Life Is a Long Road to Death

We used to start our first day of rehearsal with a read-through. A lot of directors do that. But doing that with a musical means I have to play and sing all the songs that first night, since the actors won't necessarily know them yet. And if I do that, the actors don't get as good a sense of the show as they might otherwise. So a few years ago, we changed our process. Now we do all our music rehearsals first and learn the score. When that's done, then we have a read-through-sing-through, and the cast gets a much clearer sense of the show.

We did that for Cry-Baby Thursday night.

But I've found that first read-through is still really nerve-wracking for some actors, even if it's not on the first night. They sit there, juggling script and score, trying to jump back and forth between books as the songs come and go, and some actors start feeling really overwhelmed. Then they screw up a piece of harmony or miss a phrase or whatever, and then they start beating themselves up for fucking up in front of the whole cast, and then their focus is off... And that critical self-editor starts yammering at them inside their head... And so they spend the evening thinking they suck.

And then afterwards, at least one or two of them come up to me to reassure me that they know their music. But I already know that. I know exactly what they're going through. I've been doing musicals since 1976, and writing them and directing them since 1981. There are so many parts of the process of making a piece of musical theatre which can fuck with the actors' heads -- not the least of which is the barbaric practice of auditions.  How awful that an actor has to come into a room and sell himself to us. He is the product we may be rejecting later by carelessly tossing his audition sheet into the No pile. It can be soul-crushing.

So New Line created a new rule a few years ago that any actor who's worked with us during the past eighteen months does not have to audition for us anymore. You have no idea how happy our actors were about that. That doesn't solve the problem, but it does make it better. And it also makes it easier to keep our (modified) repertory company intact. Even though we try to balance each cast with about half new people and half people we've worked with before, the New Line regulars often come back show after show after show. And there are a handful of them that will happily do pretty much every single New Line show. Especially now that they can skip auditions...

And it ain't for the money...

But the whole process is an ego-buster. I try not to use the word No too often as we work, because I want to be as encouraging as I can be, but I often find myself saying it anyway. I try to keep rehearsals relatively light and fun, to keep the soul-crushing to a minimum, but sometimes the work is really hard and the fun has to wait. And if an actor is really struggling with something, I try really hard to come up with a solution to his problem before I talk to him about it. That doesn't always work out, but I try.

I've also taught myself over time not to judge an actor's performance too harshly in rehearsal. Maybe it looks like this actor is heading in a totally wrong direction, but maybe he's trying to create something complicated and he needs some time to work it out, before I charge in and tell him it won't work. After all, I allow myself first drafts when I'm writing; shouldn't I give actors that same luxury? On the other hand, sometimes I really do know right away we're on a wrong road and it's better to fix that early.

As you can see, it's a tough job I have.

And I do all this stuff to try to make it easier on my actors because I really love actors. I love watching them work, watching them create, watching them make magic. And the really good ones can really surprise and delight me with their unexpected but often brilliant, truthful choices.

The good news is that we always have the most amazing theatre artists working with us, and this show is no exception. From my perspective, I thought our read-through-sing-through went pretty awesomely. We laughed all night long (this is a really smart, funny show!), most of the songs sounded very good, and a few sounded amazing already. As much as I often feel like a blind man groping his way through casting our shows, the end result is always wonderful. So it was such fun to hear these characters for the first time, to hear how perfectly each actor fits his role. I honestly don't know how it works out show after show, but it does.

I can also see at this early stage that not everybody understands this Bat Boy style we're going after yet. It's a difficult style to master -- really exaggerated and outrageous, and at the same time completely, utterly honest and truthful. Unless they've seen a lot of New Line shows, or caught Bat Boy or Urinetown in New York, they've likely never seen a show done in this style. It's a hell of a tightrope for an actor to walk. But we've become pretty expert at it, if I do say so myself...

I don't usually give the actors too much direction for the read-through; I wanna see what they've been thinking about and what cool things they may bring to the table. But the one note I gave to the Teardrops, Cry-Baby's Drape back-up girls, is that whenever they're talking to Squares,  every word is an assault. Each sentence is a dirty, cracked baseball bat with some dried blood on it and they're slamming it down on the Squares' squishy little heads. It's like a six-year-old who's mad at her parents for making her go to bed early, so she's gonna say the meanest things she can think of, with the meanest face and meanest delivery she can muster. With the Drapes, it's almost always a preemptive strike, more a general reaction rather than a specific one. But they're not bad people; they're just performing their "badness" as a kind of body armor to protect against the simplistic moral judgment that's always radiating out of the Squares like a crayon sun. Most importantly, the Drapes aren't cartoon characters; these are real people, behaving in a childish, cartoonish way. Their "bad kid" status becomes a performance -- a mask -- for the world.

How often have I seen that, living here in South City? Constantly.

After the read-through, I told the whole cast (as I always do when we work on comedies) that if they get an idea for a bit of stage business or a reaction or something, and they think, "This is funny! I bet it'll get a laugh," then they must immediately discard the idea. If, on the other hand, they get an idea and think "This will really define my character," or "This will set up that revelation at the end," then they're on the right road. Never for a laugh. Only for storytelling. If the storytelling is good, the laughs will take care of themselves.

We've got two choreography rehearsals over the next two days (there's a lot of dance in this show!), and then we start blocking. I don't like blocking because it's the hardest work I have to do in the process (depending on the show, I guess). But I do love getting a show up on its feet...

After all, it's not theatre on the page. It's only theatre when actors, directors, musicians, and designers bring it to life in front of an audience.

It's going to be such fun putting this show together. The actors are starting to realize that they're the second people ever to do Cry-Baby the Musical, that there's only the original Broadway cast and the New Line cast. I've had this experience several times (check out our High Fidelity promo video on that topic), but it's awfully cool the first time that hits you...

More soon... The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!