The Spark is Lit

Hands on a Hardbody is open.

We call the last week of rehearsals leading up to opening night, "Hell Week." I'm not sure how that started; I think maybe that's what we called it in high school and the label just stayed with me over the years. In New Line's early days, Hell Week was often hellish. We'd move our set in on Sunday, we'd have no sitzprobe rehearsal with the band, we'd have no lighting cue-to-cue rehearsal, and we'd have just three rehearsals in which we'd throw (untested) lighting, costumes, props, set, and band into the mix as we were careening into opening night. No preview back then either – the first night we had an audience, we also had critics.

I don't know how the hell we pulled it off all those years, not just getting the shows open, but somehow polishing them and getting them to awesome in three, very stressful days.

These days (and really, for the last decade or more), it's way easier. We get two and a half weeks to work on our set now before we open. We get a sitzprobe and cue-to-cue. We add props and costume pieces over time. And we get a preview. Hell Week is almost never hellish anymore. (The one exception was The Wild Party in 2010, in which I fired our pianist/conductor a week before we opened and had to step in myself, to play that massively complex, difficult score. Luckily, I had been playing rehearsals, so it was scary but not impossible.)

Today, Hell Week is still hard on the actors because many of them have day jobs, so they get pretty worn out, physically, mentally, and emotionally. But artistically, we're always in such great shape by then, that all I have to work on is really small, subtle adjustments that will make things clearer, easier to see, etc. I give notes about moving a foot upstage to clear the sightlines to another actor, or about entering slightly earlier so as not to distract from another moment across the stage, or sometimes I'll ask actors questions about lines to get them to consider other interpretation possibilities.

With Hands on a Hardbody, Hell Week was a breeze for me. Every night the show got deeper and richer and more human. Even Monday night, the first time the actors had to deal with all the elements of our production, the show was looking great. By the time we got to our final dress rehearsal on Wednesday, I was thrilled by what we had created.

We had our preview Thursday, and it couldn't have gone better – a big house, great response from the audience, and an excellent performance. There were little bitty fuck-ups, but nothing major. It always changes a show to put it in front of an audience, so it's nice that we have this one preview before the critics see it, to let the actors adjust to this last piece of the puzzle, this last partner in our collaboration.

And opening night could not have been more amazing.

Not only did we have a big, incredibly tuned-in and responsive audience Friday, but the show's lyricist and co-composer Amanda Green flew in to see the show. I told the actors she'd be coming during the run, but not which night. The show was on fire that night, and Amanda really, really loved it. She stayed for our after-party so the New Liners could all meet her. She paid so many compliments to all our actors, to our staff and band and designers, and to our show as a whole.

She said that during intermission she texted composer Trey Anastasio and bookwriter Doug Wright to tell then how great it was. She had come to see our High Fidelity (for which she also wrote lyrics) back in 2008 and was so complimentary and so gracious, and I just knew she was going to love Hardbody just as much. And for the record, she is a huge fan of Jeff Wright, who was brilliant as Rob Gordon in Hi-Fi and now plays Benny in Hardbody. At intermission I talked to Amanda briefly and one of the many nice things she said about our show was, "Jeff can really play anything, can't he?"

And at the risk of embarrassing Amanda, I have to share this story that one of our patrons, Katie Molinaro, emailed me –
I came to the show with Adam Rosen and we realized we were sitting behind Amanda Green. At intermission we were talking about how wonderful this show is and I said if I had another $20 I would see it again. Without missing a beat Amanda turned around and gave me $20 and told me to see it again. I will see it again and bring a friend. Thank you for this beautiful show.

I can't imagine a cooler opening night.

But then Saturday night's show was just as wonderful and the audience loved it just as much. It's so much fun to hear them audibly gasp and moan when certain characters lose the contest, and then burst into applause when the winner finally wins. The audiences are so tuned in, so engaged, so invested in these characters, and surprisingly invested in who wins.

This show has a humanity and authenticity that is almost overwhelming. As many times as I've seen it now, I still get choked up at certain moments and I still tear up during "Stronger," the reprise of "Joy of the Lord," and "God Answered My Prayers." As funny and cynical as the show often is, it's also powerfully emotional.

And it's all I can do not to sing along with those glorious harmonies. When all the contestants burst into that full, rich harmony in "If I Had This Truck," I just wanna run down onto the stage and join them.

I could tell Monday night that this was a show people were going to fall in love with. But they seem to love it even more than I expected. More proof, if we needed it, that what people love isn't special effects or video walls or helicopters or chandeliers; they love truthful, emotional storytelling. And Hardbody has that in spades.

All through our first weekend, the comment I heard most often was "What an amazing cast!", often followed by "And where did you find these musicians?" It's true; our cast is phenomenal. Theses are the best voices you'll hear in local musical theatre, not just powerhouses on their own, but with the ability to blend seamlessly, like they've been singing together all their lives. But more importantly, the acting in this show is stellar, so honest, so thoughtful. The actors never "comment on" or mock these characters. The writers and our actors come at these characters with such respect – which they deserve. And this kickass band of ours sounds just amazing playing these killer arrangements by Trey Anastasio and Don Hart.

New Line has an advantage lots of other small companies usually don't have. We do such wildly interesting, utterly unique shows – and often we're the first in the region or in the country to produce them – that the finest theatre artists in the region want to work with us, despite the shitty pay. One early review from Jeff Ritter says, "Of course it’s easy to enjoy a production featuring so many of the top voices in the St. Louis theatre scene today." But we wouldn't attract artists of this caliber if we were producing Xanadu or 9 to 5. People this good want to do work worthy of their skills and talent; they want a challenge, an Everest to climb. Every single member of the Hardbody cast fully rises to the challenges of this beautiful show.

I could not be prouder. We're already getting emails from audience members telling us how powerfully the show affected them. What more could we ask? And we're also getting requests to rent our truck from other companies that now want to produce this show.

The reviews will start trickling in now and I think they're almost all gonna be raves...

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!