I learned so much, with my musical director’s cap on, from the process of rehearsing Bat Boy, which opens tonight at 8 and also plays tomorrow at 2 & 8. Free. (Just come to Circle-in-the-Square on W. 50th and take a seat.) It’s my long-awaited reunion with director Justin Boccitto, who staged and devised my revue, Things We Do For Love in 2011, as well as the estimable Alan Langdon.
Perhaps you’ll say “This could only happen in theatre school” and perhaps you’re right but you can’t be sure your show won’t be produced at a theatre someday where actors make intensive investigations of characters, situations and setting. On Bat Boy, graduating students created intricate biographies for the characters. We had lengthy group colloquies about West Virginia: its economy, politics, religion and mind-set. And a societal fear of a stranger was explored. Is the presence of a creature, half-man, half-bat responsible for a thinning cattle herd? Fake science and superstition vs. real science vs. a mad scientist.
The theory – and I hope you’ll come and assess whether we’ve proven it – is: the more seriously you take your comedy, the funnier it will be. It’s reassuring to me just to be there: As you can tell from this blog, I take musical theatre writing extremely seriously. Great to be among like minds.
We’re doing Bat Boy with a cast of sixteen, and a good amount of doubling up on roles. Each actor knows their objective and super-objective, the tactics they use – including utilizing various colors of the singing voice. If the music pauses, they know why it does; everything is justified.
Addressing the cast, director Justin Boccitto reminded everyone that a theatre song instigates change. All that listen and all that sing must undergo some sort of metamorphosis by song’s end. That’s a great challenge to thespians, identifying their evolution. It’s an even greater challenge to us writers. Check and see: Are your characters, whether hearing or expressing, in the same spot they were when they started the song?
An example comes to mind: Whoever You Are, I Love You, a searing ballad from Promises Promises. The late Hal David’s lyric begins and ends with the same line, and Burt Bacharach’s notes are identical. The in-between is rather lovely (I was thrilled to work with the lady who first sang it on Broadway, Jill O’Hara, many years back). But, in the context of the whole show, it just sits there. Now, the intention might have been to show a character in stasis, but gee that’s uninteresting to watch. Put it in your cabaret act (if you can sing it – it’s one of the hardest numbers to sing in the history of musicals) and it’ll get quite a hand. In Promises, audiences sit on their hands.
I’d been guilty of this lack-of-change crime in a song from a show I’m now writing. It’s back to the drawing board on that one.
From my musical director’s chair, I get inside the music in a way I wouldn’t from just seeing the show (as I did, thirteen years ago). I’ve also an eye on the orchestration. And there’s something else I can see: when bar numbering does something unexpected. This tells me that a last minute change was made. For example, if the score skips from Measure 12 to Measure 17, it’s an indication that, at some point, there were Bars 13-16 that got cut. A last-minute addition might necessitate adding lettered bars, 18a, 18b, etc. stuck in between 18 and 19. Stuff to wonder about.
A lot of the time, I suppose I’m in songwriter Laurence O’Keefe’s head. Bat Boy is challenging to play because of his aversion to letting any feel, accompaniment figure or key go on too long. Like an amusement park ride full of sudden jolts, the score never lets the listener relax and get settled. The variety of sounds, colors and grooves astounds me every time. Gets the mind racing about the myriad ways to accompany vocalists Best of all, this abundant intricacy is in service of a hysterically loopy story. Helps one believe in the the-more-seriously-you-take-it-the-funnier-it-will-be supposition, because O’Keefe’s score does just that.
And, I must confess, I can see a bit of influence it’s having on my writing. Before I knew I was going to do Bat Boy, I was writing a number, That Look To Me, in a rather simple, old-fashioned rock style. Once I got my fingers on O’Keefe’s chord sequences, I began to get a bit braver, with wilder harmonies, and unexpected melodic twists and turns.
Musical directing involves playing a score over and over again, yielding a deeper understanding of what’s going on, musically. Reminds me that, in my teens, I’d frequently check out musical theatre scores from the local library (surprisingly, they had a lot of Harold Rome) and play through every note. Of course I realize that most of you reading this don’t play the piano. The next best thing, I suppose, doesn’t need mentioning: listening, repeatedly, to cast albums. But we all do that already. Or do we? I occasionally hear new scores where it sounds like the writers have never heard a musical in their lives.
But there’s a downside to just listening to cast albums: You get a false sense of what the show’s like on stage. Many a cast album that sounds terrific (A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, House of Flowers, Baby) distracts one from understanding how static the show is in the theatre. I sometimes hear from people in the hinterlands who say they have very few opportunities to see musicals on stage. I’m a spoiled New Yorker, who could, conceivably, see a different musical every day of the year. And this brings up another Frequently Asked Question: Does one have to be in New York in order to write musicals? The Frequent Answer might be that one has to see a lot of musicals – someplace – in order to refine one’s craft. And, as this imaginary conversation continues, there’s usually some mention of how expensive it is to live in New York and buy tickets to all those musicals.
So, to repeat, here’s a word about tonight and tomorrow’s performances of Bat Boy:
Your ticket price cheerfully refunded if not thoroughly entertained.