The phrase “musical theater” conjures up in most people’s minds a fairly specific image: people interrupting their dialogue to break into song; lines of singing dancers strutting on for the big reprise, while a pit band churns out accompaniment.

But there is, in the words of Chicago actor-composer Warren Leming, “the other musical theater”–a theater in which music is used less formally and more flexibly but no less centrally.

“Paul Sills has a phrase for it,” says Leming, referring to the Chicago director famed for cofounding Second City and Story Theater. “Paul says, ‘The text rides on the music.'”

The integration of live music with stage action is fairly rare on Chicago stages, aside from all-out musical comedies, so it’s noteworthy that two productions opening at major Chicago-area theaters this month feature onstage musical performers as part of the dramatic action: Talking to Myself at Northlight Theatre in Evanston, which opens this week, and Steppenwolf Theatre’s The Grapes of Wrath, now in previews with an opening set for next weekend.

To create the scores for these productions, Northlight and Steppenwolf have reached outside of the traditional musical-theater talent pool and turned instead to a pair of artists much admired by insiders but little known among general audiences. Northlight’s Talking to Myself, adapted and directed by Paul Sills from the memoirs of Studs Terkel, features a folk-jazz-rock-cabaret instrumental score written and played onstage by Leming; The Grapes of Wrath, adapted from the John Steinbeck novel and directed by Frank Galati, has a folk-based score of songs and instrumental music by songwriter Michael Smith.

In many ways, Leming and Smith are polar opposites. Leming is an experienced stage performer, with a long-term connection to director Sills: after stints in the Second City touring and children’s theater companies, Leming served as the original musical director for Sills’s pioneering, hippie-flavored Story Theater in 1968. In the years since, he has worked in a variety of off-Loop theater groups as actor and musician. Smith, on the other hand, is making his stage debut in Grapes; his only prior experience with theater was a revue in Detroit, Personals, built around his songs.

Perhaps more significant, the two artists are at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to politics and theater. Leming, who spent 1985-86 studying at the Bertolt Brecht Archive in East Berlin, brings a determined political edge to just about everything he does. His list of credits includes cofounding the “guerrilla theatrical band” Wilderness Road, which fused country rock with satire and improvisation. He also wrote a new score for Remains Theatre’s staging of Brecht’s leftist Mahagonny several seasons past, created an original show called The Eight Hours about the 1886 Haymarket riots, and has served as “resident satirist” for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. “I can’t see anybody doing musical theater anymore without a political underpinning,” Leming says–adding, with a grin: “Look at Les Miserables. Even the squares are doing it now.”

Smith, by contrast, states matter-of-factly: “I’m not politically oriented at all. I think in terms of love and death. I certainly tried political songs, but–ugh! Awful, awful.” Smith’s record of achievement consists mostly of writing such songs as “It Ain’t Necessarily Bird Avenue,” whose placement as the B-side of Spanky and Our Gang’s 1967 hit single “Lazy Day” launched Smith professionally. (“It appeared on the same LP as ‘Sunday Will Never Be the Same,’ so I made some bucks,” he recalls.) Chicago music fans know him best for his work with the late Steve Goodman: he wrote one of Goodman’s most popular songs, “The Dutchman,” and collaborated with Goodman on the oft-recorded “Elvis Imitators.”

For The Grapes of Wrath, Smith worked from a set of lyrics adapted by Frank Galati from Steinbeck’s extraordinarily musical, even Homeric, prose. “He blows like a player,” Smith says of Steinbeck. “It’s almost like Jack Kerouac. He’ll write, say, about a square dance, and as he writes he starts to fall into the rhythm of the square-dance caller.” Using Steinbeck’s text also brought an element of political awareness to the score. “The conviction that comes from a Steinbeck lyric is Steinbeck’s,” says Smith. “It’s my job to render it. . . . My concern has been to preserve the clarity and the intent of the words. I’ve seen plenty of people ruin a good lyric with a bad tune. You have to say, ‘What is this guy saying and how does it feel to say that?’ That’s the most important part. If you sing and play a guitar, there are only certain ways you can say something.”

Leading a four-piece ensemble (guitar, banjo, fiddle, and bass), Smith sometimes functions in the play as an accompanist to the actors’ musically structured speech and singing and at other times as a singing narrator–a perfect role for a recording artist (his new LP, Love Stories, is due soon from Flying Fish Records) known for his distinctive style of musical story telling. “There’s an important Brechtian influence there,” Smith says, “of the use of the singer as a moral voice.”

In Talking to Myself–which also exhibits a left-populist outlook that stems both from Terkel and from the important influence of Brecht on Leming and Sills–Leming functions primarily as an actor; playing multiple roles, he frequently turns to the piano, banjo, and guitar, playing original music as well as old songs evoking Terkel’s memories of Chicago in the 1920s and ’30s. Fellow actor Peter van Wagner also plays guitar, and the live score is augmented by taped music.

If Smith is unused to being on a stage at all, Leming is certainly unused to working at a big, well-financed theater such as Northlight; he’s dedicated to the fringe, and most of his theater work has been done in cabaret spaces. Asked how it feels to be employed at a well-financed nonprofit theater, Leming grins: “Strange. I’ve never been a hired hand. . . . I don’t know that I would recommend it. Once in a while, maybe.”

After Talking to Myself finishes its run, Leming returns to the fringe with his new project: Opera X, performed by his own company, the Chicago Cabaret Ensemble. “It’s socialist-realist science fantasy, a nonlove story involving international megacorporations and a mysterious deadly virus,” he says. “Then I go back to Berlin.”

As for Smith, there is much preopening speculation that Grapes of Wrath will head for Broadway after its Chicago run. If not, Smith says, “then back on the road” as a folksinger with an album to promote. It would be Smith’s first steady tour in a long time.

“Five years ago I got a job,” Smith says. “I was a clerk at Time-Life here. It was a good job. They understood that I was a musician and I’d be a little strange, and they accommodated me. But when this came along I quit. I decided it was time to go back to making music full time again.”

Talking to Myself runs through October 2 at Northlight Theatre, 2300 Green Bay Road, Evanston; info at 869-7278. Grapes of Wrath opens September 17 and runs through October 30 at the Royal-George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted; info at 988-9000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Avery.