Wednesday, August 15, 2012

My Fair Lady Part 5

The Encore! Production of My Fair Lady, which we worked soooo hard to put on and were soooo nervous about, up to the last minute, was a rousing success; the seven scheduled performances were sold-out well in advance and enthusiastically received.  Many people said it was the best thing the company ever did; certainly everyone in the cast loved every minute of it and had the time of their life.  One would always like to think that one’s individual contribution played a part – small or large – in the collective success. However, my role was, to be brutally honest, miniscule, and they certainly could have done without me – although I wouldn’t have wanted them to.  What I found surprising, however, was that the less I had to do, the more fatigued I became.

We were only going to do seven performances, none of them “out of town,” i.e., in Ra’anana, Zichron Yaakov, or the like. No long bus rides; no getting back to Jerusalem at 1AM.  So why did I feel so pooped midway through the run?  Perhaps it was because the most difficult thing I had to do was keep track of my costume pieces (even harder than learning Every duke, and earl, and peer is here….).

Careful readers of these articles may remember that I earlier wrote something to the effect that My Fair Lady was a masterpiece in spite of itself.  One of the problems with the piece is that it fails to make effective use of the ensemble. (Sir Arthur Sullivan is quoted as praising his collaborator, "Until Gilbert took the matter in hand choruses were dummy concerns, and were practically nothing more than a part of the stage setting. It was in 'Thespis' that Gilbert began to carry out his expressed determination to get the chorus to play its proper part in the performance. At this moment it seems difficult to realise that the idea of the chorus being anything more than a sort of stage audience was, at that time, a tremendous novelty.") In any piece by G&S – or Rodgers and Hammerstein, for that matter – being in the chorus means waiting in the wings for your time to go out and take over the stage; you know that whatever musical business you have is relevant, exciting, and almost always advances the story line. 

The justly acclaimed Ascot scene in My Fair Lady is about the only time when the entire ensemble has something important to do; otherwise, we’re pretty much wallpaper, pretending to do something while the main characters carry on their business.    (There are, of course, a few scenes in which a smaller group of performers – servants or a bunch of guys hanging around – get involved in the action; but that mercifully did not include me.)  In addition, because of serious time constraints during the rehearsal period, there was virtually no choreographed movement for the men, except for Ascot; with nothing for us to learn, we were free to bop about the stage, trying to look as “professional” as we could.  As a result, while my sense of enjoyment in being in the cast was high, my sense of personal accomplishment was low.  Maybe that accounts for the draggy feeling I felt waiting in the wings.  Either that, or I’m just getting old.

Either way, I felt a need to decompress, to “chill out,” once our final scheduled Thurs. eve. performance was over.  Normally, I look forward to the cast party a few days after the production is over; it may be the best part of the show!  But I was just too weary to attend; plus I would have had to cancel the Rambam shiur that usually meets at our apartment on a Sunday eve.  Anyway, it was over.  I would have the entire summer to rest up and get ready for auditions for G&S’s Gondoliers.…..No it wasn’t over!  Not by a longshot. 

When Robert Binder booked our performances in the Hirsch Theatre back in January, he had to decide how many performances to schedule.  Just then, his crystal ball was in the repair shop being reformatted, so he had to make a snap decision using only his best judgment.  He went the conservative route and chose seven.  He could have gone for more, but he was fearful of a half-empty theater.  Had he a glimmer of how successful the production would be, of course he would have scheduled more.  Was it too late to add a few more performances?  Would the hall be available?  Would the cast be around or off to who-knows-where?  There was talk on-and-off about adding more performances, but nothing seemed to materialize.  Then, seemingly out of the blue, we got the word: two more shows on July 5. All the leads and most of the supporting cast were around and available. We were good to go.

Not so simple as all that.  At the conclusion of the seventh performance, everyone had handed in the borrowed components of their costumes, tossed them into large boxes: men’s shirts here, caps here, women’s aprons here. They would be cleaned, stored, and, if borrowed, returned to their rightful owners. The process of assigning appropriate and properly fitting (more or less!) costumes usually went on over a period of weeks and even months.  Now we would have two or three days to figure out which of the men’s dress pants – all looking reasonably alike, but of widely divergent sizes – had been ours.  Fortunately, many of the pieces still had the names of the wearer inside; but it took me almost an hour to retrieve my swallow tail coat, black pants with a stripe, formal white shirt with cufflinks, two pairs of gloves, two different top hats, the other black jacket, a bow tie and a cravat, two formal vests, a pair of spats, a threadbare jacket with mismatched vest, and a grey cap several sizes too small. Plus, there were the few items of my own sitting in my closet (those I could find; just remember not to close the door with a cat inside). The props I would need would be made available as we needed them: an umbrella, a pair of fake opera glasses, a handkerchief, and a walking stick.  All of this for the few minutes I scamper about the stage! 

A somewhat bigger project would be repacking all the scenery and props, getting them to the theater, and setting everything up (this part of the project I leave to the younger and the stronger). Then the lighting and sound crews would have to reconfigure everything all over again for the two performances that day.  Then, sometime after 11PM, the swallow tail coat, black pants with a stripe, formal white shirt with cufflinks, two pairs of gloves, two different top hats, the other black jacket, a bow tie and a cravat, two formal vests, a pair of spats, a threadbare jacket with mismatched vest, and a grey cap several sizes too small would be again tossed into boxes, along with everyone else’s costumes.  The set would again be struck: the music stands disassembled, all the electrical wiring wrapped up, the backdrops lowered and folded neatly, the scenery moved over to the loading dock to go back to storage.  Life in the Theater is not as fun-filled as it seems!

Something wonderful happened with this production.  Usually it has taken months for the filming of a live performance to be turned into a DVD, and the one for HMS Pinafore simply didn’t work.  But this time, the DVD version was ready almost immediately, and I was able to get a copy right away.  I sauntered over to our DVD player, which is connected to the old TV we use to watch downloaded movies, and gingerly inserted the disc. So that’s what it looked like from the front of the stage, not from the back of the chorus! And that’s what was going on while we were all schmoozing backstage!  Both Jonathan Gillis (Higgins) and Miri Fraenkel (Eliza) were even better than I remembered.  You could even see me from time to time – if you looked carefully enough.

But you know what was really great?  We could sit on the couch in whatever we happened to be wearing, or not wearing, and enjoy the show.  I didn’t have to worry that I had with me the swallow tail coat, black pants with a stripe, formal white shirt with cufflinks, two pairs of gloves, two different top hats, the other black jacket, a bow tie and a cravat, two formal vests, a pair of spats, a threadbare jacket with mismatched vest, and a grey cap several sizes too small.  I didn’t have to worry that I was wearing the right combination with the right props and whether I would make it on stage at the right time.  It’s great to be on stage; but it’s nice once in a while to sit back and just enjoy what collectively you have accomplished. Still, I wonder what the costumes for Gondoliers will look like?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

My Fair Lady Part 4


I apologize for the long delay in finishing this series on My Fair Lady.  I was halfway done with part 4 when my computer, with its seemingly impregnable Linux system, crashed; so that The Rain in Spain went gushing down the drain.  On the brighter side, my e-mail inbox was suddenly inundated with editing jobs.  Paid work!  Hold everything!!!!!!!!!  Now that I’ve sent out my last invoice, I can try to pick up where I left off.

So where was I?  We were tantalizing close to opening night, and it didn’t seem possible that we would be able to pull it off.  I later learned that I was not alone; others shared my apprehension – although no one wanted to blurt out, “No way, we’re ready.”  But, ready or not, on Tuesday, May 29, we would have to collectively, “Get me to the Hirsch on time.”  Every one of the purplish upholstered seats in the Hirsch Theatre would be filled opening night with someone expecting a first-rate show. The Thursday before, we would leave the cozy confines of our rehearsal space and venture over to Melabev, a facility for frail seniors, for our next to last rehearsal, in which everyone was supposed to be in full costume.  We would for the first time have enough room to move about, even if it wasn’t a real stage, and even though we wouldn’t have available any of our wonderful scenery.  What we would have, for the first time since the first week or so of rehearsals, was Alfred P. Doolittle, having just arrived that morning. 

In a “more perfect” world, some of our principal performers would be major stars.  In the world we presently inhabit, we get to have the services of one Bezalel (Chip) Mannekin, as fine a comic actor as you‘ll find anywhere.  He could play Doolittle at any time (except Shabbat), on any stage, with any company; he’s that good.  So the question wasn’t whether he would be ready, but would the actors who would be onstage with him be able to mesh their performances with his – with less than a week to go?

Normally, we would have another rehearsal the Sunday before we open, but this year Shavuot came out on that day; so no rehearsal that evening (remember, only one day of ‘yuntif’ in The Land).  Now we were really down to the wire.  Monday night, our one and only dress rehearsal, on stage with the scenery in place and all the props ready to go.  We had that one night to figure out where we were supposed to be on stage and how and when we were to get on and off. Take, for example, the scene at Ascot.  There simply wasn’t enough room on stage for all of us in the ensemble to perform the wonderful gavotte that Lerner composed.  So somebody, probably Gila, suggested that some of us – a dozen or so – be situated on the sides, in the ‘box seats’ at the race track. In our rehearsal space, ‘on the side’ meant being squished in the corner, but still only an arm’s length away from the rest of the cast.  It was only that Monday did we find out that our real place would be standing in the aisles in the theater.  We would get there by walking through the men’s dressing area, out into the lobby, and back through the corridor on the other side of the theater.  When it was our time to ‘go on,’ one of us would open the door to the front of the theater, from where we would walk up the few steps to our places. The curtain would rise, and everyone in the audience would be watching the stage, mesmerized by Roxane’s backdrop, Rob Binder’s costumes, and, of course, Rachel’s hats.  Almost nobody would see those of us standing on the sides.  But they could hear us. “Any second now, they’ll begin to run. Hark a bell is ringing, they are springing for it.  Look, they have begun…..”

Our opening night audience is invariably a friendly crowd, made up of families and friends of the cast.  They never get an A+, 100% performance; there are always too many kinks to iron out. But still, it’s pretty good. (No, it’s better than that; it is, in fact, the best show in town. It’s just not as good as it’s going to get.)  We in the men’s chorus go back to our dressing area after each number we are in and ‘confess our sins.’  Each of us is the first to mention our mistakes.  We all get a good laugh out what we did wrong.  But then we set about correcting our faux pas, so that we don’t do it again.  I suspect that’s part of the secret of our success.  By opening night, there is very little that Rob, Paul, and Arlene can do to make things better; they’ve been working with us for months, and there is very little left for them to say.  Now it’s up to the cast (and the orchestra); we’re the ones who have to do it – or not.  It just so happens that everyone is determined to get it right, to correct even the tiniest miscue.

By the second night, something magical invariably begins to happen, for real – just as it does every night in the script we’re performing, when after day and weeks of getting it wrong, out of nowhere, Eliza Doolittle gets it right. Suddenly, ‘Artford, ‘Ereford,’ and ‘Ampshire, are renamed Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire.  Just like that!  With us, the lines the actors have been dropping in rehearsals are now being articulated cleanly and on time.  The lumbering elephants in the dance routines are replaced by a brigade of nimble feet. Everyone in the cast remembers where they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing.    We go from “No way, we’re ready,” to “What did you expect,” virtually overnight.  (OK. It takes a few performances to really get it down.) Everything falls into place, and the result is magical. The audience is astounded, flabbergasted, “blown away” by the performance they have paid 100NIS to see. It happens with every production, and that’s part of the fun.

The crazy thing is that we who are in the show never really get a chance to see it.  We are usually in our dressing areas frantically changing costumes so we will be ready in time, or just kibitzing. We just have to remember when it’s time for us to go on – which means we have to know what the scenes are immediately before ours. We get to hear those bits of dialogue or musical introductions so often, we pretty much know them in our sleep,.  And speaking of sleep, I did have an anxiety dream about the show.  This production, more than any other, I had a lot of pieces of costumes and the frequent need to change them. I was in a constant state of worry that I would lose something: a glove, a spat, even the imitation bowtie I wore for the twenty seconds I was on stage during the opening number. Is it any wonder that I would have a dream that I couldn’t find one of my hats and therefore couldn’t go on stage?  Fortunately for me, I had this dream two weeks after the final curtain.  Imagine being in ‘Artford without me ‘at’!