“I’ll bet those actors feel self-conscious.”
This was said after I’d described a little of what goes on in the Musical Scene Study class Alan Langdon and I teach. It’s my belief that there’s no class remotely like it in the world, which is why I was describing it:
A pair of actors will rehearse a well-written musical scene, one involving dialogue leading into a duet, for an intensive period of time. The main goal is for them to comprehend, and portray the characters’ intentions in every thing they do. If they turn to the left, there’s a reason for it. If they extend the length of a note by a fraction of a second, there’s gotta be a reason. And they’re making every effort to see to it that nothing goes unnoticed, or unplayed. When they finally get in front of Alan and me together, the actors will talk, a bit, as themselves. As they recount real-life events and feelings, they’re recollecting things they’ve gone through that relate, somehow to something their characters are going through in the scene. They’ll dress in character, and carry themselves like people of their class and time periods would. And of course, they’ll sing in a manner totally appropriate to the style of the music. The pairs have roughly an hour to work.
They’re always eager for reactions. What did we see? What intentions appeared to be missing? Did someone play the wrong intention? Was something sung in a questionable way?
So, would that make you self-conscious? Yes and no.
Yes, because of a broader meaning of self-consciousness: awareness. As an artist, your eyes need to be open, concentrating on a variety of details. “Detail oriented” is a phrase you read in job descriptions, but it’s an implied requirement of every casting call. Because actors have to sweat the details.
And, as we start a new calendar year here on this blog, it seems to me that most of my posts are about how writers of musical theatre need to sweat the details. It tends to irk me when I discover a bit of a musical that smacks of an unsweated detail, such as that Sondheim reference to a Sony television that wasn’t sold in America at the time the scene was set. But I’m gentle with the acting students.
They’ve worked hard, scrutinizing a musical’s text. There are times when something seems out of kilter and I think it’s a problem in the writing, not the performing. And of course I look back at my own musicals, and wonder if someone in my professorial shoes (loafers, rubber soul) would find fault with this or that.
So, the question might be asked, am I overly self-conscious as I write? There’s so many things you need to get right in a musical: a million ways to fail. I tend to plow along, and to not let such doubts distract me. If a song’s not working, I have complete confidence that I can come up with a replacement that will.
Intense scrutiny – I seem to keep coming back to those words. My previous entry enthused about the Genius Annotation of Hamilton. I love that self-appointed scholars (and some real experts) are poring over lyrics, explicating and analyzing, tracking down every allusion. How I wish other great musicals got this treatment. And then I’m reminded of times in my life when I had the time of my life listening to directors going over my musicals with a fine tooth comb. There was a brief encounter with Elizabeth Lucas, working with some Broadway vets on The Company of Women. Or those summer days when Marc Bruni asked me a million questions about Such Good Friends, leading to massive rewrites and our winning awards.
I still refer to those early meetings with Marc as the outstanding experience of my career, here in the 21st century. But, at New Year’s, the tradition is to look back over the year just ended. And make resolutions for the year just beginning. So, in 2015, adding this open-to-the-general-public class with Alan Langdon is a clear highlight. If you’re a serious musical theatre actor, I encourage you to join us. You know how dancing classes are offered for various levels of skill? Most people I know find Advanced Dance too challenging, but our class is like an Advanced Acting For Musicals, and we’re not going to break your knees – we’ll raise the level of your game.
And for an upcoming goal, let me circle back to the thing about awareness. I just went to a holiday party where a woman quoted a rhyme I’d written decades ago and I felt myself cringing a little. I was so young, and I wrote what I thought would be funny. And yes, people laughed, but I wasn’t aware of something, back then, that I’m aware of now. And I’ll take this as a sign I need to be more aware in 2016. Maybe about how jokes will be taken. Maybe about the vocabulary I employ. Maybe about compositional patterns I fall into. I never want to sound like myself. (Road Show, anyone?) And awareness also means listening more. To the rhythms of overheard conversations. To the musicality of the foreign languages I don’t speak. (That would be all of them.) To composers I’ve never heard. (Ed Sheeran, astonishingly, I’ve heard not a note of.) To birds. To paintings. To my wife, the wisest in the world. And more to the most un-self-conscious dynamo of creativity I’ve every met, my daughter.