Working with Tom was a dream. He is calm and cool, and confident. He also takes direction and plays everything from the heart. I knew when he finally met the rest of the cast, he would fit right in.
Remember I said how, when auditioning Tom, it felt like we were replaying his entrance in The Last Session? Well, the similarities kept piling up, and it almost felt like an out-of-body experience.
For one thing, in TLS, the cast of five consists of four people who all know each other, and who last sang together probably about 10 years ago, and one outsider. And all of them have to sound like a single unit by the end of the night. Amy, Maisey and I (and Jim) all did this show together back in 1999. We've known each other, and corresponded with each other for years.
After all, he didn't know us and didn't know what kind of people we'd be. Plus, he now had to "impress" the others. We started singing and -- perfection.
No, seriously. We were instantly a choir. Our blend was perfection right from the first note. Tom really does his homework. He came to "class" knowing everything -- and when I switched some harmonies around on him (because his voice is higher than mine, so I gave him some of Stillman's harmonies), he didn't miss a beat.
Jim jumped into rehearsals the next day. The "new" script of TLS was ready. Into the script went some new jokes and also some new dialogue to help clarify certain things. Out went stuff that didn't matter. For instance, the unseen character of Bobby has suddenly become a wannabe chef.
We also made the decision to keep the setting in 1996, just as Crixivan, the protease inhibitor drug that saved my life, was introduced, but before Gideon is that aware of it. This way we can more fully accept Gideon's suicidal state of mind. His drugs, pre-Crixivan, were failing miserably, just like mine did.
By the end of the week, with three full-cast rehearsals, we were ready for St. Clement's.
This was not going to be easy. First of all, the set for "Another Part of the Forest" was split completely in half, with stage right about a foot and a half higher than stage left. And the piano was up there. So, I had to pull it downstage near the edge, and set everyone else on the lower half.
Secondly, sound. Sound reinforcement is necessary for this show in this space. Luckily, Dan Koehler came along found mic stands and microphones, and had the technical knowledge of how to plug into the system.
But, at first, we were nervous nelliess, running around trying to get it all set up and ready.
And I really felt for Tom, because, since the others of us have done the show before, we know what happens during the course of this show. Where the laughs land, where the tears start, etc. And pacing is so very important for a musical. I also felt that there were certain things, actingwise, he wasn't getting in rehearsal, such as Buddy's discomfort at Vicki's flirtations.
I seriously kept thinking, "Well, at least he can sing it. And if he can just get the lines right, he'll do fine."
My first surprise was when he showed up with a new haircut, a shirt and tie. He said, "I thought Buddy would look like this."
Talk about seriously underestimating our newbie! From the moment he landed on stage with his "Hello! I'm here!!" he had the audience and the rest of us in the palm of his hand. It was seriously like seeing a completely different person.
The show begins with comedy. The laughs landed perfectly. The new jokes worked beautifully. It was all going well.
As for Amy and Maisey, the years had deepened their performances. Amy's "Somebody's Friend" tore the house apart. "The Group" seemed to leave everyone sobbing. Jim was hilarious as "Jim" in the booth."
And then it was time for "Going It Alone." Remember I told you Tom has this ache in his voice? It's hard to describe because it's soft, it has a little edge. It has a tenderness to it. I was hoping he'd remember my instruction and aim for that sound.
I didn't have to worry. That ache is not merely a physical thing one reproduces. It's a feeling. He was feeling it. He was feeling Buddy. To the tips of his toes. I could feel the audience shiver when he began. And, happily, my voice was in very good shape that night, so I could throw that B-flat harmony on top and wail with him.
Seriously, it was electrifying. HE was electrifying. And as he finished the song, "..alone.." the crowd didn't know whether to applaud or just sit there gasping. I think they did a bit of both.
We were ecstatic down in the dressing room. Act one seemed to fly by so quickly!
But, as Peter Filichia noted in his column, it was Maisey's "Singer and the Song" that finally stopped the show.
Weirdly, maybe it was because I was so wrapped up in getting the dialogue and music right, I wasn't very aware of how the audience was reacting during act two. Were they with us? Did they feel they were just listening to an old chestnut? Would anyone care? Act two is more intense.
But "Singer and the Song" comes at the most crucial point of the show. It has to do a lot of things. First, it's the final plea from Tryshia for Gideon to stay alive. Secondly, it's the one song that seems to come out of nowhere, that's made up on the spot, out loud. (I used to say the TLS starts out as a play with songs and morphs into a musical as it goes along).
So, emotionally, this is the high point. If the audience isn't with us, this song won't fly and won't mean a thing. I always see applause here as not simply an ovation for the actor, but a signal that everyone in the room is emotionally connected to the show, to Gideon's fate and to the structural conceit we've thrown at them. We're asking a lot!
But, well. Wow. As Peter described. The ovation started, waned, restarted, and then went higher than it started. It was like the audience was this single entity of wanting -- of NEEDING -- to jump into the play and become a part of it. As if they had been waited for this moment to just let go, not wanting it to end. Not wanting Gideon to end.
By the end, when we got to "When You Care," we were just singing our asses off. Tom -- it was like he'd been set free. Because it's structured as a duet in the middle part, we had our first chance to just stand together and jam on the singing. And, man, did he kick some ass. It was joyous!
The show ended with a massive standing ovation from the audience, most of whom were in tears.
Rev. Mitties got up and thanked us, thanked the audience, said a few words.. I don't even remember what she said. But, thanks to a friend and fan, Thomas Casale, we had 100 souvenir posters for people to buy up, to help bring a few more bucks in to the food pantry and free vet clinic, the recipient of our night.
Everyone crowded in the lobby, shaking our hands, hugging us, buying posters and assuring us that TLS may be more relevant, necessary?, now than it was back then.
As several people put it, back then, the pain of AIDS was fresh in our minds. The death toll. The hospital visits. The funerals. TLS was a difficult ride for people needing to get away from all that pain.
But, now, a new generation has come and almost gone, and the pain has largely been forgotten. The death and suffering caused by this disease, is no longer fresh in the minds of people, at least those here in the western world. The media has forgotten it. Schools have stopped calling me for educational programs about it.
Additionally, with the rise of the political and religious right wing, people are looking for a better way to communicate across all these divides. TLS brings together these worlds and proposes that there is a solution outside of rancor and debate.
Tom Rhoads starred in an Off-Broadway show because he took a job driving, and because he was ready with his CD when the opportunity came. Because he was "there," magic happened.
I think the same thing is true of The Last Session. I produced this reading because I wanted to personally know if this show would still "play." I needed to see it for myself. And I learned that it's more powerful now than it was back then. We put it up and magic happened.
What's next, you ask? Well, we're here.
Let's make a little more magic, shall we?