THE RETURN OF THE CHIEF CUTTER
I was standing on the catwalk of the "AACI building" that evening in January, waiting for the My Fair Lady auditions to start, looking around to see who had showed up, when I had the following flashback:
It was the first day of school at P.S. 80 in The Bronx, and I was , let's say, back in the fifth grade. There were exactly three classes per grade and they were not tracked, meaning that we were not assigned based on upon how we did on any of the standardized test they unfailingly gave us but on some random selection. So we never knew until that first morning of school who would be in our class. There were always a lot of kids I knew, and I hoped that some of my friends would be among them; but there would always be, from the 100 or more children in the grade, some kids I had never. met before. So everyone would be furtively looking around the room checking out everybody else....
At any of the previous Encore!auditions I had been to, we all were waiting outside for our turn, some calmly sitting and chatting, some, like me, pacing back and forth, going over our audition piece one more time. This time, because it was so exquisitely cold out, and because our current digs are a little larger, everyone got to wait inside. There were chairs lined up in the part of the room near the entrance and there were screens set up so that whoever was auditioning would have a measure of privacy. This way, you could get to hear your comrades-in-song as they tried to warble their way into the hearts and minds of the selection committee, Robert Binder (artistic director and guiding force behind all things Encore!), Paul Salter (musical director and maestro par excellence), and Arlene Chertoff (choreographer and business manager). Some of what would happen was predictable: veteran Encore! talent who would almost certainly be invited back; some was gratifying: I could get to hear men and women who had been in the chorus with me take a solo and demonstrate how really talented they are. There were elements of drama and pathos: an elderly woman whose voice had aged faster than she had, young girls waiting to be "discovered," and a few women with real talent, all of whom would not get the leading role.
I, myself, have no illusions of grandeur; all I was doing was trying to secure my spot in the ensemble (as well as offer my services writing publicity, painting sets, selling tickets, and the like). One of the things I like about these auditions is I can go through my goody-bag of old time favorites and pull out a number that no one but me is likely to know. For example, this ballad, culled from a Dec. 11, 1919 Victor recording by the great Irish tenor John McCormack, which goes:
I know my lips have never met your lips in sweet caress,
Your hand has never touched my hand in thrilling tenderness;
You've never spoke of love to me, and still somehow I know,
For love has made me wondrous wise, your eyes have told me so.....
I saw your eyes, your wonderful eyes,
With love-light and tenderness beaming,
They thrilled me through, they filled me too,
With wonderful dreams I am dreaming.
No need to speak, no more shall I seek,
For my eyes have taught me their meaning,
And love has come, at last I know,
Your eyes have told me so..........
(Gus Kahn, Egbert Van Alstyne, and Walter Blaufuss)
Well, that's how they pitched woo in days of yore. None of this, "You ain't nothin' but a hound dog," or even more trendy manifestations. Not surprisingly,, most of the guys auditioning went with more conventional pieces, like "On the Street Where You Live." No imagination!!!! After I finished my audition piece, Paul gave me the score for the beginning of the Ascot number (Every Duke and Earl and Peer is here, everyone who should be here is here...) and asked me to sing it with his accompaniment. I realized later why: he was uncomfortable with the vocal arrangement as written and was wondering if the talent (?) on hand could handle it, or would he need to re-write the part to make it a tad more singable. He re-wrote the part.
My Fair Lady is one of the most beloved musicals ever written -- probably among the five most popular. My guess is that it is the most idiosyncratic, by which I mean that it doesn't follow most of the conventions that have been around since the time of our heroes, Gilbert and Sullivan. There are really only four principal vocal roles; there is relatively little for the whole chorus to do; instead of the usual rousing finale with the entire cast on stage, the ending is, shall we say, tentative, with Eliza returning to Henry Higgins, just in time to help him locate the slippers which he always seems to misplace. (In Shaw's original, Pygmalion, Eliza does marry Freddie Eynsford-Hill and the two of them live unhappily ever after -- but that ending wouldn't work in a musical.) You might consider the musical version a masterpiece in spite of itself.
Anyway, when rehearsals started, I noted a few new faces among the men and a whole lot among the women, a number who are comfortably middle-aged and several under twenty. More names to remember. The routine, of course, was the same as always: hand out the relevant parts of the score and start working, one number at a time, trying to remember our parts -- even harder than remembering the names of the forty plus people in the chorus.
To the casual onlooker, it would have seemed that we were just starting work on the production, but to those of us in the know, it was evident that that was not the case. Well before, Robert Binder had developed his concept of how the work should be staged, Roxane Goodkin-Levy has prepared her drawings and scale models, and Ronnie Burns had started the actual construction of the sets. As the weeks went by, our rehearsal space would get smaller and smaller -- or more accurately more and more crowded with scenery, furniture, costumes, and props -- until there was almost no room to breathe, let alone maneuver in those situations when were supposed to be moving about the stage.
Now, when you are surrounded by a growing phalanx of scenery, there's only one thing to do: paint it. Whether you're starting with new wood or reconfiguring pieces used in the last five productions, the first thing you have to do is start with a coat of primer. That's where I come in. Having been made redundant from my previous position of "chief cutter," i.e., the guy who would wield a box cutter and carve out all the pieces from cardboard boxes, I needed something to occupy my time and make use of my negligible skills. A whole new position was created especially for me: "chief whitewasher." Before Roxanne or the handful of volunteers with real talent could actually tackle the incredibly intricate designs, I could be given a wide brush and a can of white (once in a while, black or brown) paint and turned loose on some unoffending piece of wood. It's nice to feel needed.
It turned out that my retirement from my previous position was only temporary. Roxane, when she's not working round the clock on Encore! sets, teaches art to senior citizens and school children. One of the schools in which she works was putting on a little play, and, of course (!) Roxane was expected to design the simple set, which included a small building made of (what else?) cardboard. Roxane explained the situation to Rob, who immediately thought of the obvious solution. "Why don't you ask the chief cutter?" I wasn't really concerned that my cutting skills would get rusty; but how could I say no to Roxane? So there we were one evening in February, lugging cardboard through a quiet street in French Hill (the neighborhood near the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew U. and Hadassah Hospital). You tell me whether this situation could have happened anywhere else outside The Land. We had to fight our way into the building, even though the people in charge had approved the project because the custodian (in his white shirt) decided that our being there would disturb his schedule and equilibrium. Nonetheless, a (deliberately) rickety structure was assembled, which Roxanne would return to decorate, and the school's little dramatic interlude went off splendidly shortly before Pesach -- at least that's what I was told. My fame as chief cutter precedes me! Isn't that a comfort?