Sunday, June 12, 2011

What I learned on my first musical

Cast of the 60s PROJECT: Michael Gillis, Andrew Rannells, Megan Lewis, Maggie Benjamin, and Rodrick Covington.

The Tony Awards are tonight and in honor of that I'm re-posting a piece I did several years on what I learned on my first musical.  I spent the summer of 2006  in Connecticut where the musical I co-wrote with Janet Brenner (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.

By the way, Andrew Rannells, who starred in our show, is up for a Tony tonight for THE BOOK OF MORMON.  So I hope he wins.  I'm also rooting for John Benjamin Hickey in his category.  Oh, and Bill & Cheri Steinkellner for their book for SISTER ACT.  Yeah, I'm partial to people I've worked with..  But they're all very deserving, even if none of them will thank me on stage.  

So here's what I learned: 

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.

Unless I fall asleep I will review the Tonys tomorrow.  


Retro Blog said...

So the scenario where Judy and Mickey spontaneously say, "Hey I can dance, I can sing, lets do a show in the old barn" is a bit tougher than that eh? I was destined to be a darn good audience. Thanks.

Mac said...

"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."

Thank you for not telling us the story behind that, some things are better left un-said.

Phillip B said...

Used to play a game with friends on the premise that each and every piece of intellectual property on the planet has been turned into a musical - or will be.

Anthony Weiner seems a natural, as does Paula Abdul's time on American Idol and most other current disasters..

Debby G said...

Curious about why you say we shouldn't see matinees.

By Ken Levine said...

You tend to get understudies at matinees. And often times the regular cast will hold back just a little so they'll have enough energy to get through the evening performance as well.

John said...

If the U.S. House is actually going to debate on Monday whether or not Anthony Weiner's leave of absence will be granted, "CSPAN The Musical" might have a chance, as the "Oh Calcutta!" of the 21st Century. Not sure if you're ever going to get Brian Lamb to tweet a nude picture during Washington Journal, though.

DBA said...

Re: matinees, also there are often a lot of elderly people at matinees who talk through the entire show and are either hard of hearing enough to think nobody notices they're doing it, or are rude enough not to care. MUCH more so than at evening performances.

Beysts Teicher said...

Heard you on the radio this aft. Glad you weren't signing on as the next voice of the Clippers. Your host wasn't about to let you take control! Now, about Gershwin re-doing The Mighty Ducks...

Max Clarke said...

Haven't seen the Tony awards in a couple of decades, which happens if you haven't owned a television that long.

When I did own a tv set, I saw the cast of Evita perform "A New Argentina" at the Tonys around 1980 or 1981. They were so impressive, I saw the show at the Broadway Theater when I happened to be on the east coast. Great evening, Patty LuPone was outstanding.

Lisa Walker England said...

"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."

Love it! Although, at least it means the prop guy was artistically inspired by the work at hand -- which is a good sign for the entire project (even if his song might not be).

The Quis said...

I love Maggie! We used to do improv at the comedy store on "Urban nights."