Nov. 16 2011 12:00 AM

Nellie McKay plays doomed convict Barbara Graham


Writing and performing a musical-cabaret show about an
executed woman isn’t something a typical 29-year-old pop star would
embark on. But Nellie McKay isn’t a run-of-the-mill vocalist.

In 2006 the Manhattan-based jazz-pop singer and
multi-instrumentalist ditched Columbia Records, due to artistic
differences: She loudly supports People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals, gay rights, and feminism. She even wrote a song for death-row
inmate Troy Davis before his September execution. 

So it was no surprise when McKay announced her new
project “I Want to Live!” The show tells the true story of a female
death row inmate through songs, narrative and some sound effects.

“It’s a musical death-row revue,” McKay said, in a phone
interview. “It’s based on the story of Barbara Graham. She was the
third woman executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin in 1955. We try
to include the many facets of her life. Her death was a part of her
life, but she was a real person.”

Backed by a four-piece band, McKay plays a mixture of
original songs and cover tunes, even throwing in John Lennon’s “I’m So
Tired,” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”

Graham was a struggling prostitute and petty criminal
until the 30-year-old was convicted of murder and thrust into a
high-profile 1953 case. Along with Graham, two male accomplices were
also convicted in Los Angeles for the murder and robbery of Mabel
Monohan, a 64-year-old widow. 

This same story, under the same title, was also told in a
1958 film starring Susan Hayward as Graham; Hayward won an Academy
Award as best actress for her performance. The film shows Graham being
led to the gas chamber, even taking her last breaths while strapped to
a chair. 

While this story has been told before (it was also made
into a 1983 made-for-TV flick), McKay said her live show digs deeper
into Graham’s troubled life. 

“Barbara was from the wrong side of the tracks,” McKay
explained. “She was one of those people who kind of lived outside of
society and had a lot of hardship in her life — it made it easy to
demonize her.” 

McKay said she strongly feels Graham could have been
wrongly convicted due to what she feels was a “lack of concrete proof
and evidence.”  

“There’s a tremendous amount of doubt to this day,” McKay
said. “It certainly didn’t warrant the death penalty, because of
reasonable doubt. 

“This happens to a lot of people on death row and
prison,” she added. “She really was wronged by the system. It becomes
easy to slot them into that system because they’ve always been on the
outside. It’s wonderful to be able to have a chance to tell her story.
When you show the details of somebody’s life, they stop being a
statistic or caricature.”

McKay’s musical may have serious subject matter, but she
made it clear that her show isn’t doom and gloom — especially in
comparison to other true stories, like “Monster,” the critically
acclaimed 2003 crime drama that told the story of Aileen Wuornos, who
died in a prison death chamber in 2002.

“This show is nowhere as depressing as ‘Monster’ — that
movie was so depressing,” McKay said. “We aim to entertain. We try to
tell her story, and like many stories, there are ups and downs.”  

McKay has released five studio albums since 2004. Her
debut album, “Get Away From Me” (a play on Norah Jones’ jazzy-pop album
“Come Away With Me”), was well received by critics. It showcased her
ability to write witty yet edgy lyrics while exploring a plethora of
modern and classic genres of music, even some hip hop. 

With “I Want to Live!” in full swing, McKay said she hopes her next record will be a soundtrack for the musical.

“Right now, we’re busy doing the show, but I’d like to
make a record of this. I think it’d be nice to have some radio play,
so, I’ve got my fingers crossed,” she said. “I think when people see
the show they’ll want to listen to it again.”

Nellie McKay:

’I Want to Live!’

Saturday, Nov. 19

Wharton Center

Pasant Theatre

$25; MSU students $15 with valid ID