Shows like Anyone Can Whistle, Hair, Johnny Appleweed, A New Brain, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bukowsical, Jerry Springer the Opera, Threepenny... and Celebration. If you, as an audience member, insist on understanding every moment of shows like these, you'll get just frustrated. You have to let go of the need for signposts and conventional structure, and accept that that's not the kind of experience you're having. When you watch Law & Order, you always know where you are in the story, what's going on, and what may be coming next. When you're watching Bukowsical, you do not.
Celebration asks you to let go of pretty much every expectation you usually have when you sit down to watch a musical. That's harder for some people than for others. But to my great delight, our audiences have totally embraced our wild show, followed the plot (which is actually really straight-forward, despite the other weirdnesses), caught the jokes, and enjoyed the ride. One friend of mine, on the way out of the show, said to me, "Thanks for the LSD trip, man!"
Okay, it's not THAT weird...
On the other side of things, it's been a similarly wild ride been behind the scenes, putting this show together. This was one of those pieces that we discover and understand gradually over the full course of the rehearsal process. Luckily, I figured out some fundamental things pretty early on, thanks to some notes bookwriter-lyricist Tom Jones sent me about his show, and also some photos he sent me of the original production. Even though our production -- and Jones' revised script -- is pretty different from the original, seeing those photos revealed a lot to me about what this show is. Even though we were doing a somewhat different, revised version, even though our show would not look at all like the original, still those pictures helped.
There were several Big Moments in our creation process, which marked big leaps forward for us.
The first was when I read Jones' notes and his intro to the published script, and I understood that our show is not a narrative form; it's a ritual form. It is literally an experiment in musical theatre. The central story arc is the changing of the seasons, the passing of time, even though it seems like the arc is Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl. Without this understanding, we would have gone far astray.
Another important moment was when we realized that the four lead characters represent the four seasons, which connects directly to the core of the story. It's not something that's important for the audience to know, but it was like iambic pentameter for us, there when we needed it. It helped us focus scenes, clarify the longer arc of the story, and make sense of Jones' new ending; and it gave Sarah Porter a cool, specific palette for costumes.
Scott Schoonover's amazing, leather, custom-made masks for the Revelers. By that point, I think everybody had a basic understanding of what we were doing, but the masks freed the Revelers in a way nothing else could have. Not only did it give them a freeing kind of anonymity, but it also placed them firmly inside our freaky New Year's Eve story. Because they're made of leather, and because they're individually sculpted, they took on a vaguely animalistic look. The second they put the masks on, the Revelers came to scary, awesome life.
Another big moment happened between Sean (our Orphan) and me, as we discussed who Orphan is, what he's like, how much of a musical comedy style to give him, etc. When an actor is searching for their character, I just keep throwing ideas at them, metaphors, concepts, descriptions, parallels, anything I can, because eventually there will be one thing I say that works like magic, and the actor will find what he needs. I never know which thing that will be, but I always find something that helps.
In this case, Sean and I had talked about the idea of a musical comedy style for Orphan, and he found that style in his performance. But it was when I told him that early in Act II, when Orphan finally stands up to Mr. Rich, that Sean needed to think of Orphan, from that moment on, as a Hero. With a capital H. From that moment on, he had to stand up straight, feet shoulder-width apart (like Superman), and become a Hero. The next time we ran the show, all of that was there, and I realized this is Orphan's "obligatory moment," the moment toward which everything before it leads, and from which everything after it results.
Just that small change in mindset completely transformed and clarified Act II. For the first time, Orphan was a formidable foe for Mr. Rich. Orphan became the man that Angel could be drawn to. Orphan became the man who could beat Mr. Rich. Sean has found all the richness of Orphan now, and the rest of our cast has done the same. I couldn't be happier with our show.
As I write this, we're halfway through our run. Our audiences have been small-ish, but they've really been tuned in and really had fun with it, and the reviews have been outstanding. My sense is that we'll have much bigger houses going forward.
And yet, we have continued to fiddle with the end of the show.
In the original, the show ends with a reprise of the pulsating title song, which takes us out of the story and back into the framing device in which these Players have been telling us a story. But I think that gives the audience a distance that isn't right. In the original Orphan and Angel realize they have to go out into the world, the world "outside the theatre," and that lets the audience off the hook. It's just an allegory. But that framing device is gone in this revised script; our story describes real life, despite its mythic storytelling.
Orphan and Angel are in the real world from the beginning.
Also gone is the title song reprise at the end. This isn't a musical comedy, and the show doesn't have a conventional ending, because this story never ends. There's always a "To Be Continued"... I've been impressed at how many of the reviewers got and embraced the show's ending.
Before we opened, I had decided to end the show, after the final moment, with a return of the tom-tom beat that opens the show, to help the audience get that this is the end but also a time loop. It didn't work, or at least, not enough. So since we've opened, I've kept tweaking it. First, we added a drum roll at the very end, for punctuation. That helped. Then I asked Kent (Potemkin) to wait longer to start his final cross to Orphan, and also to do it more slowly, to make it weightier, more obviously ceremonial (it helps that he's wearing his dark grey Father Time robe). Then I asked our drummer Clancy to start the tom-toms earlier in the last scene, and we moved the final light fade even later, to give the whole moment some room to breathe. I also gave both Orphan and Potemkin something a little more complicated to play in those last moments, to draw out and underline the ending. (I"m being a bit vague so as not to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it yet.)
We've now played the show with all those changes for three audiences, and though the ending may always be a bit challenging for folks, I think we've made it as clear as it can be. We'll see what Tom Jones thinks when he comes to see us at the end of the run. I much prefer this ending to the original. In fact, I think all his rewrites were for the better, and yet the majority of the original script remains intact, and there are only small changes to the score.
I've loved this show for more than thirty years. I never thought I'd get to work on it. Once again, I count myself incredibly lucky. Who knows, maybe we'll do Philemon one of these days too...
The amazing adventure continues. Come see us!
Long Live the Musical!