Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Little Big Voice.

"Tonight, we have in our audience, Jake LaMotta."

Those words came out of Jim Brochu's mouth as he introduced celebrities in the audience after our performance of "The Big Voice: God or Merman?""

The first thing that went through my mind was, "Oh, man. All my straight friends will be so impressed!"

See, we here at the bonus round are still a very small private club. "Go out on the street and ask the first ten people you meet if they've ever heard of you. I promise you. They haven't." That's what the big PR agents representing The Big Voice said at our first meeting back six years ago.

And, now, here we were down on 42nd street, a few blocks from Times Square.

"And here, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the great songwriters in the world. Fiddler on the Roof. She Loves Me. Sheldon Harnick is here tonight."

The club was jam-packed. They had been laughing almost non-stop at us for 90 minutes.

Just before the performance, Jake came in and got my video camera and we did a little interview.  I told him I was terrified.

The stage of the Laurie Beechman Theater is very small, and though we had a sound and light check, a sound and light cue to cue, Nick the tech guy and Don Myers, as stage manager, were flying by the seat of their pants with the sound and light cues, especially when we veered off book along the way. Which we did.

I must say, too, that I saw them invent some terrific lighting designs during the songs.

The Laurie Beechman is used mostly as a cabaret space in the basement of the very elegant West Bank Cafe on 42nd street that seats about 90 or 100, if you really squeeze. The sound and lights are excellent and it even has a grand piano, which we didn't use because we need stage space to move around, and the food is great, not overly expensive, and the entertainers are usually superb. It hosts everyone from veterans like Joan Rivers to the hottest up and coming acts on the New York cabaret scene, to special nights featuring Broadway veterans and stars from movies and tv.

However, as far as I know, I didn't know if anyone had actually staged a musical in there.

But, that made it even more fun. What's the worse that could happen?

Jim and I had three talk-through rehearsals to get it back into our heads, just enough to have the courage to step out there and go for it, knowing we might go up at any moment, and that, if we did, it wouldn't matter.

I remember the night, during the off-Broadway run, I turned into the spotlight of the incredibly black nothingness and totally forgot the first line of the play. It was totally gone. Poof. I just stood there sweating and turning hotter and hotter on the inside.

But somehow, I stumbled out of it and the audience just thought it was part of the act.

In case you're just joining us, this was a special 65th birthday performance for Jim of "The Big Voice: God or Merman?" a homemade musical about the amazing future pope, Jim Brochu and his friend Little Steve.

It's easy to work with Jim. He does all the hard stuff! All I have to do is play the straight man during his comic routines, and sing a few songs. Easy peasy. Oh! And to try not to act. in fact, I did a lot less acting this night than I ever did before. I used to try to illustrate everything with my hands while playing the piano. You know, entertain a little!

Sheldon Harnick said something to me after the show. He said he had forgotten -- and I don't remember his exact words -- forgotten how real life is entertaining on its own. He said as a songwriter, he's always trying to entertain. But that you don't have to do that if you have a good story.

I do remember one thing he said, "You've inspired me."

Well, Mr. Sheldon Harnick you inspired me and continue to inspire me. I did, in my Baptist childhood, see the movie of "Fiddler on the Roof." I saw you at Jerry Bock's memorial service and you sang your heart out, and you sounded fantastic.

Anyway, I knew Sheldon was in the audience. I also know that his songs are meticulously crafted. He comes from the old school, where every word is perfectly placed, perfectly rhymed, perfectly meaningful. It's the school I aspire to.

So, that night, when I started any song, I was trying to remember them and rewrite them as I sang them. "Oh, God, I hope Sheldon didn't that little fake-out." I played "One New Hell" a whole step too high, which made it impossible for Jim to sing his last notes up in the right range. I sang the wrong version of one of the verses of "Sometimes When I Pray," the one with the half rhyme instead of the full rhyme.

And then there was dialogue. And just being present. It takes a lot of work to just be present. When a thousand things are going through your head and you're trying not to look at faces pressed up into the nightclub spotlight, you remind yourself that all you have to do is listen.

I remember a lot of laughter. A lot. Of laughter. In fact, the only time they weren't laughing was when they were listening to a song or crying. I heard sobs!

I felt like a Jake LaMotta up there. Punch 'em once with a surprise! Knock 'em down with a punchline. Disarm them with truth. Set 'em up. Knock 'em down.

Until, suddenly it was over. It happened in a flash.

Only one time did I totally freeze, trying to remember my next line. So, Jim left me out there to hang, we had a great laugh, and moved right along.

After the bows, when Jim told everyone to sit for a moment, calling for the house lights so that he could recognize celebrities in the audience, there was Marge Champion, world famous magician Rich Bloch, theater, TV producer and writer David Rambo. Sheldon Harnick.

We received another call from someone we both love and admire. His name is Harvey Evans. He was in the original cast of Sondheim's "Follies." We had invited him up to the apartment afterward, but he said he couldn't do it -- that he was so taken by the show, he didn't want to "leave" it. He said, 'I felt like I was watching the Lunts. You guys have set the bar very high for this kind of show."

So, all in all, it was a great night. Hopefully, one they'll let us repeat.

And Jake LaMotta. That was cool.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Tomorrow night we celebrate Jim's 65th birthday with a special performance of The Big Voice: God or Merman? 

I made up this graphic because I love that photo. Of course, it makes it look like he's the star of the show. Well, I don't mind. After all, it is his birthday.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Note from Canadian Steve!

His real name is Michael Rawley and he just finished a run of "The Big Voice: God or Merman?" up there in Canada in a small town called Bobcageon. It was a rather daring move by the producers because gay themed musicals and plays don't always, well... you know.

Hey Steve,

So we are closing tomorrow night. What a whirlwind. This contract has gone so fast and we both wish we could run the show for at least another week.

It has been going great. We have learned so much doing this show - how to play it, how to gauge the audience, things like that.

I would have to say it's been a roaring success out here in rural Ontario. The audiences seem to really be loving it. We have had almost universally good response with only a very few dissenters.

Opening night was great. The audience laughed and really made us feel warm and welcome. We had 2 things from that night: a young man with what we think was CP came because he was really into music and LOVED it!!! He happened to be sitting right where Geoffrey points during the Lourdes section (I felt horrible for him) but the young man laughed louder than anybody about the kid falling when he got out of the wheelchair. We also had a preacher from Pittsburgh attend and he thanked Sarah for programing the show - he loved it and said there was lots of food for thought.

Last Friday a young couple sat in the front row and were gone in Act 2 but they won the tix from the local country station and they really didn't look like theatregoers - let alone muslcal theatregoers or ones ready to deal with the content.

On Saturday, there were 5 women in the front row and I pegged one as not going to stick it out and I was right. From the outset, when anything mildly controversial came up - ANYTHING!! - she looked nervously at her friends. And, with this show, that would be a lot of looking. She was gone after intermission.

And on Wednesday night past, a couple - man leading the way - left during The Closet. How disheartening. Except he went downstairs and started yelling about how dare they not let an audience member know about a show with a 'queer Pope and a queer preacher'. !!!!!!!!!!! Sarah had to escort him from the building. Apparently, he was quite loud - thankfully we didn't hear it.

Other than that, we have had great response. A few people getting to their feet to applaud at the end. 19 at the matinee yesterday (Thursday) and 19 in Act 2 and at the end - including a family of 6 - grandparents, parents and 2 teens.

A woman with AIDS - we had our own Annette. A number of gay men - we're everywhere apparently. And a lot of laughter and tears too. Someone who saw Ethel in Gypsy in Detroit and Ethel sat beside them waiting for the 'Sing out, Louise' moment - so the show meant a lot to him.

A lot of churchgoers who praised James and Sarah for bringing it to Bobcaygeon and applauding the message. Not to mention the superb skill of the 2 performers ;) ....

The guitar works great in The Closet as I get to move all over the stage and play to different areas of the audience and, by the time I whip out the uke for Christmastime, well .. we can do no wrong. Christmastime sounds so great on the uke. And when G breaks into his hula in the second chorus, smile erupt everywhere and great applause is the result.

I listen to Long As I Can See The Light before every night before we leave for the theatre to get all Creedenced up in prep and you will always be the embodiment of them for me, Steve.

I think that's about all for now. I hope Olympia is going great. The internet is clearly working better now.

We head home after the show tomorrow night and I shall give you a call next week and we can chat more about it. Don't know if there will be a vid :( . but I'm thinking that G and I should get the ol' Garage Band program going and record a few songs for you so you will have an idea of what we were up to here in the wilds of Ontario.

much love to both of you

Michael Rawley - Canadian Steve xo xo xo

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Olympia New World Waking Pt. 3

All I could think, in my mind, was "Look what we did!"

And we did. From our bumpy first day, it all came together in an emotional, glorious concert experience.

All afternoon that Friday, I worked with soloists. They were so great. They'd come in and work with me. Then they'd go into the lobby and listen to the songs, memorizing, memorizing, memorizing.

To be honest, it was probably expecting WAY too much, asking them to sing by memory. But the truth is that you cannot sing a song with full conviction if you're reading it as you sing. A song isn't just words that line up in a row.

I was so focused on getting them in shape, I forgot to spend adequate time on my own show. And that night, I got into the middle of "The Closet," a song I haven't sung in forever.

And I totally went up. I had no idea what to sing next. So, I just stopped in the middle of the song, chuckled to myself and started "Connected." I always remember "Connected."

Then it hit me that I had printed the words for "The Closet" and had them on the piano! I'm such an idiot!

So, without taking a breath, I said, "Oh! Here's that song I started."

And I started right at the point where I left off. Thankfully, everyone laughed. Afterward, some of the students were talking about it and laughing. I told them if they forgot words to the show that night, to just look over and me and I would take up the slack, that my job was to be there for them.

Several times, it worked perfectly. A few times, I wasn't looking at the words and totally goofed it all up.

But, for the most part, we had a sensational night of theater. Alec wrote about it being a bit "rough" on his blog.

I wrote Jim a note and described it as a "triumph." It wasn't, really, if perfection is necessary for triumph. But after the first day, when I was so concerned whether anyone would even show up for the show, the group that came was totally committed to the project, and said to they were also profoundly moved.

Saturday night, I let a few of them hold music so that we could have a smoother performance. And, now that the chorus had heard the entire piece for the first time, they really got passionate into the staging and harmonies. Alec, again, remarked that it seemed as if we'd rehearsing for months.

There was one really nice thing that happened. One of the chorus members, an adult student who seemed, at first, less engaged than the others, came up to me and suggested a change in the staging of "Lazarus Come Out." She said, "I think it would look really good if you had all the chorus members stand up one at a time."

My initial reaction was negative, that it would look everyone was missing their cue. Some of the others in the room cited similar fears.

But something whispered in my ear. It was the first rule of improv, that you never say no to something. You just go with it.

I said, "Yes. Let's do that." And I told everyone to just stand up randomly in the song. I had no idea how it would look, but I also thought that it won't hurt anything, either.

As we got into the last third and "Lazarus" started, I could see the choir members behind me, at my left hand. And out of the corner of my eye, I could see them starting to stand. One at a time.

Chills went up my arm.

The effect, rather than looking like nobody knew when to stand, looked like people were making their minds up, one at a time. It was really dramatic.

I didn't see her afterward, so I told Don to thank her and to tell her that it's staying in the show from now on.

Here is a brief video with snippets from the workshop and the performance:

Thursday, August 04, 2011

New World Waking Olympia, Day Two

Thursday, after running through the songs with the selected soloists, where I did a few adjustments on the selections and gave them notes about the songs and how to sing them, I told each of them that I didn't want Friday night's performance to be a dress rehearsal. I wanted them off-book and into a full performance.

I wanted them to imagine that they were opening in New York and that the audience expected their money's worth.

That night, we went to a restaurant downtown to have dinner with people from the PFLAG-Olympia board of directors.

By now, I was feeling very weak. I still wasn't feeling the kind of intense pain yet, so I kept my fingers crossed that this would be a mild attack, but knowing I had a full day of rehearsal ahead of me followed by a performance that night and one the following night, I was definitely scared.

I tried not to relate this to Gabi and Alec as we drove around, but they knew I wasn't in good shape.

At the dinner, I found myself needing to pee about every five or ten minutes. After a few times, though, it started to feel different. I began feeling a familiar tickling. Wait. I knew this feeling.

This is what it felt like, before, when the stone was exiting. It's hard to describe but it's very specific.

By this time, I was at my weakest, but a glimmer of hope was starting to pop up.

At the table, I kept slugging back water, WILLING this all to be true, that the worst was actually over and that I would not have to be hauled to the ER.

Every five or ten minutes, I'd get up. Go pee. Get back. Get up. Go pee. Over and over.

Somewhere in the middle of all that -- I was sitting next to a very kind lady who was aware of my distress and worrying about me -- I returned from the bathroom and felt a slight wave of relief. Could it be? Dare I hope?

But, yes, I felt better. I was afraid to declare the emergency over, but I was hopeful.

The next morning, Friday, when I woke up, I felt totally normal and back to full strength! I had done it!

Later, before rehearsal, we took a walk through the Farmer's Market down near the port of Olympia.

You can see the state capital building on the left.

Even better view of the state capital building.

My heroes, Gabi & Alec Clayton.

Look! Starfish!

Mushroom starter kit!

NEXT: The Friday night performance.

Review of New World Waking Olympia

Alec Clayton, putting on his critic's hat, reviewed our weekend. He gets a bit ahead of the story I'm telling, but I loved what he wrote.

Olympia New World Waking, Day One.

Two days.

That’s how much time we, a group of students and local celebrities had to cast, rehearse, stage and perform New World Waking. Twice.

We had Thursday from 1 to 5. And then possibly 1 to 5 on Friday. But, essentially, we had the one day.

I stayed with Gabi and Alec Clayton, as usual. They have four cats that circled me suspiciously the whole time I was there. Finally, they let me feed them fish flakes, AKA kitty crack. So, I got a few chin scratches and ear tickling.

Wednesday night, I was tired and went right to bed.

Thursday morning, my stomach was hurting. I hit the bathroom a few times, but it wasn't helping. It wasn't pain exactly. But it had a very familiar feel. (kidney stones again). No. I refused to believe it. I even tried using my will to make it go away.

I also started drinking a lot of water.

Our set was the black box theatre inside the Kenneth J. Minnaert Center for the Arts on the campus of the South Puget Sound Community College, nestled in the richly forested, rolling hillsides surrounding the small, beautiful port city of Olympia, Washington.

I had a mandate from Don Welch the professor: Show the students how you put on a show.

Well, the only way I know how to learn anything is to just do it.

“We can do New World Waking," I announced. "I’ll come in the day before, cast the solos, rehearse it and we’ll do it in two days.”

I spent the whole plane trip to Olympia wondering what I had talked myself into, and where I would even start.

I didn’t really have a specific plan, but I thought the best way to handle this was to simply treat them as if they were a professional cast and that we were there to put on a show. I'd use the script and scores from the New York production. 

I also felt confident because I had a safety net. I, myself, could sing any song that we couldn’t find a soloist for. (Don had pre-chosen the soloists from his advanced class, and they had those solos in advance). So, no matter how much or how little the group learned, the show could still go on!

At least, that was the theory.

Everyone was assembled in the block box theater at South Puget Sound Community College. Before I even said a word, I hit a G on the piano and started singing, “Time to come out...” and then I gestured to the students to repeat it.

They did. A bit tepidly at first; caught everyone off-guard. So, I repeated it, “TIME TO COME OUT!” And they responded a bit louder, looking confused, but definitely joining in. Since the background vocals are simple, just call and response, we finished it in just a few minutes. So, I proudly looked at everyone and said, “There! Now we’ve already learned out first number.”

The response to that was still very tepid and their attention seemed a bit off. Some were texting. Others were looking away, bored. I became a bit annoyed and immediately told everyone to put their phones away.

We got through a few more songs, but I still didn’t feel like most were really present.

So, assuming everyone one here was wanting to get into theater, I gave them a rather -- shall we say -- passionate speech about how much theater means to me, how it saved my life, how I've seen it save the lives of others, and that it's a calling and not an idle hobby.

I said, "Right now, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of actors in New York living in roach-infested closets, working two jobs to pay for acting classes and dance classes, and going to auditions. If you think you can compete with their dedication by texting during a class or not paying attention, you are out of your minds. That's your competition: People who really care. So, anyone who doesn't want to be here, then please leave. Now. I don't want you." (I might have used stronger language than that).

Then, it dawned on me that maybe there was something wrong because I knew I wasn't really connecting with everyone.

So, I said, “Does anyone know why I’m here?”

There were five sitting in the front row on the left with printed-out music on their laps. They all nodded enthusiastically. 

But the larger group, about 15 or so, sitting higher up on the right hand side looked at me blankly and then shook their heads.

“So, you don't know why I'm here or what we're trying to do?”


Suddenly, I felt my back starting to throb. Yep, that kidney stone was definitely there. And it was going to be a problem. I leaned over for a moment to gather my thoughts.

"Okay," I said. "Here's the deal. You're in the cast of a new musical and we open tomorrow night."

(To be continued).

Monday, August 01, 2011

Olympia Story Coming Soon.

The Olympia weekend was an amazing experience, one I'm only now starting to appreciate. So, I want to take some time to digest it. Also, I do have some video. But I have to give it to the "kids" in the show, at least one of whom was my age. They worked their hearts out and they delivered complex, emotional performances. And to have done it all in two days just astounds me.

So I thank them with all my heart.