A Look Back: 6 Days Before Opening

This was written October 17, 2014. 6 days before the first performance at Goodspeed.
After our staged reading in September, we had work to do, but I realized I was with a group of folks who know how make effective changes. Producer Sean Cercone always says his job is to “put the right people in the room, and get the hell out of the way.” It’s difficult to throw yourself in with new artists, but a lot of trust began to happen once we got to Connecticut. Before that however, time to work was sparse. The scenes and songs were diced up on a cutting board, there was debate as to what story we were actually telling. Every time new creatives get on the project, they read the novel, fall in love with that, and then I have to inform why we diverted from the book, and where. That takes time, to get everyone on the same page.
IMG_0150On day 1 of rehearsal, we had a script about 120 pages thick. To be expected. But we also had fourteen actors, and they all had a lot of down time. This is at its core, a story about individuals who come together by fate. In this reworking of the show we see all the background, and the collisions between characters. Most times, that involves four people, tops.
With our script opened up ready for surgery, it was difficult in some ways to have legitimate production meetings. At Ball State, our beloved elephant, Caesar, was a fully operational puppet, life size, two man operated. Stepping into Goodspeed however, we couldn’t give a definite answer as to where he would be used, nothing was solid. We didn’t know if he’d be able, physically, to take up a lot of space, as Norma Terris is smaller that University Theatre in Muncie. Not to say its a small space, it’s versatile. But we had to be practical.
I found as we started problem solving, I made an effort to insert more voices, even in solo style numbers. Just to keep actors occupied. Because they deserve that, they’re all talented. Folks like Jim Hogan. I knew right away, he was the guy we needed as Gordon. But, Gordon sings one killer ballad, and then really disappears. That’s just how it is, but he’s extraordinarily talented. Same can be said for Victoria Huston-Elem, Charles Gray, Scott Parker, anyone. Some of my favorite vocalists. I’d like to think most people have a moment to shine. But the moment that tops any vocal effort I’ve contributed is the idea Joe (director) and Spencer (movement/choreo) have conceived, Caesar the elephant created by the ensemble, in shapes and bodies, with buckets and chains. Saying those words out loud made me want the puppet created by Justin and Christopher Swader. Change is scary sometimes, it’s difficult to be apart of something so liberating as the journey Circus has taken from Muncie to the real world and not crave a recreation of that success.
 IMG_0151 IMG_0154
Patience is terribly important when you have three weeks to craft, rewrite, block, chart, choreograph, and justify a new musical. Equally important is belief, and the ensemble and movement work Spencer and Joe have created is magnificent. The elephant can be living, breathing, reacting, and suddenly burst apart to a new scene. Theatrically, there are three characters on stage, and the way the elephant functions, you forget it’s actually made of people, you forget you’re watching the entire cast. It’s very captivating. When things like that are experimented with in bold ways, and everybody commits 100% to making it work, leaving the fear of failure out of the picture, we find our story. Everybody puts a piece of themselves into it, literally.
This show is truly becoming a finished product, Im confident saying, that will be the best incarnation yet. The story is expanded, thick, and dramatic. The staging is innovative, the music is dynamic.
Here’s where it’s still nuts: we finished blocking yesterday, we open in six days. We tech for two days, we get the band with cast for one rehearsal before butts are in seats.
IMG_0155There’s a lot to do still, but the contributions thus far have me feeling completely relaxed. Everybody has the right attitude. Talking to James Penca, playing Ollie, a few nights ago, he said “When have you ever gone into tech for ANY show saying, ‘Yep, we’re right on schedule'” Bottom line, if you’re the kind of artist who pushes yourself constantly for the best, no settling for unrealized performances, you will always feel the optimal stress of getting as far as you can before the curtain goes up. “It doesn’t matter,” said Aaron Ramey (Wallace) earlier during a rehearsal break. “Opening is going to happen, this is what it is, and that’s fine.”
He said that four days ago, and now, though expectantly hectic, I feel better than fine. This show at the end of the day is always going to draw people in, I just know that at this point. The pit orchestra is full of guys who are excited to play something in flux, the actors are happy to be involved in the process of creating this story, as opposed to retelling a finished one.
And now we’re all in the world, on the same page, whatever you want to call it. Better late than never. The good news: a thematic understanding of the story and its structure is something that can’t be undone.


Getting Ready for Goodspeed

What a whirlwind.

I got to Goodspeed a week before we started rehearsal. I was in to do promotional stuff for the show. Two talkbacks, one at a bookstore called RJ Julia, the other at Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT. Both of these events were a performance/discussion with Cathy Day, author of Circus In Winter, the novel. Connecticut is a very artistically connected place, there is an abundance of theatre, developmental theatre in fact.
The other abundance as it turns out, craft breweries. I was entertainment at a fourth event, after playing a morning news show, Tapping Into Twain, my second event of the weekend at the historic home and museum, featured 60 local breweries giving samples of their seasonal specials for $15 a ticket over two levels of the Mark Twain museum. I was entertainment, solo, two one-hour sets. 400 people. Obviously, being a lover of beer, music, and Mark Twain (maybe the sharpest wit in history) I had a great time. Hit some music from the show, “Never Alone”, “Muddy Water”, “Kind of Evil”, then played anything I wanted. Such a great time, and a super way to connect with people on a personal level. Not to mention, the house itself is magnificent.
Twain’s writing space was hilarious, in the way that it was centered around a pool table, he was apparently addicted to playing pool. A huge desk sat in front of the pool table in his room at the top of the house, but the one he actually used to write was a smallish table with a lamp, shoved in the corner of the room, facing a wall, not the pool table. I laughed, thinking of my passion for EA SPORTS video games. At the end of the day, everybody relaxes in their own way. Twain played pool, I score virtual goals form!Manchester United. We both managed to get our work done in the meantime.
Each time Cathy and I did a talk back, we got educated questions from our audience. These folks know they could be seeing a potential Broadway smash, not because they know anything about the show, but because there have been so many people who start here, small, and grow to be something much more. The Goodspeed Guild, a collection of long time fans of the theatre who volunteer their time to help usher, transport personnel etc. cooked a meal for the entire team when we all first arrived. We meet our new family for the next few months, actors, designers, Goodspeed team, Guild members themselves. I was told stories again and again about when Idina Menzel performed here, Angela Lansbury, Stephen Schwartz shows that ran, some guy named Hunter Foster. Feels cool to have the potential to join those ranks.
This is an intelligent community, likewise, it is an older community. I have had no problem with this, because the older generations here truly appreciate theatre. They know what classic musical theatre is, and honestly, that era of golden age musicals are what my writing is built around. That and rock and hip hop and bluegrass. My music has always been modern, but the idea of devices and where songs function is comparable to South Pacific and Oklahoma. On my end, if within this production at Norma Terris we can succeed in pulling young and old audiences into what we’re doing, that will be encouraging.

A new reading begins


We start rehearsal today for the reading a week from now, our preseason for Goodspeed. With bumps.

I’ve been battling a sciatic nerve problem, which hit its peak while I was at home in Indiana this past week. I was immobile for the better part of three days, and missed my flight back to NYC. I ended up patching up the show from the living rooms of my parents’ homes. Which was good Indiana authenticity, I might add, but bad for timing.

We have a busy team. During the week my medication rotation was kicking my rear, muscle relaxers would put me out for hours on end, my Internet was spotty, and I’m sure I kept my music director Matt Hinkley up later than he would hope waiting for my materials. However, I feel good about the show. Our new storyline is bold, different, and makes sense to me enough now. I’m happy the new ideas are things I identify with.

There is a strange unfamiliarity at 10am on this Wednesday. To the cast, a new show, brand new music they’ve never heard of sung, it’s high, it’s 10am. I feel bad at times like this for writing A’s for men, but I’m a Kander/Ebb advocate of the idea that emotion creates adrenaline which creates strong sound.

The room is not so unfamiliar to me, I recognize it from last May. Pearl Studios 12th floor, room 09 is where our reading was a little over a year ago. Where Sutton last sang my stuff, where Claire Buffie essentially earned her place as our social media/marketing superwoman, my first meeting with Hinkley, fiddler Justin Smith, a hybrid band of NYC and Indiana musicians. But none of them are here now, Beth isn’t here and that’s weird. Sean stops in quickly, gets the call that our lead is out, and dashes out before we can even talk about football.

Just me and Hinkley, which is basically just Matt. I’m blogging. He’s teaching.

Matt is great. GREAT at his job. Everyone who knows him would suggest the same. He gets through rehearsals calmly, happily, honestly. There is no reason anyone would ever have a problem with his style of teaching or musicianship, Im lucky to have that. I’m learning always with him, and we’re just starting.

We’ve been scoring out music in tandem. I put down the melodies and basic interpretations of the guitar work, and Matt moves all my harmony voices into the proper registers, formats the page, labels like crazy, makes it look beautiful. We work out of a cloud-based website (if you don’t know what this is by now, where you been?) called Dropbox, I upload my stuff, he downloads it, edits, and puts it in a new folder.

But THEN: we have archives. This is not Matt’s first rodeo, he’s a Texan after all. When we change things from now on, we “Save As” instead of “saving over”. It’s important to do this, because not every change will stick. The number of times we’ve changed something only to go back to the first try is too many to count. I always keep old versions of things, but, if you asked me WHERE I keep them, that’s a barrel of worms. The Circus score has transcended three different computers, and I feel like files are floating around on my desktop, in loose leaf forms when I clean my apartment (my dog loves the taste of sheet music) so it’s nice to know Matt is letting me into his methodology. I want to be able to do all the things he’s doing with the Finale program, I should be able to. To be self sufficient is a beautiful thing, but I have a long way to go before I’m a boss like Hinkley.

The notes are filling in. We have about 2/3 of the cast today, “Higher Ground” is coming to life, slowly. Half tempo. But it’s so great to hear it again. I had some lucky guesses in school.

While I’m ramble blogging, I think about that a bunch. “Lucky guesses”. In Higher Ground, I have the ensemble moving in thirds, and I leave the altos isolated on the flat 7, a simple change, that makes the entire sound dissonant, but it’s very elementary. I just said, yeah, that sounds cool. Same thing with the end, it was just playing around with recording, or Finale, essentially throwing darts at the staff. But how TOTALLY IMPORTANT is that? Sometimes more recently, the older I get (the more “professional” I get, whatever that means) I start to be kind of pompous when I talk to myself when writing. I think of it as IMPORTANT, my PRACTICE, study. Scholastic junk.

I do much better when I go with my guts, and act like I know nothing at all. React to the guitar, respond honestly, and music just happens. I guess I’m wired for improvisation.

And now it happens. Actors come alive as they start to understand this music, they get excited about it, because they don’t really know yet what’s coming next. And that’s what experimentation gets you I think, let people who perform your stuff be allowed to walk in your shoes in terms of discovery, be confident in your findings.

EPA Auditions and the 54 Below Showcase

It has been exciting so far in the “Hunter Foster era” of Circus in Winter. Since the announcement of the Goodspeed Musicals production set for this fall, we have brought on recent Drama Desk nominee Joe Calarco to direct. Sean, Hunter and I all listed Joe as a primary choice to direct this production, it’s nice to see everyone’s interests come together. Shortly after announcing, we set a date for our Equity Principle Auditions.
Beth got in town and we met to drink tea down the block from Pearl Studios in Midtown NYC. We were way too early, and nervous about nothing. It was just another moment, but a reality check all the same. We were officially casting this show.
(Claire and I thought these were the best special skills from actor resumes: “delightfully offensive Asian”, and above that “general dochebaggery”.)
It was an eight hour day, with casting director Paul Hardt. We saw all kinds of things, all positive in my eyes. I feel like I know more about auditioning from an acting standpoint that I ever have. By the end we had a stack of people we wouldn’t forget as we move forward.
Auditions were a treat, to be honest. It was great to see so many people prepare specified things to be apart of the show. But the real focus of my week was to prepare every performance aspect of a small set of music from the show. We had been invited back by NAMT for a Songwriters Showcase at 54 Below, one of NYC’s premier cabaret clubs. I had seen a good many performances there previous to ours, scheduled for April 28, it is very intimate and compliments our style.
I had Corey Mach and Kate Rockwell available to sing, always a treat. Kate had just finished her Broadway run of Rock of Ages, and agreed to sing while also doing a reading of a play on the same night we performed. Corey, as well, would only be available to hit sound check and performance the day of, off tour for small time from Flashdance.
This is something I should categorize. #nyclearningexperience People be busy. Always. It’s tough to get a band of people together in the same place before the gig. Wait, rephrasing: it’s tough to get a band of REALLY GOOD people together. But I’m getting used to it. The upside is, amazing artists are always ready to go when it’s time.
I took an early morning train the week before the show to see our fiddle component, Justin Smith, at his apartment in Harlem. A long ride, but I take a book. And any playing of Justin’s seems to be worth the travel. Me and Justin ran through the arrangements with the company of his daughter, Kira, not even a year old. It’s amazing how kids respond to music, she was very involved in our rehearsal.
I had a separate rehearsal with Dan Fabricatore, bass, Eli Zoller, guitar/vocal, and my main dude Nick Rapley on drum set. Nick’s first time back on set since Ball State for the show. It was also nice to have so much of the original group from last May back a year later. Dan showed up with his own charts, always nice playing with people whose ears work well. It’s a good unified experience.
Speaking of. I had the pleasure of going to Violet at Roundabout Theatre starring our Circus supporter and good friend Sutton Foster. We have team members involved as Matt Hinkley is playing guitar for the show, and Justin Smith is lead fiddle. I was inspired significantly by the production. The music was a huge presence, told the story from all angles emotionally. I had seen it at Ball State, when Beth directed it my junior (?) year. This was something else. Sutton had a calmness during the show, while doing so much demanding singing, it was mesmerizing. She had a joy. Josh Henry though…zoinks. This is what they look like.
Seeing this was a strange motivator for my own, our own, performance upcoming. It made me excited to challenge our group to find the same life within our sound.
Soundcheck came and went on the day of 54 Below performance, everybody was feeling good, Justin, Eli, Nick and I got lunch at a diner. I had dinner before with some Ball State affiliates in town to see the show, and then hung out with the other performers in the show in the green room, 14 floors above the actual stage. It was great to mingle with so many talented musicians and theater peeps before our set.
We closed the night, but prior crammed into a room to practice. First just Kate and Corey and I, then Dan, then Eli, then Justin. We were all packed in. But having a great time, people in the green room were standing outside listening. What started as a brush up turned into a run through for the sake of enjoying the sound, each others’ playing.
It continued onto stage. As we were introduced, I tried not to look at the audience. I was really excited. I didn’t want to say anything really, just jump straight into music. The stage was small for the number of people on it, but we fell in line soon enough. As Nick was preparing his sticks, I crept in with some guitar before “Runnin to Get Whats Mine”. The set began just like that, out of thin air, and we were off. It was over and done before it started, like most things in this show anymore (in a good way.) We received a standing ovation, and the buzz was strong after the show. So many friendly faces showed up, seeing Hunter was exciting, it felt like a preview of good things to come.
I truly can’t wait to continue the story of this musical. Every step we take leads to a bigger and more exciting family of creatives, people who love making and supporting art, education, and the combination of the two principles together. I’m fortunate to be apart of it.

“Workin’ Man” Original lyrics


I have heard rumor Hunter and I will get to dive in very soon and begin the ending of the Circus script process. So, I’m gonna take a look back at a song about just that, working.

We haven’t kicked off because Hunter is cast in the new Jason Robert Brown musical on Broadway. First world problems, haha. So, after he’s settled with his big boy job we’ll go.

I began writing ‘Workin Man’ as the opener to the show. I like the four on the floor idea at the beginning, a foot tapping, a lone voice. I can’t find the first pages, but I have the second verse. Before Pearly was a girl, the character was based off another Cathy Day character, named Gordon, a boy. He sang the line about “some men work for freedom” (sorry it’s hard to read, pencil is not coming through as well anymore. I’ll post exactly what it says below.)

I also remember these notations. Because I had to write and recite so much in the classroom during initial development, I started my own method of shorthand notation feel changes and intervals in my lyrics. For instance, the word “5th” above the words “see” and “couple” is there to indicate the jump in the vocal melody, a perfect fifth (the Star Wars leap). It’s funny to think I couldn’t hear that jump, its now turned into a blues run I’ve heard about 30 different women sing.

Ooo, I’m a Workin’ Man
” ” (indicates repeat)
Some men work for freedom
Porter, he works for good
He’s a man who’s always gonna spend
his money
just the way he
Never can find him
a woman
Work in the stable
all day
Plenty women comin
round lookin for him

To see if he’ll
look their way
Ooo, ooo, he’s a workin’ man

Works his nose to
the grindstone
Lives his life on the
Never looks up through
the dust
To see a couple
women passin him

Oh, how things do change :)
Fun to see where it will go next
^^^ Those aren’t lyrics, haha

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