Two Show Day: The Hairy Ape & The Glass Menagerie

Last Wednesday, I went into NYC to see two productions of older plays. One of them, The Hairy Ape by Eugene O'Neill, is rarely performed; the other, The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, is performed rather frequently. Both productions are radical reimaginings of what the authors had in mind for the expressionistic, dream-like dramas about identity in the greater world.

The Hairy Ape at the Park Avenue Armory was a stunning production. You walk into this gigantic steel shell of a theater covered in fog, through the playing area, over the rotating treadmill for the set pieces, and up into the bright yellow seating to watch the show. Then the lights come down and the production is not joking. Every inch of that gigantic space is used. Anything made of steel is the same bright yellow as the seats and stairs, but is manipulated beautifully by the lighting design to be any color of the rainbow at any given moment. The scenes rolled one into another, for better or for worse (I’m not a fan of how the stairs in the audience were used to kill time between longer scene changes, but at least they kept the action going). Bobby Canavale was a perfect Yank and I doubt I’ll see another production of the play that feels so modern despite its age.

The Glass Menagerie at the Belasco was a trip. I did not know when I picked my seat that I’d be a few feet away from the staircase the actors entered and exited from throughout the performance. Act I is performed with the houselights on and most of Act II is performed to candlelight while rain pours onto the stage. The set is so minimalistic that I heard people complaining before the show began. It’s four chairs around a kitchen table, a milk crate with records/the glass menagerie/the yearbook in it, and a prop shelf right at the proscenium arch you could see if you sat house right. These choices forced the audience to listen to the words onstage and it made the text feel immediate and real.

Madison Ferris is the best Laura I’ve ever seen. This is a strong Laura who knows why she does not feel safe going out in the real world but fears being that strong in front of her overbearing mother (Sally Fields giving a masterclass in Tennessee Williams). I found myself drawn to Laura even when she wasn’t talking (the cast, save the Gentleman Caller (Finn Wittrock, playing a very different character than I was used to seeing from him), was onstage almost the entire show) to watch her play with her records, polish her collection, or read the yearbook. This is where Laura showed herself. Every time she interacted with her brother Tom (Joe Mantello hitting all the beats and believably transforming between young ambition/frustration and mature nostalgia), she was safely seated in her own little corner of music and art and life. 

This is not a traditional production, but it is my favorite production I’ve seen. I’ve always viewed “A Memory Play” as an invitation to present The Glass Menagerie in different ways. This is a different production, for sure. Ferris’ Laura doesn’t have a limp, because Ferris is an actor with muscular dystrophy who uses a wheelchair to get around. This Laura is painfully aware that she cannot hide unless she literally hides from the world. Tom is significantly older, meaning we’re actually viewing this production from his perspective years later. Who knows how realistic we’re supposed to believe it all is? Can he only remember the orange kitchen set and Laura’s milk crate of belongings? Or is that all they had in the cavernous apartment? Was Amanda an older mother who couldn’t have a job outside of the house, or does Tom just remember her that way? And, frankly, I love that this production stressed the introductory monologue bit about The Gentleman Caller being a symbol and a realistic person. He’s a symbol to everyone except for Laura, who grows to believe he is real and really interested in her. I don’t like all the staging choices (I found the rainstorm onstage to be a distraction, to be honest) but I loved the interpretation of the text. We’re playing with memories and clearly this Tom only remembers the most bombastic moments of this year with his mother and sister in the apartment.

Regarding seating for both productions: the cheap seats are fine for The Hairy Ape as long as you are house left; house right, you’ll want to avoid 1 or 2 in a row as the giant shipping crate set piece used in every other scene has a solid wall, blocking off some of the action (I was in K3 and only couldn’t see the very back corner where, at most, one actor could stand). The ushers were also offering alternative seating for patrons who might struggle to walk up the stairs for the stadium seating, but I couldn’t see where those people were placed. The ushers were incredibly helpful navigating all the steps, especially when the fog was so thick upon entrance. The seating is steep enough that you won’t be blocked at all by the person in front of you (three steps between each row). 

The Glass Menagerie is probably best in the Orchestra. Mezzanine might not be bad (Balcony is a no-go for sure), but I was struggling to see everything in the candlelight scenes from the fourth row of the orchestra. The staircase the actors use is house right, so if you sit in the front row or on the right aisle you have to keep your bag under your seat and your feet tucked in. I feel house right or center is better just so you don’t risk losing some of Laura’s moments played by the proscenium arch; house left is best if you’re more interested in watching Tom deliver his monologues. The show has a lot of discounts the day of so it’s not hard to get a good orchestra seat for the full price of a mezzanine seat (or cheaper). They also offer rush for the very front row every day and the stage is not so high that it would be an issue to sit there.

Mary Warren Knows Things Now (Concept Scoring for The Crucible)

This was perhaps my favorite demo from the original pass at scoring for The Crucible. Mary Warren's Theme was pulled straight from the Tituba Theme that didn't sit quite right with me. A nice low drone combined with those chiming bells would stay, but not nearly as pretty and orderly by the time I rewrote the score.

On Being Cast in Songs for a New World

Last week, I auditioned for a local production of Songs for a New World. Last Tuesday, I received an offer to perform in an expanded cast production of the show. I accepted what will be one of my most challenging roles for the opportunity to interact with material that has impacted the lives of so many of my students and myself. Songs for a New World Rhino Poster

For those of you who do not know, Songs for a New World is a song cycle musical composed by Jason Robert Brown. It does not have a plot. It does not have what you traditionally think of as characters in a musical. It is a series of songs based around the moment decisions are made.

The show is traditionally performed with four actors assuming the ambiguous, everyperson roles of Woman 1, Woman 2, Man 1, and Man 2. They meet up in stunning moments of harmony in the very different stories they tell. In one song, Man 1 takes the role of a ship captain piloting pilgrims across the sea to the new world, praying to God for some form of salvation on a disastrous journey. In another, Woman 2 recounts her rocky relationship as the latest in the series of Mrs. Claus' trapped by herself in the North Pole on Christmas Eve. Man 2 sings songs of the women he's loved and left and Woman 1 sings songs of insecurity and hope. The characters have arcs that can be interpreted through shared themes of the human experience.

I first learned about Songs for a New World in 2007. Two of my first theater students asked if they could perform an absolutely beautiful duet called "I'd Give It All For You" in the drama club's annual fundraiser cabaret. I listened to the song and instantly fell in love. There was something so honest about the song that resonated with me. It told a specific story about a specific breakup and reconnection between two people (Woman 1 and Man 2) that reminded me of all the people who came and went without warning in my life. It's stunning theater and it was an absolute pleasure to work with these students on that song.

Since then, I have worked with students at this particular school on Jason Robert Brown songs at least once a year for their various theater studies. Advanced theater students have a musical theater unit where one brave student chose, I kid you not, "Just One Step" as a musical theater song to build an original scene around. Perfect character piece for her. Others have asked me to work with them on audition cuts of "Christmas Lullaby," "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship," "She Cries," and "Stars and the Moon." Another pair of students found a way to split "I'm Not Afraid of Anything" into a lovely duet about supporting a friend in a dark time that left the audience in tears at their fundraiser.

The students constantly turn each other onto Songs for a New World, and from there they begin to explore his other shows. Students come into auditions with cuts from 13Urban CowboyParade, and even Bridges of Madison County every time we let them choose their own music. I love it. When I play for the audition, it goes fine. When someone else plays, it might not. JRB's music is beautiful, but incredibly challenging to sightread for a piano player unfamiliar with his signature rhythms and song structure. I always tell my students to use his songs for auditions in one of three scenarios: 1) when I'm playing for them, 2) when they are specifically asked to perform from a JRB show, 3) when they bring their own accompanist. Otherwise, I'll help them find something similar that's a bit more piano player-friendly.

For me, Songs for a New World is a show I constantly find new depth in. As I grow older and experience more of life, I find more things to latch onto.

That's good news for this production. Vocally, I'm a Man 1. That's the high belting tenor part. I'm splitting that track with two other tenors who better fit the youthful energy of songs like "Steamtrain" and "King of the World." That leaves me with my favorite song in the show, "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492" and the Man 2 song "The World was Dancing." I've had so much happen in my life since I first learned of this show in 2007 that I think I'm finally starting to understand the delicate balance between power/control and fear/helplessness that these two songs embody.

This casting also means that I will mostly be singing baritone harmonies throughout the show. I've been asked to sing alto in musical theater more in my adult life than baritone. That's what I mean about this being the most challenging role of my life. I have never struggled so much in a first rehearsal for a show as I did going through Man 2's harmony lines in "Opening Sequence: The New World" last Wednesday night. It's quite literally a different vocabulary than I've ever trained in. I can teach other people bass lines because I bang them into my head before the rehearsal, analyze the chord structure, write out the solfège, and rely on their prior training as baritones/basses to fill in the rest. On the spot on my own? Good luck.

I feel so fortunate to be involved in this production. The cast sounds great together. We all know how to blend or stand out as necessary. We can all laugh at ourselves, too, which is a good sign. We're also one of the first productions going up in a brand new black box theater space in my area, which is unheard of. We're right smack in the middle of  the suburbs. We don't get black box theaters. We get high school auditoriums and converted church spaces.

Here are all the ticketing details for the production. We run two weekends, October 7-9 and 14-16 in Pompton Lakes, NJ. Fridays and Saturdays are at 7PM; Sunday matinees are at 3PM.  If you're in the area, I'd love to meet you at the show.

Mattress Diary: 3 Weeks Out

I should really say 2 weeks, 1 day out. Our first performance (a free preview for senior citizens) is Wednesday, April 27. That gives us two weeks and one day of potential rehearsals before we receive our first audience. And even that's not true. We have 13 rehearsals scheduled between today and our first audience. That's not a lot. It's especially not a lot since we had a week off thanks to spring break.

If you don't know, I work year round as a music director/jack of all design trades for various educational and summer theater programs. Right now, I'm in the end stages of a high school production of Once Upon a Mattress. Despite a member of the creative team actively working against the production (the orchestra director hates the score, the cast, the vocal music director (me), the transpositions (three girls are taking on roles typically written for men, and I spent over 50 hours transposing and rearranging their songs so they didn't just sing in unintelligible soprano range for 2.5 hours), and the orchestration), the process has gone very well. It's just tough when one part of the core creative team is so negative about the show.

We have your typical high school problems. When I last saw the theater, the set wasn't complete. No one has a finished costume yet. I can't work on the lights until the set is reinforced and the bottom support boards are actually cut free in entryways. Mics are part of a distant future. Who knows when the orchestra director will actually bring the student orchestra in? Props are going to be teched in for the first time today, and not all of them.

There are a lot of things I'm responsible for at this point and I'm glad to do them all. I love working with young people in theater and turning them onto my life's passion.

Here's a list of things I'm actively doing over the next three weeks to make sure the show goes off without a hitch:

  • Reteaching harmonies (because even professionals wouldn't retain every note of 4-6 part harmony after a 9 day break without rehearsal)
  • Reworking phrasing for the stage
  • Balancing vocals with pit
  • Setting tempos
  • Balancing mics over 30 person cast with full pit
  • Rehanging/rewiring a ton of traditional lighting fixtures above the stage (the set is a huge unit castle and it blocks off half the lights I typically use)
  • Focusing lights above the stage and in the house/catwalk (there's a lot of coverage done from the audience, the blessing and the curse of a huge proscenium stage)
  • Designing sound effects
  • Finishing hand props
  • Teaching students to program light board (or, barring that, doing the lighting design by myself if they just don't show up)
  • Setting up lobby display
  • Finishing headshots
  • Setting up student run concessions

There are more things, I'm sure. This is just the stuff I know I'm doing right now. More is always added on.

I figure, if I can't get my usual entertainment/media criticism writing done, I can chronicle how tech works at a high school.

Rehearsal starts in five and a half hours. I have to warm up (voice and hands), review all the act one harmonies (so I know where there are mistakes/balance issues), and show up early to see if I can get the genie lift onto the stage to move lights.

Hamilton Will Perform at the Grammy Awards

Suddenly, I'm willing to actually watch the Grammy Awards again. I'm not against the Grammy Awards like some. I believe they are legitimate and relevant to how the music industry works. The combination of nominees in open categories, such as Best New Artist or Song of the Year, always grabs my interest.

The ceremony itself is a bloated, uneven mess that randomly chooses which popular, largely male, categories they'll actually acknowledge on the air. Further, the categories dominated by men that usually get the ax from the telecast are those defined by non-white nominees. All of this is problematic. The awards will gladly promote themselves with performances by nominees of color but not actually show their categories live.

At least the Hamilton performance is something to tune in for. Here we have a celebration of the hands-on favorite in the Musical Theater category (which will never be televised, because eww, theater). The hands-on favorite is a musical retelling of the early history of the United States of America reimagined through a modern lens of diversity. It's the story of the founding fathers told through the descendants of the people exploited to create America.

The cast of Hamilton will not be doing a watered down version of the opening song "Alexander Hamilton," either. Their performance is going to happen via satellite feed at the Richard Rodgers Theater in NYC. We'll get to see the actual lighting and set design, including the wonderful and inventive use of two theatrical turntables for a hip hop musical.

The voters I know in NARAS did try their best to get Hamilton nominated in other categories. Album of the Year was probably the closest; the momentum just picked up a bit too late in the nomination process. Moves were made for Hip-Hop and R&B categories, as well.

Hamilton has quickly become a cultural zeitgeist. You cannot just pick up a ticket for this show unless you're willing to pay top dollar the day of on the cancellation line. Lin Manuel-Miranda's style demonstrated in his Tony Award-winning In the Heights has radically matured into one of the strongest voices in the pantheon of musical theater.

The diverse cast and imaginative retelling of well-tread historical events opens up history, musical theater, gender and racial politics, and hip-hop to a whole new audience. Teachers can use the cast recording in their classroom, while students are probably already listening to the songs because they're better than most of the hits on the radio.

The 2016 Grammy Awards will air live on CBS on 15 February 2016 at 8PM EST.

Theater Work: Once Upon a Mattress

I have a few things going on with theater right now. I'm doing a trio of benefit concerts for the Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America at the Hackensack Cultural Arts Center next Thursday through Saturday, February 11 through 13. Tickets are available online or at the door. It should be a fun night. I'll be singing from Amour and Next to Normal. More pressing is the official start of the rehearsal period for the next show I'm music directing. We had the perfect group of students to do Once Upon a Mattress. It's really exciting, too, as we have a brand new director and choreographer joining us this season.

Once Upon a Mattress is a comedy retelling of "The Princess and Pea" with an incredible jazz score by Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers of Rodgers & Hammerstein fame. In this version, the famous princess is the 13th to try to win the prince's hand in marriage. The Queen does not want her son to marry and conjures up incredibly unfair tests to prove the young women traveling from far and wide are not really princesses.

The original production was a literal "let's put on a show" moment with Mary Rodgers, Marshall Barer (lyricist, librettist), and Jay Thompson (librettist) throwing together a one act musical in a week while vacationing in the Poconos. The show was seen by a producer who wanted to bring it to Broadway, so the team expanded the show, added on another co-writer (Dean Fuller), and opened off-Broadway.

On the way to NYC, they found a wonderful Princess Winnifred in an upstart comedienne named Carol Burnett. The show was tailored to her skills and range, which is clear when you hear the full score and read the Princess' style of patter comedy. Jane White played the Queen, Jack Gilford played the King (and was replaced by Will Lee, aka Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street, for the Broadway transfer). The show ran for over 400 performances switching between four different Broadway theaters. When the show went on to tour for seven months, seemingly everyone from Imogene Coca to Buster Keaton played some of the dates.

Once Upon a Mattress' history gets even more interesting. Carol Burnett has played various roles in heavily modified versions of the show for television. After she became a hit with her own show, Mattress was reduced to a 1964 TV movie where she sang all the Winnifred songs and most of the other characters were eliminated or smashed into terrible, nonsensical composites.

Burnett would return to the role again in 1972 for another televised version, this one more accurate to the original show. Bernadette Peters stepped in as Lady Larken, a pregnant lady in waiting who tries to flee the kingdom when she realizes the Queen does not want Winnifred to pass the princess test.

In 2005, Burnett would star in the Disney adaptation of Once Upon a Mattress, featuring Tracy Ullman as Winnifred and Denis O'Hare as Prince Dauntless. Zoey Deschanel and Matthew Morrision took on Lady Larken and Sir Harry, her fiance. Burnett played the Queen, who also acted as narrator. No, it doesn't make sense, but Burnett was amazing and played well against Ullman.

There was also a successful Broadway revival in 1997 starring Sarah Jessica Parker as Winnifred (right before Sex and the City came to be). Jane Krakowski stole the show as Lady Larken, as she would, since she always steals whatever show she's in.

For my humble little HS production, I'm using a combination of new and old techniques while working on this show. When I first began music directing, I would always digitize the score through Finale or some other notation software. I could get a better idea of what the show would sound like, set tempos and dynamic changes, and have very precise practice recordings for my cast and creative team to work with.

Let's take "Opening for a Princess" as an example. This is the first big cast number in Mattress and sets up the conflict of the show. No one may marry until Prince Dauntless finds his bride, and no one who tries to marry Prince Dauntless can pass the test set out by the Queen. The "bird" referenced in the song is a literal bird, a plucked pheasant given out as a consolation prize to the failed suitors.

Here's the original Broadway cast recording to give you an idea.

In the licensed score, there are five distinct vocal parts in this song: Prince Dauntless, Lady Larken, two Ladies in Waiting, and the ensemble. I always include featured singers in my high school production, so I split it up further and have seven vocal parts.

When I digitize the score, I give each separate character/character group their own vocal line. This way, when I export everything into audio files, I can customize which vocal parts go to which students. If someone wants to practice their ensemble parts without having the notes played for them, they'll sing along with a file like this.

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I break up the entire score like this so the students have no excuse not to practice at home. It also helps to have the exact arrangements set for the choreographer, so if cuts need to be made, I can figure it out and start passing out corrections to the orchestra immediately.

The newer stuff is all different techniques and ideas I picked up in the past year. It's been a great period for learning more about the work I do and how others approach the same jobs. Some of it will work right away, some of it I'll have to adapt for my students, and some of it will fall flat and be tossed out quickly. That's part of the process.