A Musical Countdown to 60: Charles Gilbert and his song-a-day Project 194

Turning sixty is a big milestone, and it’s customary to plan something big to celebrate the occasion: a special trip, an extravagant purchase, maybe a memorable meal. South Philadelphia-based songwriter Charles Gilbert is celebrating in a different and rather unconventional way: by releasing nearly two hundred recordings of his songs on his blog, chasgilbert.com. Gilbert began posting a song a day at the beginning of the year, and he calls his song-sharing initiative Project 194: he’ll post one song a day on every one of the 194 days until his birthday arrives in July.

Charles Gilbert
Charles Gilbert

Even though he’s only in the sixth week of the endeavor, Gilbert says the response has already been gratifying. A few days ago, his website passed the 500-visitor mark. “That means that more than 500 people have come to the site and listened to the songs,” he notes, and many have subscribed to receive a song a day via email. “It’s like a virtual concert attended by all sorts of folks, not just friends but total strangers. It’s way better than having these songs languish in obscurity,” says Gilbert.

Gilbert is not exactly a household name in the music industry. He’s written a handful of musicals, including one commissioned by the Prince Music Theater, Gemini the Musical, which received a Barrymore nomination for best original music in 2004. His 1979 musical Assassins became the source of the idea for the Tony Award-winning musical of the same name by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, but their show doesn’t include any of Gilbert’s original music. His most extensive exposure has come from his score for Harold and the Purple Crayon, an Enchantment Theatre Company production now in its third year of touring and headed for the Merriam Theater this spring; “because of that production,” notes Gilbert, “thousands and thousands of people all over the country have heard my original music.”

That’s the main reason that motivated Gilbert to undertake Project 194. “I’ve written way too much good music that remains unheard,” he observes, and cites Austin Kleon’s recent book Share Your Work as a big influence in making the decision to share his work online. “Getting rich and famous couldn’t be farther from my mind, but if I can connect with responsive listeners, that’s all the reward I’m looking for.”

Gilbert wrote the songs for the musical version of Harold and the Purple Crayon
Gilbert wrote the songs for the musical version of Harold and the Purple Crayon

Project 194 has taken on a seasonal focus in the past few days; with the approach of Valentine’s Day, Gilbert is posting a series of love songs on his site in preparation for that holiday. Each song includes audio, lyrics and commentary. He’s planning other thematic forays in future weeks, for occasions like Fathers’ Day. “I’m a father and a grandfather, and it’s a subject that has inspired a number of my songs,” he notes.

When he’s not busy posting songs on the internet, Gilbert teaches on the faculty at the University of the Arts, whose musical theater program he helped to establish twenty-five years ago. He introduces students to a wide range of songs in his musical theater history and song analysis classes (though his own tunes are not on the syllabus).

When the day of the Big Six-Oh arrives, Gilbert is planning a concert which will feature the best of the 194 songs he’s posted on his blog. At the concert, he plans to premiere a composition called “Hear My Song,” and he’s invited visitors to the blog to submit video clips of themselves singing a short tune that he’ll digitally weave into a contrapuntal canvas between now and then. With any luck, the audience for his concert will include some new fans who’ve discovered his work as a result of this six-month initiative of song-sharing. chasgilbert.com.

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