It’s rare that I write something here that isn’t addressed specifically to musical theatre writers. But I’m pretty excited about something, a class I’m co-teaching for musical theatre performers. If I describe what goes on there, well, you might get excited, too. And, God knows, a lot of performers are also writers.
Alan Langdon, Justin Boccitto and I will teach Musical Theatre Scene Study, and this is the first time it’s been offered to the general public. For fifteen years or so, Alan and I have been teaching it together as part of the two-year conservatory program at Circle in the Square. It’s just given to second-year musical theatre track students. And they’re a rather committed bunch. They’re used to Alan’s high expectations, and also the somewhat less exacting little me. So, they work very hard to prepare every scene in advance of class. This includes a musical rehearsal with me.
The scenes they do come from a repertory list. Each must include both characters speaking and both characters singing. They almost always get in costumes; there are often props, furniture, or suggestion of a set. Quite often, the scene will involve actors besides the two who are going. For instance, if doing A Boy Like That from West Side Story, the scene begins with Maria and Tony in bed, Anita knocking, and Tony escaping through a window. They Were You, from The Fantasticks, would need a mime dropping confetti. And so on.
Before I get involved, the scenes are run without music, all lyrics spoken (which often involves simultaneous talking). Then comes the day we’re all together: We run the song to check that all musical elements are in place. Then, the actors “check in.” This usually involves (but doesn’t have to), students addressing the rest of the class, referencing emotional events in their past that help them key in to the emotions their character is going through. These need not be literal – Lord help us if the Next To Normal scenes were! Someone who’s endured a separation from a lover might use those feelings of longing to get into All the Wasted Time from Parade. Sometimes, players prefer to summon up their memories in a more private way, staring at a photograph or listening to ear buds. The check-ins can take a lot of time – we’ll have at least forty-five minutes per scene – they don’t go on to the actual scene until they’re truly ready.
And, even as it’s going, the scene doesn’t have to continue if the scene partners aren’t truly ready. Stopping in the middle of a scene or song and doing things again is encouraged. While we’ve stopped, actors can return to their check-in if they wish. Something feeling not quite right? Say what it is, work it out. This is Scene Study, not a performance; it’s like a lab where you can experiment, try things different ways.
It might seem like I’ve described this in such detail, readers can now start their own classes and experience the same mind-blowing magic. But as many hundreds of actors can tell you, there’s nobody quite like Alan Langdon. His observations of a scene-in-progress are sui generis. The performer has objectives to pursue, tactics to use, emotions to express. It’s challenging to accomplish all those goals, and the question of where you’ve succeeded or fallen short – well, first that’s put to you to answer. Then, I might pipe up: I’m staring at the score, and if I see a crescendo that didn’t grow, or a tenuto ignored, I’m likely to bring it up. When Alan finally speaks, you can hear a pin drop. He’ll have noticed something nobody else has seen. What surprises a lot of people is that he’ll say “You sang that too well” often. It’s about being truthful, and if you’ve thought too much about how you’re sounding and not what you’re expressing, it’s a significant flaw.
It’s uniquely satisfying to me to be around people who are working hard, giving their all. For a decade and a half, I’ve watched actors extend Herculean efforts in our Musical Scene Study classes. Alan inspires fear, in some, when they first meet him. But eventually what he inspires is the desire to be the strongest you, to do the best you are capable of. And, often, better than you ever thought. Year after year, I’ve marveled at the pairs attempting Adam Guettel’s fiendishly difficult and long Riddle Song from Floyd Collins. This is just about as hard a musical theatre scene as exists in the repertoire. That anyone’s able and eager to learn this virtuosic scene is utterly amazing to me.
The Things We Do For Love is the name of a revue of my songs directed and choreographed by my award-winning friend, Justin Boccitto. He, Alan and I have worked together on a number of unusually ambitious projects in the past, and it will be a thrill to see how expressive dance can be added to our process this time. The three of us are similarly passionate, but there’s huge differences in styles. I think of Justin as a limitless creator of fun. That’s a helpful contrast to Alan’s dogged pursuit of truth. Me, I’m probably too goofy for my own good, but, since I’m a writer, I may have a tad more focus on authorial intent. Are these performers getting across what the librettist, composer and lyricist intended?
And the mind-blowing thing I experience each class: Such intense focus on acting scenes and songs, the characters’ intentions – it’s motivation to write musical with meat to them. Write with the assumption that, someday, actors will pick over your words and music with such keen focus and intelligence.
Is this something you’d want to do, Thursday nights in New York? Drop me a line.