music director

Good Night, Sweet Theatre

Tonight is the opening performance of The Fantasticks at the Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC) in Westport, CT. I’m the music director of the show; I’ll be playing the piano.

It’s another opening of another show—but it’s the last show that will be performed in this rather unusual space. In the fall MTC will be moving to larger quarters a couple of miles away. Larger? How much larger? Well, the new theatre will seat 120. The current one seats: 45.

Kevin Connors and Jim Schilling, who run MTC, have been putting on shows in that space for 25 years. (I’ve music directed eleven of them.) Despite the fact that it’s a black box carved out of the basement of a bank; despite the fact that there are only two rows of seats, and in some of them you have to turn your head sideways to see the stage; and despite the fact that the room is irregularly shaped, so that not all the stage is visible from all the seats, it’s a theatre, a real theatre. It has the feel of a theatre; it’s something that soaks into the walls somehow. It’s a kind of a sacred space. If you’re lucky enough to be the first one into an empty theatre before a rehearsal or show, you can feel the presence of audiences, of performances, of emotions, of stories. Please note that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool secular humanist godless atheist liberal skeptic—but I’ll make an exception in the case of empty theatres. Just because I don’t believe in ghosts doesn’t mean they’re not there.

This show actually has a ghost light onstage as part of the preset. (A ghost light is a light bulb in a cage on a stand, placed on an empty stage overnight so that the first person onstage in the morning can find his or her way around.) For me a ghost light makes this sense of presence tangible; it’s the genius loci of a theatre.

I was music director for the first production in that space, in 1987. It was Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. The director (who shall remain nameless; it wasn’t Kevin or Jimmy) thought it would be an effective idea to have the cast sing “The Desperate Ones” in complete darkness. I learned to play the song without being able to see the music or the keyboard, and that’s how we performed it. At least until one claustrophobic member of the audience one night complained about the fact that there was no “Exit” sign above the door. The Westport fire department came visiting, and discovered that, in addition to the lack of an “Exit” sign, there were numerous other fire safety violations about the new facility, including the lack of an additional fire exit from the building. Kevin and Jimmy were given a choice: cancel the rest of the run, or pay to have a uniformed firefighter in the lobby for each of the remaining performances. That’s what they chose; and then the subsequent production was postponed while they hired a contractor to construct the new fire exit.

That was the beginning of that space’s life as a theatre; besides Jacques Brel, I was present to add to the memories with revues on the songs of Rodgers & Hart, Sondheim, and Cole Porter (twice!); Yours, Anne, the Anne Frank musical (really); a stripped-down version of Cabaret with eight actors; Kevin’s own Mothers and Sons; Pete ‘n’ Keely; The Story of My Life; and Next to Normal, for which I led the world’s quietest rock band. (The drummer played with brushes most of the time.)

We’re doing 15 performances of The Fantasticks; we’ll be entertaining a maximum of 45 x 15 = 675 people. Those performances will be added to the walls, and then—the theatre will be turned into something else, we don’t know what. Will the ghosts stay on? Who knows? I’ve never been in a former theatre before (that I know of). The new space will have to start accumulating its own in the fall. I hope to be there.

Immersion

My composer hat has been gathering dust on the hat rack for the last several weeks as I’ve been devoting pretty much every available waking moment to National Pastime, a new musical by Tony Sportiello and Al Tapper for which I am the music director, arranger, orchestrator, copyist, rehearsal pianist, keyboard programmer and contractor. For about a month I was orchestrating all the time, except during auditions and creative meetings; then rehearsals began, and since then I’ve been rehearsing during the day and orchestrating and copying at night.

It’s a strange thing, to be that totally immersed in a project for weeks on end. Somewhere in the back of my mind is the knowledge that I’m neglecting other things; I haven’t been to a concert in a couple of months, or made the slightest attempt to promote my own music, or compose anything, for that matter. My wife went on vacation without me. If I had a lawn, it would be overgrown, or possibly dead and brown, or both.

This isn’t the most immersed I’ve ever been; sixteen years ago, when Lynn Wichern and I wrote and produced Breath: the Passionate Life and Extraordinary Language of Emily Dickinson at St. Mark’s in the Bowery, I was not only composer and author, but researcher, music director, stage manager, co-director, props master, rehearsal accompanist, contractor, and producer. And I’m probably forgetting a couple. I didn’t work on anything else for about six months; I distinctly remember paying my mortgage with my credit card a couple of times. (Note to any impressionable young artists who might be reading: this is not recommended.)

This time, I’m the hired help, not the composer. I’m getting paid (yay!), but it’s not actually my show. And yet I’m still up past my eyeballs; it’s quite possible I’ve spent more hours on this than the composer at this point. As the arranger and orchestrator, I’m responsible for all the musical details except for the melody and  basic harmonic structure. (I’m finding it interesting how much of my own compositional process might be considered arranging if someone else was doing it.) Several of the songs were originally written in contemporary pop styles, and part of my job has been to find ways to make them sound more like the 1930s, when the show is set, my favorite example of these being the disco song that is now a swing number. (Okay, swing’s the 1940s—sue me. It’s closer than disco!)

Is the show any good? I think it probably is quite good—it’s very, very funny, and the songs are a lot of fun. But despite the fact that I’m spending a lot of mental energy fixing things, solving problems, and in general (along with the rest of the creative team) trying to make the show constantly better, I find that in many ways I’ve totally lost objectivity. It’s probably a similar phenomenon to the Stockholm Syndrome, in which hostages come to sympathize and identify with their captors.

You’ll have to come see it yourself and make up your own mind. The show runs August 8th-25th at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre in NYC (info at the link above).