No Need to Look So Quizzical

We had a really good, solid rehearsal tonight! It's really a show now (we open next week!), so we can see what we've got and start polishing, finding those amazing little moments that make characters real and a story compelling, and getting rid of anything that doesn't contribute to character or story.

There are so many wonderful moments already -- funny, sweet, sad, bizarre, vulgar, silly -- we access just about every emotion and every tone you could imagine in this show. It's a real beast to put together in a lot of ways -- partly, I think, because this story takes us through very genuine emotions but also a pretty outrageous story, and that's a tough balancing act -- but it really has come together. Everyone is working really hard. Everyone in the cast has something real and unique and fun that they're adding to the show -- there's so much life on stage!

This is my favorite part of the process, and I think it's one of the hardest parts on the actors. They've got everything memorized now, they've got their blocking, they have a pretty solid understanding of character and relationships, but now we work on small, subtle stuff -- whether a line is delivered to the audience or another actor, how much to bring out the subtext of a song, how to balance the ebb and flow of the show's energy, when to charge ahead wildly and when to take a breath and let the audience digest what they've just heard for a moment. So many moments change now, sometimes in very small ways, and things that felt so solid to the actors now feel new and unsure... They're constantly having to readjust. Constantly.

In one scene tonight, an actor wanted to cross on a particular line and it really didn't feel right to me. But if I was gonna stand my ground, I knew I had to help the actor understand why it wasn't the right time; otherwise the scene would feel wrong to him and that's never good. An actor has to feel comfortable every moment to do his best work. I had been taught years ago that the best time to move onstage is at a change in topic or a change in motivation. When the inner world changes, the outer world changes to reflect that, and it really helps the audience tune in to and follow that inner life. When I offered that explanation tonight, that was all the actor needed. He understood and he no longer felt like he was tugging against the staging. After thirty years of directing musicals, I know the director's most important job is to make the actors feel as safe as possible. Sometimes, the show itself is so difficult or intense or weird that that kind of safety is tough to get to. But I have to do my best.

I love actors. I love watching them work. I love watching them create so full a character that it continues to evolve throughout the run in very subtle ways. Sometimes I know I have to insist on my idea, fully aware that the actors won't like it, but hoping that once we're running they'll see that it works. With our weirder shows, sometimes I'm the only one who really knows what it's going to look like on opening night, how it moves, etc., so the cast just has to trust me until it comes together -- sometimes until we put it front of an audience (Hair was like that the first time).

But whenever possible I try to make sure the actors understand everything I understand about the show. We always have a "resource box" full of videos, books, and other material to help the actors with background, period, style, etc. I know some people think actors should just say the lines and be done with it (David Mamet is a big proponent of this philosophy), but I really believe the more the actors really intimately know this world, the more easily they will create wonderful, complex, interesting characters, partly through conscious choices and partly through largely unconscious instincts.

Big Picture, I believe my job is to set us all on the same road, make sure everyone knows why this is the road we're on, then let them find their way, let them explore side streets and by-ways for a while, steer them back on the road when necessary, and then finally edit their work to get everyone in tune with each other. I'm pretty good at finding the tiny tears in the fabric of a show and stitching them up, one by one, till we've got a gorgeous, amazing tapestry of storytelling.

Here's another story that illustrates my point. There are several instances in the show where characters sing little fragments of songs a cappella, and one of those fragments has been troublesome. We couldn't figure out how to stage it, and though it quotes a previous melody, it starts in the middle of that melody, so it's been hard for the actor to find it without accompaniment. So last week we decided we'd just cut a few lines and avoid the hassle. That's almost always the wrong solution. Tonight we discovered the lines we cut held important information that the audience has to get to move the story forward. So after a long discussion, we finally figured out how to deliver it and how to stage it. It took us a little while, but we got there...

So much of creating theatre is really just problem solving.

People who don't do musicals don't understand how incredibly complex musical theatre is. It's got all the challenges and obstacles of non-musical theatre, but to that it adds singing, dancing, musicians, etc. And lots of entrances and exits, costume changes, all kinds of things have to be exactly timed to the music. And though there are some plays that require major physical exertion, there are very few that require the stamina and energy of a great musical, especially a rock musical.

All theatre used to have music. It's only been since the mid-1800s that music was divorced from theatre. In other words, theatre is inherently musical in its natural state. Plays that lack music are an aberrtion in theatre history. Why has music always been so integral to theatre? Because the abstract language of music (like great stage lighting) can express emotion far better than words ever can.

Sometimes it's frustrating to me that so many theatre people still look down their noses at musicals. Several theatre people in town have told me directly that muscials "aren't real theatre." But whenever that happens I just imagine the naysayers trying to produce Hair or The Wild Party or Bat Boy, and I have to laugh at how clueless they would be. So many great actors have totally tanked in musicals! So many skilled directors think doing a musical is a vacation and they end up making shitty musicals. It's a lot harder than it looks. It is a different art form with different rules and conventions.

There was a company in town (who shall remain nameless) who decided to produce a musical back in the 1990s because they saw our sold-out houses and assumed all musicals sell out. The end product was bland and low energy and superficial, and it didn't sell very well. They thought that because they make theatre they can make musicals, and so the theatre gods humbled them for their arrogance.

As it should be.
Long Live the Musical!