c/o Payton Millet

c/o Payton Millet

If you have been to see a Second Stage show in the past four years, you may have seen Payton Millet ’21 acting on stage, conducting the orchestra, or in the program as the composer behind the music. When he’s not performing in a musical or with his a cappella group, the Wesleyan Spirits, Millet is composing for musical theatre shows, often in one of many small nooks on campus to which he has gained access. The Argus Zoomed with Millet to chat about his best Wesleyan memories, accomplishments, and thoughts about what’s to come.

The Argus: How has your semester been so far?

Payton Millet: This one? It’s bizarre. I mean, this is probably an easier question when it’s like a regular semester. It has been nice seeing people in Alpha Delt again, over Zoom. We had an info session for the Spirits, and we didn’t get any frosh who were interested, but it was the first time we’d all been on a Zoom together in a long time, and that felt really nice. 

I feel like it’s so hard to communicate with people in this situation, because everyone’s circle has gotten so much tighter, so it’s really nice when people still, if given the opportunity, like to see one another. 

A: You mentioned a cappella. Can you talk a little about that?

PM:  I’ve been in the Spirits since my freshman fall. I didn’t think I was going to do a cappella in college, but I saw them at the showcase concert during orientation, and they sang a cover of “All Star” by Smash Mouth and I was like, I’ve gotta do this. That’s who I was with when we got the news that school was over forever. We were in New Orleans on spring break, and they were the exact group of people I wanted to be with upon getting the news.

A: Are there other moments with the Spirits that were particularly memorable? 

PM: We do an exchange concert every fall break, which is always fun. We went and sang at Princeton one year with the Footnotes, and we were really bad, and they were so good, and they made fun of us. A friend sent us an email that the Footnotes had sent to publicize the concert we were doing together. The Footnotes had prefaced our concert in the email by saying “Still feel bad about rejecting your acceptance to Wesleyan? Come atone by watching the Wesleyan Spirits sing with the Princeton Footnotes.”

Fuck Princeton. Fuck the Footnotes. But anyway, it was nice to go through that embarrassment together, I guess. 

A: So Wesleyan’s known for having a pretty small Greek life culture. How did you get involved with ADP?

PM: Oh god. Is this just going to be about my male a cappella group and my frat? God dammit. I got involved with Alpha Delt because I had a crush on my sponsor, but really, it was that some friends of mine were in it. Also, there was a history of Spirits being Alpha Delts.

The selling point that is a silent thing that nobody talks about, but I think it’s the reason why 80% of people join Alpha Delt, is that the house rocks. It is so nice and old and spooky and fun, and I loved being in it, and I wanted to feel like I had access to it. This was a big thing. My freshman year I was just accumulating access to little private spaces on campus. It’s why I took organ class, so that I could have 24-hour access to the chapel. I was always looking for quiet little study nooks everywhere that people didn’t know about.

A: What do you like about ADP?

PM: I kinda like the bureaucracy of it. I like that we never really do anything, but we talk a ton. I like that we have stupid songs that we sing. I like that we have a grand piano. I wrote the majority of two shows on that piano, just because it’s the one piano you can play 24 hours and the only people who complain are the people who live in the basement.

Best Alpha Delt memory ever is me and Matt Grimaldi ’21 chilling in the Grotto during finals week. We don’t know what time it is, because there is no time in the Grotto, that’s on the wall somewhere. And we used to get health updates from Wesleyan, and they would be the scariest thing in the world, instead of a regular occurrence, and we got one about viral meningitis. And a trick that my mom had taught me about how to see if you have meningitis is [that] you take your fingers and you rub them together next to your ear. If you can hear it, then you don’t have meningitis. So the two of us were there sleep deprived, feeling terrible physically, just because we had been studying for finals for five days without much rest and one of the telltale signs of viral meningitis is pain in your neck. And of course, we had pain in our necks, because we were sitting in these awful chairs in the grotto forever. So it was just me and Matt, and I told him about the trick and we would just sit there and would [rubs fingers together] every five minutes. And then we’d start to prank each other and be like, here, wait, can you hear mine? And then we wouldn’t do it when it was next to their ear.

Good time.

A: Do you have any thoughts for students considering rushing? 

PM: Yeah. Do it. It’ll pay off in ways that you don’t really understand yet. If you are at all intrigued about the house, then I would say that the people inside it are 10 times better than what it looks like on the outside. So it’s worth getting to know them.

A: Tell me about composing.

PM: When I got to Wesleyan at the beginning, if I met anybody who seemed even vaguely interested in making work, I would be like, “you want to write a musical together? I can write music and lyrics if you’ve got an idea for a musical.” And I would just tell that to anybody who would hear it, because I really wanted to get the opportunity to produce work and because every time you get to a new institution, you don’t know anybody and you don’t have any sort of a reputation. October of my freshman fall, I’m working on a show with a friend of mine, who goes to NYU, that he had managed to organize a production of at NYU, with a group called “A Class Act.” I had work to do, and I was happy, but really I wanted to work at Wesleyan, because I wanted to see my work done here. Artistic collaborations are the most important relationships in my entire life, and they have always been and will always be, I think, because I think it’s closer than any friend or any partner. Don’t tell that to the people that I’ve dated, but it’s the best. 

So I get a text from my friend, former Argus Editor-in-Chief Brooke Kushwaha ’20, and Brooke says “I have an idea for a musical about a traveling salesman, and I think you’d be right to write the music and the lyrics.” And she’s got most of a first act done and a title, and it’s ‘Snake Oil,’ and it’s so perfect. I’m such a fan of everything that she put on the table, and to have such a discrete vision was beautiful, because I could just come in and be flashy. A lot of people who liked the show attribute “Snake Oil’s” relative success to the music, but that has always boggled my mind, because there couldn’t have been that show without the script that Brooke put together, and the world that she made, and the satire that was just so on-point and wonderful. Working with a smart satirist is like a crazy experience that I’ve never gotten to do since. It’s so weird to think that that is technically the only show that I’ve gotten produced through Second Stage, because “Time Again” had to die for COVID, but it was a fantastic experience.

But that finishes, and within a week I get a set of phone calls from Ramsey Burgess ’20 and Ava Grob ’20. Ramsey saying, “I have this idea for a capstone, a musical that turned into ‘Heartbreak County,’ and I want you to write the music and the lyrics.” And Ava being like, “I have a thesis, ‘Phoebe in Winter,’ and I want you to write music for it.”

That summer of 2019 was the most creatively productive of my life. I’m living in New York City, and I music-directed a youth production of “Peter Pan,” but also I am writing “Heartbreak County” at the same time as I’m writing “Time Again” with my friend from home, Percy Langston. And Percy had a super compelling story to tell, rooted in his personal experience of growing up as a trans guy in the Bay Area and the struggles there [with] familial transphobia, really interrogating the question of, what does it look like to be so subtly rejected by a family that always expected and wanted you to be a different thing than you are? “Time Again” is the project that I’m proudest of, and I am the most depressed that it did not get to go up at Wesleyan, but c’est la vie.

And then I got a major concussion, which sucked. The concussion is a big part of my personal narrative of college in a weird way. For six months I basically couldn’t think, it was very annoying.  That’s why my immediate reaction upon hearing that school was closing for the rest of the semester was relief that I didn’t have to keep working so hard, because I had been burning the candle at both ends through a concussion. The major symptom of the concussion was that I was getting super sensitive to noise. I had to wear noise-canceling headphones, or I couldn’t go outside. And what was annoying was that I would sit at the piano, and I’d try to play things, and I would get overwhelmed. So I had to write the music for “Time Again” with noise-canceling headphones on and just barely being able to hear the piano, cause I could only make sense analytically of the music I was playing if it was so, so, so quiet.

A: This sounds like a really serious concussion, what happened?

PM: This is the stupidest shit in the world. I was in “Pixie Meat,” Maria Noto’s ’21 play, and we had a show the same night as our Spirits fall concert. I was only in the first half of “Pixie Meat,” so I left at the act to go next door from the ’92 to the chapel to sing some songs, and then I came back for curtain call. That night at the Spirits after-party, I was so relieved to not have to do “Pixie Meat” again, I sat back on a couch and with a reckless disregard, I just thwhacked my head backwards against the wall, and it ruined my life for six months. 

A: Oh gosh. To change the topic, do you have any post-graduation plans yet? 

PM: I mean, “Heartbreak County” is tentative. I’m gonna spend this semester applying “Time Again” to different festivals. I also applied for a job at “Sesame Street,” because I would like very much if that is where my career took me. If I got to write songs for “Sesame Street” for the rest of my life, I would be frankly, extremely happy. I think “Sesame Street” is maybe the most important art. I love children’s programming. Well-made content for children is, I think, the best of what the human race can offer. I get so nitpicky about musicals for kids because I think there’s very few that are good and accurate. The thing that a lot of them miss is that ultimately childhood is pretty rad.

A:  Is there anything else you want to add about your time at Wesleyan?

PM: At the end of every semester, I go and I stand on top of Foss Hill, and I look out over college row and I listen to “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” by Simon and Garfunkel and just take stock of how I feel in that moment. I think back and every time I did it, it’s a discrete and distinct memory in my head. And I can feel exactly the way that I did in that moment.  As much as college feels so chaotic when you’re living it, you’ve just got to force yourself to slow down and then you’ll remember it fondly.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hallie Sternberg can be reached at hsternberg@wesleyan.edu or on Twitter @halsternberg

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