Back in 2002, I did a wonderful gig in New York at the New Dramatists. For two weeks, five singer-actors (of which I was one), five composers, and five writers holed up for hours each day to create new music-theatre pieces and learn about collaboration. It was there I learned a wonderful working definition of compromise (“where nobody gets all of what they want but everybody gets some of what they want”) that I use often. It was there I began to explore the musical-theatre identity that grew to be so important to me. And it was there that I met and worked with the wonderful James Stovall, who died, much too soon, on Sunday.
By the time my path crossed his, James was an established artist, with six Broadway shows to his credit. The energy and professionalism he brought to this dinky gig was inspiring, and it made a huge impression on me. A gig’s a gig, he seemed to say by his actions, and I’m here to do my best work and have fun.
James was completely at home in his being. There was a worksheet we performers were invited to fill out to describe our vocal ranges and characteristics. I wrote obsessive details about nearly every note in my range; James wrote, “I’m flexible.” And he was. Over the two weeks, he played, among other things, a closeted gay man in a crowded sleeper car on a train, a nosy neighbor, an abusive boyfriend, a bereaved husband, and Moses. His voice was pure honey, his intelligence and musicianship clear and sharp, and his kindness unwavering, even under the pressure that sometimes accrued as we all slogged through too many projects in too little time.
He read one sublime song by Jeffrey Stock (music) and Eisa Davis (lyric) called Sleep On. It was from the point of view of a guy who stays up late every night; the lyric described the unique things he got to see that everyone else slept through — “Garbage trucks and drunks are full and leaning, Venus lights the Park” — and the exhilaration of being up late — “The night is mine! Sleep on!” The music alternated between lyrical sections detailing the city sights, and raging funk depicting the caffeinated joy of wee-hours solitude. When James read this song, something magical happened: it was a perfect song, and he and the pianist Roger Ames nailed it. They raised the roof several feet that afternoon, and I am sure that nobody who was there will ever forget the sheer bliss of that reading. At the end of the song, on the lyric, “The night is mine!” James improvised a ridiculously perfect high note that was everything a high note should be: technically glorious and deeply felt. His artistry welled up many times during that week, but on this particular song the dam broke, gorgeously.
On another day, James and I read a duet together. To be immodest for a moment, I sang it well. As a rule in that gig, I was insecure and self-deprecating, feeling out of my depth amongst the more experienced and Broadway-savvy performers. James took the opportunity of our reading something together to encourage me. I cherish the memory of his saying, “Sing, girlfriend!” after we finished reading it. I felt like I’d earned high praise, to be so acknowledged by someone who had played leading parts on Broadway.
It’s sad to think that his voice and spirit have been silenced. I wish his surviving family and friends peace. He was a real gem.