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A Conversation with Ryan McCartan on R&H Goes Pop!, ‘Seventh Avenue’, and Scotland, PA

I’d grown up watching Ryan McCartan on Disney Channel, starring in the sitcom Liv & Maddie as Diggy. I’d been a streamer on Spotify when he released his first EP, “The Opposite”, and a watcher of the 2014 off-broadway version of Heathers: The Musical with McCartan as JD. So when the opportunity arose to interview the young artist about his part in the R&H Goes Pop! series, I couldn’t resist.  

R&H, Rodgers and Hammerstein, refers to the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II duo, arguably the most influential and creative musical theater writers in America’s history. Their Broadway musicals consist of Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music. Starting in January of 2019, the R&H Organization began a series titled R&H Goes Pop! featuring modern covers of classic R&H songs. McCartan was one of the first artists asked to contribute. 

Courtesy of Ryan McCartan, via Nicole Suder

“The Rodgers and Hammerstein organization reached out to me and pitched the idea just for R&H Goes Pop! They were contacting theater stars and artists and people who are just in this world, to make contemporary versions of these classic songs. As far as what the song was and the musical arrangement, they gave me a lot of leeway and a massic runway to do it the way I wanted to do it.”

After being given a list of songs that had already been chosen by other artists, McCartan opted for “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific because it also held a personal connection. 

“I sang the role of Lt. Cable in a high school production and I won this local award for it. It was the first time the arts were validated as something I could take seriously, rather than just something I could do for fun, as a hobby. So I immediately gravitated towards South Pacific, and “This Nearly Was Mine” is just such a beautiful song [that] I thought could be sort of ‘popified’ in a really exciting way. I arranged something on the guitar and sent it into them… we wanted it to be really simple, to have this alt-pop, indie-pop vibe that was really conducive to propping up the lyrics and the musicality of the top line that Rodgers did with ‘This Nearly Was Mine’.” 

McCartan is the seventh artist to have his cover of an R&H classic premiered on the R&H Goes Pop! YouTube channel; however, he is far from the last. The series has yet to have a definite end in sight, and given the sheer volume of material there is to work with, it’s doubtful one will come any time soon. By putting a modern twist on these classic Broadway songs, the work Rodgers & Hammerstein can be revamped and enjoyed by a new generation of fans. 

“There is so much great music to be explored and I know that the point of R&H Goes Pop! Is to show that music to a younger audience or to a new audience of people who maybe aren’t familiar with it in the first place.” 

Along with his impressive cover, McCartan also just released his sophomore EP, “Seventh Avenue”, on September 20th. 

“Music to me is a diary entry, both creatively and personally. Creatively because for the past few years I’ve been writing, producing, and releasing music, all on my own, all independently… and so when I released “The Opposite” in 2018, that was the first collection of work that I had released as an independent artist and an independent producer, and while I’m very proud of it and stand by that work, it’s novice because it was the first thing that I’ve done. “Seventh Avenue”, being the second work I’ve done and a year later, the production style, the nuances, are a little more advanced. On the creative side, it’s really fun to be able to hear my progress linearly. On the personal side of things, it’s a diary.”

This release is a significant landmark because McCartan was living on Seventh Avenue last year when he made his Broadway debut as Fiyero in Wicked. Earning the role in Wicked was a huge milestone for the artist who has dreamed of performing on the Broadway stage since he was young. 

“Being on Broadway is my oldest dream in life. It is the first dream I can remember having, so the fact that it happened for me, it felt like that phase in my life needed to be artistically documented. So “Seventh Avenue” reflects not just the highs of reaching that occupational goal, but also all of the complicated emotions that I was feeling just as a human being, in New York, at that time… that’s how I wrote it, that’s how I compiled it, that was the story that was important for me to tell.” 

While many artists compare choosing a favorite track to choosing a favorite child, McCartan named “Over It”, the last song on the EP, as his favorite.  

“[Over It] is, in my opinion, the best work that I’ve ever done. I’m very excited to beat it. But as of right now, I think it’s the best work I’ve ever done. I love how it was produced, I love the permission I gave myself to just really sing out and let those emotions go wild.” 

Beyond his personal music career, McCartan is also in the middle of starring in Scotland, PA, a dark comedy retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The story centers around the McBeths, a couple stranded in their jobs at a fast-food restaurant who find a sinister way out. The play’s cast also consists of Taylor Iman Jones, Jeb Brown, Jay Armstrong Johnson, Megan Lawrence, Will Meyers, Kaleb Wells, and more.

Courtesy of Ryan McCartan, via Nicole Suder

“I share a dressing room with Jay Armstrong Johnson and Kaleb Wells so they’re the people I think of first and foremost. Not only are they just so ridiculously talented and so creative and so funny, but they’re also such rocks to me. They’re so supportive and every time we are done with rehearsal and go down to that dressing room, the first thing out of their mouths is, ‘okay, let’s check it, how is everyone doing’, and that is just such a good environment to be in, creatively and personally.”

When dealing with a story that is not as universally known, the performance can be significantly more stressful. Thankfully, McCartan says the cast of Scotland, PA makes the entire process enjoyable. 

“Mounting a brand new work that no one knows when they walk through the doors… that’s really hard. And being in the preview process where we rehearse for five hours and get twenty new pages and all of the changes we make, the Director expects to see on stage that night, is hard. But when you have a cast that is so good at what they do and so good as people, being on stage with them, no matter how stressful the rehearsal might be, feels so safe and I’m really grateful for that.” 

For anyone who has been following McCartan’s work, they’d notice a common theme between his performances in The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, Heathers, and Wicked–he has an affinity for a darker storyline. 

“I love narratives that skew a little bit darker. I think, honestly, it’s because I don’t have a dark bone in my body. I’m a milk toast Minnesotan dude. I’m super nice and always smiling and never want there to be any conflict, and so to be able to take a break from that reality of my life and be able to be a murderer is a nice little change, because there really isn’t much darkness in my life at all.”

To purchase tickets to Scotland, PA, click here. 

 

Feature image courtesy of Ryan McCartan, via Nicole Suder 

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Ariel Zedric is a student at Tufts University. When she's not studying, you can find her wandering around on her blog at arielzedric.wordpress.com. Contact via email at ariel.zedric@gmail.com or on Twitter or Instagram @arielzedric

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