Jonatha Brooke, the soulful American singer-songwriter known for her folky pop performances first in the duo The Story, and later as a solo artist, is in a new stage of her career. Literally. She’s starring in a theatrical labor of love, My Mother Has 4 Noses, an expressionistic one-woman musical memoir for which she wrote book, music and lyrics, charting her time caring for her declining mother.
Brooke has not abandoned concerts or the recording studio. Indeed, the new musical play — now playing to May 4 at Off-Broadway’s The Duke on 42nd Street — is a kind of expansion of what she’s been doing for years in concert: singing moody autobiography-tinged songs about life, love, loss and coping, while sharing on-stage anecdotes about her idiosyncratic, inspirational mother. But now Brooke’s reflections about her quirky Christian Scientist mom, a poet and columnist born Nancy Lee Stone, are more than merely introductory patter between concert songs. Mom is a major character in a play with music.
The two-act, 10-song My Mother Has 4 Noses focuses in naked detail on the final two years of mom’s life. Nancy, who wrote poems under the pen name Darren Stone, struggled for many years with various health issues, including cancer that devoured her face and necessitated the prosthetic noses of the show’s title. She died in 2012 after a battle with an arguably crueler enemy — dementia.
My Mother Has 4 Noses, Brooke explains, focuses on the years of serious decline, but the wider canvas of the show addresses “the culmination and distillation of both of our larger experiences” together.
In director Jeremy B. Cohen’s spare staging, you almost expect Mama Stone to enter from stage left. “Props” suggesting mom’s world punctuate the set: a chair, tablecloth, purse, hat, stuffed animals, scattered poems, a bottle of Chanel No. 5. “All of it is real,” Brooke says. “They are mom’s things.”
Brooke is working with writers on other musicals (more on that below), and she’s aware that the process of writing for the stage (and getting produced) can be slow. But in the case of the lean solo musical 4 Noses, she says, “We just did it ourselves. I could not wait 10…12 years to tell this story. Its timing is important to me. It felt imperative to be telling it now. So we went for it! We are the quintessential mom-and-pop operation!”
My Mother Has 4 Noses is part indie musical, part monologue, part concert and part inspirational group therapy for those of us who continue to process the complicated relationships we have with our parents, whether they are here or gone.
Brooke, who lives in Manhattan with her producer/artist manager husband Patrick Rains, answered a slew of my questions about her mom, her family and the creation of her unique musical play.
Learn more about Jonatha Brooke’s music — including the albums “The Grace in Gravity,” “The Angel in the House,” “The Works,” “Back in the Circus,” “Plumb,” “Ten Cent Wings,” and the “4 Noses” score, among others — at jonathabrooke.com.
Off-Broadway previews began Feb. 14 prior to a Feb. 20 opening at The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W. 42nd Street (between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). For tickets ($55-$75), call (646) 223-3010, or find them online. Learn more about My Mother Has 4 Noses at 4noses.org.
Because 4 Noses is billed as a musical, I’m one of those theatre nerds who came in expecting character-specific numbers, and traditional “I want” and “event” songs, but even though there is specificity in your score (the opening number, for starters) the songs are often expressionistic, elliptical, hypnotic, rueful. The songs express a mood, a moment and a feeling so beautifully.
Jonatha Brooke: It’s so funny you should mention the “I want” and “event” song tradition. I had never even heard of those terms before last summer. So I kept myself a little ignorant on purpose — at least for 4 Noses. For me, the songs are a way into what I’m experiencing as I tell this story. But they are purposely elliptical; I’ve always been drawn to that kind of writing, and I’ve always erred on the side of overestimating the listener. I don’t want to tell you everything. I want you to find yourself, or whatever you choose in the song, in the poetry.
I love the show’s ambition in that it’s a rumination on not just one thing, but many things — family, loyalty, spirituality, wellness, legacy, artistic expression, memory, responsibility, poetry, grief, performance and more.
Jonatha Brooke: I love that you said this. I was hoping that it would be all these things.
In the show, you quote your mom saying, “We should make a play out of it” — meaning adventures in your relationship. Did she say this late in her life, or was it the kind of thing she would say even when you were much younger?
Jonatha Brooke: This was classic mom! She prided herself on her silliness, and even when I was little, brought me into her pact. She always wanted to “make a play out of it!!” Of course my brothers and I were mortified most of the time. It wasn’t until later years, as I truly joined her magical world, that I fell in love with that irrepressible instinct.
Is it accurate to say the play has its roots in your journal/blog, the archive of which appears on your official website. Were you a diary-keeper from childhood? Was journaling a key to organizing the material into what would be 4 Noses?
Jonatha Brooke: Yes! My journal has always been part of my survival instinct. I still have two exhaustive journals from the summer I was 15, toiling away in the scholarship program at the Joffrey Ballet. (Maudlin and heartbreaking — “I hate my thighs! I MUST lose ten pounds by FRIDAY!”)
I’ve always written things down. But especially once I moved mom in, I needed an outlet. The journals were a sweet release. And it turns out they meant a great deal to others who were in my situation, too.
I did not know where the writing would lead, but even in the first months with mom, there was such treasure in our exchanges, I felt such a well of mother instinct in myself, that I knew whatever happened creatively would be more than my next record, that I needed to push into new territory.
What is the genesis of 4 Noses? When did it occur to you that maybe there was a play in this?
Jonatha Brooke: Even in the crisis of figuring out what to do when mom was still in the “Independent Living” facility in Boston, there was great theatre! Although she was much further into the dementia than any of us had expected, she was brilliant, and funny, her word play could knock you silly.
Did someone say, “I think there’s a play in your journal entries?”
Jonatha Brooke: I had been talking to Tracy Brigden at City Theatre in Pittsburgh a few years earlier. She was a fan of my music, and the storytelling that had become my signature in between songs in concert. We’d been throwing ideas around about my collaborating on something with a playwright. We both got busy, and never followed through.
When I started writing about mom, and the songs and the stories were accumulating, I called Tracy. “I’m not sure what this is yet,” I told her, “but I think it will be some kind of theatre piece.” She was so trusting! After I’d told her a few stories, sent her a couple of songs, she put me in her “Momentum” Festival of new plays for June of 2012. There’s nothing like a deadline to get that adrenaline flowing!
Mom died Jan. 31, 2012. I started sending Tracy stories, honing in on the arc, whittling it down in April. My very first reading was June 1, 2012.
As a songwriter over the years, you’ve drawn from your own life. How was 4 Noses different, creatively? Was it more painful than writing about a lover, for example, or are you so used to drawing on emotion and personal experience that it’s all part of the same deep well?
Jonatha Brooke: I am definitely used to drawing on emotion. But I also love to fabricate for a good song. So my songs are personal, and yet, I can step out of them and watch the story unfold too.
4 Noses is definitely not fabricated! This is the deepest well I’ve drawn from. Our relationships with our parents never really end. They are the ones we may always be working on, whether our folks have passed on or not. So in some ways, I feel this story I am telling will keep evolving. The language of the play won’t change. But there are nights when I am more tuned into the anger and confusion I’ve had about so many things, and nights when I am deeply, deeply overcome by love and empathy for my mother. Most nights, it’s a sticky combination of it all. If I’ve gotten it right, the audience will feel all of that. Everyone relates to this complicated mess!
I would think the last leg of your mother’s journey would be the hardest thing in the world to write about — but maybe celebrating your mom gave you joy? Is all creativity a kind of exorcism? A search?
Jonatha Brooke: Yes. Yes. And Yes. There is this awe-inspiring beauty to the “last leg.” The hospice nurse kept telling me, “Dying is really hard work. Make sure you let her know it’s O.K.” We did. I insisted. There was such joy in the room as we prepared for her passing. It was an unbelievably gorgeous, sunny day. We sang, kept quietly busy, so mom would have her own space but also know that we were there. We’d touch her, talk to her, then let her be. And I do think she was ready. She was generous and loving even then. I think she wanted me to be free to carry on.
Were there tears on your keyboard?
Jonatha Brooke: Every day. And now, as well! I would write and write. Have a good cry…take a break, try again. Then I would talk into my little Photo Booth video — try to capture how I would tell a story live in a room, see how that might sound better/different from how I would write it. Half the time in my early attempts I’d end up just weeping. But I kept going, there was good stuff even in the soggy bits.
In one of the most moving scenes in the show, your mother’s legacy blossoms when you “complete” one of her short poems, written around 1950, turning it into a song — “Mom’s Song.” Her starter verse reads: “I’d like to learn a lot about a little bit of you/I’d like to learn what’s hidden there behind those eyes of blue/You look at me and make me smile, and I’m not sure just why/I want to learn about those eyes that make me want to cry.”
Can you share a little bit about that process? Was it an “easy” write for you?
Jonatha Brooke: I wanted it to be old fashioned. Folky. Because her poem was so simple and poignant, yet quintessential to her “silly” voice. “Mom’s Song” was thankfully one of the more effortless ones. I kept the chord progression very minimal, and it just flowed. I still love the idea that we finally collaborated on a song.
In fact, there is another song on the record — “Scars” — that she had a hand in.
She had written a poem called “Words on Writing.” In the poem she is telling a younger poet to be patient with the process. She talks about coaxing the poem like a wild animal, leaving crumbs… and then: “Start again, more than you ever dreamed you could.” That became the center of my chorus. Mom would be so happy about that.
I never had a chance to play her that one.
“Responsibility” is a potent idea in the show. Did you feel extra responsibility when writing “Mom’s Song” — an special need to get her voice right?
Jonatha Brooke: Collaborating is sometimes easier. Strange. But I felt at ease about that one. That happened with the Woody Guthrie lyrics as well on my last record [“The Works,” for which Brooke set Guthrie’s text to her music.]
What would mom think of “Mom’s Song”?
Jonatha Brooke: I think mom would love that song. Although she always complained that I don’t enunciate. But she could read along to be sure she got all the words!
I got the strong sense that at the top of “Mom’s Song” we were hearing her voice as a young woman in love, and by the end we were clearly hearing your love song for your mother. Was that you goal? Or do you “hear” the song differently?
Jonatha Brooke: I’ve always loved that mystery in songs. You can be singing from two perspectives at once if you leave enough unsaid. So yes. The song really does evolve from her verse, very much in her voice, to the second and third that I wrote, where it really could be either of us speaking/singing — “Now I know a lot about a little bit of you.” The photos that accompany the song really help convey that duality. You are seeing mom young, silly, vibrant, in love. But you are seeing the same in me hopefully as I am singing “there’s no one else for me but you.”
When we catalog the juicy experiences of our lives, it can be maddening sifting through all the events. Did you feel overwhelmed with stories and with the task of choosing which ones to cut and which ones to keep?
Jonatha Brooke: Argh! Yes! There were so many good stories. Funny stories. It was agonizing culling and cutting and trimming. It’s like making booze, you just have to keep distilling ‘til you get to the 100 proof. Thank God I had Pat, my husband and greatest collaborator. Pat will always tell the truth. He was indispensable in discerning what was essential, what was working, and what, painful as it might have been, needed to go.
Was it a challenge choosing which moment to musicalize?
Jonatha Brooke: The songs made their moments very clear almost from the beginning. The only exception was [the opening number] “Are You Getting This Down?”
This, strangely, was the last song I wrote for the show, and it finally made the beginning flow as it should.
The harder part was finding the right moments for underscore. We tried many, many combinations of things. And I really believe we hit on the right balance. When I would write a theme and try it under important exposition, it just drove me crazy and felt distracting, like I was competing with the band for attention. Those were things we worked on like crazy. The underscore helps so much with the rollercoaster of funny and poignant, but I think we did a good job with silence, too!
Did you dip into any past “trunk songs” to feed to show? Are all of the songs original to the show?
Jonatha Brooke: “Sleight of Hand” was the only one I wrote before the 4 Noses story started. But it definitely was in the canon of “Mom” songs! It never had a home until the play. Funny it seems almost tailor-made, now that it’s finally at large.
Can you share a thought about the genesis of the breathtaking song “Time,” during which you accompany yourself on a kalimba? There is such beautiful dread to it, like you are staring down the shadow of death.
Jonatha Brooke: The kalimba song was a gift. One of those formed and finished packages that descend. I literally was at the kitchen table at a songwriting retreat, mom had just been accepted into the hospice program in New York. I was beside myself, ragged and raw with so many emotions. The song came out, lakes of tears too, but even there — midnight, Malibu — I saw what the song would be. I saw the lighting, the moment of complete isolation, dread, the prayer it would become in the play.
I’ve always loved the kalimba. In fact I used it on “The Angel in the House” — my second Story record! It was kind of nice to return to it as a timbre for this story.
What did director Jeremy B. Cohen bring to the table? Did he play “editor”? What were your conversations focused on, whether content-wise or staging-wise?
Jonatha Brooke: Jeremy has been an incredible champion and tender director to me. He did help with minor edits. Trimming a little fat! But our conversations really focused on bringing the language most effectively to life. More specifically really getting at the conflict inherent in the piece. I really didn’t want to over-tell in the text. I’m that way as a songwriter, so for this piece at least, I was really adamant about that, too. It’s all there — in the songs, in the telling. Jeremy was huge in helping me amplify those moments in the acting.
How did you and Jeremy first connect?
Jonatha Brooke: He invited us to come to The Playwrights’ Center [in Minneapolis, where he is producing artistic director] last August. He wanted to give us space and time to really hone in on what would become the definitive version of 4 Noses. He offered to be our director while we were there, and we fell in love with him! We finally had a week to work on it — and four consecutive shows for the first time. It was a great luxury, and invaluable to me to feel that momentum. We packed our four shows at PWC. The energy and support were a huge catalyst.
You got a lot of opportunities to grow the show in regional theatres. What was the major change to the show from its earlier form to now?
Jonatha Brooke: I think the major change is in me. I have gotten more and more comfortable in telling this story. It’s in my bones now. I think early on, I coasted a little when I got to the songs — my comfort zone. Now I feel more fluid in that the songs are truly a continuation of the storytelling, they must flow from the moment before, and into the moment after.
Most importantly, the regional shows convinced us we had something special. Even from that first reading in Pittsburgh, each and every audience has responded more powerfully than we ever imagined possible.
When I attended the show, the audience was a mix of curious theatregoers and Jonatha Brooke fans. Who else do you encounter after the show? People from the wellness and mental health community? Christian Scientists? Former Christian Scientists?
Jonatha Brooke: It’s a crazy mix of people in the audience — a lot more theatre people than I expected. I never knew I had so many fans in that world! Bill Irwin came the other night and I almost fell down the stairs! A few former Christian Scientists have come. They all recognize so much of my story….caregivers, daughters and sons who are in the trenches. Many have come in cold after reading the reviews!
What is the most memorable or surprising or enriching response you’ve received from an audience member?
Jonatha Brooke: The embraces and thanks from people in the middle of their own dementia diaries! Bill Irwin’s wholehearted hug. Edie Falco’s tears.
You call your mom “a serial character looking for a play.” Was going to theatre a part of her life? Did you go to the theatre together?
Jonatha Brooke: The year after she and my dad divorced (they remarried each other just four years later) my mom moved to a tiny town outside of London — Saffron Walden. (She often hoped a geographical shake-up would solve her lifelong search for place/identity.) I visited her there. It was a stretch [of time] when we were very close, a little too close perhaps — I was her best friend and confidante. We took the train in to London to see La Boheme. We were both so overcome with emotion that we couldn’t quite tell which kind of tears we were shedding. We sat there in silence for quite a while. We definitely shared that love for the exquisite pain which only music inspires.
You paint a picture of your mother as a woman who vigorously embraced creative expression — dressing up as a clown, writing poetry, quoting movies. Are you a direct result of that? That is, if your mother had been a more mundane person, do you think you would have become the artist that you are?
Jonatha Brooke: I am absolutely my mother’s daughter. And I’m finally thrilled to say it! She was always tickled with my various achievements. Somehow she never badgered me about the crazy reality of making a living! Mom, for all her troubles, was an incredible mom.
Are your siblings — your two brothers — in the arts?
Jonatha Brooke: One brother is a teacher, and incredible writer/essayist. The other is a teacher and incredible actor. We all ended up artsy fartsy!
Does your mother’s unchecked illness over the years (and your ultimate rejection of Christian Science) make you more vigilant and/or neurotic about your own health? I’m guessing Pilates and yoga are part of your life — you move like a dancer. Is Advil your friend?
Jonatha Brooke: I love Advil! I was not kidding in the play when I said, “Advil is a miracle!” I was a modern dancer until I was about 30. That’s when I got a record deal and basically went on the road, and finally tried pain relief. My entire life I’d been told, “Everybody knows those things really have no effect. It’s your belief in them, a placebo.”
Oh my goodness, if I’d only known sooner. It is not a placebo. That stuff works! Now? I am vigilant about my health. I’m happy to go to the doctor if I need to. In fact, I kind of love doctors. Maybe it’s all that attention I missed early on!
I had a full hip replacement a little over a year ago, [after] 24 years of ballet. And antibiotics have gotten me through many a tough stretch. Neurotic, a little! I go to yoga. Eat very healthily. Mom used to call me a hedonist. Maybe. But I’m fine with that. I will not suffer needlessly.
Can you share a little about your other musical theatre projects mentioned in your bio: Quadroon, Hopper and Death and Venice? Share a little about the genesis of any of these and the progress?
Jonatha Brooke: I’ve been working with Joe Sample on a musical called Quadroon. We’ve written nine gorgeous songs, and are looking for time to focus on it again. It’s based on a true story about Henriette Delille, the first African American nun up for canonization at the Vatican. The story is set in New Orleans in 1836.
The other two are with playwright Anton Dudley. I met him in Pittsburgh at my very first reading of 4 Noses. We vowed we would work together. Hopper is a modern-day take on The Frog Prince. It’s very fun, poppy, funny. Death and Venice is a more brooding story about three women who end up in Venice, very much tracking Thomas Mann’s footsteps in “Death in Venice,” each finding their own way to deliverance and peace.
What musicals have inspired you over the years?
Jonatha Brooke: The Sound of Music will forever be my soundtrack. Godspell and West Side Story. It just doesn’t get any better than that music.
What’s coming up for you after the NYC run of My Mother Has 4 Noses?
Jonatha Brooke: I was joking after last week’s Saturday matinee talkback — Saturdays in March are followed by sessions with experts from the world of dementia/caregiving — that I would probably make a disco album next… really shake things up. Maybe get Nile Rodgers and Daft Punk to collaborate on something! I could call it “Plan B”!