The room was pitch black, the light from the cracks under three doors not illuminating the dozen faces or so within. There was a gentle knock on the door, and a tiny gasp as someone moved from the middle of the room to open the door. When she saw who it was, she flipped on the light and I could see the music in front of me: about as harmonically complex a duet as I have ever seen. In parts, chords change on every eighth note. This may be the “constantly surprising refrain” Hart wrote about but Sondheim denies exists. But, at that moment, I leaned in to take in the dialogue. A girl from the South was inviting an Italian boy into her hotel room, where she’d been sleeping alone. He wasn’t sure he should enter, and kept flipping between Italian and heavily accented broken English. She insisted she understands him. And I got my cue and started playing the thick quarter note chords.
This is Musical Theatre Scene Study class, the highlight of my work week. This particular scene is the midway point in The Light In the Piazza, by Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas. A third actor is involved, silently: the girl’s mother opening the door, catching them in flagrante delicto – that ends the scene.
In preparation for this class, I’d rehearsed with the singing pair for about an hour. This was one of the later steps in their process. One of the song’s many unusual challenges is that a lot of it is wordless singing. The performers endeavored to bring particular meaning to a long span of “ah.” There are also unusual rhythms and false accents; perhaps the latter is inspired by Fabrizio’s lack of facility with English. In fact, the inability to express with words is the main subject of the song, which is called Say It Somehow. I feel it’s among the most gorgeous pieces in contemporary musical theatre.
(n.b.: these are not our students)
If ’tis the season for counting blessings, let’s pause to list a few. For one, this is my day job. I actually get paid to rehearse and explore this rapturous duet with very hard-working and adept singing actors. And, as I just said, I appreciate the gorgeous song. Some acquaintances know me as a music teacher, but that sounds so wrong. Together, we’re exploring aspects of a great scene. I figure out how best to accompany them – such as sticking to the straight beats rather than doubling vocals. As I listen, I discern the tiniest of imperfections, and point out things they miss. Then, that day that started in the dark, we expand our circle: ten others join us to observe the performing work-in-progress. All eyes go to the laconic teacher, Alan Langdon – but is “teacher” the right word for him, really? He says what he’s observed. Rarely, he’ll give a directorial suggestion. In the case of Say It Somehow, the first words out of Alan’s mouth were exactly the words that were in my head: that Fabrizio had a strong accent when he talked but hardly any when he sang. Then Alan had a question about his entering her room: “What is the metaphoric meaning?” The actors were unable to answer this, and their inability relates to the main element that was lacking that first time they did it that day. Before their redo, I was asked to speak.
“I love when there’s a number where I notice something new each time I play it. What’s the first line of this lyric?”
— Why don’t you trace it on my hand?
“But that’s not how it comes out with the music. It’s not a succession of eighth notes. I think we’re missing a joke here.”
— Why don’t you trace it on … my hand.
“So, when she started that sentence, she may have had a different part of her body in mind.”
This time, they launched into the song with more instances of erotic play. Clothes came off. It was intimate, and more believable.
One of the things I often find myself saying, during rehearsals of love duets, is that musical theatre has a convention that singing a duet can be a substitute for sex. If a camera followed a romantic couple around, the film would be rated X. On some level, the audience in the theatre understands that the ahhing is a beautiful musical emblem for dirty doings going on. And then that mother walks in.
Speaking of opening doors, for many years, Alan Langdon and I have led (I won’t say taught) this amazing exploration, Musical Theatre Scene Study and it was only available to full-time students in the second of their two conservatory years studying at the Circle-in-the-Square Theatre School. But now, our door is open: You, too, can take this amazing class, separate from the school and its program. The good folks at WordPress warn me that I should never embed an e-mail address here, so you can’t click this, but send an e-mail to Sara at SaraCanter dot com. I’m warding off robots who spam by writing out the @ and the . – you know what I mean. The next round of classes starts next month. Do yourself a favor and join us.
You’ll learn a lot. Hell, I’ll learn a lot. Because we’re all in this together, collaborating, sweating the tiniest details, figuring out how to make scenes from musicals work. Since I’m not a performer, what I get out of it goes into my writing of musical scenes. I picture actors doing the sort of deep investigation of every word and note that goes on in our class. And, not to be bromidic (a word, one of my collaborators tells me, that only Oscar Hammerstein ever used), but I’m reminded of a line set to music by Adam Guettel’s grandfather 65 years ago: