Tuesday, April 22, 2008

High School Musical: The Real World

When I was a little kid, I hated musicals and love scenes. If it was on tv, I would leave the room groaning about the "Mushy stuff." Yet when I was in high school, musicals were the Thing To Do if you were a music geek. Every January there were auditions and that process defined your life for the next couple of months.

High School
Auditions in January and four performances in March (3 nights and 1 matinee)

Anything Goes - I missed auditions my freshman year due to an awful ear infection. All my friends got into the chorus so I wound up working tech as the next best thing. This show was heavy tap dancing and our directors took a wimps way out for casting: there were two sets of leads. Since I saw all the shows, I could say there definitely was one perfect set of leads but the directors mixed them up between the sets. It was awful, you had to grit your teeth while the awful lead performed and cling onto the memory of the good lead in the same role. This was my first introduction to Cole Porter and I was very impressed with his music.

Carousel - I got into the chorus. This musical has a horrible, horrible message about an abusive husband but a lot of us ignored it or joked backstage. The opening waltz is purely amazing music. The entire cast pantomimed with a fully functioning carousel on-stage. The fun part of high school musicals are that they transform previously ignored/geeky students into hot talent. So many crushes are fed through the rehearsal process. My favorite rehearsals were the ones where we put together the music and dance. Music only was pretty boring. Dance only, I dreaded because I wasn't that coordinated. The music itself was pretty decent. Rodgers and Hammerstein are never difficult or innovative.

Man of La Mancha - I was a chorus member again but I was given a random line - which I became ridiculously proud of. Hands down one of my favorite musical experiences. The lead was so talented, he gave me chills. Aldonza was a jock who didn't have a lot of singing experience but she was a senior so she got the part. That's another dynamic with musicals - you get students trying to pad their college applications in the cast. Sometimes, they are diamonds in the rough and other times they are complete assholes who drag down the rehearsal process. The tech crew went above and beyond with the set. We had a real lowering staircase on-stage. Technically, this musical has no use for a chorus but our directors finagled the musical enough that we had a couple songs and scenes. Basically we were backstage or onstage audience members. The leads were so good, none of us retired to the dressing rooms when we were offstage, we watched from the wings in awe of the talent we were seeing.

Oklahoma - I played Aunt Eller. It was ironic that even though every year I had auditioned for a lead, when I finally got a lead it was a horrible ordeal. The directors never liked my acting. My singing was what got me the part so that was my safety zone. Dancing-wise, I was pretty good by now but the famous two-step scene had to be modified since I had to dance with a guy over 6 feet tall and my short legs couldn't keep up with him. The last week of rehearsals, I finally got a compliment on my acting. Other than that, it was just months of criticism. Since I had come up from the chorus, I knew that there were probably a handful of girls who had really wanted the Aunt Eller part and every critique of me confirmed their opinion of a casting mistake. I used a real rifle with blanks to break up the farmer and cowman fight (the days before Columbine). At one of the dress rehearsals, the tech manager told me that he had some extra gun powder so that night's bang would be a lot bigger. I fired the rifle in the scene, lost hearing in my ears, shot out a light, and deafened half the orchestra. Gamely, I tried to continue on with the scene. The directors were screaming at me and then went backstage to tear the tech manager a new one. The show was sold out every performance and we got standing ovations each time so I felt pretty satisfied with the months of work and self-doubt. I went to the prom with the guy who played Ali Hakim. Yeah, the Oklahoma song requests throughout the night, got old pretty fast.

Summer Theatre
One of my friends who knew I was upset about missing Anything Goes auditions, got me involved in a summer theatre. Auditions were in June and performances were at the end of August (in an un-air conditioned gym). The directors were college kid volunteers.

Showboat - I was a chorus member and "Man on the Levy" (since we didn't have enough guys). Lots of really memorable songs and yes we had two cast members who used face paint to look like African Americans. Since this was a summer theatre, things were a lot more lax. It was tradition on the last night's performance for the leads to ad lib. Some were more successful than others. I learned some raunchy versions of "Fish Gotta Swim" and "Old Man River" this summer. This theatre was also a proving ground for hidden talent since the high school musical directors checked out performances. Music-wise, it was not too challenging - Kern and Hammerstein.

Brigadoon - wool kilts in the summer. I was a chorus member with a solo in MacConaughty Square. This is the summer when I figured out a way to nail complex choreography. It also turned out this summer theatre has a casting couch. I found out many years later, that the female lead slept with the director to get the part. During that summer, I thought it was odd that the female lead was so bland and weak voiced but I was naive and didn't know how show biz worked. The music is much trickier, Lerner and Loewe.

Kiss Me Kate - my first real role. I played Hattie and opened the musical with "Another Opening, Another Show". I loved this part because Hattie was enough of a cipher in the script that I could put my own stamp on her. I decided that she was nosy and liked working in the theater with all the glamour. So when her boss decided to leave, Hattie was sulky and truculent. I was allowed to ham up a scene for laughs which was so much fun. This is a difficult musical because it's about a show within a show. Unfortunately, my character was a "real world" character so I had a limited amount of scenes - no Shakespeare. I think Hattie got me the Aunt Eller role later that year. I thought this wasn't on par with typical Cole Porter musicals. The songs were way too catchy and commercial sounding.

Oliver - I was a staff assistant this year with a minor role - the dying woman with the mother's locket. I hated this show because we had to open up the auditions to little kids (ages 5 - 11) and a lot of parents basically treated the theatre like a daycare. As an adult now, I look back to this summer and am amazed at the liability we opened ourselves up to. It was sheer ignorance and lucking out with a decent batch of kids. I begged to be given one song to teach the chorus and I was given "Who Will Buy". I was psyched because it was one of my favorite chorus pieces. I think I did a pretty good job teaching and I really have to rave about the choreography too - it wasn't a bustling market scene, the choreographer had the chorus morph through various poses throughout the song. I got a lot of compliments on this one song. This musical is like The Sound of Music with most of the songs so familiar with growing up hearing them.

Annie Get Your Gun - this was the summer between my freshman and sophomore college years. I was co-music director, in charge of teaching music, while my other co was in charge of the orchestra. This was a tough year since the two leads couldn't read music and had developed great voices just by using their ears. Since I approached teaching music from a purely technical stand-point, I had to adjust my methods - basically finding the best recording to have them practice to. The musical itself has okay tunes. Nothing too spectacular.

42nd Street - I was music director with two assistants. I was really happy that this was my last summer theatre musical. We had an amazing cast who could sing and act. Plus, this was a tap heavy musical so our choreographers really stepped up to the plate. The musical was so catchy and vibrant, I really missed not being on-stage.

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