Putting the Music in Musical Theater
Composer Zoe Sarnak’s warm-hearted songs
Last spring, during the height of the pandemic’s catastrophic first wave in New York City—the streets empty, the air full of ambulance sirens—musical-theater composer Zoe Sarnak ’09 wrote a new song. Titled “Storm” and commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum, it attempted to make sense of the grief and chaos. “When will the mighty come?” the opening lyrics almost pleaded. “And will they save us from this mess they made?” In the music video, filmed in black and white and released online in June 2020, a dancer in a white shirt and simple tights glides across her living room in a New York high-rise, as the singer’s voice lilts over long, slow, mournful notes.
But then the chord shifts, and a little sunlight seems to break through: “Look out for hope,” Sarnak’s lyrics nudge, as the melody opens up, “and you’ll find some, you’ll see. Maybe it’s not where you thought it would be.”
Musically and emotionally, this is a classic Sarnak move. “I have a really intense habit of, in my real lows, writing songs of hope,” she says. “I try to write myself out of dark times.” That impulse comes partly from her Jewish upbringing, she believes. “When you sit shiva, don’t you tell stories about the person who has died and try to bring joy from that place?” But mostly this inclination is simply Sarnak herself. “During the first couple months of the pandemic, I was feeling so hopeless,” she says, “and I remember sitting down to write out this song, and what came out was just this very warm-hearted, earnest, hug of a song. That’s what happens when I’m upset. I write that way.”
Sarnak has been writing music and lyrics almost all her life, but it wasn’t until she was graduating from college—with a degree in molecular and cellular biology—that she thought to make a career of it. By then, she’d already applied to medical school. “There are a lot of professors and doctors in my family,” she says, and she always figured she’d be another one. But then the musical she wrote as a senior project for her secondary concentration in music was staged by the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club through the efforts of friends in the campus a cappella scene. After that, things changed very quickly. “Some New York producers heard a bit of the musical and were like, ‘This is really good.’…And I just had this thought: ‘Wait. Is this possible?’”
“I have a really intense habit of, in my real lows, writing songs of hope,” Sarnak says.
Music had always been there, though, hanging around the edges, pushing itself toward the center of a life otherwise focused on science and soccer (she was a varsity midfielder for the Crimson). Sarnak started learning guitar and piano at age seven, and by 11 she was composing on them. “I just loved anything music,” she says. “I have a very clear memory of closing my bedroom door as a kid and playing all the characters in Rent.” She’d turn up the volume on “Back in the USSR” and jump on the coffee table to sing along. In high school, in Princeton, New Jersey, she played in a competitive jazz band that was intensely rigorous and demanding. “That’s where I got really fastidious rhythmic foundation.”
After graduation, she moved to New York and threw herself into a previously undreamed-of life. And a prolific one—Sarnak writes everywhere: banging around on the piano or guitar, humming to herself on the street (“I can remember specific corners where I was when certain songs happened”), waiting between stops on the subway. A silly ditty she invented to break up the boredom of a delayed commuter train found its way into a scene about underground resistance in her musical Afloat. “Something about the tunnels,” she says. “It felt right.”
Sarnak’s work has been produced by numerous Off-Broadway and regional theater companies: Second Stage, New York Stage & Film, and The Public; the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts; and the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Her musical aesthetic is kinetic, inventive, and warmly emotional—she characterizes her style as “open arms—pop/rock/folk/soul/theater”—and the musicals she’s collaborated on revolve around recurring themes: strong women, queer characters, sisterhood, mothers and daughters. Often, her work addresses grief and loss (“that idea of shiva, again”), or people surviving on the edges of society. The rock musical Secret Soldiers depicts two women who dressed as men and fought for the Union in the Civil War. Lila and the Lonely Few follows a queer musician who goes back out on tour with her band shortly after her brother’s death, only to have her own life begin to unravel. A Lasting Impression, which won Sarnak a playwriting award in 2013, tells the story of two artist sisters through the words of a jaded young reporter who, in interviews, unearths the secrets of their disintegrating family. In 2017’s Afloat, three teenagers in a near-future world devastated by climate change and creeping fascism steal a boat and set out from the remains of New York City. In 2018, Sarnak won a Jonathan Larson grant (these memorialize the creator of Rent) for Afloat and Afterwords, a layered story that debuted at Seattle’s Village Theatre, involving a young war reporter, her dead mentor, his mysterious diaries, and a pair of sisters mourning their volatile mother.
These shows draw on elements of her own life—Sarnak is queer, and one of three sisters—without being directly autobiographical. “I write about the world I live in,” she says. “The goal is empathic storytelling. I’m hoping we can put those kinds of characters, people we haven’t seen as often, into stories that are for tourists, for everyone, not just New York theater-scene types. The hope is that you experience something true through music and realize how connected it is to your own life, really. I think music does that in a way that almost nothing else can.”
This summer, Sarnak will be back in a rehearsal room with other people for the first time since the pandemic began, working with the cast and crew of a new musical. Set to open at Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts in the fall, A Crossing follows a group of migrants at the southern U.S. border, and Sarnak’s score mixes modern pop with Mexican folk music. The past year and a half kept her busy—collaborating on a rock musical about Galileo’s life and a stage adaptation of the 1995 coming-of-age film Empire Records, both forthcoming, along with the world premiere of Afterwords at Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theatre in spring 2022 and a couple of television and film projects she can’t talk about yet. But all that collaboration took place remotely. Now, “Just knowing that we’re going to be in production is so emotional,” Sarnak says. Live performance is “the living, breathing thing,” she adds. “I think there’s going to be a lot of tears when people get back together.”
Published in the print edition of the July-August 2021 issue (Volume 123, Number 6), under the headline “The Living, Breathing Thing.”