Hannah Gelman and Jonah Massey
October 6, 2022
Composing With Humor and Language: Matthew Shifrin’s Musical Making Process
The NEC graduate reflects on the struggles of his grandmother’s life, as well as his own
When asked about the origin of his newest project, Matthew Shifrin laughs and says, “It’s kind of a funny story.” And it is, in more ways than one. “I thought, oh, I need something to do because I don't know, I need a side project,” he recalls in regard to this project’s birth. The musical — a yet-to-be-titled, one-man show — came into being after he received a grant last fall. Inspired by his late grandmother’s memoirs of the Holocaust and the rest of her life, the piece is witty and profound, which becomes clear as he shares two of its songs over the course of our Zoom call. But we learned that what Matthew once considered a “side project” became increasingly difficult as the obstacle of accessibility arose between him and his research.
Matthew is blind and works to readily create solutions concerning problems of inaccessibility. He is behind a tech project that enables blind people to engage more fully with media usually tailored to those of us who can see. Matthew’s Project Daredevil has created a unique virtual reality media experience via 3D sound, motion simulation, and smell, scoffing at the idea that sight is needed to excite. Matthew also has a podcast, Blind Guy Travels, where he shares his experiences regarding everything from daily life without sight to developing new LEGO manuals for blind consumers. He leaps from project to project but follows through on each one passionately and deliberately.
So, when approaching his musical, a multi-lingual undertaking of English, Yiddish, and Hebrew, it was frustratingly natural that Matthew’s thoroughness was met with issues of accessibility once again. It turns out that “writing a musical with Yiddish” is far, far “more difficult than it seems.” Means of translating older Yiddish texts online are already scarce, but braille editions are just nonexistent. One might have given up entirely at this point, but Matthew and his musical forged ahead not only with gusto but with humor, which is evident within the songwriting of the musical.
In the first song that he plays for us, “Rhyming Dictionary,” Matthew sings of the rabbit hole his character falls into when first trying to write a song in Yiddish. In the musical, he buys a rhyming dictionary, and endeavors to rhyme “bagel” with “fraydel” (although that pairing was Jewish enough, he does end up scrapping it for a closer rhyme). He then “visits a braille bookstore // Just to take a look and see // From Amharic to Yoruba // They must have something for me!” But they don’t, and there is no Yiddish braille to be found. So, Matthew’s character descends into a musical madness, or, more specifically, a rich yodel that only a graduate of the New England Conservatory's singing program could muster. Thus concludes song one.
BFNJM: I'm just curious about how you see humor fulfilling a role… Why humor? What is it doing for you that other effects can't?
Matthew Shifrin: “I think humor is fun to write just because, you know, you basically take something that's funny, and you try and figure out, well, does it fit other people? What happened to me that would be funny to other people? But, with this humor, I think it's just fun to know that you have these people by the scruff of the neck and they're sitting, and they're really engaged. And, mind you, they can be engaged with sad stuff as well. But when you are writing humorous stuff, they're going to be in it.
When people are writing musicals, or musical theater, or anything theatrical, people always tell you specificity is key. It is basically a way to ensure your audience is engaged because they have no choice. They're stuck, you're listening to a thing. And it's funny. So they're basically going to be focused if they like it or not because they're excited to hear what happens next. They want a twist, they want something unexpected. With more emotional things, if we listen to the second song, like “My Grandma's Mind is Like An Ocean,” you're going to see that it's a different type of engagement.
Going into “My Grandma's Mind is Like An Ocean,” that difference in engagement is clear. There is still some humor, but the song’s relatability comes through Matthew’s beautiful and apt use of simile. “Sometimes you walk along the shoreline // A funny story floats ashore // If you don't give it a look // You know, she'll forget it! // You won't find it anymore.” Matthew’s accordion swells and contracts under the lyrics, making the listener feel like they are indeed at sea themselves, struggling to connect with their increasingly forgetful grandparent.
Later on, Matthew talks about his relationship with his grandmother and Judaism as a whole. “The main ties between Judaism and me were the linguistic ones, in the sense that grandma tried to teach me some Hebrew,” he says. “The trouble was that when I was at an age where I could really engage with grandma, grandma was already slipping away. And so you would get bits and pieces of Hebrew, bits and pieces of Yiddish. I learned Hebrew braille, but by that time, you know, it's too late — grandma’s slipping away. And so I think that, in terms of Jewishness, this musical is an ode to her.”
BFNJM: What has the process been like, writing this musical?
It's been a lot of improvisation, and then a lot of lyric writing, and then sticking lyrics on the melodies and seeing if they work. And then understanding what language to use and when. When I knew my grandmother she was already senile, with Alzheimer's disease in her 80s. So, when I knew her, she was there, yet she wasn't there. The show talks about, well, what do you do? How can you get little snippets of insight out of her? And where is this person that the rest of the family knows and admires and tells stories about, but you've only seen the shell of this person? How do you have a relationship with this person who's not the person they used to be? So, in the musical, we get flashbacks to the grandmother's life in a shtetl in Poland, as well as flashbacks to various experiences of hers, which she sings. And then we have other songs which I sing as the grandson.
BFNJM: In what ways are you searching within yourself through this musical? What do you hope to discover for yourself and for others?
I think that the search within oneself is crucial to the creative process because, if you have a very solid idea and you’re not really doing any searching from within yourself, then you're kind of cheating. The more one digs into oneself, the more one is able to get to the meat of things, to get to the emotions, the angst of the struggling or suffering or whatever it may be. In this one-man show, the goal is to really uncover that connection to the grandma, to the Jewishness. It’s humorous, but ultimately striving to access this hidden language, this language that was forbidden, this language that was secret. I think that’s just valuable. As a sighted person, you could go to the Yiddish book center, for example, and you could take one of their classes, you could learn how to read it, and you're off to the races. As a blind person, I’m in talks with a braille company to make braille in different languages. There are more hurdles that must be creatively overcome to gain access to this language, to this culture. And so, in terms of me searching within myself, I’m searching for a connection not only to the music, but to the past, to the grandma, to these members of the family, to these experiences she wrote about in the memoir, and ultimately returning to the question I posed earlier about how you handle these people who are there, but not there. [This musical is] a quest to know the person I never knew, and to do justice to this person that I never knew… [and to] engage with others humorously and musically so they can also relate. I seek to connect with people in a way they wouldn’t expect.
You can find Matthew’s TEDx Talks here and here, his podcast here, and watch him talk about Project Daredevil here. You can also listen to his performance from another one of his musicals here.
See Matthew Shifrin at the Boston Festival of New Jewish Music on December 21st, 2022: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/matthew-shifrin-at-the-bfnjm-tickets-431020583167?aff=blog.