Tag Archives: Theatre

It Isn’t a Straight Line

We opened a musical last weekend.

Considering that we met over the possibility of working on a musical together, it’s hard to believe it took 14 years for us to be working on the same show at the same time. But it isn’t always a straight line from idea to execution. The path that took us from that first meeting to last Friday’s opening performance is as twisty as a path can be.

To be clear, the show we opened isn’t the show we first met to discuss working on; it’s also not the show we started discussing by text message in the middle of the night ten years after that (and which we still haven’t finished). It’s not a show either of us wrote at all. I’m the music director, and she’s a member of the cast.

It’s been a long rehearsal process, and a very challenging one. It’s a very complicated show, and one that has been as full of frustrations as triumphal moments. And just when we felt like we’d gotten good at performing the show—in the rehearsal room, that is, with just a piano for accompaniment—it was time to move into the theatre and start adding the technical elements of the production: set, lighting, costumes, microphones, and the orchestra.

We all know that each new element we add will cause something else to be a problem. The “real” set piece is harder to move than the folding table we used in rehearsal. Changing a costume takes longer than expected, and all of a sudden the actor misses a cue. Microphones don’t always work exactly as expected, so sometimes the conductor can’t hear a singer, and sometimes the cast can’t hear the band, and sometimes there’s shrieking feedback or a roar of a high note… In other words, it’s always something. Sometimes it’s many somethings at once. Sometimes it’s practically every something it can be.

Yeah, that was our first night of technical rehearsal. We all try to be good-natured about it, but it’s immensely frustrating to feel like it was one step forward, a quarter-mile back. It wasn’t a total disaster, but nothing is perfect.

We left the theatre disheartened, grumpy, and very hungry.

“What’s even open at this hour?” she said, mournfully. It was a Monday night in the suburbs, and I couldn’t think of much except the drive-through window of a fast food place.

“Our kitchen,” I said.

She looked skeptical—well, I think she did; I was driving, so I didn’t have a clear view of her expression. “If you’ve got five minutes of kitchen-energy for me, I’ll handle the rest.”

First Night of Tech Shrimp and Grits

1/2 cup quick cooking grits
1/2 lb steamed shrimp
2 or 3 scallions
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 tsp hot pepper sauce
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cumin
1 dash worcestershire sauce
2 tsp vegetable oil
5 or 6 asparagus stalks
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Set to boil 2-1/2 cups water.  Stir in the grits, add some salt. Reduce heat to low, cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the oil to a skillet over medium heat. While it gets hot, pull the tails off the shrimp and discard them. Cut the shrimp and asparagus into bite-size pieces.

Slice the scallions and sauté the white parts, reserving the greens. Add the shrimp, sprinkle with paprika and cumin, toss to combine and sauté another minute or two. Add the asparagus, worcestershire, pepper sauce, and stock; stir to combine and reduce the stock a little.

When the grits are cooked (but a little looser than usual, because of the extra water), stir in the cheese; the whole thing will thicken beautifully.  Ladle the cheesy grits into bowls, top with the shrimp and veg; top with scallion greens. Adjust seasoning to taste; if desired, add a bit more hot pepper sauce.

5 minutes. Serves 2, who will know that at least one thing went well tonight.

Oh, sure, you could start with fresh shrimp, using the shells to make stock—but that would take longer, and after a night like this there’s no way you’d have the patience for that sort of thing. And if you’ve got leftover shrimp in the fridge, you really ought to use it. Purists will also grouse that asparagus has no business being in shrimp and grits. To such purists we say: pbbbbt. We like asparagus, we had some on hand that needed to get out of the crisper in time for Tuesday’s CSA delivery, and another vegetable in the dish made me feel less guilty about not serving a salad alongside. Why cut the shrimp into pieces first? Because when dinner is served this close to midnight you want it to be as easy to eat as possible.

Tuesday’s rehearsal went infinitely better: many things were much better, and new things went wrong. Wednesday’s went just a little better than that; more elements, more fixes, more oopses. Thursday was better still. We opened Friday to an appreciative crowd and if every element didn’t go exactly as we hoped, it’s unlikely that anyone but us knew. Was every meal along the way home-cooked and nutritious? Not quite. But, y’know, one step forward…


What I Did for Cookies

img_0121I’m working on a production A Chorus Line, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about dancers at an audition. Of course, there’s more to it than that; it’s really about what motivates performing artists in the face of the terrible odds against “success,” at least if “success” is defined as “getting hired.” The last scene of the show before the finale–when we learn which of the dancers is hired for the fictional musical–is a section called “Alternatives,” in which they answer the question, “What do you do when you can’t dance any more.” And finally, when the question is rephrased, “But what if today were the day you had to stop dancing. How would you feel?” the answer comes in the musical’s most well-known song, “What I Did for Love.”

Kiss today goodbye,
The sweetness and the sorrow…
*

I’m no dancer, and not much of a singer, but I’ve admired A Chorus Line as long as I’ve known about it. I bought the original cast album as soon as it was released and practically wore out the grooves of the record. I bought the score as soon as it was available and played it ’til my fingers were raw. It was one of the shows I saw on my first trip to NYC.

Imagine how disappointed I was when, many years ago, I finally got a chance to music-direct a production and it was a terrible experience. I won’t dwell on why that experience was so sour, just to say that I needed more than a little convincing to take it on again.

You know the expression, “So far, so good”? Well, how about, “so far, so great”? The cast and staff adore each other. We’re a week and a half in, and it’s already a beautiful experience. Everyone is working tremendously hard to make this production the best it can be, and to enjoy the process. And it’s really working well.

Hey, wait–I’m supposed to be writing about food!

Last Thursday was my first full-evening vocal rehearsal. Those forces of nature in my cast had to Sit Still and Sing for three and a half hours while we worked our way through most of the ensemble music in the show. I wanted to do something nice for them and bring cookies, but ran out of baking time then. I made sure to leave time before yesterday’s rehearsal.

Cookies? you say. You brought cookies to people who have to wear leotards and tights in public? I’ve seen these folks work in rehearsal. It’s an incredibly aerobic show. They can stand to eat a cookie now and then.

There’s a bakery in the neighborhood near where the old City House was. Their chocolate chip walnut cookies are astonishingly good. They’re also pretty pricey. And it’s quite a trip from the Country House. But without too much trouble I found a recipe that’s produces cookies very, very close to the magical bakery’s product. Screwing my courage to the sticking place (after the Snickerdoodle Debacle), I pulled out the mixer, pre-heated the oven, and got to work.

“Gimme the ball, gimme the ball, gimme the ball,” sings a particularly energetic dancer in a song about adolescence. I thought of him as I worked on my cookies, with the direction “Roll the dough into large balls.” I think, at risk of heresy, that it is possible for a cookie to be too big. Maybe even for dancers. I made these much smaller–a little smaller than golf balls when they went into the oven. They came out perfectly. I packed them for the cast (leaving a supply for my fearless commuter to find upon her return from work), and headed off to rehearsal.

When the stage manager called a break, I set them out.

“There are cookies on the table!” someone noted with glee.

“Why are there cookies?” someone asked.

“Why are there not always cookies?” someone responded, with her mouth full.

“Who brought the cookies?”

Someone pointed to me. I got a round of applause. I took a little bow and blew a kiss to my well-loved cast.

The box was empty about two minutes later. Break ended, and we went back to work on a complicated scene.

There will be hard times to come. This play is hard work. There will be challenges. Frustration. Disaster. But, together, we will work through it all, and care for each other. Sometimes with kind words, sometimes with a quick shoulder-rub or a hug, sometimes with cookies. In the best sense, this is community theatre–not because the actors aren’t getting paid, but because we are a community.

I try not to think too much about what I’ll do on the day I can’t make music any more.

Maybe I’ll bake.

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*This performance of “What I Did for Love” was sung by the cast of this year’s Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Hamilton. It’s as pure and honest a performance of the song as I’ve ever heard.

Just Enough

Painted in Waterlogue

The show I’m music-directing has finally opened. It feels artistically satisfying to those of us on- and backstage, and it’s pleasing the audiences enough that the producers have already announced an extension. I’d like to think our production would please the creators of the show, though it might not: although our rehearsal materials include the “Definitive” score, our budget doesn’t allow for the “definitive” 18-piece orchestra. I’ve got seven players (including myself, not-quite-ideally conducting from the keyboard). Rather than a large theatre orchestra with a strong rhythm section, I have thought of us as a rock band with strings and horns. It’s enough; and thinking of the band this way gives me a way to make a virtue of what some might consider a deficiency.

After nine performances or run-throughs in a week, it was time for dinner at home. I sent her an iMessage as I was getting into the car:

Please set the oven to 400 and take the pizza dough out of the refrigerator (unless you’d rather have something else for dinner).

She replied that she had done—and as for the possibility of something else,

Nope! 🙂

She went back to her chores and I continued driving home, thinking about the pizza-to-be. I knew we had a package of turkey pepperoni and an a open jar of sauce. We’d had some mozzarella, cheese but I wasn’t sure if there were any left; if not, I was confident there’d be some other variety. I didn’t know about vegetables, but was determined not to stop at the market. This week had been exhausting; I didn’t want dinner to be ready at bedtime.  Whatever was there would be fine.

The dough had rested nicely on the counter and rolled out beautifully thin. I slid it onto a cornmeal-dusted pizza peel and spooned on a little sauce–just a little. There were olives and onions and a yellow bell pepper; I thinly sliced just a little of each. There was just enough mozzarella to dot the top of the pie. It slid perfectly smoothly onto the waiting pizza stone. I set the oven timer and made a little salad: romaine lettuce, a few halved grape tomatoes, and a little pickled cauliflower. I added a bit of guacamole to some good bottled salad dressing and whisked it into creamy togetherness.

Painted in Waterlogue

A composition teacher of mine says, “When something is good, you must ask yourself, ‘Should there be more?’” Often, the answer is yes. But not always. I’ve disappointed myself with plenty of soggy-crust pizzas laden with piles of cheese, puddles of of sauce, and piles of toppings. Not this time. A little restraint, and there was a pretty perfect pizza and a simple salad.

Over dinner, we enjoyed an episode of Tea Leone Maintains World Peace While Wearing Great ClothesWe watched a second. We considered a third, and then thought better of it; on Sunday night at the end of a long week that was leading into another quite like it, it was bedtime.

There are pot-roast Sundays and take-out Sundays and bowls of cereal Sundays; there are big family dinners and cheese and crackers eaten alone; and there are some in between. A little cooking, a little conversation, a little entertainment. Just enough.

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Grownupable

Painted in Waterlogue

“Any lunch requests?” I asked, as she started toward the shower.

“Bits and pieces,” she said. “So I don’t have to wait for the microwave.”

Her office has a pretty big staff and a pretty small kitchen. And one single, temperamental, microwave oven. It seems to take several tries to get a dish heated through, at which point the temperature might go from “still mostly cold” to “this will blister your soft palate.” And since there’s often a line of other busy people waiting to use the machine, she’s beginning to find the whole thing more frustrating than it’s worth.

So, okay. Something she can eat at room temperature.

We went to the theatre with friends on Saturday evening: the performance was a late-afternoon matinee of The Great Gatsby. We planned pre-theatre snacks and dinner after the show. Okay, she planned the snacks: our friends poured the wine and seltzer, while she laid our cabaret-style table with an assortment of olives, cheeses, sausages, and sliced baguettes. It was delightful, and so was the dinner that followed. (The production was good, too, though the play itself is a bit hard to follow, especially for someone like me who’s never read the book on which it’s based.)

For her lunch today, I packed up some of our theatre-snack leftovers. Cheese, crackers, vegetables, and cured meat slices and a hard-cooked egg; also little containers of lemon cookies and peeled-and-segmented clementine. It was hardly the most extravagant lunch I’d ever served her. It took no time at all for me to prepare–and, provided she remembers to take it out of the office fridge a little while before she’s hungry so it can come back to room temperature, it will be just what she asked for without much effort on her part either.  It looked a lot like the pre-packaged sort of thing kids might bring to school—though, befitting the diner, a little classier. Her very own grown-up Lunchable.

(Mine too. I’m packing the same for my train-ride-to-town lunch.)

Maybe I should make some chocolate pudding in case we want the same thing tomorrow.

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A Few Good Picnics

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Our first date, long ago, was a picnic in Central Park. Cheese, olives, baguette, grapes, and white wine sipped from plastic cups, while we sat on a bench under a pretty tree and talked for hours.

* * *

When I was commissioned to write a short musical based on the story of a couple who met in a specialty food shop, the first step in my research was a field trip to the shop. It was mid-October and cool, so a Friday-night park visit wasn’t appropriate, but we brought the feast we purchased back to the City House and had a floor picnic.

I took slight poetic license to give the story’s couple a first date similar to ours. In the last song, they bemoan their ability to find a suitable place to go:

You take an old pal to your favorite haunt.
It’s hard knowing what someone new would want,
But if we can’t agree on a restaurant,
Where do we go from here?

Then he gets an idea and proposes they take the baguette and duck rillettes he’s just bought, pick up a nice pinot noir at the wine shop around the corner, and find a bench in the park. She’s skeptical about the idea of a picnic. It seems like all is lost when she gets up and starts to walk back into the store. Then she turns and says she’ll bring dessert. One last F-major chord plays as lights dim on their happy ending-that’s-really-a-beginning.

* * *

On Saturday, we went to see the new show at the theatre where I’d just finished working–a play by one of our favorite authors, Aaron Sorkin. It’s a cabaret-style theatre, meaning the audience is seated at tables rather than in rows of seats facing the stage. Patrons are invited to bring their own snacks or meals. Deciding what to bring for A Few Good Men wasn’t quite as daunting a task as the characters in Blue Apron faced, but it was a challenge. “Should I order Thai?” she said. “Well,” I admitted, “we can’t pick up burgers from the Awesome Burger Place.” (She likes hers Well Done, and they can’t seem to get that right.)

“Wait,” I said, joking. “I’ve got duck rillettes and a nice loaf of bread. I’ll go to Oak Barrel for a nice pinot noir and we’ll find a bench.”

“A picnic,” she said. She knows the script, maybe better than I do. She has that kind of memory.

“A picnic.”

She didn’t have to think about it as long as Laura did. “I’ll bring the macaroons.”

As it turned out, she brought everything; I’d been working all day. Juicy andouille sausages, paté, an assortment of cheeses, sliced baguette, grapes, and Mason jars full of ice from which we drank sparkling cider. No macaroons, but  strawberries, which I like even better.

The Saint Andre cheese was a little too funky for either of us. The Lemon Stilton–a semi-firm cheese studded with bits of candied lemon peel–was fun and bright. We both liked the goat’s-milk cheddar. Our picnic supper was wonderful, and if every aspect of the production wasn’t quite perfect it was still enormously enjoyable.

At intermission I got up to stretch my legs a bit. I hoped to find our friend the director and tell him how much I was enjoying the show, but he wasn’t to be seen. I returned to our table. She looked up from her iPhone.

“So,” she said. “We’re sitting in a theatre we both like, seeing a wonderful play. It’s two minutes until the second act. Wanna get married sometime?”

* * *

We’ve been to a lot of plays. We’ve had more than a few picnics. It will be awfully hard to top this one.

I said yes.

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The Enemy of the Good

Why, yes, I am enjoying watercolor effects.

Late in the evening I had an impromptu conference with the Artistic Director.  I also had an organic cheese puff. Or maybe 3. Hey, he offered.

The topic of conversation was our leading man, who was struggling with the high notes in one of his songs. The solution was obvious: change the key. Our director, a voice teacher by profession, was convinced the actor could become comfortable with the high notes in time. She’s probably right. And I can probably run a six-minute mile to keep pace with our assistant stage manager. But not before we open in a week and a half.

AD agreed to order the music in a new key. I heard that the actors were almost up to my next cue, so I hustled to the piano. I went back to his table during the next dialogue scene.  He held out the bag of cheese puffs.  I declined with thanks. What I really was seeking was advice about another song, in which four actors sing backing vocals to a featured performer. They’re supposed to sing these vocals–in high, tight harmony–while dancing up a storm. They’re perfectly good dancers, but none of them actors is a high tenor.

“Can you thin out the harmony, or have them sing in unison?”

“That’s exactly what I want to do, but I wanted to hear you say it.”

After our Act II run-through, I gathered the guys, demonstrated a new vocal part, which they sang effortlessly, with great confidence, and great relief. I worked with the leading guy, too. He understood why I wanted to make the change, but he felt like he was letting us down. I did my best to convince him otherwise. We like him. We like his acting, his ease on stage, his chemistry with the leading lady. And we like his singing. His vocal mechanism just isn’t ready to sing those high notes, any more than I’m equipped to cut my mile time by almost half.

Looking back at both of these songs, I probably should have insisted we make the changes even before the first rehearsal. But none of us wants to do less than our best. Even if the composer won’t be in the room, we want to honor her intentions. We want it to be as it should be. We want it to be perfect. But the perfect can be the enemy of the good.

She has this problem at work, too.  She and her colleagues were, by their own admission, A students who felt awful if they didn’t score 100% on every test and get all the extra credit points. Often as not, though, their not-quite-perfect work is better than someone else’s A. They’ve taken to calling themselves “The B+ Girls.”

I put some rotini in a pot of water just off the boil, turned off the heat, and ran an errand that took longer than I expected. The noodles were a little softer than I’d meant, but I’m okay with that.

B+ Pasta Salad

Combine in a large bowl:

1/2 lb. rotini (or other curly, the better to hold dressing) pasta, cooked in salted water then drained. Don’t beat yourself up if the pasta is a little past al dente.

1 carrot, in smallish pieces.

3 ribs celery, or thereabouts, sliced somewhere near thinly.

1/2 cup pepperoni—but salami would do, or even ham—sliced or cubed.

1 hard-boiled egg, chopped. Don’t even try for a perfect dice.

1/2 cup mozzarella cheese–sliced or grated or in little balls. Fresh if you have it, but don’t make a special trip to the market.

6 peppadew peppers, roughly chopped.

1 cup marinated mushrooms–and don’t give a moment’s thought that you didn’t marinate them yourself.

3 cups spinach, rinsed, dried, and torn or sliced into pieces.

Toss with:

1/4 cup viniagrette dressing (from the back of the fridge), augmented with
a little brown mustard (any variety you grab), and
a splash of olive oil.

Add pepper to taste. (Between the pasta cooking water, the dressing, the pepperoni, and the mushrooms, you won’t need salt.)

This is best after a night in the refrigerator, but if you need lunch in a hurry, it’s pretty good right away.  And certainly better than takeout.

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Craft Services

Hourglass Sweet Hourglass --my home-away-from-home for a million seconds of gameplay, quite a bit of pre-production time, and many, many Craft Services meals.

Hourglass Sweet Hourglass

On a TV or film production like the big budget game show I worked on, there’s often no practical way to leave for meals while you’re working. Our workdays were gruelingly long: 12- to 16-hour shifts were not uncommon, with no days off. The production site was, as most are, set up as its own little city. This one was built in a former car dealership on the far west side of New York City, with a four-story-tall, open-air set built on the roof. The site didn’t have had all the comforts of home, but it had all the necessities–including a medical station, a office-supply closet that would rival a small Staples, and a wardrobe area where one could get a change of clothes.

And, of course, food.

Catering on such a production is referred to as Craft Services, since the food is served to those who work in the various technical and creative crafts: wardrobe, hair, make-up, lighting, stage hands, camera operators, and so on. From the writers’ office where I worked, I could see the caterers continually replenishing the coffee urns and snack trays, and setting up for a new meal even as the last one was barely finished. Production ran around the clock with a team of hundreds. Some meals were better than others–and, as production wound down, it was pretty clear we were being served leftovers–but overall we were very well cared for. I can’t imagine how large the catering budget must have been, but it was money well spent.

This spring, I’m working for a theatre company that’s producing a big, fun musical comedy. Everybody is working incredibly hard to make the show wonderful. And that hard work is appreciated. Our producer–a cast member’s mother–sees to that. It isn’t Producer Mom’s job to raise the money to keep the lights on, or write the checks that keep the staff employed, but she does whatever is needed to keep things running smoothly. And she feeds us.

On Sunday, I’d had a full morning of church work, and just a little time at home before going back to church for an afternoon service–and then off to the theatre for a long work-through of our show. I wasn’t looking forward to another late night and another late dinner, but it turned out I didn’t have to worry. Producer Mom had prepared a buffet for the company.  The table was bursting with gorgeous chicken sandwiches and fresh mozzarella and tomato ones, as well as homemade spinach, quinoa, and orzo salads with lots of fresh vegetables and dressings as bright as the sunshine I’d driven through to get to rehearsal. And she’d assembled a centerpiece more beautiful than anything I’d ever seen on a Craft Services table. (I tried to get a photo of the table, but the hungry actors and staff devoured every crumb before I could get back to the table with a camera.)

It was a miserable-long day. We all left the theatre bleary-eyed and head-spinny from the work we’d done and the problem spots we’d identified for the next few rehearsals. But no one left hungry.

Even on the longest and hardest days on the game show, I was having the time of my life. The musical I’m working on now might not be as overwhelming an experience as that, but we’re all learning a lot and doing good work that we can be proud of. We’re all grateful for the chance to work together. And we’re very grateful for our Producer Mom and the service she lovingly provides us as we ply our varied crafts.

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If you have to have Sunday dinner behind a keyboard, it should be in the company of amenable and talented people–and it should be as tasty as this.