Passing Strange

We finished our first week of rehearsals for Passing Strange tonight. I knew this was going to be really tricky, challenging, unorthodox music, but I think the actors may be a bit overwhelmed by it. We've got a really strong cast, so I know they'll conquer it, but it's gonna scare them in the meanwhile. I've been working on the score for a few weeks, so I already knew the mountain we're climbing.

Charles Glenn, who plays our narrator, is one of the most talented musicians I've ever worked with. He's done only one show with us before -- he was a blistering, terrifying Herod in our JC Superstar -- but he's also been sitting on our board for a few years. He's a professional singer, but I don't think he's ever tackled anything like this before. And I see him going through the same thing many New Line leads before him have gone through -- they struggle initially with this complex music and they feel embarrassed or worse when they can't nail everything the first time through. It happened with The Wild Party, Sunday in the Park with George, A New Brain, and other shows. I reminded Charles tonight after rehearsal that we have lots of time. Not only do we have lots of calendar time, but we also have a rehearsal just to review and clean up the music, and then after the blocking is done, we'll have a "Fix-It Night" before we start running the full show, when we can work on anything that's still a problem. And then we get ten full run-throughs before we put it in front of an audience.

I learned long ago that if we're going to do these crazy, difficult shows, we need a nice, leisurely rehearsal period. We love the luxury of all that time. The other luxury I get is Nikki Glenn, Charles' wife and an actor-singer-musician who's worked with us on several shows as an actor. She's my assistant director for Passing Strange and because she's a musician (you should hear her play jazz violin -- amazing!), she's there to help me figure out some of the more bizarre rhythms and such. Thank god she's here!

The other thing that's tough about the score is that many of the songs aren't just songs -- they're more like complicated, extended musical scenes. (Oscar Hammerstein would be so proud!) And because the show is so rooted in rock and roll, a fair amount of the music just won't really sound right until we have the band. I'm going to ask the musicians if they can join us earlier than usual. I think it would be really helpful. We have the most kick-ass band in St. Louis theatre -- Justin on piano (and conducting), Clancy on drums, Mike on lead guitar, Aaron on rhythm guitar, and Dave on bass. There's nothing like live music and there's really nothing like live rock and roll.

(The debate over live vs. recorded music in the theatre has resurfaced lately, and I just can't imagine doing musicals without a live band. They bring so much to it that can't really be quantified. I said to someone today that doing a musical with recorded music is like showing a theatre audience a videotape of a play. Maybe that's not a perfect analogy, but it's close...)

One of the things that's tough for me is the physical score itself. Every other show I've ever worked on had a piano-vocal score, but not Passing Strange. There's a piano book for the band, but with no vocals, so I can't use that for rehearsals. And then there's a full conductor score, with all the vocals and all six instrument parts all on the same page (11" x 14" paper, landscape-wise), so I have to read both keyboard parts plus the bass line as I play, all while keeping an eye on the vocals so I can help the actors. And I have to turn the large cumbersome page every 10-12 measures. Ack! I'm learning to deal with it, but it's not easy.

But even at this early stage, we're finding so much gold in this wonderful show, so many subtle things in the music and lyrics, some really funny, some really emotional. This is going to be one of those shows for which I write my analysis chapter and then keep adding to it throughout the run as I discover new things.

And probably more than any other show I've worked on (with the possible exception of Hair), the Passing Strange score is chock full of "earworms," those little musical phrases and pieces of melody that get stuck in your brain. We're only about halfway through learning the score, but we've encountered quite a few of them -- "a colored paradise where the palm trees sway," "Only love is real," "It's alright," "why you wanna leave," "slips through your fingers just like angel dust," and so many more. Like any serious composer, Stew and Heidi (the creators, in the photo above) have built a fully integrated score, using musical themes and leitmotifs, using carefully placed reprises, using vocal melodies later as accompaniment, etc. It's not just great rock and roll, it's also a great theatre score.

Once again, I feel so ridiculously lucky to get to work on this beautiful show with this talented cast, these brilliant musicians, and our gifted designers. Yes, I'm the ringleader and benevolent dictator, but none of my ideas are worth shit without the smart, fearless artists who bring my ideas to life and fuse their own wonderful ideas to mine. This is going to be hard work but it's also going to be crazy fun!

I continue to love my job.

Long Live the Musical!