Saturday, July 12, 2008

What I learned on my first musical

Cast of the 60s PROJECT: Michael Gillis, Andrew Rannells, Megan Lewis, Maggie Benjamin, and Rodrick Covington.
It's the summer stock time of year! Having spent a recent summer in Connecticut where the musical I co-wrote (the 60s PROJECT) went into production at the Goodspeed Theatre, I learned quite a bit about the process. For those of you hitting the boards somewhere in our nation's heartland, here are a few things you might want to know.

The director must encourage everyone to share ideas. He must then discard 80% of them, especially the ones from the prop guy who's taken the liberty of writing new songs.

You need six weeks to rehearse a musical. But if you have six weeks, you'll need eight.

If the choreographer had her way, seven of the eight hours of rehearsal everyday would be devoted to the dance numbers. If the music director had his way, those same seven hours would be devoted to teaching and practicing the music. If the book writer had his way, scene work would fill the day. And if the director had his way it would be a one woman show with Bernadette Peters who could do it all in five hours.

One change, no matter how small, is like pulling a string in Penelope's Tapestry. It effects everything. If the music director adds a bar in a song, the choreographer will want to reblock the entire dance number. If the book writer changes one line it effects the underscoring, next cue, choreography, lighting, sound, background visuals, upcoming costume change, transition into the next scene, and future of the American musical theatre. So it better be a good new line.

If there's a fight scene or even fight moment there has to be a daily fight rehearsal before a performance. For West Side Story you can rehearse without the knives.

Wireless mics that stick out of cast members foreheads produce better sound and are not noticeable and distracting beyond the fiftieth row.

The cast elects an Equity Deputy whose job it is to snitch behind the director's back if an Equity rule is broken. Rules include looking at an actor with an expression that might hurt his feelings.

To learn even one dance number I would need to practice eight hours a day for six months at which time maybe I could do the whole thing without elbowing someone in the face. These kids get it down in six minutes.

You need a good drummer. A real good drummer.

See a night time performance rather than a matinee.

Actors need to yell out their dialogue. Not just speak loud, but YELL. Even if the line is "Pssst, let me tell you a secret." Only Renee Taylor can talk in her regular speaking voice.

When your wife or girlfriend needs forty-five minutes to change her clothes, just know it can be done in as little as ten seconds.

Every performer comes from a dysfunctional family but thanks them profusely in their Playbill bio.

Most people pad their Playbill bios, listing every credit since they played a kitty in grammar school. So my favorite Playbill bio remains: Jerry Belson, who wrote the 1975 movie SMILE that got turned into a musical, submitted only this -- "SMILE fulfills a lifetime dream for Mr. Belson, to get paid twice for the same script."

During performances there are nine people walking around with headsets. No one knows who they are or what they're doing.

A good running time, including a fifteen minute intermission is 2:20.

The song you loved the most before going into rehearsal is the song you need to cut.

No two people have the same script. Everyone is on stage working off different drafts.

The Teamsters are pansies compared to the Equity Union.

Actors will tell you: it's hard to be sung to. And offstage it's even harder.

When you're in the orchestra section, don't think the cast can't see you. If you're going to be Pee Wee Herman you're going to have an audience.

It's always better to say it in a song rather than dialogue. But those few lines of dialogue can galvanize the entire story.

Since there is limited rehearsal time once a show opens, it can take up to a week to put in some changes. You have to prioritize fixes, based on how needed they are and how long they will take to implement. What that means is you take notes every night and they're always the same notes.

Casting decisions are still the most important. Everything else can be fixed. Except if you want to do C-SPAN: The Musical, that idea might kill it.

Actors are not allowed to talk to conductors. There's a very strict chain of command. Book writers are not allowed to talk to anybody.

The guard at every stage door is named "Pops".

When it works, a musical can be more than entertaining, it can be thrilling. There is an electricity, a magic that is so powerful it transcends whatever's happening on stage. Yes, it's a tall order and rarely achieved but that's the goal. And if you don't hang yourself in a hotel room in New Haven it can be quite exciting.


Max Clarke said...

The only professional musical I've seen was around 1980, Evita. Very impressive, Patti LuPone, but the quality of work by everybody had to be so high.

gwangung said...

Some folks may think our esteemed host is stretching the truth a bit.

Actually, he's underplaying it. The reality is 10 times MORE.

sephim said...

Every musicals opening night is about as comfortable to watch as a Junior High production of The Rocky Horror Show and only half as well-prepared.

Nathan Detroit said...

Enjoyed your take on the Great White Way. Have you ever watched any of Seth Rudetsky's Broadway commentaries? Hilarious!

Chad said...

My favorite actor's bio listed his restaurant work experience only.

D. McEwan said...

Hilarious. I've just forwarded this piece to everyone I know who works in musicals, which is pretty much everyone I know. You pulled in the hyperbole so the bare reality sounds like jokes, when the Truth is so much more insane and impossible.

And I know my friend Jayne will plotz when she reads the Renee Taylor line. Jayne once drove Renee Taylor from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, just the two of them, in Jayne's wee car. She adores Renee, but she will laugh till she explodes.

Richard Jensen said...

This reminds me of Larry Gelbart's famous quote. "If Hitler's alive, I hope he's out of town with a musical."

Will said...

Great post Ken. As a theater guy (i am one of the 7 with headsets) now working in Hollywood its funny to hear how the reverse must seem. I have worked on a lot of musicals and only once have I had to work with a writer anywhere near the production and i can't think of anything worse.

sound like you had fun!

Dr. Leo Marvin said...

When you hang yourself in New Haven, are you still dead if your Broadway opening gets raves in The New York Times?

Dr. Leo Marvin said...

"Wireless mics that stick out of cast members foreheads produce better sound and are not noticeable and distracting beyond the fiftieth row."

... yet,

"Actors need to yell out their dialogue."