We Triumph Now, God Only Knows How

We've blocked our zombies and zombie hunters, and we've run the two acts separately. Next week we move into the theatre, and start running the whole show. The vocal music is sounding amazing, in part because we're spending a lot more time than usual reviewing music in blocking rehearsals, which makes the actors so much more comfortable. We're now at that point now where they have to put down their scores, and that moment terrifies some of them.

The score is learned, the show has been staged, and now we put meat on the bones. I realized a number of years ago, that comic book art is a really good metaphor for our creation process. I think that's because comic book art and musical theatre are both (usually) very collaborative work, which ultimately needs to look like it came from one artist.

We block a show relatively fast, and we don't run scenes a lot until all the pieces are in place. I think about that part of our process as my pencil drawing. I define the work ahead and lay down the ground rules. Then together, the actors and I "ink in" my pencil drawing, we add clarity and depth and focus, and we make a lot of choices. Then I sort of stand back and let the actors "color" their performance.

I'm a director who doesn't want to give an actor too much direction up front. I once saw an interview with Hal Prince, where he said that the job of a director is to put everybody on the same road, make sure they all stay on that road and don't stray onto some other road, let them do the work, and then edit and polish that work to create a coherent whole. I love that idea. I firmly believe that our show will be better and richer if the actors actively collaborate with me, actively create our show as much (or more) than I do. It won't be nearly as cool if all the ideas come from me.

That's unnerving for some actors, who'd rather I ink and color their performances. But most actors love the freedom. Then again, freedom isn't free. With great power comes great responsibility. But The Zombies of Penzance is a crazy, meta, artistic tightrope, so that freedom is a little scarier than usual.

I've asked the actors, now that they're comfortable with the music, to really focus on the text, to read it out loud (a good idea with any lyric), to make sure they totally understand everything they're singing (that's not always easy with G&S, or G&S parodies), to think about all the lyrics like they're dialogue, to think about why they repeat things...

But also, we all have to keep in mind that Gilbert & Sullivan operettas are almost entirely about showing how ridiculous we all are (yes, even zombies), and part of that ridiculousness is how Very Seriously the characters take themselves and each other. It's always Very High Stakes, literally life or death -- or undeath -- in our story.

But also...

We always have to keep one eye on the central meta joke of the show -- that this is the most wrong-headed storytelling form possible for telling this particular story. To be honest, that was the biggest appeal of the project for me initially. So we have to underline and revel in that wrongness, in this wild mismatch between our story and our storytelling.

Remember, The Pirates of Penzance was already making fun of the conventions of opera, like almost all the G&S shows do. But with The Zombies of Penzance, we add another meta-layer to it. Here, we're telling a horror story in the language of English light opera. So inside the story, everything is terrifying and insane and literally life or death; but when the actors step outside of the story to directly tell the audience things (which happens a ton!), they're in a quirky, ever so polite English light opera. And yet they're still in character and period the whole time. The actors have to find that dual reality and realize that if they're comfortable with it, the audience will accept it.

I guess our meta-meta musical is closer to The Mystery of Edwin Drood than any other musical I can think of. It's interesting that both Zombies and Drood are American shows based on British sources and British theatre forms.

What makes Gilbert & Sullivan shows work is getting the audience to accept the barely logical reality of the story, to accept the story's usually ridiculous rules and conventions, to care about the characters, no matter how crazy they are. In fact, it's often the most ridiculous G&S characters that we bond with most. The way all that happens onstage is for the actors to live completely and honestly within that crazy reality, no matter how crazy it gets, no matter how tenuous its logic gets. It's just like doing Little Shop of Horrors or Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson -- the actors have to make peace with the odd, unconventional rules these shows invent for themselves, and then audiences will do the same.

Actors who don't do musicals often think musical theatre acting is somehow "lesser" -- less serious, less skillful, less honest -- than acting in non-musical plays. The opposite is true. The kind of acting most musicals require (particularly post-1964) is much more difficult, much more complex, and requires more and different training. That's why so many famous actors have sucked in musicals. Our actors in The Zombies of Penzance have a much harder job to do than people realize.

It is a truism of theatre (and I assume other forms) that audiences will follow strong, confident storytelling wherever it takes them. We New Liners have seen that proven over and over again throughout our history, with shows like The Wild Party, Love Kills, Forbidden Planet, Floyd Collins, Passing Strange, American Idiot, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Sweet Smell of Success. But audiences will not follow tentative or clueless storytelling; they will disconnect.

We now have two and half weeks to just run our show at every rehearsal, tweak it, polish it, but most of all, to let the actors collectively find that dual reality, the style and tone, and construct the magic "clockwork" that pulls everything together into a unified whole.

Our intrepid music director Nicolas Valdez and our truly brilliant cast have shaped such a gorgeous musical sound for our show. Now the actors have to put down their scores, so they can explore and invest in these wacky characters and this wild, barely logical story. The sooner they put down the music and the more time they give themselves to play in this world, the richer our show will be.

This is the part where I sit back and let the actors explore. It's the most exciting part.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!