No, I Won't Leave 'Til I Win

There are lots of reasons Hands on a Hardbody is an unusual musical and a challenge for us. One of them is pacing. Usually, I'm a disciple of George M. Cohan's famous reminder to his cast: "Speed! Speed! And lots of it! Above all, speed!"

I'm also a believer in the George S. Kaufman school of comedy, as described in this quote from a really wonderful book on directing called A Sense of Direction by William Ball:
I believe it was George S. Kaufman who maintained that for a comedy to be successful there should be sound – relentless sound – for the entire length of the play. He repeatedly required actors to make all the words butt up tightly one to another. If there were a pause of any kind Kaufman would thrust some noise into the silent space: a door would slam, a phone would ring, a cash register would clang, someone would knock at a door, slap on a table, stamp a foot, crumple a paper, shake a martini, ring a gong, fire a gun, beat a drum; or someone would cry, sigh, scream, sing, mumble, cheer, grunt, gasp, giggle, or groan. Great comedic director that he was, he realized the enormous value of the momentum gained by a relentlessly uninterrupted flow of words. And if the words had to be stopped, some other agency of sound would slap, bang or clatter to keep the comedic rhythm cracking. Then, of course, on those few occasions when he introduced a moment of silence – for a double take or for a slow burn – the effect was like a train wreck.

We put that idea into practice with I Love My Wife, and it breathed such life and energy into the show. But, much like Love KillsHardbody is a show specifically about time passing, about waiting. And though there are lots of laughs, this is a drama, not a comedy.

With most shows, I'm a total Nazi about pauses. I won't allow pauses unless they have a purpose, particularly in a comedy, but in most of our dramas as well. I often refer to our shows as perpetual motion machines. I like taking our audiences on a roller coaster ride.

But with this show, waiting in silence is part of the story, and there are also moments where something dramatic happens that just stops everybody cold (like Chris' outburst that interrupts "The Joy of the Lord"). The silences in this show are (almost) as important as the words. And silence onstage is tricky. You want it to be long enough to have meaning, but not so long that you lose the audience. We used silence a lot in Night of the Living Dead for the same reason; this was a story about waiting, and it was a thriller, so the long moments of silence just increased the intensity and the tension.

For the most part, I won't insert a pause that isn't specifically called for in the script, but sometimes, silence can be an amazingly potent way of underlining something, giving it weight, giving it import, or just letting the audience have a moment to soak in what's just happened.

Most of the actors in Hardbody have worked with us on numerous shows, so they're all programmed now to drive through the pauses at high speed, lest I scold them. But this time is different. One of the ways the audience gets a sense of what these characters are going through is that they, too, are waiting. As I mentioned in another blog post, after the opening number, the stage direction reads, "The contestants place their hands on the truck. They size one another up, wanly. No one says a word for a long time. A vast, empty, gaping length of time."  We can't fully give the audience a sense of the physical toll, the aching feet, the numb legs, the tricks it all plays on the mind, but we can give them a sense of the waiting.

When we produced Sunday in the Park with George, we opened Act II with a reeeeally long pause before "It's Hot Up Here." We wanted the audience to get a sense of time, to see this "painting" full of real people (actors) and think about the people in the painting in a way they hadn't before, to think about them standing there forever, not moving, not talking, not living. Every night, the waiting at the beginning of Act II was awkward, uncomfortable. I always wondered how many people in the audience thought it was some kind of mistake... until the song started and it all made sense...

This show has a different kind of energy from what we're used to. The real test will be, going forward, will theatre companies that produce Hardbody try to force it into a musical comedy style? I think that's one of the great plagues on American theatre today – directors who treat every musical that has laughs like it's a flat-out George Abbott musical comedy. We're right in the middle of a new Golden Age of Musical Theatre, that started in the mid-1990s. Today's musical theatre has become so adventurous, so experimental, so smart, so rule-breaking that you can't impose the rules from the middle of the last century on this new century's shows. They did it on Broadway to both High Fidelity and Cry-Baby and totally fucked up both shows. And I've seen local productions of Urinetown and Bat Boy that try to force these brilliant, dark satires into the strait jacket of musical comedy; both these shows are very funny, but they're not only funny, and they're not old-school musical comedies. These same people cluelessly fill Spelling Bee with mugging and "bits," rather than with honesty and human emotion.

It's one of the things that most drive me nuts. Musicals are complex these days. None of them are simply one thing. We're living in a time of great transformation and innovation in our art form, and we can't force this new work into the old forms.

Hands on a Hardbody isn't radically different, but it is different. Today more than ever before, the musical theatre embraces Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince's conviction that Content Dictates Form. Hardbody is a story about waiting and exhaustion; it can't be staged like it's Thoroughly Modern Millie, even though I'm sure there will be people who try.

Maybe what I'm getting at here is that modern musicals require the same study and thought and analysis as Waiting for Godot or The Glass Menagerie. When directors and actors don't put in that work, they put together bad productions that don't connect with audiences or honor the writers' intentions. You wouldn't drive a car without understanding how it operates, but lots of people direct musicals without a fucking clue about the material they're molesting. Granted, lives are rarely lost if you direct a musical badly, but it's still a shame and a loss.

That's one reason I keep this blog – the more I write about a show, the better I understand it (and the better the actors understand it), and the better our production is in the end. Yes, an audience will still enjoy a mindless, clueless, schticky production of Urinetown, but they'll leave the show with so much more if it's done with understanding and respect.

Just my belligerent two cents.

Long Live the Musicals!