Out Broadway Veteran Steven Cuevas Opens Up about A.R.T.'s 'Macbeth in Stride'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday November 7, 2021
Originally published on November 1, 2021

Steven Cuevas is based in New York, but he attended Emerson College in Boston, earning his B.F.A. in Musical Theater at that school.

"This is a sort of homecoming for me," Cuevas told EDGE about his stint working with playwright, lyricist, and composer Whitney White on the first installment of White's musical theater work cycle — commissioned by the American Repertory Theater — that's dedicated to "excavating the women in Shakespeare" by giving certain of the Bard's plays (and the women in them) a fresh look in a whole new light, telling the familiar stories from the female characters' points of view, and using contemporary music to do so.

For the first work in the cycle, White focuses on Lady Macbeth, the voice of ambition that urges her husband to commit regicide in order to take the crown for himself. A fascinating character in the original text, Lady Macbeth is as conflicted as her hesitant, guilt-ridden husband — but she's also more ambitious, possessing a will to power that outstrips her husband's own killer instincts. What drives her? What regrets does she have? And is she truly as self-possessed as we might believe, or is she — like Macbeth — being manipulated by the trio of witches who serve as the play's Greek chorus?

This is rich and exciting stuff to reconsider, and Cuevas has been working with White as music director, plus assisting with the orchestration of the play's songs. A Broadway veteran with credits ranging from "Kinky Boots" to "Once on This Island" and more, as well as working with touring productions of those show plus "Spring Awakening," "My Fair Lady (Singapore," and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!," Cuevas has the depth and breadth of experience to take on the show's wide-ranging musical genres and motifs.

EDGE chatted with Steven Cuevas, hearing about the process of bringing Lady Macbeth to new life, considering how marginalized people have been treated in literature and life, and how female ferocity, which has not always been acknowledged, is and has been a driving force.

EDGE: This show is somewhat like "Six," which explores the story of the wives of Henry VIII from the perspective of the women and through contemporary music. Are we seeing a new genre of musical emerging?

Steven Cuevas: What's fascinating about what Whitney White is doing with "Macbeth in Stride," and with the other plays that were commissioned by A.R.T., is taking Shakespeare's characters that are beloved and turning it on its ear, but only by analyzing it through a contemporary female lens, and from the perspective of a Black woman. Even if you just change your point of view for one second, you realize someone might have a different opinion than yours. So, that's what I think it's fascinating about this: Nothing about the character has changed except for the point of view.

EDGE: Being the music director, and working together with writer and composer Whitney White on the orchestrations, what sorts of things do you have to think about in terms of making sure the music matches with the action and fits with the words?

Steven Cuevas: It's been quite a process for this show. Whitney has written an entirely original score, original music and lyrics. We take snippets from the Shakespeare, of course, but for the most part it's all original lyrics, and she has a very specific point of reference for each song, whether it be genre, artist, or really feel of the song. She would sometimes play a song for me, and I would immediately pick up what she was going for, because the perspective and the point of reference is so right and spot on, I know exactly what it's supposed to be like.

She has written songs that are very specific to the moment, and they are the plot points in the Shakespeare storyline, but it's been a fun ride to hear what she hears in her head for all those moments. I think people might be surprised. It's been so many different genres, from straight-up rock and roll, to hip-hop and R&B, and everything in between — every decade of rock, specific bands within the genre. We've had a lot of fun to live out our fantasies, and be those rock stars on stage.

EDGE: Are you already a fan of all those forms, or has this been an opportunity to immerse yourself and get to know some forms more than you had before?

Steven Cuevas: It's funny because, as I said, the second I hear Whitney play a song, I know exactly what artist she's going for, or what vibe she's going for. That just means that I'm immediately dialed in, and I know exactly what it is. Therefore, I dive headfirst into it, and whether or not I wanted to play in the style of Nine Inch Nails, I never knew that, but I'm having a blast doing it.

EDGE: This being a play-slash-concert that flips the script on classic Shakespeare and looks at themes from the classic play of ambition and gender roles, have you had to think a lot and talk with Ms. White about how to give the music and the orchestrations a "female" voice in some respect?

Steven Cuevas: Early on in the process, she would describe the music, or the music genre, as a cross between Tina Turner and Nine Inch Nails, so that's always been the original reference point. Tina Turner is the most powerful female rock artist I know, and she's a brilliant woman as well. So, just having that in the back of my mind has always been like, "Okay, I see how someone who's so ambitious in the rock world can translate to the ambition of Lady Macbeth." That's always been the reference point for me.

And to have a female voice in rock, it truly means to having a woman singing the song. So, when Whitney sings that music, it feels like it fits like a glove — because it does! She has written incredible music for herself, and she sounds so good doing it, it sounds like people should be singing this way for decades. And, also to have the female vibe, we do have three backup singers, or the witches, as it were. And actually, one of the witches is played by a man, but that also doesn't matter, because that just lends to the vision of supporting this strong female. I think it's always been inherent to it being shaped around a strong female character and writer and performer. Again, it's just about to perspective; once you change that perspective, it becomes about that, and if we're all part of that.

EDGE:I like how in certain key scenes the music fits the original Shakespeare text and becomes a spoken word performance.

Steven Cuevas: Yes, there's a lot of that aspect to it. And once you see it performed, it feels like you are part of a rock concert experience, and it seamlessly blends into the Shakespeare. And then, the scene after becomes about the artist talking to the audience again. So, it's a line-blurring type of theatrical experience, I would say.

EDGE: How do you think these songs would work as a soundtrack or a concept album... or even a dance floor remix?

Steven Cuevas: I think the way the songs are being presented in this show are meant to be experienced live, but if this were to be recorded, it would absolutely be a rock album that would top the charts. It doesn't sound like any musical theater show that I've ever been a part of. These are truly pop, rock, R&B, hip-hop songs that would be alongside Beyonce or Nirvana if you were to play them on the radio.

EDGE: You've worked with productions on tour, including touring productions of "Kinky Boots." "Spring Awakening," "Once on This Island," and others. So, in this case, helping create something brand new. Do you feel like you're getting more of a voice in what's happening or you're getting more of a chance to shape and influence what's happening or, or it's really, again, you're taking on music director orchestrations and you're letting the real, the other kinds of creative cards belong to Ms. White.

Steven Cuevas: I feel absolutely like part of the creative process, and this entire project has been very collaborative between Whitney me, the directors, the choreographer, and even the cast. I think when people see and hear this, so they're going to freak out. I do feel like I have been heard a lot throughout this process, and it has been a show where I'm able to have my voice, be a part of the conversation, and not just my voice as an artist, but my voice as the theatre maker of color, a non-Black theatre maker, a queer theater maker, all of that — putting all of my perspectives and how I view the themes in this show, how I respond to the people within the room, all of that has gone into making this show, so it definitely hasn't been just about me being the music director or taking a look at the orchestration. My voice has absolutely been heard, and it's been an open channel for everyone in the entire process, which has been a wonderful experience.

EDGE: The play tackles the interesting question of how far is too far when women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color — any marginalized people — are pushed to the side, and how far would be too far when those people try to push back. As an artist, and even imagining yourself as an audience member, how does that theme resonate for you?

Steven Cuevas: It's interesting because Lady Macbeth as a character we think we know backwards and forwards, but then we don't ever take into consideration the human aspect of her. What actually is driving her, and why does she do the things she does, to get what she wants? And then eventually, why does she go mad? I think it flips the script on us. The audience thinks they know everything, and we actually haven't really thought about these things.

I love the way Whitney has addressed it to women and queer people and other people. What would it take to be pushed too far, or what would we do to get what we want, if we were to have our full fantasy of what we want? It's a very interesting question, because these marginalized groups do have to work harder to get what they want, and they don't always get what they want to the fullest extent. I think this is right in the conversation we've been having over the last 18, 19 months — since theatre has been away, really. The world has changed since we've last done live theater. I think it's such a timely question to ask, and I think kind of profound. Obviously, I would never condone going as far as Lady Macbeth does. But, it also asks the people who don't belong to those other groups, "How can we support those people.?"

EDGE: Right, right. So that Lady Macbeth doesn't need to grab a dagger just to have her say,


Steven Cuevas: Right!

EDGE: Do you have plans to be working with Ms. White on the next four parts of this cycle, which continues with other women from different Shakespeare plays who need to have their day also?

Steven Cuevas: I've collaborated with Whitney on several other projects in the past, so I I never feel like my time with Whitney has ended. If it so happens that our paths cross again for some of the other Shakespeare women, I would be happy to be a part of that. But, as of now, I don't know. Right now, I believe they are still cooking in her head. She shared with me some ideas for some of the other Shakespeare women, and it piqued my interest in terms of what she wants to do with those women, so stay tuned!

"Macbeth in Stride" plays at the American Repertory Theater Oct. 23 — Nov. 14. For more information, go to https://americanrepertorytheater.org.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.