics as I’ve experienced them.”
Audiences can expect a lineup of tunes ranging from “Summertime” (from “Porgy and Bess”) and “Corner of the Sky” (from “Pippin”) to “You Learn” (from “Jagged Little Pill”) and “Falling Slowly” (from “Once,” which had a workshop production at the ART’s Oberon stage in 2011). The show will also feature a medley, dubbed “The Love Suite,” that will mash up songs of longing and love culled from the various shows.
Paulus and company are particularly thrilled about revisiting “Prometheus Bound,” a punk-flavored musical by Serj Tankian of the rock band System of a Down and the playwright Steven Sater (“Spring Awakening”), that premiered at Oberon in 2011 using an immersive staging that placed the audience inside a mosh-pit-style club environment. So “ExtraOrdinary” will feature a suite of songs from that show. As a prisoner of conscience who’s punished for defying Zeus, the title character feels particularly resonant, Paulus says. “He’s willing to stand up against tyranny and fight against all odds with severe costs and really captures the spirit of resistance. As meaningful as that was back then, it’s more meaningful right now.”
The front section of the Loeb will be filled with cafe tables and chairs, and performers may move into the audience during some musical numbers. The five-piece band, led by Horne, will be positioned onstage. “This is a show that breaks the fourth wall,” Paulus explains. “So there’s an opportunity for the show to live and breathe in a real communal space around these songs. The setup of the theater will invite that kind of immersive feeling where the actors are really connecting with the audience.”
Ten years ago, Paulus was thinking deeply about how you can make theater relevant in such a fast-changing world rife with many distractions and dwindling attention spans. “Now I’m like, how can you not make theater relevant? I mean, what are we doing if not talking about the world we’re living in right now and holding that mirror up to society? The theater is an immediate art form. It’s live. It’s visceral.”
As for “ExtraOrdinary,” Horne acknowledges, “It started as a cabaret and then it turned into a garden, something that is a collective expression and experience. I said to Terrence Mann in the elevator yesterday, ‘Well, we set out to sing a few songs from great shows that we’ve all done over the years, and it’s turned into this gathering of minds.’ Leave it to Diane Paulus to get great artists into a room, and of course that’s going to happen.”
Presented by the American Repertory Theater. At Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, Nov. 16-30. Tickets from $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.