‘33 1/3’ Celebrates The Power 1970s Pop Music To Change Lives
By Dan Polletta
There was a long period of time when pop music fans didn’t stream and download their favorite hits to their phones. Instead, they listened to it on the radio and went to record stores to buy vinyl albums.
“Everyone listened to Top 40 radio, but it was very diverse. There was a variety of music. You didn’t just listen to one station to hear one kind of music. As a result, I think we had a much more widespread taste-base,” composer Jay Turvey said.
Turvey and co-composer Paul Sportelli came up during one of the high points of enjoying music via records and radio: the 1970s. The two have been writing musicals together in Canada since the mid-1990s and also work together at the Shaw Festival. They teamed to pen “33 1/3,” which Turvey described as “a love letter to that period.”
Buying a full recording lent an air of excitement to pop fans.
“You would buy an album without knowing anything about it, except maybe the one pop song you heard on the radio. It was a whole discovery moment in your bedroom by yourself to music you had never heard before, except perhaps for that one song,” Turvey said.
Turvey feels pop music has the power to affect listeners deeply.
“There’s something visceral about music. We even borrowed a line from Noel Coward’s ‘Private Lives,’ which says ‘Strange how potent cheap music is.’ No matter how sophisticated you are, there is something about pop music that gets right to the core of you and can be a trigger,” Turvey said.
[photo: Dobama Theatre]
The music is a trigger for Jules, the main character of “33 1/3.” He’s a New York City-based music critic known for his heard-it-all-before attitude. Jules spent his high school years hanging out with his best friend Jill listening to music. We soon learn that Jill has died.
“Albums of his that he had left with Jill to take care of are returned to him upon her death. Those albums are actually the catalyst that brings back memories that allow him to revisit his life, almost like Scrooge, in ‘A Christmas Carol,’” Sportelli said.
Those albums take Jules back to 1974, as he remembers his shared passion with Jill for pop songs and singer-songwriters. The music helped them both survive adolescence and allowed Jules to escape his small town, which he desperately wanted to leave.
Jules used his love of music to create a new personality, one that was both a blessing and a curse.
“I think what Jules has done is as a young man he aspired to be more sophisticated than he was in a small town. When he gets to New York, he starts to adapt this persona of the urbane, jaded rock critic and it becomes a bit of a trap. Hopefully by the end of the evening, he has re-evaluated that personality,” Turvey said.
“33 1/3” is both a coming-of-age story and a coming-out story, as young Jules comes to acknowledge his sexuality through a relationship with Francis, an openly gay David Bowie fan.
Turvey said it’s been an interesting experience dealing with attitudes toward sexual orientation in 1974 and today.
"I do think one of the things we come across with our young cast, trying to make them understand what it was like when nobody was ‘out.’ There was no gay persona. That’s something that is very unusual for people to understand in 2019,” Turvey said.
[Jay Turvey, Paul Sportelli, ideastream's Dan Polletta /photo: ideastream]