Tuesday, August 29, 2006

What I learned on my first musical

First off, happy birthday to my daughter, Annie. I love you and am glad you’re no longer a teenager. I can see I’m starting to get too mushy so I’ll stop. Have a great day. You’re the best!!

Now for today’s post:


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. If 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.


The Curmudgeon said...

What an affectionate tribute to your show -- and to your daughter. I can imagine what you had to edit out of the latter so as to pass muster with her.

One suggestion -- and a question.

The suggestion:

"The Teamsters are pansies compared to the Equity Union."

You might want to lose this line before somebody gets hurt. (beat) If you know what I mean. (beat) And I know you know.

The question:

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

Didn't we all learn this from the MGM musicals? Or do you figure today's readers have never seen an MGM musical?

The Minstrel Boy said...

god help me, i love it so. . . my time in pit orchestras holds some of my favorite memories. that whole magic and electricity thing is a sublime artistic acheivement that is magnified when you know the tension and chaos from which it springs. . .

Beth Ciotta said...

Happy Birthday, Annie! And, Ken, thanks for the entertaining tribute to your first musical. Regarding the drummer... he's the backbone of every band/muscial ensemble. If the drummer's weak, you're sunk. Glad to hear you got a good one. :)

Anonymous said...

The Jerry Belson quote is funny, but nothing's funnier than watching Jerry eat a bowl of rice during a 3 AM re-write.

Anonymous said...

Ken, it's wonderful to have someone like you as a guide to places and things most of us never get to see. If I don't get at least one good belly laugh a day here, I wonder if you're not feeling well.

Anonymous said...


What better way to wish your daughter a happy birthday than on your blog. Better hope for a Tony because you just lost a lot of points for the 2006 FOY.


Batocchio said...

Great post! I'm opening a play (not a musical) next weekend and am passing this on to my hard-working cast for a laugh...

Anonymous said...

I spent my adolescence through grad school on stage in musicals and you nailed it on the head. Thank you so much for this trip down memory lane, Ken. Now, back to my script :)