When composer-playwright Joe Iconis premiers his new, debut pop album, entitled Album, at Feinstein’s/54 Below on July 8 (through July 11), this won’t be the first time he has played songs apart from his beloved musicals such as Broadway’s Be More Chill or Off-Broadway smashes Love in Hate Nation, The Black Suits, Bloodsong of Love and Broadway Bounty Hunter.
Ever since Feinstein’s/54 Below opened its doors a decade ago as a lab-hub for new writers to develop their work, the pianist and vocalist has played songs, in-and-around those musicals being workshopped for the larger stage. Among the epic list of 44 tracks that fill Album, many an Iconis song has already graced the F/54 B’s stage, and the album is alive with that party vibe.
“The spirit of those events of the past, whether at Joe’s Pub or Feinstein’s/54 Below, is totally a part of this recording,” says Iconis. “It’s definitely not a live album, but it is an album that has that ‘live’ energy.”
Always working on one show-or-another since his career began with the American Theatre Wing’s having awarded Iconis a Jonathan Larson Grant in 2006 (he’s currently preparing to mount a musical based on the like of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson), the composer knew that he wanted to make time and space for songs he made famous in a cabaret concert setting. “When the pandemic hit, unable to do live theater, I spent my time making this album that I had been cooking forever,” he says. “But while people were busy making things in their bedroom – solitary things that felt small and contained –what I thought would be amazing was to make an album that was the opposite of that. When it was impossible to have people in a room together.”
No matter what had been going on in the world at that time, Iconis felt as if his first album should be rowdy and expansive. “I wanted to do something impossibly huge, so it is as maximal as anything could ever be,” Iconis says, laughing. “And as much as I written already – a number definitely in the triple digits – choosing the 44 that I wanted to record was difficult.”
To that dual challenge (and to the need for connection) Iconis wanted to push the listener and test their limits. “Listeners have become so used to receiving information in bite-size chunks with content getting smaller-and-smaller.”
Bucking that trend, Album is broad in scope (its’ big-band sound was aided by music director Danielle Gimbal, and choir arranger Joel Waggoner) and guest list, featuring as it does friends and collaborators Aaron Tveit, Andrew Rannells, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Krysta Rodriguez, Annie Golden, George Salazar and more. “I did not want to underplay,” says Iconis. “I wanted each song to be as big or as small as it wanted to be.”
Curating a setlist of “songs that made weird sense to me as hanging together,” Iconis, of course, connected the dots to the singers who may have vocalized these Iconis hits in past performances – such as Be More Chill star Salazar singing “My Best Friend’s a Skeleton.
With that, the composer-playwright traded on his relationships – Salazar is a lifelong friend, Rannells took part in many an Iconis concert, Tveit has appeared in more than a few musical readings and workshops. “It wasn’t a cattle call, so everyone associated with their songs in the past, was who I wanted for the album – and almost everyone I asked to be on the album said, ‘yes,” states Iconis, who won’t confirm or deny who, from Album, might make it onto the stage of Feinstein’s/54 Below for his batch of July album release live parties.
“That was really nice,” says Iconis, genuinely touched by who made it out to record for Album. “That my love of all of these people was not one-sided. That was encouraging.”
Even more encouraging is that Iconis saved some of the best songs on Album solely for himself to sing, such as the Doctor Who-ish “Album.” As one of a fleeting few new songs to be written for the project (“I had plenty old songs already”), Iconis felt as if he needed to say something simple and blunt for a project that was so massive and messy. “It’s ridiculous and poignant at the same time,” he says of his new album’s title track. “Plus, there was no way that I could make an album called Album and not have a song by that name, a time-traveling epic, yet, about me. I just couldn’t.”