Tuned and Toned
BY JOSEPH EHRMAN-DUPRE | The four hunky gay 20-somethings fall somewhere between a boy band and a symphony orchestra. Their energetic playing, bows jerking and surfing along the strings of their well-worn instruments, belies the classicism of their craft. And their voices flow effortlessly into the music, singing melodiously over the four-part harmony emitting from two violins, a viola, and a cello.
When I first heard Well-Strung, a singing string quartet, in a rehearsal space on the Upper West Side, they were playing “Grenade” by Bruno Mars. The tune was not instantly recognizable, but I quickly found myself understanding where the group was going with it, and their passionate rendition elevated the music above its radio form. Later, they just as easily slid into a beautiful Dvorak piece. But before that? Ke$ha.
“It’s unlike anything that people have seen before,” said cellist Daniel Shevlin.
“And,” violinist Edmund Bagnell added, “it gets a really big response from the audience.”
Hunks on strings and in vocals make the classical quartet repertoire pop
Well-Strung, a group formed only a year ago, sits in a remarkably unique niche in the world of string quartets. Blending classical pieces by Mozart and Vivaldi with Top 40 hits from Britney, Rihanna, and P!nk, the group is all about defying expectations. Trevor Wadleigh, the quartet’s violist, admitted that many audience members have told the foursome they didn’t know what to expect. And it is a truly ingenious sound, traversing the aural waves from swelling crescendos to pop-styled staccato, and back again. Audiences likely marvel when the quartet doesn’t stop at the instrumentals but add in their voices, as well.
The idea for the group came from second violinist Christopher Marchant. In the summer of 2010, he played classical music on the street corners of Provincetown, the well-known and beloved gay mecca on Cape Cod — while starring in the musical “Naked Boys Singing.” Marchant said the difference between what he played on his violin and what he listened to on his iPod was a source of inspiration.
“I liked the juxtaposition of doing half classical and half top 40,” he recalled.
Luckily, so did an artistic director whom Marchant met that summer. The two created the concept for Well-Strung and then Marchant, who had met Shevlin through a mutual friend, proposed the idea to him. Once Shevlin was on board, they held auditions for another violinist and a violist. The rest is history — as of February 2012.
Marchant, Shevlin, Wadleigh, and Bagnell had their first show together at Joe’s Pub in the East Village. After that, they moved on to an engagement in P-Town for summer 2012, and when I interviewed them, they had just returned from a gay cruise.
“After a year, we have some quasi-super fans,” said Wadleigh.
“Nobody’s been psycho-stalker yet, though,” added Marchant.
That doesn’t mean that Well-Strung isn’t striking gold with its audiences.
“People who saw us on the television on the cruise ship” — in a video of their only performance on the high seas — “wanted to know when our other shows would be,” noted Shevlin. The dissappointed passengers will have to wait in line with other well-strung fans who are demanding more.
The group has received requests for wedding receptions and even musical lessons. Shevlin recounted the story of a lesbian couple from Boston who came to P-Town on three separate occasions with their 10-year-old son in tow. They asked him to give their child cello lessons after he had responded so passionately to their show. Clearly touched by the youth’s enthusiasm, Shevlin remarked that the boy could be his replacement because of his skill with the instrument and their shared interest in musical theater.
The wide range of fans who have embraced the group — young and old, gay and straight, male and female — has altered the players’ concept of target audience a great deal since the outset. With “Naked Boys Singing” — a largely nude musical review frequented by gay men and straight women — on his mind during the group’s launch, Marchant had expected Well-Strung’s sexuality and good looks to determine much of the turnout. He now feels the group has appeal across the board.
“We can play up certain demographics,” he remarked, mentioning that cutting certain numbers from a specific performance in response to that night’s crowd is perfectly doable. “We could play on a straight cruise and people will think we’re a PBS special!”
“We’re versatile,” added Shevlin, with a laugh.
Well-Strung’s broad appeal is undeniably due to the talent the group’s four members possess. Each player has a musical background of some kind. Bagnell and Marchant studied music in college, and Wadleigh has played viola since high school. Shevlin and Marchant have played in the companies of several Broadway national tours — as actors and musicians. But the chance to be involved with a group like Well-Strung is an important opportunity for each of the men.
“This is a big return to the violin for me,” said Bagnell, and his striking spotlight moments in the songs I saw indicate just that.
More than instrumental talent, however, the guys also bring their voices into the mix, a difficult and unique challenge for a string quartet. The four Well-Strung members agreed that adding a vocal element to a new piece takes time and patience. Eventually muscle memory kicks in, though — the body “remembering,” as it were.
“I think the singing element really pops,” Bagnell said.
The group’s director, Donna Drake — herself a Broadway veteran, having appeared in the original cast of “A Chorus Line” — is passionate about this unique mix of auditory influences as well.
“I think you’re developing your own music concept,” she noted, speaking to the four men in front of her at the rehearsal. “It’s a one-of-a-kind group.”
And Well-Strung’s players said they are fulfilled by their unique sound, too.
“I feel more gratified because it’s blending everything I’ve ever done,” said Shevlin. “It’s our own so we’re really creating what we’re doing. It’s very wonderful when you get to create something new.”
Recalling his theatrical past, Marchant added, “I get to be myself instead of trying to fit into this mold” of a character already written and performed by others. The blend of instrumental and vocal skill with an actor’s stage presence and theatricality keeps these four young men passionate about Well-Strung, and about the group’s future.
“We’re putting all our eggs in the Well-Strung basket” was a phrase repeated several times during our interview.
Optimistic about the connections they’ve made on the Cape, in the city, and on board the cruise ship, Shevlin enthused, “We have a future — life outside New York!”
But before Well-Strung branches out, there is the matter of their three-week engagement in Manhattan, February 28 to March 16 at the West 64th Street Y’s Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater. Well-Strung’s debut CD, on Twist Records, will be released on opening night.
The guys didn’t want to give away too many secrets about their new show. But Shevlin said fans can rest assured there will be more novel departures.
“We have a few new tricks up our sleeves,” he said.
WELL-STRUNG | Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater | YMCA, 10 W. 64th St. | Feb. 28-Mar. 16; Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m. | $35 at well-strung.com or 800-838-3006