Over the past two weeks, I have had the good fortune of being called in as a collaborator on two new musical projects. In New York, new musicals were part of my daily bread. There was always a reading or a workshop to play for. Here in the Bay Area, however, while we do see quite a few new plays, new musical works are far rarer. Of course, this makes sense. Musicals are more expensive to produce, and in the regional theatre scene where a multitude of companies are competing for a smaller audience base, risk and reward must be looked at seriously. These days, then, being approached about a new musical project is more exciting then ever.
I took on one of the projects, and am now the Music Supervisor for a unique and exciting experiential theatre project. This is not just a musical where the audience sits in their chairs and watches the show in front of them. In this case, the audience is a part of the show, and the show is really all around them. It’s an interactive 20’s era Speakeasy. Actors are planted throughout the crowd, so you might overhear part of a conversation about the stock markets, or a quarrel between two performers. There’s also a more formal cabaret show, complete with chorus girls, a chanteuse, and a comedy duo. Although much of the evening may seem off-the-cuff from the audience’s perspective, every single moment has been scripted, songs from the era have been painstakingly chosen to serve the story, moments have been rehearsed, lights have been programmed, and what was a raw studio space has been completely transformed in to an authentic 20s bar and performance venue. Every character has a story and is connected to the other players. While there is nothing traditional about the way the material is being presented, the evening absolutely has a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and a moral or point.
How does a piece like this come to be? Like anything, it starts with an idea. In this case, it was an idea that the producing director had been mulling over for years. Perhaps he was just waiting for the right moment and the right group of people to collaborate with. A production of this magnitude does indeed take an army. Multiple producers and investors, two writers, a music supervisor, two pianists, an innovative set designer, two stage managers who run the whole show via video monitor from a hidden booth, security guards, support staff, a four-piece band, and 30-some odd actors. All of these people have to believe in the idea, for this is not a typical rehearsal process where 30 published scripts come in a box from the licensing company and you already have a picture of what the show is “supposed” to look like. This is grassroots theatre, where the piece is being created from the ground up. Songs are chosen and then thrown out. Scenes are written, tried out, and then rewritten. Characters are created and others are cut. The beautiful thing about this sort of project is that everyone has a voice, and it really is tailor-made to fit the people who are there for the building process. And the work is never done. As long as the show is running, changes will continue to be made. I love working for this particular company because there is always a push to be better. It’s hard work, but it is also invigorating to always have that constant fire burning as we continue to work to improve our show. If the show runs for more than two months, new actors will begin to replace original cast members who have to move on to other projects. Much of the show will, of course, remain the same, but some new material will have to be picked to compliment the new performers’ particular strengths.
I think that this sort of creative and collaborative theatre may be the wave of the future. There will always be companies that do stock musical theatre. Audiences will always come to see Les Miserables and The Sound of Music. But as far as new work is concerned, and especially new musical work, one must be innovative. Make it unique. Here in San Francisco, people love themes, dressing up, designer drinks, and secret venues. The audience may come in for a chance to wear a gorgeous vintage dress and a fun night on the town, but they are going to walk away with so much more. And for those of us on the directorial team, it is our duty to make sure that the “so much more” never loses its spark.
Intrigued? Come see our show.