Learning a Lot About Being Alive in Good Company

I’ve spent the last couple of months rehearsing a musical and as well as being a blast, it’s been very instructive. 

Okay, let me give you a little bit of context. The musical is Stephen Sondheim’s Company. My friends Gary and Joanne have a black box theatre in North Hollywood, called the Crown City Theatre–a great little space–and they run it very well, so they’ve cultivated a loyal following. Every once in awhile, they ask Albert (my husband) to direct something there, and this time they wanted to do a musical. They suggested Company and Albert, being a huge Sondheim fan, leapt at the idea.

Of course, Albert has never directed a musical before. And for anyone who knows anything about musical theatre, this will send up a teensy red flag, Sondheim being notoriously hard. But Albert doesn’t get daunted by little things like a total lack of experience. When I first met him some 23 years ago, he was studying for the GRE’s so that he could apply to film school at USC. He was an actor at the time and I said to him: “Why film school? Have you ever been in or directed any films?” “No,” he said. A pause. “But I like movies.” I’m thinking: “Oooookayyy.” But of course, he got in, slipped effortlessly into editing on big features, then moved seamlessly into directing tv and now has directed thousands of hours of soaps and myriad projects of his own. But–never a musical. Still–good to know. First thing learned: Just because you’ve never done it before doesn’t mean you can’t do it now.  As Albert put it: “Sondheim is just Chekov with music.” Okay, I can see that. But how many badly done renditions of Chekov plays have you seen? Most of them? That’s what I thought. Luckily, Albert has directed good renditions in the past, so he was confident about getting good performances out of the actors.

Which brings us to singing. Albert can’t. Oh, that’s a little harsh, he sort of can. If he starts on the right note, he’s pretty good to go. But–as he admits himself, he doesn’t have the strongest ear. Still–he had the perfect lead for the main character of Bobby, who has huge solos and is on stage non-stop. He was going to cast a soap star–stupidly gorgeous man with a staggeringly good voice–and who was willing to do the show, even for the astonishing (but not in a good way) fee of $9 a performance. “For you, Albert, I would do anything–and it’s such a great role.” He was on board for months. Then, a week before we were holding auditions for everyone else, he got cast as the lead in Rock of Ages in Las Vegas. Oh, fine. Go make a couple thousand a week in a huge show. Who needs you?

Well–we kind of did. Hmmm. Now. Here’s this huge show that revolves around a wonderful singer and we got bupkis. We held auditions–40 guys showed up, 12 got called back, only 4 showed up. Gorgeous voices, they had. Gorgeous. Goose-bump voices. But–one had a lisp, two were bad actors and one was a great singer and a lovely actor, but was just totally wrong for the part.

So–Albert went with an actor that he and the musical director, Bill, both knew. This guy, Ben is his name, is an AMAZING actor. And he totally fits this part. Handsome, a ladies man with self-professed commitment issues. (Yeah, right. He’s only 28 years old. How committed is he supposed to be? But I digress…)Perfect. But–he hadn’t sung in years. He sang for Albert and–he wasn’t that good. His voice has a beautiful, smoky quality, but he struggled with pitch. So Albert cast him.

I, being as ever, the supportive, non-judgemental wife, said things like: “Are you crazy? You can’t do Company with a Bobby who can’t sing! He’s going to get slaughtered in reviews! You will too! This is disastrous!” And Albert would say: “I had to cast someone! We didn’t any time. And Ben is a great actor who’s perfect for the part. I don’t care if you have the best singer in the world, the show is about relationships and if the singer sucks at acting, no one is going to care if he’s singing about being alive at the end because they’ll all just want to be out of there! No one is going to care about him if he can’t act! And Ben can act! His singing will get better, he’s not that bad, Bill says it will get better and he’ll work with him–I had to go with my gut!” 

 The choreographer quit the day before rehearsals began–her latest show was suddenly going to Broadway. The lighting designer quit–got a chance to do the Grammy’s. Rehearsals got underway. 4 actors got “jobs on cruise ships” (untrue, we found out later, but a decent excuse) and quit and we re-cast and re-cast. Oh, the grumblings! Oh, the eye rolling! Oh, the buzzy whispered criticism from the cast about the costumes, the lights, the musical direction, the voices, everything!

And yet–something serendipitous was beginning to happen. The choreographer quit–and the guy she found to replace herself with, John Todd, could not have been more perfect for this project. He took non-dancers (that would be me) and figured out how to get us all looking good. The space is pretty small and the cast is large–and it actually seems roomy up there, thanks to him and to Albert’s ability to stage herds of people flawlessly. At one point, Albert said: “I want all the guys playing basketball here.” Oh, you haven’t seen real fear til you’ve seen a bunch of musical theatre guys being told they’ll be playing basketball onstage. Chris and Zeffin looked horrified. “I’m not sure I’ve ever even held a basketball,” one of them murmured, the other nodding in agreement. But–John got them doing it. And they look great. The replacement cast was better than the one we had in the beginning–the replacement lighting designer, Anna Cecelia Martin was used to working on a budget and had been a dancer and so was great at lighting the numbers with limited equipment. The set designer, Jack Forrestel, persuaded Gary and Joanne to paint the ceiling black–and pushed them to create all kinds of difficult and amazing things to make a wonderful set for this space.

And through all of this, Ben was getting better. In fact, he was getting really good. He was the first one off-book, he started studying with Zeffin, a terrific singing teacher, at least a couple of times a week. He went over and over his numbers with Bill. And what he most noticeably did NOT do was to self-deprecate. He didn’t get involved in any buzz-buzz about what might go wrong. He didn’t insult himself. If he was off-pitch, he would stop and say,”Can we try that again, please?” He was, I think, the consummate leader. Soon, instead of talking about how many pitches he’d missed, the cast was talking about how much he’d gotten right. They liked him, they respected how hard he was working and everyone started actively rooting for him.

Martha Beck often says that the prevailing energy is the one that will most affect a group. That being calm and centered will quiet a group far more quickly than shouting for their attention. That walking into a group with happy energy will eventually sway everyone, even if they’d been pretty unhappy. I think Albert and Ben did this, Albert by holding a vision in his head of how good this show could be–and Ben by showing up every single rehearsal with a great attitude and a knowing that he’d be fine. 

During one of our first previews with an audience, Ben was singing this dreamy solo ballad, “Someone is Waiting,”  it’s called–and all the women are onstage with him, but not singing. He started singing the wrong words–oh well. He’ll get back on track, I thought, but he didn’t. And then he started going into the ending and nothing was matching up words and music-wise and Bill was trying to follow him and it was quickly becoming a train wreck. Since Ben had done the end of the song, I thought, well, I’ll just go to my ending position, (which happens to be with me holding his hand) and we’ll just leave the stage and we’ll hope the people in the next scene will be ready to go on, since we just cut about 4 minutes out of the show. I thought all the other women would follow me, but they didn’t. So–I got to him and took his hand and he turned to me, abject terror in his eyes. As soon as I touched him, I could see the fear and confusion leave him–just having another human there helped immediately. I saw Beatrice get into place behind him for the little dance they do and thought, okay, that’s as good a place as any to pick it up–so turned Ben to her so they could start dancing. But–he was still holding the goddamned basketball from the previous number. So Lena gently drifted up and took it from him, Bill, bless him, found the spot and everything went on. I don’t think the audience noticed anything, but it was a pretty big mistake.

The night before, I’d been so nervous with our first audience that I’d flubbed a lyric–and had beaten myself up for it the rest of the night. In fact, it still makes me mad. I could beat myself again about it right now. So when that moment happened with Ben, I was wondering how he’d react. He still had lots more time onstage so he had to move on as though nothing had happened. No time to dwell in the mistake, or he’d miss the lines he needed to say right now. (That’s what I love about live theatre acting. You have to be in the present moment or you’ll blow it.) He has about a 5 second break in the first act, during which he came up, grabbed me, kissed my cheek and said: “Thank you for saving my ass,” before running on again. The whole cast laughed about it–him most of all. Wasn’t pissy with himself for a second. That was such a great lesson for me. My style is to call attention to all my mistakes, past and present (and to stupid things I might do in the future) to conflate them and then to berate myself about them mercilessly so that I can get it all out there before everyone else does. This way, no one expects much of me, and I benefit from low expectations, since I can usually surpass them. I’m beginning to see that this is not the best way, that Ben’s way is much better. He says he yells at himself in his car and has some sleepless nights. Maybe. But–if he had any doubts about his singing ability, he kept it to himself. He never shows any fear. It’s amazingly beneficial to the people around him. 

Albert never strayed from his vision either. Remember he said he had to go with his gut, to cast someone who was a better singer than actor? Well, the reviews came out this week–raves across the board (except for the LA Weekly, who didn’t love it, but didn’t hate it, either)and a critic’s pick from the LA Times. As Albert  (who is mixed race and has a voice he uses for anger expression that I call Tyrone) said: “And not one motherfucker said anything ugly about Ben’s voice! Not one! But all of them said how perfect he was for the role. Suck on that, y’alllllll!” Yep. I’ll suck on that. I’ve never been happier to be wrong. 

And at the risk of going on and on (too late!) here’s the re-cap of what I’ve learned.

1. Just because you’ve never done it before doesn’t mean you can’t do it now.

2. Go with your gut.

3. Sometimes the replacements are better than the originals.

4. Hold on to your vision even if no one else can see it yet.

5. Self-deprecation doesn’t help a leader.

6. Keep your doubts to yourself.

7. Mistakes. So what?

8. Show no fear.

9. Don’t panic. Just work hard.

10. Your calm energy will affect everyone in a positive way.

So suck on that, y’allllll. See you on the boards…

 

 

 

 

 

 

This entry was posted on Friday, February 22nd, 2013 at 9:52 pm and is filed under Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

 

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