This has been nuts. You know when you wake up and don’t have to go through the process of waking up? Like when you go to Disney World, and you know the trip begins. This is like that times five.
I woke up knowing this piece was ready. It’s a condensed version of our show, but there were many things that happened this week which changed the way I think of our ‘little’ circus musical.
Adults. I’ve never heard a group of full grown humans do this. And it makes a difference. Not only any actors, but working professionals. It was a ying yang thing. They were awesome, and Im just, me. I felt very small. But the more questions directed at me, the more I answered, I got comfortable in the room with the pros. It dawned on me plenty of times, ‘I guess I do need to be here, because nobody knows the answer to that question. Except me.’
My day consisted of sitting in a chair next to Beth and watching Matt Webb (music director) work the cast. This was a unique experience. It’s usually me, in front of college students, doing my best to hit soprano and alto and tenor registers at any request, plugged into an amp. I’m not an MD, but I make it by. It was nice to have somebody like Matt, who treated it with a job-like quickness, but could also take my notated ignorance and adjust to make the piece what I wanted. I struggle sometimes with ranges, particularly with women. Whenever I write for groups, my notes are always there, but maybe not assigned correctly. He killed it in that regard.
My guitar player is a real OG (original gangster) I walked in on day one, and scanned the room. I saw a fellow with long hair and a beard, like me. Walked up, and said ‘You must be the guy.’ I was right. Eli Zoller is a guitarist, obviously, but also an arranger, composer, lyricist, die hard sports fan (U Michigan, Detroit Lions, Tigers) and good dude. We hit it off quickly.
He taught me a lot. He liked my stuff, he liked the show, he liked the opportunity. I learned that in the musical theatre guitar world, you can count on the fact the guys like Eli will anticipate what you are going for once you give an example. That’s good. But it can also be taken too liberally. I found sometimes that if I didn’t really specify, he’d go with his vision of what I did. Which I appreciate. But I can’t settle for that. It’s my job to be clear, he wants me to be specific, because honestly, Eli is one of the more specified people I’ve ever met. I need to match that for us to go the distance. I love him, and I think he wants to be apart of the show long term.
The cast was a gracious one. Complementary of what I’ve done so far. And I miss the songs that we couldn’t use, no ‘When the Whip Cracks’, ‘Muddy Water’, ‘Higher Ground’, and most missing, ‘Never Alone’, which I consider to be my greatest single piece of this collection. But the money makers are in it. ‘Amazing’ is ripe with dynamic mystery, volume. A wall of towering fifths. For the first week Sutton was in and out, and she has always been a busy, working actress. Duh.
And I feel like this is cake to her. A person who operates at her level has to be able to digest music quickly and thoughtfully and reproduce it as her audience expects her to. So though she utilized her understudy (Shannon O’Boyle) from time to time, she was always basically ready to be in a working rehearsal.
Sutton is a comfortable person. I have never felt as if she was above me when we speak about anything. When she sings, and does her Sutton thing, it’s different. But humble. We were able to talk on level terms this week about what she and I both wanted from the show, and her contribution to it. Her interpretation of ‘Recognition’ was tremendous to watch, and was near the end of our presentation. And it was effective.
Vicky Bussert (director) brought comfort as well. I don’t need compliments, and in environments like this I find it difficult to accept them, as the caliber of performers in the room is of such magnitude. But Vicky wanted to communicate to me how much she enjoyed what I’ve come up with, and I liked that. She’s a teacher, a loving one. And it’s no secret to anyone that I have just recently emerged out of the womb that is college and slid into the professional spectrum. I’m the youngest composer at NAMT. I needed a Vicky this time around. She’s been great, and has been a guiding voice in deciding how to use our time and material through this process.
On the morning of the day of our show, I was not nervous. Not because I knew what was coming, or anything, but I don’t believe in ‘nerves’. It has a negative connotation. I hate when performers elevate a situation further than it should be. I’ve seen multiple performers in the theatre vomit before shows, as a regular habit, because they get ‘nerves’.
I replace the term with ‘optimal stress’. It’s a phrase I learned in summer school in a Health class. It means the feeling of discomfort due to the anticipation of importance or success. Performing is important. It’s an act for others, you give yourself to an audience for a night to captivate them. It’s your job, you’ve worked hard to book it. But the work happens beforehand, to me at least, so that when its game day, there are no doubts. I’m here because I’m the guy for the job.
But walking into New World Stages, seeing the people, feeling the buzz, getting looked at, putting on my suit, seeing Perez Hilton (random) in line for my show, I got nervous. Because it was out of my hands. If Cory Mach is belting ‘Runnin’ to Get What’s Mine’ and a gobo falls out of the ceiling, and starts a fire, and we all evacuate, that’s gonna suck. But the bottom line is, I can’t help that. All I can do is hope for the best. Which is convenient, because the cast on my stage is the best. I’m surrounded. By badasses.
I do my pre-show speech. I thank Ball State. I thank everybody. I say something about how lucky I am, and how awesome it is that people believed in this immersive learning idea to the point that it has gotten to this peak. People clap. I sit down. And here. We. Go.
Watching the show was like waiting for water to boil. We begin, and the guitar isn’t coming through the sound system in our jam-packed theatre. I slowly tread up the stairs to the sound board. My mandolin boy, Joe, fiddles with cables onstage. This is awkward and terrible, and in this span of fifteen seconds, I wish I were dead. Then it comes through. It gets mixed in. We’re belting, we’re rolling. I sit back down in my row next to Beth.
The rest is blurry already. It was done before it started. Foster mania in the crowd. ‘She must really think this is good if she’s here playing small ball’ type feeling. Everything she does gets a laugh, sigh, aww, whatever you want. But as people start to grasp that she is Jennie Dixianna, and Steele is Wallace, the audience becomes acquainted, and a little excited. Kate Rockwell shines through, she cradles my music, as Irene. Water boiling, drop the spaghetti, baby. Lets eat.
We step outside, and our table is pounced upon. We’re shelling out CD’s, my intake of business cards is absurd. Actors, writers, theatre owners, directors, collaborators, agents, agents, agents. Talking. Yelling. Talking and yelling to different people at the same time. This is nuts. And awesome. This is literally a dream.
Up and down the second show went the next day. By the end of the weekend, we had generated more interest than Thoroughly Modern Mille when it showed at NAMT in the early 2000’s. The fact tickles me, but I don’t stand on top of it with my fists on my hips. The festival has grown since then. They didn’t have a Sutton Foster (at the time, ha). Our show is in development in every sense. We need to flush out our story, not make people cut themselves when act two is so sad. Its got to be Wallace Porter’s story. When I consider our entire script, we have dynamic characters revolving around an inactive protagonist. There are decisions to be made, and just like I felt while sitting in the audience, this part is a time where I must value what I can and cannot control. Now we negotiate with theatres to see where the Circus will land in the coming years. For now, it was a job well done. We’re the bell of the ball.