Capturing Laura Nyro’s influence in ‘One Child Born’
NEW YORK — Inside a Brooklyn rehearsal studio, Kate Ferber is at a piano, belting out Laura Nyro's sexy, passion-filled "The Confession," from the trailblazing singer-songwriter's 1968 album "Eli and the Thirteenth Confession." The song is the opener for Ferber's solo cabaret show, "One Child Born: The Music of Laura Nyro," which arrives at American Repertory Theater's Oberon space in Cambridge for seven performances, Dec. 1-10.
As Ferber catches her breath, director Adrienne Campbell-Holt tells her this is the one moment in the show when she can really channel Nyro's head-swaying movement and fervent, full-bodied performance style. "It feels like that's the sacred ritual that we all want. We want to see Laura, the performer, right there in front of us," says Campbell-Holt.
After that initial glimpse, though, Ferber won't be playing Nyro as a character. Instead, she will speak from her own personal experience and bring to life 10 other characters from all walks of life who were inspired by Nyro's music. Fans of Nyro may be disappointed to learn that in "One Child Born," they won't be seeing more of the New York artist known for her intensely transportive live performances. "People want to see her again. We miss her. So I understand," Ferber says after rehearsal. "But I'm not in the business of doing a Laura Nyro impression. We don't think it would be good theater."
Rather than offer a biographical tale, a la the Carole King musical "Beautiful," Ferber and her co-writer Louis Greenstein decided that "One Child Born" would tap into Nyro's music through the adoring fans who worshipped the dark-haired, dark-eyed singer, who died in 1997 at 49.
"When I would play a Laura Nyro song in my own concerts, fans would approach me with such passion and tell me their Laura Nyro story — about the impact she had on them, the first time they heard her or saw her perform live," says Ferber, 30. "They just love her so much! And we found such drama in that. The real impact of a musician isn't the life they led. It's how they changed their fans' lives. So the basic premise [of the show] is that art can change your life."
The show weaves together 10 of Nyro's most famous folk-pop songs, including "Stoney End," "And When I Die," "Wedding Bell Blues," "Stoned Soul Picnic," "Save the Country," and "Eli's Comin,'" many of which became hits for other artists, including Barbra Streisand, the 5th Dimension, and Peter, Paul and Mary. In between the songs, Ferber brings to life an array of fictional characters — from a mother who takes her daughter to see a Nyro concert for her birthday to a woman who runs into Nyro in the East Village and spends the evening drinking wine at her apartment.
Ever since Ferber was a teenager growing up outside Philadelphia, people have been comparing her to Nyro. Her mother was a Nyro fan and played the records in their house. "Maybe we kind of look alike and have a similar vibe. I had long brown hair, and I played the piano and sang songs that I wrote myself," Ferber says.
Greenstein, a family friend who has known Ferber since she was a kid, credits "the richness of her voice, the level of her musicianship. She was able to really nail those Nyro songs at a very young age."
Ferber says her connection to Nyro feels intrinsic at this point. "I can't separate my coming-of-age as an artist and me being compared to Laura Nyro," she says. "When I play her songs, I feel like myself."
Because Nyro often shunned the spotlight to raise her son, she rarely got the same recognition as some of her contemporaries. But along with Joni Mitchell, Nyro pioneered the idea of the introspective female singer-songwriter sitting at a piano and performing emotion-drenched, confessional songs about love, womanhood, sexuality, and spirituality. "She put so much of herself into the songs," says Campbell-Holt. "She loved performing. But she was not attracted to fame. She didn't want to change who she was to satisfy the whims of pop culture."
Nyro's poetic songs encompassed everything from folk, jazz, and classical to soul, gospel, and R&B sounds. And she inspired many musicians, from Carole King and Rickie Lee Jones to Kate Bush, Lucinda Williams, Cyndi Lauper, and Sara Bareilles.
"I continue to be shocked when people don't know about Laura Nyro. She was such a big influence on so many people and continues to be," says Campbell-Holt, a Dorchester native who directed the world premiere of Ruby Rae Spiegel's "Dry Land" last year for her New York theater company, Colt Coeur.
For Ferber, Nyro's music was a revelation. "Often in pop music, there's a specific limited vocal range that most singers have, and she just smashes that glass ceiling. She was wailing these very unreasonable notes!" Ferber says. "I also love how genre-defying her music was. There was nothing else like it."
Ferber and Greenstein have been working on "One Child Born" for 11 years now. Campbell-Holt came aboard the project in 2009. Ferber has performed the show in one-off performances at venues ranging from Joe's Pub at the Public Theater in Manhattan to World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. The Oberon engagement will be the show's first extended run.
Having spent more than 10 years slipping into Laura Nyro's songs, Ferber says, "I feel like I've grown into an understanding of her." She can also relate to the stage fright and nerves with which Nyro grappled.
"The pressure to play Laura Nyro songs for people who love Laura Nyro is high," Ferber says. "But I just need to remember that I'm going out there to celebrate this music with everyone else who has been deeply influenced by her, instead of worrying about the pressure that could come from trying to live up to my idol."
One Child Born: The Music of Laura Nyro
Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Oberon, Cambridge, Dec. 1-10. Tickets: from $25. 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org