Track-by-Track Breakdown: Grace McLean Goes In The Green

track-by-track-breakdown:-grace-mclean-goes-in-the-green

The Great Comet star gives us the inside scoop on the inspiration and artistry that went into the medieval musical as the cast recording gets a physical release from Ghostlight Records.

The original cast recording of In The Green, written by The Great Comet and Alice By Heart star Grace McLean, gets a physical release from Ghostlight Records January 15, following its streaming debut earlier this month.

With orchestrations by McLean and Kris Kukul, In the Green centers on the origin story of Medieval healer, composer, exorcist, and saint Hildegard von Bingen. The work premiered at Lincoln Center Theater’s Claire Tow Theatre in 2019. The cast recording features the full cast of the Off-Broadway production, comprising Rachael Duddy, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, McLean, Mia Pak, and Hannah Whitney. McLean won a 2020 Lortel Award for her performance.

Here, McLean breaks down the inspirations, lyrical nods, and more on the recording track-by-track:

In the Green_LCT3_Production Photos_2019_X_HR


Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Rachael Duddy, and Hannah Whitney

Julieta Cervantes


1. “O Virga Ac Diadema”

We wanted the music in this show to be timeless, so that it doesn’t necessarily evoke a particular time period but rather exists outside of time, being both ancient and modern. I was of course inspired by Hildegard’s own music—which this is in its essence, although it has been put through the Grace mill—and it’s all in Latin. Although I tried to scrub any direct reference to Catholicism, Christ, or the specifics of the system in which Hildegard and Jutta found themselves—my hope is that the system and structure of Church would be substituted in the minds of the audience for any oppressive system cloaked in beneficence, or any institution without rival—we left a few sprinklings of Latin in the show to evoke that feeling of the ancient and otherworldly. So it felt appropriate to begin the show with that kind of (dis)orientation by taking a piece of Hildegard’s music and messing with it. Basically, the lead line of this music is hers and I messed with the harmonies, while having the tone more reminiscent of a Bulgarian women’s chorus than a classical western sound. I also wanted to begin the show with a cappella voices, because the way voice is used is so particular in the rest of the show.

2. “Death Ceremony”

This is the moment when Hildegard is given away to be locked in a monastic cell with Jutta. I wanted it to sound like a dawning, an invitation and a party…that gets kind of out of hand and turns into something scary. It begins with a translation of “O Viridissima Virga,” which is a piece of Hildegard’s, a version of which is heard later in our show). “O branch of freshest green, hail! Within the windy gusts of saints upon a quest, you swayed and sprouted forth.” Hildegard was writing this about Mary, but I gave the words to Jutta as a sort of invitation and welcoming to Hildegard, Hildegard as the fresh young green branch who is about to embark on her life’s journey. It’s also the first time the looper is used, which is Jutta’s tool of manipulation. The idea behind linking Jutta and the looping mechanism is to point to Jutta’s self-reliance as well as her limitations and myopia—she is able to control, multiply, harmonize her voice, but is never quite moving anywhere.

3. “If I Had a Knee”

This was a fun one to crack! It’s the first time we hear Hildegard’s voice, and I wanted it to reflect her mental state and her feelings of brokenness. I didn’t want the song to have a particular melody, but I asked each of the actors playing Hildegard to stick to a different range in their voices so there would be a distinct clash and cluster in sound. We also worked on certain cadences for different parts of the song. For example, when they’re say “if I had to be…if I had more me…if I had any…” that was meant to exist in a high, breathy, vulnerable space. And although she doesn’t quite have access to melody in this song, the lyrics “if I had a knee I could climb…” are meant to evoke a kind of sing song “maybe I heard this once a long time ago” feeling, but again with each of the actors voicing it in distinct registers.

4. “The Rule”

This one went through many versions, but there was one component that I felt excited about keeping which was the manipulation of the looping tempo. I felt it pointed to a sense of being out of touch with time within the cell, and I wanted the cell to feel like it was operating with its own logic, separate from the outside world. Hence, everything in the cell is scored, even the scene work is scored (although it’s not recorded on the album) because I wanted the cell to be recognized as a place with a kind of magic, but a place that was also under immense control. The tempo shift with the looper can be heard when Jutta says “in here, I am in control” and again when Jutta says “I will never go back.” The low moaning sounds heard under this speech are the suuuuuper slowed down loops from the previous section when Jutta sang “all I’ve ever wanted is to be free.”

5. “I Am Hungry”

This is a song I wrote in the early days of working on In The Green, when I still wasn’t quite sure what it was. I knew Hildegard from the illuminations of her visions, and I was wondering what it might have felt like for her to have these visions come to her when she was so young, when she perhaps didn’t have a sense of what was happening to her. I was imagining the moment before, what it might feel like to have a tickle come upon you, or a trickle or crack in what you assumed was a solid reality. For a time this song existed a bit later in the show, to precede what I imagined would be like a big mind blowing tear-the-roof-off vision sequence, but I like that we moved it earlier, to establish a bit of Hildegard’s as-yet-unnamed dissatisfaction or discomfort within the confines of the cell. And what I had originally written as a precursor to a crack or opening in her mind came, in this version, to be about a crack in her body and her physical development.

In the Green_LCT3_Production Photos_2019_X_HR


Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Hannah Whitney, Grace McLean, and Rachael Duddy

Julieta Cervantes


6. “Eve”

The first line of this song is inspired by something I read in Hildegard’s Scivias, her first book of visionary theology. And I loved this idea of Eve having the whole human race in her body, that all procreative potential moves back to this one body. This is the only time a specifically Christian concept or character appears in the show, but I felt OK about naming Eve because the controversy of her story—what with the downfall of mankind being placed on her shoulders—I think aligns with the way Jutta views her life, her choices, and her body. I tried to look at Jutta’s choice to shut herself away in a cell as a kind of radical feminist act—in a world that was hostile to women, the only real choice she had for autonomy was to say no. She took that denial, which I do think is a source of power, and turned it even on herself. Ultimately what Jutta asks Hildegard to do is to deny herself, even punish herself, in the belief that there is strength and the promise of salvation in that denial. It’s such a negative concept, all this no no no-ness, but it’s got to be attractive enough for Hildegard to get on board. Therefore, this song in particular had to be a real bop 🙂 And I loved hearing Ashley do that amazing flip with her voice while singing this.

7. “Ritual”

I love Rachael’s pure ringing tone on this, and especially the end when Hannah, Ashley and Rachael really wail!

8. “Little Life”

I wrote this after having a conversation with a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. We found out we had been working in the same place for a while but our schedules had never quite aligned. After catching up a bit he told me he was moving across the country. I felt grateful for the opportunity to reconnect before he moved on, and I think he was the one who used the phrase “little life.” It sounded like such a song! And the notion lead quite naturally to Jutta’s view of life, to see it is a stepping stone on a larger spiritual journey. Again I’m not naming Christianity, but its philosophies are certainly all over this show and there is a kind of Christian excitement around death. Death is where all the good stuff is supposed to happen and life is just something to slog through in order to get the rewards. There was a medieval obsession with martyrdom too, especially women martyrs—being killed was pretty much the only way your name would be known and remembered as a woman.

9. “Sun Song”

This is, I think, one of the songiest songs in the show. I wrote it while sitting at a huge old grand piano staring out a wall of windows into the woods in late summer, and I took a lot of inspiration from watching the light change as the long hours passed. And I was really excited to write something for Hannah to really siiiiing on!

10. “In The Green”

The very beginning of this piece I wrote on the first anniversary of Elizabeth Swados’ passing. I felt her energy very much with me that day, and I felt that what I had written had a lot of her in it. She was a huge influence on me as a performer and a writer, and she gave me permission to be bold and biting and brutally honest. This song is also the result of doing some research into trauma and memory. I knew I wanted this piece to be simple, just voices intertwining, sometimes aligning and sometimes a bit off kilter. Trauma memory is present tense in vibrant, visceral pieces.

11. “Burial”

A friend of mine shared a video of Solange’s live performance on Jimmy Fallon in 2017 and it was a big inspiration for this piece. The deep beat, the harmonies, and the visual of those three ladies literally bound up together.

12. “Underground”

Everything in the cell so far has been quite square, and with this one little 12/8 adjustment we hoped to shift the air a little bit, while also providing something recognizable for Hildegard—the music and the sounds of Jutta’s world are quite constricted, and we wanted Shadow’s realm to feel like a place to land.

In the Green_LCT3_Production Photos_2019_X_HR


Rachael Duddy, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Mia Pak, and Hannah Whitney

Julieta Cervantes


13. “Confession”

Largely non melodic, I wanted this to be reminiscent of both “If I Had a Knee” and “In The Green,” Hildegard working through her own traumatic memory. I loved watching Hannah, Ashley, and Rachael perform Lee’s super simple staging of this. I was so moved by whatever it was each of those actors saw in front of them as they sang this number.

14. “Sun Song Reprise”

I think this is something that Kris Kukul and I worked out together, this layering of the voices sort of word by word through this little reprise. Kris has an incredible ear for musical arrangement as it pertains to storytelling; this moment needed to be delicate, hesitant, yet have forward motion, and I think this little trick of breaking up the phrase while sustaining the notes, and finally resolving with the three voices in unison gave this moment a sense of gentleness and calm and acceptance.

15. “Light Undercover”

For a long time this song was called “Made For Each Other” and it was a moment of shared love between Jutta and Hildegard, for them to recognize their need for each other. As we worked on the show, however, it seemed that this kind of recognition would be something Jutta might actually fight against. So we moved it underground and gave the song to Shadow. The sentiment remains the same, that someone’s light is seen because there is an other to witness it, and of course the lyrics got tweaked to reflect that more precisely.

16. “The First Verb”

This is one of the first songs I wrote for the show, but it has undergone MANY lyric changes over the years. It was initially inspired by a poem of Hildegard’s called The First Verb, and is about the energy of divine spirit. I first wrote it imagining the light or the divine as a kind of abusive lover—the first lyrics were “my lover, he’s the breath / inside of my every exhale, squeezing himself through all my pores / docking himself on all my shores” and instead of “I am the light,” which the women all sing in harmony, we sang “I am his rib.” That notion of a separate, divine, male other got scrubbed from the show, but the driving energy of the song and the feeling of liberation felt crucial to hang on to, so “The First Verb” morphed into a song of celebration for Hildegard.

17. “O Viridissima Virga”

This was my first attempt at a vocal arrangement for a piece of Hildegard’s music. The lead line that Mia sings so beautifully as Shadow is all Hildy, but the rest of arrangement is mine. I had just discovered Caroline Shaw’s “Partita for 8 Voices” written for the incredible a cappella group Roomful of Teeth, and I was inspired to try using voice as more than a vessel for melody or harmony. You’ll hear that in some of the breath, vocal fry, leaps, and bends I asked my singers to try in this piece.

18. “Light Undercover / In The Green (Reprise)”

Ah, here’s where we get to see Jutta really react to the “Light Undercover (Made For Each Other)” message! I always forget what a well placed reprise can do, and am thankful for Lee and Kris nudging this one along.

The “In The Green” reprise is Shadow’s attempt to finish the story a la “Sun Song” reprise, but of course Jutta won’t let her(self) finish.

19. “The Ripening”

The Ripening is one of those rare instances when the song falls out of you largely complete—it didn’t change much from the initial writing to showtime. I wrote it when I woke up one morning feeling sort of defeated and confused. The words I had in my head were “haven’t I done all the things I’m supposed to?” That sense of frustration and loss drove the song, beginning from that small vulnerable question, driving to rage at the feeling of betrayal, and finally ending again with the question and its source. The last lyric added to the song was the tag “all I’ve ever wanted is to be free.”

In the Green_LCT3_Production Photos_2019_X_HR


Rachael Duddy, Hannah Whitney, Grace McLean, and Ashley Pérez Flanagan

Julieta Cervantes


20. “Forgiveness”

The last bit of Latin is hidden inside this song, taken from Hildegard’s opera Ordo Virtutum, although we tweaked the language a bit. As we didn’t expect many people in our audience to be familiar either with Hildegard’s music or with Latin, this change was mostly for us but now you can be in on the secret! At the end of the song, all five of us sang “Laus tibi Regina, Lux angelorum” which translates to “Hail to you Queen, Light of the angels” BUT the original text is “Laus tibi Christe, Rex angelorum” meaning “Hail to you Christ, King of the angels.” Sneaky!

21. “Integration”

Oh, my brave and beautiful actors. This song changed a lot right on through previews! I asked them to make a lot of last minute changes and they rolled with it until we figured it out. I wanted us to see Hildegard leave the cell and share the healing lesson she learned with others out in the world. But I also knew I wanted us to get to Sigewize, a woman who challenged her towards the end of her life. So I used some of Hildegard’s text, again from Scivias to accomplish two things: the first time we hear “and behold!” Hildegard receives a vision of strong shining powerful women who “utter their own individual mysteries” and Hildegard takes this as a charge to create a community of women who will do just that—and the text is taken from the beginning of Hildegard’s first book Scivias, the first time she publicly proclaimed anything about herself and her relationship with the divine. The next time we hear “and behold!” this text is taken from much later in Scivias—the book took her 10 years to write—and is a sort of apocalyptic vision. In our story, I had Hildegard interpret this as being about the community, a plague or disease that comes from within, and her charge now becomes to try and fix the institution itself. When Hildegard sings “you ought to be the day but you are the night / you could be the sun and moon and stars but you lie / in darkness as if you are already dead,” that whole section is taken from a speech she gave to the clergy in Cologne, reprimanding them for being lazy preachers and bad examples to their community! And the people in Cologne loved it—she had come through giving this great fiery speech, and when she left they wrote to her asking if she would write down what she had said and send it to them in a letter so they could hang on her words. She said things like “but just as a snake hides in a cave after it has shed its skin, you walk in filth like disgusting beasts” and “you are worn out by seeking after your own transitory reputation in the world, so that, at one moment, you are knights, the next slaves, the next mere, jesting minstrels, so that in the perfunctory performance of your duties you sometimes manage to brush off the flies in the summer.” Burn. Anyway, I wanted us to see Hildegard growing confident in herself, her message, and in her place within her community. Maybe a little too confident…

22. “Exorcism”

So now we’ve reached Sigewize, doubled by Shadow and played beautifully by Mia Pak. This one was the last piece written for the show. Through at least a week of previews, this last scene existed just as a scene, no music, just two women talking. It was kind of jarring to hear just spoken text after so much kaleidoscopic music, but I was interested in that jolt. Ultimately, we decided it was better for Sigewize to really have the last word, to have an “In The Green” / “Confession” moment of her own, while also calling out Hildegard’s blindspots. I wanted to leave us with the thought that while Hildegard did indeed accomplish amazing things and was a powerful healer, she also aligned herself with an institution that carried out horrible atrocities. And a note about previews: they are a very exciting time for a new piece of theatre. I fully believe it’s a time to try out new things, take script pages in hand if you must, cut whole scenes and try new ones—and that’s exactly what we did. I’m glad we spent so much time refining this scene in front of an audience because it helped distill this last song. It’s in 5/4, rhythmic and non-melodic, urgent and disquieting, and hopefully a pull-the-rug-out moment. Hildegard had a powerful voice and was a part of a system that allowed her to use it, but there have been others with powerful voices who were silenced by that same system.

You can order In the Green at GhostlightRecords.com.

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