The roving rose

“You’ve just given me so much to think about!” declared an actor, with a mixture of surprise and appreciation. The gratitude was directed to director Justin Boccitto, and I, the creator of the song being rehearsed. Due to unusual scheduling demands when you’re working with a cast moving from city to city on a national tour, my show, The Things We Do For Love did the lion’s share of rehearsing before ever meeting with the director. Don’t blame Boccitto. He’s a New Yorker, tending to a number of projects in the theatre, film and dance world. The group of roving players are literally in a different city every week. In May they had enough time in New York to rehearse just eight hours with Justin and then do the show at The Duplex in Greenwich Village.

Those were golden hours: everything was changed, for the better. By now you may have heard that the full house at the Duplex laughed uproariously at every joke, applauded their hands off, had a rip-roaring good time with barely a second to breathe, like a good roller-coaster. At the risk of skirting self-indulgence, I’ll point out some of the hows and whys, and perhaps there will be something that applies to your work.

Prior to that fateful meeting with Justin, the cast had learned his choreography off a video of the 2011 production under the able guidance of Stephanie Brooks. They knew their moves. But there’s a wide gap between knowing what to do and understanding why you’re doing it. After Justin fixed some minor missteps, focus turned to motivations. It was then the real work began. Justin gently asked questions that led the performers to call up aspects of their own lives and memories that relate to moments in their songs. If nothing related, they were encouraged to use imagination. Each aspect of a lyric has to seem like it’s there for a reason.

If you recognize this, as a songwriter, you’re never going to make an arbitrary choice about what your song is saying. Characters think, and what they sing clues the audience in on their thought process. Delineate that well, and your actors have something to sink their teeth into. This is why I took a little pride in those words of thanks quoted at the start of this. Yes, Justin, directing my song, fed the singer’s mind. But there was plenty of motivation to be mined in my lyric and music, and I couldn’t help taking this as a compliment.

A week or so before this rehearsal, I’d run into Broadway performer Michael Wartella, who’d introduced the song in my 2005 revue, Lunatics and Lovers. There were all sorts of things he did differently. Some have to do with differing personas. Mike projects as a scrappy urban street kid. In Things We Do For Love, the actor is twice as old, and being a man-of-the-world comes into play. The date being sung about is part of a longer history of romantic encounters. That’s better for the song, and reminds me that there’s always more than one way to do a number. Each actor brings different qualities, and one of the hidden glories of musical theatre is how new interpretations reveal new facets.

Not so with the Eurotrash hits of the 1980s. Producer Cameron Mackintosh and directors like Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner sought sameness, so that audiences around the world seeing Les Miserables or Miss Saigon were seeing essentially the same show. From my mother’s Playbill collection, I know that, at some point in the run of Wonderful Town, Carol Channing took over the part of Ruth from Rosalind Russell. Could two performers be more different? The mind reels.

In rehearsal for The Things We Do For Love, I was often surprised and delighted by creative new interpretive ideas that emerged with this cast. Five out of six of them I met for the first time on May 13! – and saw them on stage in 42nd Street later that same day. Now their unfamiliar (to me) energy, applied to my familiar (to me) tunes, yielded fun surprises. One of the sexy solos, which had previously been played for full naughtiness, has been redone with near-lunatic desperation. It’s wild and aggressive, in a very funny way.

Familiar to me, of course, doesn’t mean familiar to you. The songs chosen for The Things We Do For Love were written for various projects over many decades of my career. While I see something revelatory in fresh presentations of songs from my trunk, you’ll encounter them for the first time. You’re unlikely to say to yourself “That’s new!” like I do. But you’ll experience the pleasure of being thoroughly entertained by sextets, trios, duets and solos you’ve never heard before.

Next stop on the national tour of The Things We Do For Love is Los Angeles, with shows at 7 & 9 at The Gardenia Monday, June 13. (Reservations: 323 467-7444) and there’s a leap of faith involved here. I haven’t lived in L.A. for many, many years. In New York, my home town, I’m familiar with a cabaret scene in which fans of songwriting and song interpretation come to intimate spaces to focus in on the deliciousness of songwriting craft, piano and vocal. Do Angelinos do something similar? I’ll find out next week.

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