On October 16th, the cast recording of Grace McLean’s off-Broadway musical, In The Green, was released. The album can only be described as an hour-long spiritual ascension that will leave you with absolutely no idea what is happening, but you won’t care. It tells the story of Hildegard von Bingen, one of the most important and beloved woman composers of all time. She was a medieval nun who was most famously an integral composer, but also an artist, a writer, a scientist, and a woman attuned to religion and spirituality. She was said to have holy visions and a special connection to God. The musical doesn’t touch on her achievements specifically, instead choosing to focus on the thirty years she spent in a cell with her mentor, Jutta von Sponheim (who I cannot stop mistakenly referring to as Sondheim) as a sociological, feminist descent into the psyche. If that sounds extremely confusing, it absolutely is. The character of Hildegard is split up into three people—Rachael Duddy, Ashley Perez Flanagan, and Hannah Whitney, who play the eyes, the mouth, and the hands, while Jutta seems to be one person (played by creator Grace McLean, but is revealed to have a shadow, played by Mia Pak).
Grace McLean came to mainstream musical theatre fame in Dave Malloy’s hugely successful—although in my opinion terribly snubbed by the Tony Awards—Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, a Broadway musical based on a slice of War and Peace, where she played the role of Marya in 2017. She grew in popularity with the 2019 off-Broadway production of Alice By Heart, where she played the Queen of Hearts, and the show which was met with a large internet following. Although McLean has written solo work in the past, this is her first time writing a musical, and it is effervescent. She reframes this mysterious part of Hildegard’s life with themes of abuse, femininity, and religion, and instead of an ascent to God, it is a descent into the psyche. Truly, it presents the idea of having to understand yourself before beginning to ascend and move forward. What adds to the absolute near-acid trip that listening to this album feels like is that separation of two characters into five women. Although Hildegard’s emotion and story is expressed gorgeously, it almost feels like we can’t quite connect fully to her, showing her isolation as well as the mystery that still surrounds her.
I’m a music and history student, so of course I wasn’t going to be able to listen to this musical without absolutely dissecting the music. I still can’t quite put my finger on how exactly McLean does it so well, but it sounds both like Hildegard von Bingen’s music and like some modern music that is nothing that you’ve ever heard. The style is so different from anything I’ve ever heard and yet still uses some Hildegard stylings. There are melodies and rhythms that are taken directly from her music, and yet they’re reworked into these insane jazzlike fugues of syncopation and wordplay. The pure femininity of the piece is so clear in the gorgeous, multilayered, polyphonic harmonies McLean is able to create with a 5-part female harmony. Vocal music was so essential to von Bingen’s musical time, and McLean brings it into the 21st century with vocal looping and beatbox, further expanding the power of the human voice. Her orchestrations are beautiful and haunting, yet extremely simple, with keyboard, bass, drums, cello, and a qanun—a stringed instrument similar to the zither. This absolute cacophony of melding of old and new creates an environment, an emotion of feminine renaissance and discovery.
It all comes back to support the plot, which, though it isn’t essential to the experience of enjoying the album, brings Hildegard von Bingen’s life and relates it to women’s experiences for all of time. Shame of femininity, repression of abuse, blame and isolation are all themes that are seen throughout this album, and yet they can be understood without even tuning into the lyrics. In The Green, above all, is a topical, powerful album that will take you in and rejuvenate your creative soul.