Peter Galperin joins Jimmy in the Yeti Cave to discuss his newest project Higher Ground: The Musical, in stores April 19th. Is this a comic book? Is this a stage musical? Can I listen to the soundtrack? The answer to all of those questions is yes! Do you want to know more? Of course you do. So what are you waiting for? Keep reading!
COMIC BOOK YETI: Peter, thank you so much for joining me in the Yeti Cave to discuss Higher Ground: The Musical, which is a comic, but also a musical. I can think of a few musicals based on comics and a few comics influenced by musicals, but this is the first time I think I’ve come across a musical comic that functions perfectly as both. What inspired this ambitious project and why did you and the creative team want to make both a musical and a comic book?
PETER GALPERIN: Hi Jimmy, my pleasure to be here in the Yeti Cave (very cozy), and that’s a great question to start with! This project began with a few songs I wrote addressing global warming and a basic concept I was playing around with about a group of climate-change survivors 100 years from now. I had seen a news article about a glacier the size of Delaware breaking off from the Antarctic ice shelf, and then Hurricane Sandy hit New York flooding the bike path that I regularly ride on, and on several trips out west I experienced a couple of summers of heavy smoke from forest fires, so the growing reality of climate-change had become very real to me. I had originally intended to develop the story as a live stage production and my writing partner Gregg Ostrin and I were working towards that goal in early 2020 when Covid shut the world down. So over the course of the next year we continued to refine the story and music through a series of zoom meetings with our dramaturge Joe Langworth and musical director Debra Barsha. And when it looked like an Off-Broadway musical with a cast of ten was still going to be impossible to stage (because of Covid restrictions, union protocols, etc.), I had the idea of adapting our story into a graphic novel.
CBY: Speaking of the creative team, you are co-creator and art director, credited with music and lyrics, Gregg Ostrin is co-creator and writer, with Patrick Barrett illustrating and providing lettering, and DC Alonso coloring. What was the creative process for this like? Was the musical written first and the book for the musical adapted for the comic or was everything out together at once?
PG: Gregg and I had been developing the script and the songs for over two years before we started working on the comic book, so we had lived with the story for quite a while and knew it well. In addition to being a musician all my life, I’ve worked as an art director for many years and was familiar with directing artists, photographers and illustrators, so working with Patrick and DC was very natural. I gave Patrick thumbnail sketches of each page to begin with and he took it from there. There were certain visual elements that I knew needed to be highlighted in the story, and I was confident in Patrick’s ability to bring the characters to life. At the same time that Patrick and DC were working on the illustrations, I was working with my musicians to record the backing tracks. And while the book was getting printed, the very last thing we did was record our talented singers, and then mix the final tracks. Everything was aimed at our goal of launching the book and music on Earth Day 2023.
CBY: Digging into the story of Higher Ground, it’s set in the future and shows a small but diverse group of folks that are the last survivors of a New York City ravaged by climate change. I read issue #1 before listening to the music and despite the dire circumstances of the cast of characters, I found the music to be more uptempo than I was expecting. How did you balance the plotting of the comic with the tone of the musical numbers?
PG: It’s a four-part series and what you’ve read and heard in Volume One sets the tone and establishes what this world is and who these people are. They have somehow survived catastrophic climate and societal changes and have settled into a somewhat stable life for the past ten years. They have food, water and shelter, and even some homemade booze. They have a shared camaraderie that only comes from surviving tragedy together. The music reflects the emotional highlights of their lives, and at this point in time their lives are better than they might have expected. But the world isn’t as safe as it appears to be, and some upcoming twists and turns in the story will bring darker musical motifs.
CBY: Higher Ground: The Musical has teamed up with EarthHero.org, WeDon’tHaveTime.org, PalmOilDetectives.com, and SaveThePlanetGroup.com. How did those partnerships come about and what do you hope folks take away from reading the comic?
PG: There are three audiences for our story - musical theater followers, comic book fans, and the worldwide audience concerned with climate-change. We think our story can help build a community of these overlapping audiences, and our partnerships with climate concerned organizations goes to the heart of the climate events and societal reactions that inspired us to write this story.
CBY: You studied violin and piano with your classical musician parents, but I’m curious about the journey from there to a style that you describe as alt-rock, classic rock, and bossa nova influences. Can you tell CBY readers how you developed your style?
PG: I’ve always been very curious about music styles and genres. When I was young and studying classical music I was listening to classic rock and album rock on AM/FM radio. Later when I was in college playing punk rock/new wave/alt-rock I was scouring record stores for Brazilian, Cuban and West African music. And now when I’m writing and producing songs for musical theater I’m subconsciously combining all of those influences together. So you might hear bits of the Beatles, Beethovan, and Bob Marley all within one song.
CBY: Turning back to comics, what’s your relationship with comics? Lifelong reader, new to them, or only read them as a kid? Is Higher Ground your first foray into making comics?
PG: I collected comics as a kid and had a fairly extensive collection of Spiderman, Hulk, Superman, and Archies comics. It was the 60s and Saturday morning television had dozens of animated shows based on those characters. Unfortunately, I magic-marked all the covers with a strange cataloging system of my own making and completely ruined the value of the collection. More recently I’ve worked as an art director with several comic illustrators on a variety of corporate marketing projects. So while I wouldn’t call myself a lifelong comic book reader, the comic book world has had a big impact on me artistically. And I also got a steady diet of Mad Magazine as a kid.
CBY: I know Higher Ground isn’t your first musical. You wrote the music, lyrics, and book for Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses, which had an Off-Broadway run in 2017 starring Constantine Maroulis. What was that experience like taking a song you wrote about one of the most influential urban planners in American history and expanding it to a 19-song rock musical?
PG: My musical projects grow out of my obsessions, and for a long time I was obsessed with Robert Moses. As a non-native New Yorker I didn’t understand why the city’s subways were in such bad shape, or why the highway system surrounding the city was such a mess of overlapping roads. And then I read the book “The Power Broker” by Robert Caro and everything made sense - for over 40 years one man had controlled the modern destiny of New York City. And he didn’t take the subway, or drive a car. So the story of NYC and Robert Moses are forever intertwined as an urban tragedy, and to me that was worthy of a rock musical.
CBY: I have been finding more and more a connection between musicals and comics and not in terms of comics being adapted into musicals, but comic writers being influenced by musicals, whether it’s thematically, or with pacing or structure. As a composer and lyricist having worked on crafting the same story in both media, did you find either limiting, whether it was depicting the music in the comic or being limited by staging?
PG: With a live stage show there are limitations to location and scene-setting, and we handled that in the Higher Ground stage script by setting Act 1 (volumes 1 & 2) in a bar, and Act II (volumes 3 & 4) on a boat. The story is centered around an impending superstorm. We never see the actual storm, although we hear the build-up and see the aftermath. In the comic book we maintain that structure, but the book's covers will allude to that storm and some of the song sections are treated as fantasy sequences. For example, when Ezra sings “Another Drink (for Friendship)” he’s reminiscing about when he was a young man working as a tour guide on a double-decker bus, and on those pages we see him singing on the bus as it drives through Times Square. That’s probably not something we could do in a live show, but in a comic book there are no visual limitations.
CBY: Who would you say are your biggest influences musically, and in particular as a lyricist?
PG: Smart word play and playfulness in lyrics are very important to me. Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe are probably my favorite songwriters. Dylan’s lyric “Some people feel the rain, others just get wet,” Costello’s “Good manners and bad breath will get you nowhere,” or Nick Lowe singing “Without love I am an island, all by myself in the heartbreak sea” all blow me away by saying a lot emotionally, without saying too much physically. I can only hope to be half as inventive as those master songwriters.
CBY: Peter, thank you so much for joining me, I wish you a ton of success with Higher Ground: The Musical. Where can folks find you online and where can they get their copy of Higher Ground?
PG: This was fun! Thank you for the thoughtful questions and insights from the Yeti Cave! All of the songs for Volume One – “Last of the Mannahattas” can be streamed and downloaded for free on our site at www.highergroundthemusical.com, (also soon the music will be on Spotify and iTunes) and the printed book can be purchased (paper or digital) at Higher Ground: The Musical, Volume One - CWS Book Store. And hopefully, we’ll be in your local comic bookstore soon. Thanks again, and be well!