At the risk of turning this blog into the stereotypical plugmobile, I can’t fight the compulsion to tell you about the reunion show, Monday and Tuesday, of The Chainsaw Boys, my best pals in the wacky world of improvisation.
Can’t promise it will be good, because it’s totally made up on the spot, nobody can predict what will happen, how wonderful it might be. I can tell you that in the late nineties, theirs was the show to see, wowing audiences in all sorts of venues in downtown Manhattan as well as festivals in Austin and Boston. (You knew I’d manage to sneak a rhyme in here somehow.) A very high percentage of the time, they managed to be extremely funny; transcendent at times. And now we’re getting the old band back together for a benefit for the ASPCA.
Some of what I did for them certainly relates to musical theatre writing. It’s a rather specialized skill, creating song forms for performers to improvise new lyrics for every time. At their first rehearsal with me, the task was to figure out how to turn the Sister Sledge classic We Are Family into an opening number for them. This was so many years ago, I honestly don’t recall how we did it, but in retrospect it seems prophetic, because no quintet is more like family to me than Matthew Ostrom, Miriam Sirota, Michael Bridenstine, Leo Byrne Jenicek and especially Mike Bencivenga.
As the group evolved, they wanted to do original musical numbers, so I was tasked with coming up with a rock opening that would be even more energetic than We Are Family. Rent was then the rage, and I came up with a driving opener called I’m Dying (long before the Parker & Stone masterpiece Everyone Has AIDS). We’d take a suggestion from the audience for an obscure object of desire, and on they’d bound, singing, “I’m dying for…” whatever the suggestion was. It really soared due to the energy and attitude of the cast, as well as some choreography. Matt Ostrom tended to slide in on his knees, in classic rock star fashion, and the audience ate him up and never focused on his singing abilities, to our mutual delight.
When I teach people to improvise songs, I shift focus away from the voice and concentrate on playing the character, selling the song, and expressing, in the made-up lyrics, what the character is feeling in the scene. When done well, the effect of discovering something clever and apt, immediately putting it out to the audience and having them delight in what’s been found with you – it’s all rather magical. 99% of that magic evaporates when the spontaneous creation is put on video, but I need some way of illustrating this, so here they are improvising lyrics off the suggestion “ding-dong” twelve years ago:
Monday, April 18th at 8PM and Tuesday, April 19th at 9:30PM we’ll be doing No No No as well as my Gospel and my most frequently-performed tune, Cabaret of Despair. Only 5 simoleons, at the new People’s Improv Theatre, 123 E 24. Might be hysterical; might not. You won’t know unless you’re there.