“I don’t think I’ll ever think of it the old way again”: A Q&A with Emergence’s Patrick Olson

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Q&A with Patrick Olson of Emergence

By Broadway’s Best Shows Staff

The new show Emergence, now running at the Pershing Square Signature Center, knows it’s hard to describe – is it a musical? A concert? A scientific exploration? An acid trip? It’s a little bit of everything. In this interview with lead performer and composer Patrick Olson, we explore the creative process behind this idiosyncratic event, that’s a little bit David Byrne, a little bit Carl Sagan, and even a little bit Woodstock. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Broadway’s Best Shows

Why write songs about huge philosophical questions?

Patrick Olson

You know, it may be less of a choice than just a simple response to how my mind is evolving, as I get older. I’ve tended to find that over time, whatever songs I’m writing at a given point in my life are reflective of the thought space that I carry around in that time. And maybe that’s not so surprising! I really think about these big questions, I really think about the implications of scientific insight. I really think about what it means to be human in a rapidly changing environment that we’re all in. And since I think about those things all the time, I think it’s natural that the music would reflect that.


Tell us about the songwriting process. I mean, it’s the cliche question, which comes first, the music or the lyrics, but…


I normally start with just a baseline, and try to find some bass groove that feels right to me, and evokes some kind of specific emotion. The rhythm section of drums and bass constitute the spine of any song, so I like to start with the spine. And once that feels like it’s in a certain kind of pocket, then I just start noodling around the edges of that. Typically, the next thing [is] a basic portal structure that I would do on an acoustic piano, and figure out what kind of chord progressions feel right in relation to that baseline and those drums, and what sort of harmonic harmonic dimensions will come out of that. Lastly, I start to experiment with vocal ideas, which constitute the melody of any given song. 

Once all of that is in place, then I really like to give the music a week or two, to breathe on its own and develop its own sense of character. And so when writing lyrics and the song, the structure of the song, the tone of the song, the qualities that the instrumentals offer, they really shape what the emotional context of the lyrics is going to be in. Then it’s just a matter of linking that to whatever ideas seem to fit the best. And usually, there are scientific insights of one kind or another, and the song kind of comes together at that point.


How and why did your album Music for Scientists become a work of theater that’s now running at the Pershing Square Signature Center? That’s a really unusual journey. 


Yeah! Writing and recording and producing that album was immense, fun, and really interesting. We really didn’t cut any corners. You know, we had a full orchestra that we recorded in Nashville. And this was during COVID, too, so that represented all of its own challenges, but we had I think a 50, 60, 70 piece orchestra with it. All of the songs on that album constitute the fertile soil that the next stage would grow out of. We really only used one song from that album, in the show Emergence, and that was “Moons of Jupiter.” I wrote nine new songs to constitute the show. But that album laid out the DNA for what the following songs would be and how they might constitute a different kind of experience, not just an isolated sonic experience, but a visual experience and a community experience of that theatrical experience.


That leads really nicely into my next question– what is the sort of emotional experience you’re  hoping to create for your audience?


I would really love for people to just be plainly entertained, in the most superficial way. [And] I would hope people would experience some emotional movement. For them to be touched, or for them to have the music and the stage-theatrical experience, evoke an emotion from them. 

I’m really, really happy to report that, we go out into the lobby after every show and greet everyone as they’re leaving, and every single night, I get to hear people say [those] things: they feel it was so entertaining, and the show was really tight, and the choreo was great. And everything just kept moving, and they didn’t know what to expect next. And that there were periods of time in the show where people tell me they were really moved to tears. And it was just really beautiful. 

People tell me pretty regularly, “I never thought of this in that way. And I don’t think I’ll ever think of it the old way again. Now I see the world in this way.” So it’s not just my intention, but I really have the privilege of being able to have face to face contact with people as they’re leaving the theater. And they tell me [that] happens. And it’s wonderful! 


And you give them a tulip, which is also lovely. (Audience members are handed a tulip as they leave the theater.)


They get a tulip as well! Which is sort of an emblem of the show in many ways. It’s referenced in the show and has scientific meaning as well as, you know, just kind of a nice little practical thing to give people to memorialize the experience.


So what do you see as the importance of an artist, such as yourself, communicating science? Why is that important to you? Why does that matter?


It’s really fascinating because the word ‘science’ is loaded. It can mean so many different things to so many other people, you can say the word ‘science’ to someone on the street and who knows how they might react to that – it might be they have a sense of dread about physics exams that they had during college, or they feel like it’s really ‘mathy’ and something far away from them. Or it’s inscrutable, [like] “science is all about test tubes, and formulas and things I don’t understand.” 

I don’t think of science as any of that stuff. I think of science as the insight, the understanding into the nature of the universe. That’s what I care about. The scientific method and good research methodology lead to solid insights, but it’s the insights that I care about. And so when I think about science, what I think about is reality. That is our best human understanding of the nature of things. And science happens to be the most reliable tool for getting at that thing, but it’s that thing that I care about.


An element of the show that was really unique was Jordan Noltner’s lighting design. It had a sort of rock concert feel that I so rarely see onstage. And so I’d love to know how that unique visual was created. 


There’s no question Jordan Noltner is a gifted lighting designer. It has to do with the DNA of the show… a big part of what we are is a musical concert, and any rock concert that you would go to for any popular musician, they have extensive and dramatic lighting, and we felt that that would be fitting for what we’re doing here as well.


So you come from the music world. How is the theater schedule treating you? What’s your routine to do this show? Because this is a big sing.


Yeah, you know what I didn’t realize? Last night we finished our 62nd or 63rd show. And since a run of this length is very new to me, I did not understand just how taxing it is physically. I find I live a pretty quiet life outside of the show. And that’s necessary for me to summon all of the energy and explosive stuff that happens in the show. And then I go back home and recover and continue with my quiet life. So it does take a lot of sustained energy–I was surprised by how physically taxing a theatrical run like this is! But it is at the same time the most inspiring and most fun thing I think I’ve ever done in my life. So I will take the exertion, I’ll take all the beatings that come down the pipe, and I’ll keep doing this as long as we’re able to, because it is so exciting. And mostly it’s just about having contact with the audience after the show, when they can speak to me about their experience and that, more than anything else, just recharges my batteries for the next show.

Broadway's Best

Broadway’s Best Shows of 2023

Shining a spotlight on the best all-around productions Broadway had to offer this year. And who better to make the top 10 picks than the site titled Broadway’s Best Shows? Keep an eye out for our listing of the year’s best performances!

A Doll’s House

Henrik Ibsen’s timeless classic took center stage once again, its 14th Broadway production but the first since 1997. The play’s 1889 exploration of the complexities of marriage, misogyny, and societal expectations remains as relevant as ever. With Jessica Chastain starring in a new barebones adaptation by Amy Herzog, this Jamie Lloyd-helmed production brought a fresh eye to this masterpiece. The revival ran at the Hudson Theatre in the spring.

Fat Ham

Shakespeare met hip-hop in ‘Fat Ham,’ a Pulitzer prize-winning bold reimagining of ‘Hamlet’ from writer James Ijames that electrified the stage of the American Airlines Theatre with its innovative fusion of classic and contemporary, after premiering at the Public Theater. 

Here Lies Love

Immersive and pulsating with energy, ‘Here Lies Love’ was the unique theatrical experience that explored the life of Imelda Marcos. The show dazzled audiences with its interior transformation of the Broadway Theatre, inventive staging and infectious music from David Byrne and Fatboy Slim.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Merrily We Roll Along

Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ finally gets its due, as superstars Jonathan Groff, Lindsay Mendez, and Daniel Radcliffe endure the deterioration of friendship and creative partnership nightly at the Hudson Theatre. The revival, the first since the production’s infamous initial flop, captures the conflict between friendship and ambition among artists, set to a particularly melodic Sondheim score.


Based on a true story, ‘Parade’ weaves a haunting tale of injustice and redemption in the American South. Starring Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond, the Broadway transfer of New York City Center’s 2022 gala production, brought the gripping narrative to life at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre with powerful staging from Michael Arden and Jason Robert Brown’s stirring score.

Prima Facie

The drama of the courtroom took center stage as this new play, on Broadway last spring from across the pond, tackles issues of justice and gender. Jodie Comer won a Tony Award for her compelling and thought-provoking exploration of the complexities of finding justice or healing for sexual assault survivors from within the legal system.

Photo by Marc J. Franklin

Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch

A celebration of African-American culture and resilience, ‘Purlie Victorious’ is a jubilant comedy that remains relevant and uplifting 62 years after its original Broadway bow. Ossie Davis’s essential words are brought to resounding life by Leslie Odom, Jr., Kara Young, and the rest of the pitch-perfect cast under the direction of Kenny Leon. The revival runs at the Music Box Theatre through February 4, 2024. 

Photo by Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Stephen Sondheim’s macabre masterpiece continues to thrill audiences with its chilling tale of revenge and obsession. Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford give two of the great musical theatre performances of our times at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, with Aaron Tveit and Sutton Foster taking over the leads in early 2024. 

Summer, 1976

Manhattan Theatre Club’s ‘Summer, 1976’ captured the essence of a generation in a nostalgic journey. Theatrical perennials Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht starred in this new play presentation at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

The Thanksgiving Play

In the comedic exploration of political correctness, Larissa Fasthorse’s ‘The Thanksgiving Play’ satirizes the challenges of creating an inclusive holiday celebration. Finally premiering on Broadway after a 2018 off-Broadway premiere, the play tickled audiences at the Helen Hayes Theatre with standout turns from Chris Sullivan and D’Arcy Carden.

Broadway's Best

Broadway’s Best “Broadway Week” Shows

The Mayor’s Office for Tourism and Conventions’ annual Broadway Week promotion is almost upon us, which means that you can now get 2-for-1 tickets to select Broadway shows for performances between September 4-17! (Yes, Broadway Week is actually two weeks long. Lucky us!) 

Unlike TDF’s Half Price Ticket Booth, which only offers same-day discounts, the Broadway Week tickets can be purchased up to a month in advance. Use code BWAYWK23 to access this exciting offer today. Participating shows are also offering premium orchestra seats, usually $250-$400, for just $125 with code BWAYUP23. Check the official website for full details. 

Here are some of the shows we recommend catching while this offer lasts:


The 2019 Best Musical Tony Award winner recently welcomed new cast member Solea Pfeiffer in the lead role of Euridyce! Betty Who and Philip Boykin join the company Sept. 5 as lovers Persephone and Hades, respectively. See them alongside Lillias White as Hermes and Reeve Carney as Orpheus.


This toe-tapping big band musical is from Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman (the composer-lyricist duo behind Hairspray!, Catch Me If You Can, and Smash) and book writers Matthew López and Amber Ruffin. With direction and Tony Award-winning choreography by Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon, Aladdin, The Prom), this one is not to be missed!


Last season’s Best Musical stars two-time Tony Award winner Victoria Clark as Kimberly herself, with music by Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home, Caroline, or Change, Shrek: The Musical) and a book & lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire in an adaptation to his 2001 play of the same name.


Leslie Odom, Jr. (of Hamilton Tony-winning fame) stars as the titular role in this first ever revival of Ossie Davis’ landmark 1961 satire, directed by Kenny Leon. Two-time Tony Award nominee Kara Young co-stars as Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins. Performances begin Sept. 7!


The immersive disco bio-musical with music by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim tells the life story of former Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos. Here Lies Love is a fascinating parable about fascism, the media, and the effects of 20th century American cultural dominance and empire on so-called “Third World” countries like the Philippines. We recommend using your Broadway Week discount to splurge on a Dance Floor ticket, where you’ll be inches away from the actors and part of the storytelling. Good luck getting the title song out of your head. 


This UK export retells the story of the six ex-wives of King Henry VIII, with a pop concert twist. The Tony-winning score by Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow features pop-powered showtunes such as ‘Heart of Stone,’ ‘Don’t Lose Ur Head,’ and the iconic ‘Megasix’ encore to wrap it all up.


Jason Alexander (Seinfeld) makes his directorial debut with this brand new England countryside-set comedy by Sandy Rustin. The cast features Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) in his Broadway return since appearing in 2012’s Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, Laura Bell Bundy in her Broadway play debut after leading the 2007 musical Legally Blonde, Lilli Cooper (POTUS, Spring Awakening), Nehal Joshi (Flying Over Sunset, All My Sons), Alex Moffat (Saturday Night Live), and Dana Steingold (Beetlejuice the Musical).


Time travel back to 1985 (and beyond) for this musical adaptation of the classic film, straight from its hit world premiere in London’s West End! Casey Likes (Almost Famous) is Marty McFly and Roger Bart (The Producers) is Doc Brown, reprising his acclaimed performance on the other side of the pond.

Long Form

Gut Renovations: Broadway Shows That Physically Transformed Their Theaters

By Katie Devin Orenstein

Some Broadway shows can’t be contained in just a proscenium stage. The Main Stem has one permanent theater-in-the-round, the Circle in the Square, but there’s also a long history of visionary set designers and directors completely renovating one of the other 40 Broadway theaters to serve the needs of a show. The Broadway Theatre, on 53rd Street, has had its orchestra seats ripped out to make room for an immersive staging not once but thrice. A transformed theater, while costly, can fully immerse an audience into the world of the piece, creating unforgettable experiences. Below are some of the most fascinating immersive set designs in Broadway history. 

Here Lies Love (2023)

The first theatrical transformation on our list is Broadway’s latest, with this season’s Here Lies Love, which begins performances June 17. It’s the first of the three shows on our list to call the Broadway Theatre home. Something about its massive scale and vaulted ceilings, originally designed in the 1920s for showing movies, makes it a prime choice for mega-musicals like Miss Saigon and experimental immersive productions alike.

Here Lies Loves is directed by Alex Timbers, and the set design by David Korins surrounds audiences in a 1980s American disco like the ones frequented by the show’s subject, former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos. Premiering at the Public Theater back in 2013, the idea of the show is to envelop viewers in a seductively cheerful world, to demonstrate how Marcos denied her and her husband’s regime’s cruelty, and how fascism packages itself to be attractive, as well as the lingering effects of American colonialism. The disco-electro-pop score by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, originally written as a concept album, is so danceable that audiences can buy tickets for the standing section closest to the runway stage, where they will be part of the show and guided to join in choreographer Annie-B Parsons’ dance moves. (This is the first time in Broadway history that standing room tickets are the most expensive instead of the least!) 

The gut renovation for Here Lies Love, taking all the orchestra seats out of the Broadway:

Dude (1972)

The ill-fated Dude: The Highway Life may have only played 16 performances on Broadway in 1972, but this counterculture ‘happening’ from Gerome Ragni and Galt McDermot of Hair fame upended the rules for how a Broadway theater could be used. Bringing downtown uptown, the Broadway Theatre was rearranged by designer Eugene Lee into a theater-in-the-round, with the actors where the orchestra section had been, and some audience members sitting on the stage. 

It even featured trapezes and trap doors, with actors, in character as “Mother Earth,” “Suzy Moon,” or the titular “Dude,” frequently interacting with the audience. Its “morality play” plot baffled critics, and Dude closed at a loss of $1 million, very high for 1972. 

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (2017)

Photo by Thomas Loof

Great Comet, perhaps the most exhaustive and striking theater transformation on this list besides Here Lies Love,  originated at Ars Nova, a flexible off-off-Broadway venue. As the show transferred to a tent in Hell’s Kitchen (dubbed “Kazino”), and then to the American Repertory Theater in Boston for its pre-Broadway tryout, director Rachel Chavkin and set designer Mimi Lien worked to retain the intimacy, playfulness, and Napoleonic and Russian flair of the show. Composer-lyricist Dave Malloy based the show on a sliver of War & Peace, and created a score pulling equally from klezmer, EDM, and Sondheim. The entire Imperial Theatre auditorium was wrapped in red velvet, and a series of cascading staircases connected the original stage, the orchestra, and even the balcony section into one cohesive playing space. The titular comet was represented by a gargantuan chandelier, inspired by the one at the Metropolitan Opera and made of thousands of Swarovski crystals. Lien and her team even redesigned the lobby, adding elements of a Cold War-era bunker. Comet was nominated for 12 Tonys, and won two, for Set and Lighting Design. 

Mimi Lien’s initial sketches for Comet:

Cabaret (1998/2014 Revival)

For director Sam Mendes’ vision of the Kander and Ebb classic Cabaret, a former Broadway theater that had since been used as an adult movie theater and disco was reshaped into a grungy and sensual Kit Kat Club. Designer Robert Brill transformed the space on 43rd St, then known as Henry Miller’s Theater, for the show’s opening night. (10 years after Cabaret, Henry Miller’s was rebuilt as the Stephen Sondheim theater.) When it became clear Cabaret was a runaway hit, Brill and the producers searched for a more permanent home for an extended run, and decided to overhaul another former Broadway playhouse-turned-disco, the legendary Studio 54 nightclub space, which was in desperate need of renovation after decades of Andy Warhol’s parties. In both spaces, the stage was tightened into a small thrust, like the setup at many nightclubs both in New York and Berlin, and the premium orchestra seats were replaced with small tables and chairs. Brill, the Cabaret team, and the Roundabout Theater Company led by the late Todd Haimes did so much work on Studio 54 that they had reverted it back to its original purpose as a state-of-the-art Broadway theater, and when Cabaret closed in 2004 after a six year run, Studio 54 became home to everything from Waiting for Godot starring Nathan Lane in 2009 to Lifespan of a Fact starring Daniel Radcliffe in 2018, and the return of the very same Sam Mendes production of Cabaret, in 2014. 

Candide (1974)

A production image from Candide; notice the barstools in the background, which were audience seating

Harold Prince revived Candide, the 1950s Bernstein operetta based on the work of Voltaire, off-Broadway in 1973. It featured a revised and clarified book by Hugh Wheeler, and a stripped-down design ethos that emphasized Candide’s hapless, everyman journey. Audiences surrounded a series of platforms and gangways, with some audience members even inside the rectangle of playing space. Hal Prince, never a risk-averse producer and director, was willing to reduce the number of tickets available in order to fit this conceptual set into the space. To transfer the production from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, set designers Eugene and Franne Lee ripped out most of the Broadway Theatre’s orchestra seating, just as they had done for Dude. Candide fared far better than Dude, running for 740 performances and winning 5 Tonys, including for the Lees’ design, and for Hal Prince’s direction. Eugene Lee passed away earlier in 2023 after designing 27 Broadway shows, and his work can still be seen in Wicked. 

The gut renovation for Candide: