Thursday, January 20, 2011

Musical Minestrone. Ruddigore, Act 1

What would happen if we decided to make a short film of this part of my adventures here in The Land? The segment we would be looking at would open, not with a shot of the New York skyline, Big Ben, or the Eiffel Tower, but with a shot of the less-well-known Hadar Mall in Jerusalem’s Talpiot district. Traffic continues to flow on adjacent Pierre Koenig Street, and a #21 bus arrives at the bus stop in front of the Mall and discharges some of its passengers – one of them being yours truly. The camera follows me up the hill and onto Yad Harutzim St., down to the end of the block, into a less-than-enticing commercial building, up the stairs, down the long corridor to Studio Indigo, the rehearsal space for Ruddigore.

This would be the first rehearsal for the men’s chorus, and I make sure to arrive early. A few men have already arrived; several more will enter as the scene progresses. We are welcomed by Paul Salter, the musical director and Arlene Chertoff, the choreographer (Robert Binder, the artistic director, will be away in the States for several weeks). At 7:30, we begin our vocal warm-up exercises. “Tra-a-vi-a-a-a-ta.” Perhaps “Do-o-le-ro-o-o-so.” Even “Icicles, and bicycles, and tricycles.”

Now comes the first flashback (something you can do best in a movie): the scene shifts back over fifty years as I recall a similar situation, one indelibly etched in my mind. A much larger group of basses and baritones, all high school students, the best available talent in the city, are gathered in a school room (forgive me if I cannot remember which high school in Manhattan it was). Harry Horowitz, seated at a piano, is having us do some similar exercises before we start rehearsing our parts. We would spend months in working by ourselves before we were considered ready to join with the tenors, the altos, and the sopranos – the latter group under the tutelage of Peter J. Wilhousky, the former chorus master for Arturo Toscanini. It was fairly obvious to my impressionable ears that the music we were singing was a lot more complex than the arrangements that Mr. Dycke, the music teacher at DeWitt Clinton H.S., was giving us to sing for the senior chorus there. With both groups, we spent many months learning our parts and getting ready for the one big night, whether it be the yearly H.S. graduation exercises held in the Dewitt Clinton auditorium or the annual concert in Carnegie Hall, which was performed in conjunction with the All-City H.S. Orchestra.

And that was the last time I did vocal exercises and that was the last time I ever wrestled with a vocal score, I thought to myself, as I opened up the score with chorus parts which Paul was handing out – wrenching me out of my reverie and into the stern reality of the moment. We were now on page fifty three, “When thoroughly tired of being admired by ladies of gentle degree, degree; With flattery sated, high-flown and inflated, away from the city we flee, we flee….” And on each page there are notes, whole notes and quarter notes, high notes and low notes. And key signatures, and a treble clef along with a bass clef. Sharps and flats and rests and repeat signs. They stare back at me from the printed page in silent reproach: “Don’t you remember us after all these years; don’t you remember what we stand for?”

Now comes another flashback, to the music room in J.H.S. 80 in The Bronx, where an even younger me was wrestling with a clarinet in the school orchestra. I certainly knew how to read music then; my problem was manipulating my short, stubby fingers around the keys of the beautiful instrument I was playing and getting my lips and jaw to make some semblance of the right notes. No easy task; which is why I wisely joined the chorus in high school, laying aside the clarinet on which our parents had spent their hard earned money.

Leaving aside our little film narrative for the time being, let me just say that I was a tad nervous the first few rehearsals. For one thing, there is safety in numbers. In my high school choruses, there were ten or more voices to a part. Easy to blend in. Here we had only three or four basses, baritones, first, and second tenors. If anybody hits a wrong note or comes in at the wrong time, it can easily throw the rest off. If you are the miscreant, it’s easier for Paul’s ever vigilant ear to detect it. Now Paul can sight-read, meaning that if you give him a piece of sheet music, he can sing it unaided. Most of us need a lot of help, which is why Paul would e-mail everyone in the chorus a recording of his or her part. Now I could sit and home and practice my part, using the score and the recording at the same time. “Act one, number 12 for the baritones: ‘When thoroughly tired of being admired by ladies of gentle degree, degree….’”

One more thing, under the rubric of the gentle ironies of life. Peter J. Wilhousky and his assistants were concerned only with the music, that we sang the right note at the right volume at the right time; our accent was whatever it was. Paul needed to instruct us on how to pronounce every word. I am from the Nawth Bronx, where the words ‘are’ and ‘ah’ are pronounced pretty much the same; and I have spent my whole life trying to mitigate my accent, probably a subset of a subset of a Bronx dialect. And along comes Paul Salter, “it’s not tirrrred, it’s tiyud, admiyud.” After some gentle prodding, I can pretty much get the pronunciation requiyud for Ruddigore. But poor Jerry, with a good strong voice – from California! “Jerry, it’s tiyud, not tirrrrrrrrrred.” How many times did we hear that one as the weeks went by.

After these first few rehearsals in which the men’s chorus practiced separately, it was time to meet the rest of the cast. Now the small space at Studio Indigo was overflowing with talented men and women. Everyone introduced him/herself, and if you knew most of the people already or were especially attentive and retentive, you could remember who everybody was. I can say that by the time we were ready to perform I got to know almost everybody, but it wasn’t easy.

With the addition of the sopranos and altos, things got more complex. Before, we were dealing with the sounds of two or four parts at a time. Once we added the females to the mix (they had also been rehearsing by themselves), there were a lot more notes being sung at any given moment. Now it really got hard to concentrate on singing your part with everything else going on. Just when you thought you had it made.

After a few weeks, Robert Binder returned to The Land and to the rehearsals; and things got even more interesting. From then on, we would not be merely singing, but acting as well. Oh, and moving around an as-of-yet imaginary stage. Entering and exiting. Gesturing and showing expression. In order to make it possible to do these things, we would have to memorize our parts. No more sitting on our duffs with our scores in front of us. That’s for wimps and chorale singers! You got two weeks to memorize your part. (No one said this would be easy.) At every rehearsal, Rob would add a new wrinkle, a new series of gestures, always trying to refine and improve his conception of how the show would look.

To get our attention and to help us get into the spirit of things, Rob asked each member of the chorus to submit a ‘bio’ for his/her character. I obliged with the following for my first act character, Cedric (Bilgie) Bilgewater, one of the young bucks coming down to the country to ogle the local lasses:
Cedrick (Bilgie) Bilgewater, second son of Lord Cecil and Lady Agatha Bilgewater of Staffordshire. Educated at Malverne House Preparatory School and Magdalen College, Oxford. Member, The Drones Club. Occupation: Gentleman and Socialite. Activities: Assisting chums in distress and avoiding matrimony. Keen on golf and cricket.

Now you may consider this exercise somewhat over the top, but you would be underestimating Rob’s sense of theater.. What he tries to do is to make every member of the cast understand that we are not just anonymous persons out there to sing and walk around and look pretty (hey, I can do that!), but that we are playing a role and reacting on stage – maybe not as big a role as the principles, but a role nonetheless. This ability to create a character served me well in the following situation: It was late, almost quitting time at a particular rehearsal (these were scheduled from 7:30 to 10PM) and everyone was understandably tired. Rob wanted to start one new item, the short gavotte in Act 1. The first thing was to announce the pairs. First would be the two leads, Aviella and Mory; next, Fred and Yael, then………. I was too tired and intimidated to protest, “I can’t dance. I never suggested in any way that I could.” But as I thought about it later, I realized “I’m not going to be up there dancing, ‘Bilgie’ is. He loves to dance.” Whew, thank G-d for Bilgie, a capital fellow (and incidentally, a chum of Bertie Wooster, even though he had the sense never to make it into any of the P.G. Wodehouse stories). This attitude served me well in another capacity, as you will soon see.

Somewhere around this time, our rehearsal space was moved several blocks away to the central building for Melabev, a wonderful organization that works with frail seniors. Here we had more room to work, making the constant movement required a more reasonable possibility. Up until now, those of us in the men’s chorus had only seen bits and pieces of the production and had no idea what this musical play was about (some of us still don’t!). All we had seen, truth to tell, were the parts we were involved in. Now we could begin seeing the production come together.

How do you put on something like Ruddigore? How do you do anything? You start at the beginning and work your way to the end – more or less like what I’m doing with this article. Sometimes that approach doesn’t work. If you’re making a film, for example, you shoot all the scenes in a given outdoor location at one time, regardless of their contiguity in the final version because no one is bringing cast and crew back to Morocco three times. In our situation, you would want to work privately with the principals, going over their solos and duets – whether in Acts I or II – as much as possible not to waste anyone else’s time. Only after a while do you start putting everything together – like a musical minestrone. And so standing around the hot water urn or sitting on chairs around the periphery, listening to the other performers do their parts, we could begin to understand what our ‘product’ was supposed to be: the genius of G& S’s original conception, the splendid work of our cast, and the sophistication of Rob Binder’s realization.

I had expected to have to sing a lot and emote a little when I auditioned, and I soon realized that I would have to prance around a bit, but helping with the sets? I have always admonished friends and acquaintances that “you don’t want me walking around your place of residence with a screwdriver.” Barbara can attest that, in general, that’s good advice – which is why in our house, she’s the one wielding the tool du jour, and I’m the one in the kitchen with a spatula in my hand. But there was a general appeal for help creating the sets, so I headed over on a Friday morning to the small theater in the center of town where the work would take place over the next two months. Maybe there was something I could do to be useful – at least not get in the way. Anyway, if I could dance my way through Ruddigore, I could paint my way as well.

Understand that what the Encore Theatre company does is what I imagine small theatrical groups around the world do: recycle the sets. In theory, Judd Fry’s shed in Oklahoma could be a peddler’s stall in Fiddler, which could be the Mug ‘N David tavern in Ruddigore (I am in no way responsible for that title). So the first thing to do is obliterate any indication of prior use. Take all these enormous panels and paint them black. Even I can slap black paint on a board so that from a distance it looks OK. That was day one. The following week, I was engaged in taking pieces of cloth, dipping them in paste, and stapling this disgusting mess to the bottom of other panels on wheels. The third week, I came into my own. They needed someone to trace the outline of a design onto a bunch of knocked down cartons and then cut out the shapes. Magic marker and box cutter in hand (for reasons I do not understand, this American tool has been renamed here a sakin yapani [a Japanese knife]), I began the job. Others did too, but only I remained steadfast and loyal, spending several weeks hacking away at various thickness of cardboard. Not for me to reason why, Roxanne (the very talented set designer) soon will clarify………. But that we will leave for the next and final episode.

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