Picture a company of equals, very little in the way of hierarchy. There are two directors, one will also choreograph, and I’m responsible for the music. But, at almost any point in the rehearsals, any company member might offer up an idea, a suggestion for a song, or, most often, a Personal Story. In the latter, people speak from the heart about particularly emotional experiences they’ve had that somehow relate to their characters’ situation in the play. Consequentially, it’s a slow, intense and impressively collaborative exploration.
At times I think this is something that could only happen in a theatre school (which, indeed, is where we’re doing this) because it’s an educational experience for every participant. We’re all learning a great deal about the Great Depression, the power structures that existed in 1936, and the politics that swirl around a union considering calling a strike. The Stories stir up everyone’s passions, leading to passionate performances. But also, the group gets involved in individuals’ feelings. When one player announced she’d found a new place to live, a genuine celebration broke out.
The play is Clifford Odets’ Waiting For Lefty and, while every word of the script will be there, we’re expanding our portrait of mid-thirties New York by adding songs and dances. It’s too easy (and perhaps dismissive) to say we’re making it into a musical. It’s a play with hot-blooded group scenes, tense dialogues, and a wide variety of Depression-era numbers.
Such individual components can be assembled in a variety of ways, like Scrabble tiles, and we on the creative team play around with various orders to maximize the drama and entertainment value. A certain unmentionable TV show depicted writers reassembling index cards on a cork board, something that goes on all the time in fashioning revues, not so often in telling linear stories. As I write this, we’re trying to find the right spot for a dance number from Pins and Needles, Doing the Reactionary. It’s simultaneously defiant and silly. I’m sure we can use it, but I’m not quite sure what point in the play can bear such frivolity. In essence, these are moods to be programmed.
At some point, while writing a musical, it’s helpful to step back and take a look at what types of songs you have in your score. Too many ballads is a common problem. Less recognized, but nearly as lethal: too many solos can destroy a show. Mix in ensembles, duets, and other sizes. I like to throw in a waltz somewhere. And it’s questionable whether the public really wants to see a show without a love song. A year ago, I was rehearsing Cabaret with some of these same people, and was very impressed with how its writers alternated diegetic and on-stage numbers. (I’m speaking of course of the original version; the movie and the radical revisal were far too timid to utilize many non-diegetic numbers.)
I’ll tell you how Waiting For Lefty is like a musical – and I mean a very good musical. Every song is fully justified, inexorably connected to the truth the characters are facing. No sugary icing masking a bitter cake, these. That’s the aspect I’m personally most proud of. The acting is stunning, too, and I’m moved at every rehearsal.
In a wild and wooly process like ours, everyone in the company must stay flexible. At times, it seems like we’re rehearsing a completely different show on any given day. And where will the spinning wheel stop? Come see what we’ve wrought May 14 & 16.
Circle in the Square Theatre School presents:
WAITING FOR LEFTY By Clifford Odets
Monday, May 14th 2012 at 2:00pm & 7:30pm
Wednesday, May 16th 2012 at 7:30pm
1633 Broadway – 50th Street between Broadway & 8th Ave.
FREE – no reservations or tickets, just walk in and grab a seat