Welcome to Our Tower of Babel

director-producer Harold PrinceI once saw an interview with Hal Prince, in my estimation one of the two or three greatest directors in the history of musical theatre, the director of Cabaret, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Evita, Phantom of the Opera, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and many more. He said that a director has two jobs. The first is to define the journey and the destination, the rules of the road, etc., then set the actors off down that road and help them stay on it. Then the second job is to edit their performances.

I always loved that idea of being an editor. Directing a stage show really can be a lot like film, only we do all the takes live, over time, in rehearsal. And to extend the metaphor, I also make choices about which "shots" to use, close-ups, long shots, reaction shots, over-the-shoulder, pans, zooms -- all of them have theatrical equivalents (thanks in large part to the genius of Michael Bennett).

But working on The Wild Party last night -- our first run-through of Act I -- I discovered another metaphor that is equally apt. Making theatre is kind of like comic book art. I compose the frame, where things are, how they move, but I only give it an outline sketch. The actors ink in those lines and fill in the colors (with the help, to extend this metaphor as well, of the designers).

The actors could do the show without me, but it would be less focused, less unified, and less effective storytelling. There would be lots of colors and shading, but no composition and no point of view. On the other hand, I obviously could not do the show without them. When someone buys a comic book, they expect more than pencil sketches. As I've said before, a director's great ideas and cool insights have no value whatsoever unless there are smart, talented, fearless actors using those ideas to create exciting, honest performances -- sharpening those lines, adding shadow, and finding the exact right colors.

And that brings me to last night's rehearsal. I've sketched out the frame for them (for Act I). Everybody knows where they go, what the stage picture looks like, how it moves. Now they have to ink in their performances by getting their memorization down (though it was pretty damn good last night) and polishing their performance. And then when they've done that, they'll fill in the colors, the shades, the shadows, as they find the reality and complexity of their character's experience. The cast has already been creating some wonderful, interconnected, collective backstory that's going to make the character work later a lot more fun and the end product a lot richer.

And we still have five weeks left of rehearsal! I can't imagine making a show as fast as most people do it. It barely leaves any time to explore the artistic depth of the work. I think New Line Theatre's longer gestation period allows for the things that are what people love about our shows -- there's always a fascinating, sometimes quirky complexity to them (Assassins, Love Kills, High Fidelity); a real emotional honesty, even in the wackiest of contexts (Bat Boy, Forbidden Planet); and a fierce commitment to the reality of whatever world we're conjuring for our audience (Urinetown, Hair, Rocky Horror). All that comes from spending quality time with the characters and their world. We're not just putting up a show; we're sharing with people a wonderful, exciting piece of art.

This is one of those shows that is so specific in its style and so unlike most other musicals that I'm not going to see a "first draft" of my work for a while yet. The actors have enormous jobs to do this time, and I need to let them have the time to do them well. But from what we saw last night, I'm really excited. This is a cast of first-rate theatre artists and they're going to deliver an amazing, thrilling piece of theatre. Just watch and see...

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

2 comments: