Reflections on Salvation Road: Music, Improv, and the Hurricane

By Natalie Mack

Family feuding, religious cults, the strong ties of friendship, and live music made D.W. Gregory’s Salvation Road a must-see, main-stage production in Steinhardt’s Program in Educational Theater. Under the direction of Dr. David Montgomery, the ensemble of Salvation Road worked closely to create a performance that suspended audiences between the past and present as its main character Cliff (Jack Dod) took us along his wild journey to rescue his sister Denise from an oppressive religious cult. His adventure was sprinkled with fond memories of life before Denise disowned her family, which came in the form of flashbacks that Cliff would seamlessly narrate audiences in and out of.

Natalie Mack and Jessica Honovitch perform. Photo by Chianan Yen.

As I played the cult-member and former rock-star sister Denise, I was given the rare opportunity to write music to be played live in the show. This process was a blast as I worked side-by-side with Assistant Director Jess Honovich (who played Denise’s band-mate, Patty) to create original songs written from the perspective of the character, and immersing the audience into the tight-knit, cause-driven, and comical musical world of Patty and Denise.

The process began with me bringing in a couple of original tunes that I had previously written, which we would then tweak and write lyrics for in the mindset of our characters. After reworking the songs, we’d develop vocal harmonies, catchy melody lines for our Casio keyboard player, and Jess would write parts for the Ukulele and Mandolin to top it all off.

My favorite song in the show “We’re Lost Horizon,” a foot-stompin’, mandolin strummin’, folk song, describes the back-story of the band’s name: Lost Horizon. The idea for the song came to me on my walk back from a high-energy rehearsal on a Friday night…I actually started mumbling the words of the chorus into the voice recorder on my iPhone as I walked eastward down Broadway (getting some funny looks from passerbys!). The next day I came into rehearsal with the scattered recording, and David, Jess, Dan (ASM & ensemble member), Talia (SM), and I began improvising on the original riff. Within about a half an hour with Jess on mandolin, and the rest of us coming up with words and stomp-clap rhythms (with Talia at the dry erase board jotting all of this madness down!), we came up with the band’s title song. Needless to say, our process involved serious collaboration, some quick-witted improv, and a whole lot of good old-fashioned fun.

Speaking of improv, the opening weekend of Salvation Road took an unexpected turn, to say the least. After an exciting opening night with the playwright in attendance, news of Hurricane Sandy began flooding headlines across the East coast. By the time the cast and crew were getting ready for our Sunday matinee, the vibe in the theatre (both onstage and off) was unsettling. The brave souls who came to the show entered Pless wearily in hopes of being able to return home safely, while the Salvation Road cast costumed up backstage, pondering the thought: If this storm really hits, this could be our last show… That afternoon our fearless director led us in a warm-up, knowing full well that it could be our last, and even under those ominous circumstances he reminded the cast of the hard-work , talent, and love that was poured into the production, and urged the Salvation Road family to ‘make it count.’

Undergraduate students Marco Santarelli, Marshall Burgart, and Jack Dodd share a moment during the show. Photo by Chianan Yen.

As we all know too well, the storm did in fact hit hard and the long-awaited school shows and second weekend of performances were sadly cancelled. Instead of a week filled with classes and performances for busloads of kids, the cast, crew, and entire NYU campus were faced with power outages, flooding, and little means of communication and transportation. It was not until the university reopened, that there was talk of remounting the show.

In just two days time, Dr. David Montgomery was able to wrangle the cast and crew back together to put on one final show on the Wednesday following the reopening of campus. The cast and crew were only able to get into the theatre 30 minutes prior to curtain. The spectacular cast and crew were costumed, made up, warmed up, and the stage and technical elements were ready to go in just a half hours time – the energy was way, way, up and the cast and crew were incredibly happy to be safely reunited for a final go.