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Album in Profile: Ryan Scott Oliver’s 35MM: A Musical Exhibition

Remember that time in High School when your boyfriend wrote you a song inspired by a snap you took for your fourth period photography class?

Yeah, well, 35MM: The Musical Exhibition is nothing like that.

Sure, back in 2009, composer Ryan Scott Oliver was inspired by his boyfriend, photographer Matthew Murphy’s work. But instead of writing some sappy drivel about ‘love’ from ‘above,’ Oliver put together an ambitious song-cycle that might as well be sixteen miniature musicals. Back in the day, Oliver thought he’d have a cast album and vocal selections from the show lined up neatly on his bookshelves within a year. Tomorrow, nearly three years later, the original cast recording of 35MM will be released on Ghostlight Records. Needless to say, it’s taken a bit longer than planned for that vision to become a reality, but after chatting with Oliver, it doesn’t sound like he’s too upset about that.

Today, Oliver sees 35MM as much more than just an album that’s finally sitting on his bookshelf— it’s the ultimate collaboration. “You can marry somebody in so many different ways and I think that this is one of the ways in which we’ve committed ourselves to each other,” he said.

The result of that commitment puts a fresh spin on a format many young composers pursue early in their careers. Each of the sixteen central songs in 35MM is either inspired by, or the inspiration for, one (or more) of Murphy’s photographs. For Oliver, those exposures opened “doorways into another world,” and in 35MM he illuminates those worlds by creating “very small narrative[s] through song.” There are stories about happy couples and unhappy couples, about love and loss, about the tension between the creation and consumption of art. There are even stories about abused southern housewives and murderous wannabe prom queens. It’s quite the collection.

The album itself—recorded over two days in March and featuring up-and-coming stars Alex Brightman, Ben Crawford, Jay A Johnson, Lindsay Mendez and Betsy Wolfe—showcases that collection beautifully. To Oliver, after a sold-out three show run at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn, the recording process “felt like the icing on the cake,” particularly because he trusted the creative team, actors, and musicians implicitly. “That is thrilling,” he said, “when you can just go: Anything that they do with what I’ve written is going to be as good, or better, more likely, that what’s in my head.”

When asked about some of his album highlights, Oliver mentioned “Leave, Luanne,” about that southern housewife, and “The Ballad of Sara Berry,” about our favorite dreadfully unhinged potential prom queen. Still, it seems there’s another song that’s become a particular favorite for the composer since hearing it recorded: “Why Must We Tell Them Why.” According to Oliver, “Dean Sharenow absolutely killed ‘Why Must We Tell Them Why’ in the best possible way. When I first got that recording I was like: Fuck, this is much better than I ever imagined it.”

As a listener, it’s songs like “Leave, Luanne,” “The Ballad of Sara Berry” and “Cut You a Piece,” with undercurrents of true darkness and deep sadness, where Oliver’s storytelling and music are most affecting. Of course, fantastic performances by Jay A Johnson, Lindsay Mendez and Alex Brightman, respectively, don’t exactly hurt. Everyone is singing their damn faces off on this album—Crawford and Wolfe included—which seems to be exactly what Oliver was going for with his “glorified talent show.”

Now if you’ll excuse us, we’re off to listen to Jay A Johnson howl the closing lines to “Leave, Luanne” for the six thousandth time. No big deal.


Want to win a copy of 35MM? The producers have generously provided us with a couple copies of the cast recording, plus some other goodies, to give away to our readers. Want to be in the running for one of our great prizes? Of course you do. Entering the giveaway is easy as pie, all you have to do is follow @thecraptacular on Twitter and tweet or retweet the following:

I’m done HEMMING & HAWING and it’d MAKE ME HAPPY to win a copy of #35MMMusical from @thecraptacular. RT & follow to win.

Credit: Matthew Murphy

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