Nominated for Outstanding Sketch/Improv Performance for their 2016 run at the Toronto Fringe Festival, Songbuster is an improv troupe who creates a live original musical at every performance based on a suggestion from the audience.
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Can you all introduce yourselves and tell us how you go into improv?
SM: I’m Stephanie Malek, I’m one of the producers and performers of Songbuster. I got into improv because I found a $99 Groupon and I decided to take a level A class at Second City and I just really loved laughing once a week for three hours, so I was hooked.
JM: I’m Josh Murray, I am one of the producers of Songbuster as well, as well as a performer. I got into improv because my job made me take my vacation days and I could not afford a real vacation so I took an intensive improv class and fell in love with it and was just like ‘this is for me’.
NN: I’m Nicky Nasrallah, I’m a newer member of Songbuster. I got into improv through musical theatre. I used to do musical theatre and I was touring with some children’s theatre and there was a couple of girls that I was touring with and they were both telling me how funny I was and that I should start taking improv classes, so I started taking classes at Second City.
AH: I’m Alex Hurley and I’m a member of Songbuster. I went to school for acting and one of the things we had to do while we were in school was improv and I liked it a lot and I liked it more than anybody else in the entire program so as soon as I finished I went and started taking classes.
How did Songbuster first come together? Had any of you worked together before?
SM: Josh and I were at an audition for a musical improv show and we started talking about how much we loved musical improv and decided that no matter what happened we wanted to keep doing it. So we started spit-balling of who would we love to have in the troupe and Alex and I had been in a musical conservatory program at Second City and gone through a year of that together and at the end of it had this great friendship that came out of it and I just loved working with her so that’s how I managed to hook her in and steal her.
How did you find the rest of your members?
JM: Well the improv community is really small and we would just see shows quite a bit and we would be like, “Hey I like your style. I’ve seen you sing a song.” We would just basically pick the people that we felt were the coolest and the most talented and the best looking and the people that would say yes.
Is the group constantly evolving and adding members regularly?
SM: Not really, we had an original core cast and then schedules obviously changed for people so we ended up bringing in two new people. The two newer members are Tricia Black and Nicky Nasrallah. As soon as we had an opening, Josh and I sat down and were like ‘who are we missing; who do we need to have?’ and Nicky popped into mind and we were like ‘yes absolutely yes, him for sure’ and same with Tricia. We love watching them perform and were sold.
How did you come up with the name Songbuster?
SM: We had a different name.
JM: Originally we had a different name that we found out was used by a different troupe.
SM: In London, who had a show on the West End.
JM: Yeah, so we basically needed to stop that, and then I think we just went to brainstorm town and listed off a million things and this is the one that kind of stuck.
SM: Yeah, that brainstorm was very – very funny names came out of that. But Songbuster lent to us being able to use the cool Blockbuster-style logo because that’s one of the first things that comes to mind when thinking about Songbuster. We’ve since changed our branding but it was very fun.
Walk us through the process of creating a Songbuster show on the night. Where do you start?
AH: Well we start with a suggestion from the audience. That’s evolved too but basically now it just comes down to asking someone in the audience for a location where a bunch of people would gather because there’s always a bunch of us around.
NN: And then there’s a set structure for our opening number. It is completely improvised but we decide someone is going to sing the chorus then someone’s going to sing the first verse, second verse- that’s all laid out as a structure. Then from there we try and start with a bunch of two-person scenes, then everything starts to blend together into an organic story.
AH: Yeah, we basically know we’re going to have an opener and we’re going to have a closer eventually- like, this is going to have to happen- then everything between those two things is just up in the air. I think we do try to bring in things we know about musicals and things we know about stories and movies and everything like that, but ultimately it just comes down to what are people feeling in that moment or what are people thinking about in their brains or what are they inspired by and then we just do it.
NN: And our musical director Tom King is so good at coming up with a variety of styles and varying it up from song to song and leading into a song. He’ll be able to pick out something that we say and he’ll think that’s something that will lead us into a good song and he’ll start playing and then we’ll follow through.
AH: Definitely, he’s equal as the people on stage, he is as much of an improviser. He’s giving offers and he’s taking offers and he’s suggesting things to us through music, which is so helpful because sometimes you’re on stage and you’re sitting there and then he plays something and it just sparks something in your mind and you just go with it.
Do you guys ever decide ahead of time that you want that night’s musical to be part of a specific genre?
JM: Well typically what we’ll do is we’ll grab an adjective and [ask the audience] ‘what’s a scary place?’ or ‘what’s a place that inspires love?’ and usually that will be a love story. We play with genres a bit but usually it’s the story and the characters that really define what it is and we’ll have little snippets of a certain genre in an overall story.
NN: I think more so we’ll try to explore multiple genres, musically at least. You can do a patter song then find a love ballad. Most recently we did a Little Shop of Horrors-type of song where there was a gazebo who was killing people and it was kind of like the “Feed Me” situation from Little Shop of Horrors.
JM: That was good.
NN: Yeah, that was a good one.
How much musical training do you have? How does theory play a part in musical improv?
SM: I think Tom would wish there were more theory being used on the songs because he’s a fully classically trained musician. I think most of us do have a musical background, whether professional or for fun, casually. We have people in our cast who have done musical theatre professionally. I mean, I think we try. A lot of us do have those songs and those styles burrowed into our brain like little ear worms, just stuck in there, but I don’t think we do a ton of theory.
AH: We understand simple song structure and I think that’s about it.
SM: I can do an “I Want” song a million times over and know exactly what that is.
AH: We know this is a how a song goes.
NN: Most of us have experience with musical theatre and those of us who don’t are at least musical theatre fans. So we know enough musicals to draw upon that we know that song structure and we know the styles that we’re going for.
Do you ever find yourself accidentally singing a melody that’s already part of something else?
JM: I’ve never had that personally.
SM: I for sure probably have.
NN: I’ve sung stuff where I’ve gone back and listened to it and been like “oh that’s where that’s from”.
AH: We definitely have sung choruses of our own that sound like other choruses [we’ve done before]. Not the same words but you’ll look back and be like “oh that’s kind of similar sounding”. But Tom’s so talented that he guides you.
SM: He doesn’t serve us up the same thing twice
JM: And if he hears something going a certain way, he can basically be like ‘nope we’re going this way’ and it’s alright.
What happens if there’s a battle between the direction Tom is pulling you and the direction another cast member is going?
SM: I don’t think it’s ever been a battle. We do it together. You really connect with each other on stage when you’re working with a musical director. So even if sometimes you’re not quite sure, you connect eyes with them and you’ll kind of just find the next spot. There’s the occasional mess up because it is improvised and you might think each other are going one way – that happens once in a while but it’s not a battle, it’s an ensemble.
NN: Yeah we definitely work together. And Tom’s very clear with his offers. You know exactly what song you’re going to sing when it starts.
What are some of the tricks you lean on when you go dry?
JM: Really in improv you can just pick an emotion, heighten that emotion, be like ‘what’s my character feeling right now? That’s it, I’m mad’ and everything else gets informed from there. When you’re an experienced improviser you don’t really go dry very often and then you can also see if someone is going dry and then you can just jump in and be like ‘hey, I know you don’t like ice cream but I got you an ice cream’ and it’s like ‘now we’re singing an ice cream song’.
NN: Which has happened
SM: Worst case scenario in a song, if you’re not sure where your song is going next, the thing that I will often fall back on is I sing really long notes sometimes. I don’t know what’s happening so I’m just going to hold this. I’ll use that to jump in, or do a lovely cross stage if I’m thinking on my feet.
NN: People hold notes in musical theatre, that’s what it’s all about.
SM: A pause can be as powerful as words. Nicky’s great for that.
NN: I draw them out a little too long.
What’s the hardest suggestion you’ve ever had to work off of?
AH: Royal Oak, Michigan
SM: We did one at a Russian hostel once
AH: Oh that one was really hard
SM: I think everyone thought they had to know everything about Russia
JM: And do the whole thing in a Russian accent… but it’s a hostel, we can be from anywhere.
SM: Yeah that one was hard because we all took it so literally and it ended up with us walking in circles going “we’re all Russian now?”
AH: Yeah that was a low point for me personally, especially because I didn’t have a Russian accent for the entire show and then only came out with a Russian accent in the final scene.
SM: A full red flood on the stage and we’re just marching in a circle.
JM: It was undeniably a funny show.
SM: People did not walk out of there without laughing.
JM: Their faces off. I was also laughing on the side, like ‘what is this?!’
AH: I think we robbed people maybe in that show
JM: Uhh yes.
AH: I know a gun was thrust into my hand at some point
SM: I think geographically specific locations can be very challenging unless you know things about it. The one in Michigan we did a quick pull out of the phone on the side [to find out] what happened there.
AH: That one was hard because it was “What’s a spooky location?” then someone said Royal Oak, Michigan. And I’m like ‘I have no idea what Royal Oak, Michigan is!’
SM: That’s where What’s His Face from Home Improvement is from, Tim Allen.
AH: And there’s a zoo there. I learned in that show.
Has anyone ever started a story thread that didn’t get picked up that you wished you could have explored some more?
JM: I think the ones that get ignored are the ones that deserve to get ignored. I don’t think there’s ever been a time where it’s like ‘what about that guy, what about that weird janitor guy, what’s he up to, what’s his whole deal?’ I think we have a good enough idea what the audience wants to see and what’s the next logical step for them. It’s like ‘I don’t care about that guy, I care about this guy and is he going to get his love? What about her, are they going to get together?’ that’s the stuff that we want to see so I don’t know if we’ve ever had a point where it was like ‘what about me?’
SM: I want to see the sequel of the gazebo, it was a great character.
JM: It was a great character but he died. Everyone had their wants answered in that.
SM: Yeah you really can feel when the audience connects with a character or storyline or not.
AH: You can also feel it yourself. When you’re on stage you’re also are thinking what story would I want to watch? I made this terrible choice once where the only thing I did was whittling. It had nothing to do with anything and in my own mind I was thinking ‘no on wants to see this, including me, I don’t even want to know what this girl is about, I’ll help when I can but this is not okay’. You can tell yourself when you don’t need to follow a story. It’s not necessary to the plot, because you know the story yourself
What are the elements of a truly great musical?
SM: Really clear driving forces for people, really clear wants.
JM: Those stakes have to be raised- if someone wants something, make sure they don’t get it in a big way, and then when they do get it, it’s so fulfilling.
What are some of your favourite musicals?
AH: I love Fame the musical, and I know I’m kind of alone there, but I love it. Not the movie, the musical.
JM: I like the movie.
AH: Yeah everyone likes the movie.
NN: The movie is brilliant
AH: No, I have like a special spot in my heart for it, because I did it when I was 14 and I really felt it at the time. I want to make magic on the stage. That’s the whole thing of the movie and it just really stuck with me and I have a little kid love for it.
NN: There’s a couple shows that I’ve seen multiple times on Broadway, I’ve seen each of these three times: Cabaret is one of them, I loved that production and then In The Heights is another one because that was the first rap musical and also because its a Latino musical and half my family is Latino and I went to go see it with my aunts from Mexico and I just loved it and that drew me in. And then Title of Show is so unappreciated.
It’s 9 people’s favourite thing.
NN: Right! But only 9? It needs to be more people’s favourite thing. It’s really good! Also that’s kind of like an improv musical. They wrote a musical about themselves writing a musical. Its very meta. If you guys don’t know it, check it out.
JM: I don’t know a lot of musicals.
JM: I know what I like but it’s not shared by most, which is fine.
NN: I feel like you are a Jesus Christ Superstar person.
JM: No, I am a Joseph fan. It’s campy and it’s wonderful. And A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to the Forum is fantastic as well. I really liked that.
NN: Thank you; that is what I was looking for. I played Vibrata in a production.
JM: Did you?
NN: I was one of the courtesans. It was all women and me pretending to be a woman.
JM: That’s wonderful. That’s splendid. I need a fair bit of humour in my musicals. I can’t stomach the ones that are passionate or love, its like ‘alright; move it along’.
SM: We are all surprised to hear that, Josh.
SM: Growing up, my favourite ones were Godspell and Sound of Music. My aunt was a stage manager in that production at Hart House of Godspell. Jonathan Crombie was in it. I was like “oh my god, you’re Gilbert. I love you”. He would sit and draw me cartoons, so I was smitten with Godspell from that moment on. Then more recently, obviously, like everybody in the world, Hamilton. Super into it. Book of Mormon, Wicked. Anything that has a really fun alto to mezzo part that I can just sing in my shower. I love those. Waitress is one of those that I’m obsessively listening to right now.
Do you ever find yourself fitting into roles traditionally played by your vocal type? Like basses play villains?
JM: That’s a very interesting question.
SM: I don’t think I tend to pick roles based on my vocal type. I definitely always want to fall in love in every single show. I will always sing about it if I can. Try to get smooches from everybody. So whether that fits my vocal range, I don’t know. I can see it being a Wicked “I’m Not That Girl”, that kind of sad song.
JM: I think it’s true for me, though. I’m thinking about my vocal range- I am usually a bad guy or a little bit of a weirdo. Or a little bit of a sage every so often. Isn’t that interesting?
AH: I am an alto and I’m usually either gross or a bad guy. Every time I have ever tried to fall in love in this show, everyone always rejects me.
Nicky, are you a tenor?
NN: I am like a baritenor. But I don’t find that I go for the lover role, I am usually more of a character.
SM: You’re a character but you have been a couple of lovers.
AH: You and Trish had that sheriff scene –
JM: Huge kiss too
NN: Yeah there was a kiss there. I like to kiss onstage. I normally wouldn’t get cast in that, though, in musical theatre. I have a very character voice when I am singing musical theatre. So I don’t normally get the lover. I guess it comes out maybe subconsciously- someone kiss me!
If you could remount any musical you’ve created with Songbuster as a full Broadway production. What would you pick and why?
SM: We did that weird outer space one – that one was so weird and fun.
JM: That was very bizarre.
SM: I think that is one of the shows I had the most fun in. I don’t know if anyone would want to see it – we went to outer space. It was like that weird Star Trek episode where everyone got that weird sex lust. Everyone wanted to do it in space.
NN: I must have missed that one.
AH: I also missed that one. The one show where everyone falls in love I wasn’t there for. Once again.
SM: It wasn’t love.
JM: I didn’t fall in love.
NN: Of course you didn’t, Josh.
AH: I can never get kissed. We all just want to get kissed. Like, let’s just call a spade a spade.
SM: Josh doesn’t.
JM: I do not.
SM: I tried.
JM: I was pimped out in the biggest way in that show- ‘here fix all the problems out there by yourself’
SM: Yeah, we did that.
JM: You did that.
SM: We did a lovely one that was set in a bank. It was one of our earlier shows and it was a very clear story line, there was a clear villain, a clear few heroes that you wanted to see succeed in it. It’s on our youtube channel. One of the most beautiful songs I think we ever created started as a duet between Alex and I and then everyone came in and said a little piece that fit musically in with this song about their character and their journey and then it just became this beautiful group number. It was just one of those moments that you hoped for and you wish for in an improvised musical where everyone comes together- no planning, no talking, it just happened. I watch that video all the time.
AH: I was a weirdo in that show too.
SM: You’re always a weirdo.
AH: I am always a weirdo, right?
JM: Yeah, why don’t you be normal?
AH: I will – come see me at the Next Stage Festival.
Songbuster is back as part of the Next Stage Festival. What can the audience expect when they buy a ticket?
JM: It’s so wonderful to watch something being discovered by everyone in the audience and on stage and behind the keys. It’s a certain kind of magic that you are not going to get anywhere else. What’s coming out of someone’s mouth, nobody knows, not even the person saying it has it preconceived in their head. It’s all happening at the moment and that’s something that really can’t be captured in any other way. We are all sharing this one experience together and it’s kind of exciting and exhilarating for everyone. The audience can get on board because what is going to happen next? Nobody knows, literally nobody knows, nobody has any idea so it’s just like the laughs are more genuine, the feelings that you get are more genuine too, everything is just more broken down and raw. I really do feel like there is a little bit of magic in the air when we’re watching people just be people.
NN: And once it’s out on the stage, it’s never seen again. Every show you see is the first and last time we will perform that show.
Is there anything you would like to add?
JM: If you can’t catch us at the Next Stage Festival, we do have a monthly show happening at the Bad Dog Theatre which is the second Thursday of every month at 9:30. Its something we do all year round so come and check that out. Also just support comedy and improv in general. It’s a wonderful medium that’s kind of not getting its deserved recognition. Not only in Toronto, everywhere. This is something that a lot of people work hard to make really good so it’s time for the audiences to say, ‘hey, you know what, lets give this a shot’.
SM: It’s not all what you see on Whose Line is it Anyway. Although that’s great. There is so much more to it, it’s not just a place for a quick laugh, it is this beautiful legitimate form of art.
JM: It’s growing, its very exciting. Improv is something that has been around for a while but what’s happening right now is a little bit of the improv renaissance where people are like ‘we are going to do musical improv’ or ‘we are going to do some serious improv, we’re not even going for the laughs, we are just going for what the relationship is’. So there’ s a lot of great things.