SAXTONS RIVER -- Finally, a soundtrack for the economic downturn and its underwhelming recovery.
Unearthed in New York in the possession of a wry, heavy-lidded hipster who was spotted somewhere between his office cubicle and Joe’s Pub, "No Place To Go" is a collection of loungy, irreverent, yet somehow poignant, songs and riffs that tell a story of the working world in our age of anxiety.
The name of this unlikely cultural chronicler is Ethan Lipton, emerging playwright, singer-songwriter and self-described "information refiner" at a New York publishing company, who penned "No Place To Go," collection of theatrical songs based loosely on his own sweet sorrow in the working world.
Approached by Shanta Thake to create a work for Public Theater’s New York Voices Series at Manhattan’s Joe’s Pub at the same time his job as a copy editor was being shipped out of town, Lipton decided to cross a line he had never crossed before.
"I’d been writing plays for a long time and leading my band and working, and I’d always kept them separate," said Lipton in a telephone interview last week.
This time, he melded his creative life with his soon-to-be-vanishing day job, and the results are a critical success. Interspersing songs and spoken interludes, "No Place To Go" tells the story of a worker who must decide what to do when his company announces that his job will be moving to Mars.
The critical response has been strong. NPR’s Weekend Edition called it "Hilarious, twisted, sophisticated, schleppy and sad all at onceŠ songs that take the mundane of life and twist it." The New York Times said it "converts the current economic malaise into a chipper despite-it-all song cycle that Woody Guthrie and Ben Folds might both embrace." In May, it earned an Obie Award from the Village Voice.
Audiences have loved "No Place To Go," in part because it looks at the world of work in a way that unemployment data and political punditry don’t -- humanizing it, without pulling punches.
"I think of this piece as a love letter to the people I worked with, and a protest letter to my country and my company, and a query to the universe," said Lipton. "The piece is definitely political and takes shots, but I tried to be pretty inclusive about it. ... The piece maintains a kind of personal-ness that hopefully allows a range of views about it."
Like his main character, Lipton was told his job would be moving, though not to Mars. In real life, Lipton took a long hard look at what he’d been doing -- holding a day job to support his work as a playwright and musician -- and made a bold choice. He chose to let his job leave town without him.
"It was the right choice for me. ... It still gives me a lot of anxiety," he said.
Not that he doesn’t miss the people he worked with for a decade or more. Those feelings comes out in his songs, including "Mighty Mensch," about a heroically average middle class co-worker, and "Soccer Song," a quirky hip-hop ode to the office intramural soccer team.
"We spend so much of our lives at our workplace. These are people that have become part of the fabric of our world," Lipton said. "The workplace seems like a family. It’s sort of the myth of the American company. Then you realize you’re not a family. ... That core frustration is a big part of the piece ... realizing how disposable you are."
Musically, Lipton and the three musicians who make up His Orchestra (guitar, stand-up bass, sax and vocals) are hard to pin down. They’re loungy, hip, soulful, sardonic, jazzy and bluesy. "Aging Middle Class Parents" is a folky saga of being forced to move back home; "Incorporate" takes a soulful page from James Brown’s book as the hero ponders the necessity of becoming a corporation as the only way to have any power and any rights; "WPA" is a rockabilly salute to New Deal.
These songs aren’t parodies. They’re the real deal, done by a band with diverse chops and a story to tell.
"I’ve had a hard time describing my music," said Lipton, whose gravelly voice gives a sardonic edge to the lyrics. "It just feels like American music. I call it Newfangled Americana."
For more information, visit www.ethanlipton.com.
Kingdom County Productions and Marlboro College will present Ethan Lipton and His Orchestra performing "No Place To Go" on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., at Marlboro College’s Whittemore Theater. Tickets are now on sale at KingdomCounty.org or by calling 802-748-2600 or 888-757-5559.