As the world is somehow reimagined this year, artists like Holly Gewandter already are a step ahead of the rest in more ways than one. Do you remember Cinderella: The Real True Story? It’s the story of when Cinderella found her Princess! (More on that later). “Un-block The Music” found Holly Gewandter when I came across the EP, You Can Ukulele With Me recorded by Sarah Stiles just released a couple of weeks ago. Sarah, fresh off her run in Broadway’s Tootsie, recorded these comforting songs written by Holly whose name might not ring a bell immediately, but her work certainly will, stemming from her early partnership with Ellen Gould.
“I worked with Ellen for a long time. We started with a folk group,” Holly said. However, what you might remember most about the Holly/Ellen partnership is the Emmy Award-winning Bubbe Meisis, Bubbe Stories. This is Ellen’s one-woman show that tells the stories of her immigrant grandmothers with songs written by Holly. It ran Off-Broadway and the made-for-television version which aired on PBS, won Ellen two Emmys for her work as writer and performer.
Holly garnered even more attention, stirring the traditional pot when she worked with Cheryl Moch to “reclaim fairytales.” This was before Disney’s The Little Mermaid, she said. Cheryl and Holly had the idea to change princess goals of waiting for a prince to make her happy. They rewrote Snow White, but it was WOW’s production of Cinderella: The Real True Story that put them in the news. WOW Café is a feminist theater space in New York City (http://www.wowcafe.org/.) It was one of the first stage productions to depict same-sex marriage. In this version, the Princess goes to the ball disguised as a boy. She and a cross-dressing Cinderella meet there, and the magic of love at first sight is so powerful that the princess doesn’t care when it’s later revealed that he’s a she. “Cinderella became an underground hit,” Holly said.
As the world is somehow re-imagined this year, artists like Holly Gewandter already are a step ahead of the rest in more ways than one. Do you remember Cinderella: The Real True Story? It’s the story of when Cinderella found her Princess! (More on that later). “Un-block The Music” found Holly Gewandter when I came across the EP, You Can Ukulele With Me recorded by Sarah Stiles just released a couple of weeks ago. Sarah, fresh off her run in Broadway’s Tootsie, recorded these comforting songs written by Holly whose name might not ring a bell immediately, but her work certainly will, stemming from her early partnership with Theater Star and Emmy-Award Winner Ellen Gould.
At the time, “I wanted Cinderella to be a musical, but my younger brother got sick, and it was an impossible time to do it in the timeframe. That’s when I first got interested in electronic music for theater. I decided I would do some underscoring using a synthesizer. There was interest from a theater group in London and it was presented at The Drill Hall (now called RADA), a pretty well-known Fringe Theater in London. It was a tabloid sensation. They were calling in ‘Sin-derella.’ Parliament, who funded the theater, wanted to stop the money!,” Holly laughed.
Years later, Holly rewrote the show and that was the beginning of its second life, and when she met Hand To God Tony Award nominee Sarah Stiles. “We did a reading at Joe’s Pub (in NYC), and we cast Sarah. We hit it off and became friends. I loved her talent, and knew she was a good match for what I do.” They then talked about doing a cabaret act and put together a show called Squirrel Art. Sarah once described the show as “a marathon of musical genres and caffeinated emotions wrapped up in 20 or so costume changes and big hair.”
The Holly/Sarah collaboration didn’t stop there. Holly said, “Sarah has a lovely, quirky, warm, genuine personality and I just had an image of her playing a ukulele. Sarah loved the idea, so I bought a 50-dollar ukulele and taught myself how to play. It was really easy for me, and I became charmed with it. The next thing I knew, I wrote a song on it and we ended up putting the song in the act. It went over really well, and I have been writing ukulele songs for the last few years.”
“Finally, Sarah said, ‘we should do an album of ukulele songs.’ In February, we said. Let’s just do it!’” They went into the studio and recorded music, then the whole pandemic happened. However, Broadway Records was interested. “We already had the tracks, but did the rest remotely. It became the perfect pandemic project. They are happy songs with a message. People have been responding positively because there is so much despair right now,” said Holly. Sadly, that is an understatement.
In the humble opinion of Un-Block The Music,” ukuleles bring me to the “islands in my mind,” relaxing on the beach. Think back to Jason Castro’s rendition of Hawaiian artist Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s (aka. Bruddah IZ) “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” on American Idol some years ago. They say…music soothes the savage beast. I concur. It even soothed Simon Cowell.
You won’t be sorry if you take a listen to and buy You Can Ukulele with me: https://www.broadwayrecords.com/shop/sarah-stiles-you-can-ukulele-with-me-mp3. Can’t wait to see what these two might do next!