1996-2017, I spent many a stimulating hour at The Circle-in-the-Square Theatre School. 2018, I won’t. So, before too many of my memories distance and die, I thought I’d jot down a few that might be of interest to musical-makers.
The first thing to point out is that everybody takes everything tremendously seriously. Students come completely committed to spending every waking hour for two years totally devoted to learning about performing on stage. Faculty feels itself shaping futures, nudging young adults on an intense “journey towards you” – the idea being they’ll end up as individuals, rather than the cookie-cutter copies of everyone else in the field you find in college programs.
There’s nothing to do, amidst such a rushing river of earnest endeavor, but to swim along with the current. You take a look at what you’re doing – as an artist, as a teacher – and scour yourself for imperfections. If I’m adamant about craft in my writing, it’s because I was among people who picked over every note, every turn of phrase, every motivation, and the physicality inherent in songs and scenes.
Too few songwriters, I feel, sweat those details. So, as I’m guiding artists towards great performances, we’re picking over songwriters’ imperfections, usually inventing a justification for some lapse in craft. Here’s a popular example. Galinda sings “You’ll hang with the right cohorts,” mis-accenting the last word. What could account for this? Maybe she’s from somewhere where nobody uses “cohorts” so she’s never heard it. But she’s read it, because she was a lonely intellectual, the one reader in her crowd, and has arrived at Shiz for her first year of college, showing off her big vocabulary without knowing how to pronounce this word. She’s funny that way.
Now I’m wondering if my friend who played the role ever thought about all this. I kinda doubt it. This level of analysis can’t happen just anywhere. And didn’t, at the many other New York acting schools where I worked. But it’s easier to imagine intensive examinations of Shakespeare, right? That was part of my college experience. I love the fact that there’s a place where show tunes undergo similar scrutiny.
To some, musicals seem frivolous. How wonderful to be part of a community where the thing that I do is valued. Eighteen years ago, Sara Louise Lazarus began teaching musical theatre there and it was immediately apparent I’d found the ultimate kindred spirit. Not only did she take musicals just as seriously, she’d developed an entire methodology for performing individual show tunes. This had been refined down from the legendary performance guru, David Craig. I can’t call Craig the unsung hero of acting in musicals, because “unsung” just seems like the wrong word. But when Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince were developing musicals that required a higher level of interpretive brilliance than had gone on before, they called Craig out of California retirement to teach a new generation of performers who could do the things required to perform Company, A Little Night Music and all the rest. And the takeaway from this is that wonderful things can happen when a musical theatre maverick is called back to Manhattan out of California retirement. Call. Call! CALL!
The greenest students are fresh out of high school and a lot of them park-and-bark. This term is applied to singers – especially at auditions – who show off their vocal prowess without any thought to the acting, how you move, how you register emotion on your face. Sara’s teaching turns that around, with a series of preparatory steps that ensure the performer is thinking what their character is thinking. Every little motion has a meaning, and these are timed as they are in life, with the impulse to say something motivating action; never do our bodies spring up in sync with new words we sing.
Substantial time and effort go into mastering this process. I’d pipe up, often pointing out interpretive possibilities based on the sheet music in front of me. Months of learning, weeks of rehearsal, culminating in a thrilling performance, dazzling an audience with a demonstration of all this intricate work: That was the stuff! That was what I lived for, for two decades.
Some theatre folk enjoy rehearsing more than performing – no assembly required. Working on things, in fine detail, can be the true joy. Sara’s class gets to show off in showcases and cabarets. The “product” in Musical Theatre Scene Study went unseen, and the work was never considered “finished.” Led by the laconic and occasionally cryptic inspirer Alan Langdon, the class was a synthesis of what had been taught all over the school. Each scene involved dialogue, set, costumes, and two people singing. They’d use, most of all, their acting training (Alan teaches Chekhov and other “straight” acting scene work). They’d use their I.P.A., which, I learned, over my years there, is a hoppy sort of beer. Vocal technique from voice-master Beth Falcone, natch. Sometimes dances derived from Jeanne Slater’s teaching, or fights from B.H. Barry. And their Sara Lazarus-training… Well, I was right there to glower at them if they forgot that. When we all got together to run a scene, you could never be certain what Alan would observe, point out. But first the actors would share their own observations: the things they missed, the things they’d achieved.
It’s hard to talk about this. Hyperbole always sounds silly, not-to-be-believed. (When I saw a particularly wonderful musical a couple of years ago, I immediately recognized I shouldn’t say much about it, lest I seem like a raving fanboy. It’s a problem.) So, if I say “greatest, most soul-stirring hours of my life” you’ll think, “that’s ridiculous.” But think about the Bench Scene from Carousel, or A Boy Like That, or The Riddle Song from Floyd Collins. Think about dissecting every intricacy of the text and score with talented, eager, and willing-to-work hard singing actors. Hey: What a way to spend a day.