Ever since I started blogging about New Line Theatre's creative process back in spring 2007, it seems that at some point in every show, I write a blog entry about how hard it is. A year or so ago, I noticed this and wondered if I'm just a big whiny pussy. I'll leave that to you to judge. But it remains true that most of the shows we produce are really hard, though often in different ways.
Love Kills was hard because it was such a quiet, still, freakishly intense show -- much more like a play than most musicals are. (That's Zak and Alison in Love Kills, in the photo. They're both working on I Love My Wife.) Every second depended on amazing acting. Thank god we had the cast we had. The Wild Party was hard because the music was extremely complex and challenging, but also because the show was so highly stylized that every moment was essentially choreographed. It was totally unnatural in its physicality, but the acting had to be totally honest. And there was the weird device of characters stepping out of the action to comment on what's happening. But it wasn't the actors stepping out; it was the characters. It was tough for the actors to find a way to stay inside the character while stepping outside the story. But they did it with utter conviction.
Bat Boy and Urinetown were hard because they were both so outrageously crazy, but the actors could never "admit" that -- they had to play it hyper-serious, with hyper-high stakes. They could never "wink" at the audience the way shows like Drowsy Chaperone, title of show, and Gutenberg the Musical all do -- that's much easier to play but not nearly as funny. The more honest it is, the funnier it is. Every time.
Like all the others, I Love My Wife is hard too. It's a real bitch to memorize (the number one reason I am no longer an actor) because the scenes move very fast and pausing to remember the next line can drain all the energy out of a moment. And many of the lyrics are lists. List songs are notoriously hard to memorize because they don't have logic to help you get from line to line. It has to be just rote memorization. I brought the actors my beloved Focus Complex supplements -- I take this stuff every day and I've given it to other actors on occasion, who say it helps a lot.
The other thing that's tough is getting the characters of our Greek Chorus guys right. In the original production, there were four musicians onstage (and one or two offstage), and they were the chorus. They sang, they even participated in some dialogue scenes. That's kind of a cool gimmick, but I'm not interested in gimmicks. Our guys (we're using three instead of four) are right there in the scenes with the two couples. But though they sing a lot, they have such little dialogue that the script doesn't have much for the actors to work with. A lot of shows require participation from the actor in constructing a vivid backstory, but this time it's more work than usual, because the script literally gives them almost nothing. But we've been talking about all that, and I think they've all found the right road. I saw some really cool work from them tonight.
Still, as hard as it is, as complicated a piece of comedy as it is, this cast is doing wonderfully. I'd say 70% of the show is really cooking now. Really funny, really honest, and really easy for the audience to see ourselves (or considering the period, my parents) in these characters. The whole story builds to the moment when all four of these married people get into the same bed and break out a sex manual (in our production, it's The Joy of Sex). And though it's a very tough scene to play, it's already hilarious. It's a totally satisfying payoff for an evening's worth of set-up.
We also had a very hard time figuring out how to make the last moments of both acts play. But after a long talk after the run-through Monday night, I think we found the exact right answers. Both moments are really working now. Also Monday night I decided I hated the way I staged the Act I finale, "Sexually Free," so we re-staged it tonight, and it's so much better. Not only does it look better, but changing the focus -- without changing a word -- has turned this funny novelty song about sex into an integrated dramatic moment that leaves us with a great cliffhanger: Will the somewhat dorky Alvin and Cleo really go through with this "multiple love experience"? The song had been just a statement of theme, but now it's a character moment. Which is way better.
But tonight I also decided I hated the way I staged the Act II opener. It needs to be fairly minimal, but right now it just sucks. And it's not the actors' fault; it's mine. I have 48 hours to fix it. I have to have a better answer by Thursday night, because that will be their last rehearsal before Hell Week, when we add lights, the band, costumes, the rest of the props, etc. We open next Thursday, so I won't impose any new staging on them next week.
My favorite thing about directing with my longtime cohort Alison is that she's a genius at identifying the crux of whatever problem we're facing so that the right answer seems obvious. That happened with several moments in the show tonight. I feel like, except for the Act II opener, we've fixed all the rough spots, all the slightly awkward staging moments. It's really sailing along now. It's overflowing with truthful little "married moments" that make the whole thing work, that get us to identify with these people and get us emotionally involved.
I just gotta figure out that one last number...
This has been such a cool experience, not only rediscovering this piece of American cultural history and getting this close-up look at the demise of the Sexual Revolution -- and through a piece that was written at the time it's set. There's no twenty-twenty-hindsight here. It's really an insider's view. We get a glimpse of this legendary cultural war from out in the middle of the battlefield. It's a really different kind of show, sort of a hybrid of Company, Bat Boy, and The Wild Party.
I think audience are going to have such a great time with this show because it's extremely funny. And I think they'll see lots and lots of truth in it as well.
We're coming down the home stretch! Ack!!
Long Live the Musical!