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News and thoughts from the Artistic Director

Side by Side by Steve

“Hi, this is Steve Sondheim.” I paused, thinking it must be a friend from school trying to freak me out. I mean, several of my friends knew I had written Mr. Sondheim a letter– yes, handwritten on a legal pad– asking perhaps to meet him. My expectation was a polite letter back saying “no” but at least I’d have a letter from him!

The voice was too deep and adult sounding to be one of my 19 year-old peers. I stuttered, “Oh… Hi! Uh…. thanks for calling me!” It really was him! He offered to meet with me and I spent an amazing two hours talking about musical theatre, his work, and the future. That was June 7, 1982.  (I have the autographed A Little Night Music score to prove it!)

During that conversation, Sondheim told me at one point that he was never going to write a musical again. “I’m going to write mystery novels,” he announced. He was still smarting from the critical drubbing of Merrily We Roll Along earlier that season (which I saw and spent many days checking in with Colony Music awaiting the cast album). I was, of course, devastated by his comments, but I could sense that he wasn’t convinced of his decision.

I’m grateful to say that two years later, Sondheim came roaring back to life with Sunday in the Park with George and my life was forever changed… by the meeting and the show!

I’ve been “spreading the gospel” of Sondheim ever since and I’m not the least bit ashamed to be a “disciple.” It’s not like he’s the only writer I admire nor are his shows the only ones I listen to and think are wonderful. But from West Side to Road Show there’s never been a body of work like his and those shows make me proud to be a part of the world of musical theatre.

So even though the theatre world spent much of 2010 celebrating the work of Stephen Sondheim in a multitude of ways, “the little revue that could” was overlooked in all the hubbub. That’s why I’m very happy to have Singing OnStage Productions bring Side by Side by Sondheim to NYC in a concert presentation with an amazing cast: Sally Wilfert, Kate Wetherhead, and Paul Anthony Stewart. This trio will bring back the early Sondheim works (nothing included past Pacific Overtures) in an intimate, up-close-and-personal way at the beautiful Laurie Beechman Theatre. It promises to be an exciting evening!

The show is our autumn fund-raiser and will only be performed twice: Tuesday, September 13 and Thursday, September 15 at 7 pm. Tickets are only $20 (there is an additional $15 food/beverage minimum) and reservations can be made by calling 212-695-6909. I wouldn’t wait to get that reservation! For more info, click here.

By Singing OnStage
Published: August 17, 2011
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Thoughts on Collaboration from Amy Pohler’s Harvard Talk

Amy Poehler\’s Harvard Class Day Talk

Highlights:

“You can’t do it alone. Be open to collaboration. Other people and other people’s ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them and it will change your life.”

Consider this the call to all musical theatre artists: Singing OnStage is looking for that group of people to challenge and inspire and help us create powerful and exciting new musical theatre!

 

By Singing OnStage
Published: May 29, 2011
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Creating New Musicals

I’m coming to the conclusion that finding new musicals via a submission process is like finding a needle in a haystack. It’s not that there aren’t good shows being submitted, but good shows that resonate with Singing OnStage’s mission are difficult to find.

So, while we will continue to seek submissions, I propose the following to writers, choreographers, and producers of musicals: that we begin creating a show/shows together. From the beginning. We meet, we talk, we find a subject and/or story that we all feel is both theatrically compelling and commercially viable and begin work. The writers will always be the writers; no one else will take that job. But bringing in the director from the beginning will allow the director to guide the writing process, give dramaturgical advice, and begin shaping the visual elements. Having a producer attached early will hopefully avoid that dreaded moment of, “I love the show. You just need to add this, change that, cut this, etc.” The producer will sign on to the overall theme and direction of the show before words are on paper. Bringing in a choreographer will help integrate movement from the initial stages so that dance is an integral part of the story-telling.

If this is of interest to you please let us know. If you have suggestions or comments, we’d love to hear them. It’s time for musical theatre artists to produce a body of work that is consistent, compelling, and of interest to a wide ticket buying audience.

 

By Singing OnStage
Published: May 27, 2011
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Writer-Director Speed Date!

Just returned from an exhilarating and happily exhausting two-hour Writer-Director “speed date”. The event was put together by Broadway producer Ken Davenport and included 25 writers (or writing teams) and 25 directors. After 4 minutes with a writer, the directors moved to the next writer and so on. We weren’t able to go around the entire room, but over the course of 2 hours, I introduced myself and Singing OnStage to 20 writers, all of whom had interesting plays and musicals to pitch and were looking for directors. I’m happy to say I connected with 6-8 of the writers and look forward to reading a bunch of scripts!

Hats off to Ken for hosting this event! It was a fantastic way to meet a lot of new people and get the word out about the work we do.

 

By Singing OnStage
Published: May 11, 2011
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A Quote

“I do not care about the choreography as long as the story is clearly told.”

Jerome Robbins in a note to Robert Wise concerning the “Dance at the Gym” in the film of West Side Story.

By Singing OnStage
Published: March 19, 2011
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To “Glee” or not to “Glee” that is the question!

Well, we certainly have two strong camps on “Glee” these days. The Facebook and Twitter comments after this week’s episode would have you believe (a) the second coming had just occurred or (b) a crime against humanity had just been committed.

To whit:

example of (a)

Glee Reaction

example of (b)

Grohl Fumes

Whether it be an episodic TV show, and film, or a theatre piece, the goal is to tell a coherent story. My gripe with Glee isn’t that it uses songs as part of the story-telling, I love musicals!

My problem is that Glee isn’t very good at integrating songs into the story, and it’s losing steam in the story-telling department, period. It is incredibly difficult to tell a good story and Glee started strong in the first season, introducing us to each character, defining the “rules” of story-telling, mixing up the students’ and teachers’ stories, etc.

But after that, it’s been a chaotic mix of story-telling devices, repetitious themes, odd uses of song to tell (or in many cases to NOT tell) a story, and an imbalance in the focus of each episode.

The show works best when there is a balance between the worlds of the teachers and students and how those worlds interconnect in each episode.

Whether you are an actor, director, writer, or viewer, the main goal is the consistency of the STORY. Get clear on the story and make sure every element is conspiring to tell that story clearly and concisely.

This is vitally important when song and dance are being used as devices to convey story. Generally in life, we don’t break out into song and dance to explain our feelings, concerns, like, and dislikes. So when these conventions are used, the method of getting into and and out of a song is crucial to keep an audience engaged. Especially so if the audience is not partial to musicals!

So – to Glee or not to Glee? Tell a clear story and I’ll be there!

Let me know what you think!

By Singing OnStage
Published: March 18, 2011
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[title of show]

The past two weeks were among the most exhilarating and creative I’ve had in my life. I directed a production of the Broadway musical [title of show] with four amazingly talented actors in a small, 3/4 thrust black box space seating about 55 people. Working on this show solidified the kinds of things I want to do with the rest of my career. More about that later.

[title of show] is a work with which I became familiar by listening to the cast recording. I found it intriguing, certainly hip and cutting edge, but I wasn’t sure if there was much substance. I then saw the Broadway production and pretty much flipped for it. I was so impressed, not only with the comedy, which was seriously funny, but with the depth of the writing and the attempt to say something important in a unique way.

About 6 months ago, R&H Theatricals announced that [title of show] was available for licensing. In mid-May, I asked some actors about their availability, checked with the State Theatre about space, and requested a license for [title of show] for performances July 8-10.

I had no idea the pure joy and thrill that was awaiting me! I asked musical director Angie Benson to MD and play “Mary” (a role originally played by a man, Larry Pressgrove) and she began music rehearsals a couple of weeks prior to the official start of rehearsals on June 28.

From the moment we began staging the piece in our 16 x 12 rectangle, I knew we had something very special on our hands. Brad Frenette, as Hunter, was absolutely nailing the style and sense of humor that is mandatory in the role, while Dan Gleason brought an outstanding tenor and wonderful sense of humor as Jeff, the composer/lyricist and perfect partner for Hunter. The two guys began playing off each other beautifully right away and their three duets (“Two Nobodies in New York,” “An Original Musical,” and “Part of It All”) were thrilling, funny, and moving.

When the women joined us, both Kelsey Lope as Heidi and Alison Morooney as Susan, quickly found the style of the piece and brought wonderful individuality to their roles. They were as perfect as the guys. We all laughed a LOT as we found many, many layers of comedy in the seemingly simple (but not simplistic) script.

It had been 4 years since I staged a show in the round. Although this was 3/4, I was grateful for the experience of working in the round and quickly established each of the four characters in the four corners of the space and purchased identically designed chairs in 4 different colors from Target. That was the set!

I placed Hunter in the up right corner, giving him (our protagonist) the main focus as he jokes, cajoles, goes crazy, and eventually gets the musical he writes with Jeff to Broadway. I put Jeff in the opposite diagonal corner, with the girls up left and down right. It was fun to find ways of staging the piece to include variety while keeping the storytelling clear. Locations change constantly and quickly throughout the show and lighting was a big help in keeping it clear for the audience, thanks to our brilliant lighting designer, Greg Ray.

We were able to isolate the four corners when there were phone conversations then bring up a more natural room light when the characters were in the same place at the same time. We used blue and red washes (sometimes separately and sometimes together) to indicate “fantasy” sequences or scenes/songs taking place in the minds of the characters. We had 98 lighting cues in [title of show] and each was vital to clarity and pacing.

Sound effects are a crucial part of the show. There are 6 voice mail messages, several of which help amplify behavioral traits of each of the characters, while two are important, plot advancing devices. All need to be heard clearly and distinctly and yet sound like voice mails. There are several other sound effects and are precisely timed to the action.

The show, because of its lack of pretense in production values, appears to be simple. And in some ways, it is. Only 4 actors, no orchestration, no set necessary. But in other ways, it is exceedingly complicated and the most important complication is the casting of the show. If you don’t have 4 extremely likable, attractive, and hugely talented singer/actor/comedians, the show cannot succeed. The boys especially have to have the singing chops to sustain a HUGE load of music with voices that are rangy and thrilling to listen to. The role of Susan can have an inexperienced singer, but she must be able to sing in 4 part harmony and hold her own in “Die Vampire, Die” and several other smaller moments. The role of Heidi must have a kick-ass soprano belter or else the script doesn’t make sense.

With each actor, there must also be a level of comfort with improvisation. This is somewhat tricky because the show is tightly scripted and, I’ve found, any variation in wording of the lines, no matter how off-the-cuff sounding, tends to kill the line. But the show needs to feel very spontaneous and there are many, many moments that are open to bits of business that just cannot be entirely dictated by the director. In our production, we found so many wonderful moments together, with ideas I gave to cast members and they took off, or with suggestions from the cast that I was able to help refine.

With this cast, we were able to create our very unique version of [title of show] without changing a word. In fact, we used every swear word in the script and the audience loved every minute!

We had only 9 days of rehearsal before opening and the cast took up that challenge beautifully. We were very ready for the audience and that opening night crowd gave the cast a tumultuous ovation, with many, many moments receiving long gales of laughter and all songs getting huge hands. Of the 5 shows, three were completely sold out, one was more than half full, and one, our experimental 11 pm show, was sparsely attended but very well received.

I had a profound experience with [title of show]– an experience I did not expect to have. I knew it would be fun and I was so looking forward to working with four pros. But the depth of the artistic experience surprised me. I felt we were all working at the top of our games and the themes of the show– pursuing dreams against all odds, the importance of true friendship, nurturing your passion– all resonated with a pounding force and actually cleansed my soul. Yes, that’s right. I felt a purity of purpose and action that I’m not sure I ever felt with such clarity.

Working on [title of show] confirmed all that I want to be as a theatre artist– as a director, a writer, and a human being. Thank you Hunter, Jeff, Heidi and Susan, for bringing this small but oh so important work to the world. Thank you Brad, Dan, Kelsey, Alison, Angie, and Karen our stage manager, for joining me.

Not bad for a show with only four chairs and a keyboard.

By Singing OnStage
Published: July 11, 2010
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What is the play about?

I find I’m dissatisfied, more often than not, with new plays and musicals. This post is my attempt to figure out why and what the director can do to help remedy the situation.

Of the shows that impressed me the most over the years, I most often think of the shows directed by Harold Prince. Good, bad, or indifferent the Hal Prince shows were unified: the writing, staging, and design all worked together to tell the story. The best recent example to my mind was Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys, which just completed a successful run at the Vineyard Theatre and appears to be headed to Broadway next season. I found the show flawed but exciting.

I would put The Scottsboro Boys in the unified column because it is a serious attempt to put historical incidents within a single theatrical framework. While the show wasn’t always successful, the creative team conjured a palpable theatrical tension that helped sustain the piece.

Here is where a director and choreographer can be instrumental at the level of creation. While Fiddler was being written, Jerome Robbins constantly asked Stein, Bock, and Harnick what the show was about. He asked them so often they wanted to kill him. But when they finally were able to succinctly describe the essence of the play– how tradition falls away with each new generation– they knew how to unify that show.

Based on what I’m seeing, I don’t think directors are asking that question.

By Singing OnStage
Published: May 12, 2010
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Is the director needed?

David Mamet isn’t so sure. (I know, I know… it’s David Mamet!) His new book, simply titled Theatre, made me think. Mamet’s musings on this topic are certainly reductive, but the simplicity appeals to me. At least once a generation, a major theatre artist announces to the world that theatre needs to go back to the basics. (i.e. Peter Brook and his classic book The Empty Space.)

While there is no shortage of attempted spectacle on Broadway, the opposite is also true. A year after it opened, I finally caught up to Next to Normal at the Booth Theatre. This production makes a good argument for simple story telling. The show looks good but there is no flash for flash’s sake. A multi-tiered unit set simply and easily takes us everywhere we need to go but never lets the audience forget that the story centers on a family dealing with a mother suffering from bi-polar disorder. But can simplicity (or spectacle) happen without a unifying vision?

Of course, as Mamet says, “We need a text and we need actors.” I agree that the actor tends to be undervalued. He then questions whether or not sets and costumes are better than a bare stage and street clothes. Then comes the provocative assertion:

“Is the director needed? No.”

We know that actors and playwrights directed themselves and their own work for centuries. It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th that the director became the center of the production, for better or worse. Being a director, I’m gonna have to argue that the director is necessary. That’s what this blog is all about… stay tuned!

By Singing OnStage
Published: May 9, 2010
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