In the past I have droned on about various out-of-living-room musical experiences at The Chance Theater and, in an homage to beaten dead horses everywhere, this year’s Christmas post shall be more of the same. My grand adventure this summer had its roots in an eccentric and self-indulgent party I threw for myself last year. Having a house full of instruments and no one to play with, I decided to put propriety and dignity aside and for one afternoon hire a houseful of people to pose as my friends and spontaneously decide to engage in a sort of Actual Rock Band jam.
Although the ick factor of such an arrangement would seem to be so high as to be insurmountable, it actually worked out about as well as I had hoped. The Chance music director was happy to rediscover his joy of bass playing, a longtime company member re-lived some of his high school glory days astride my Roland e-drums and all of the aspiring front men and women got a chance to belt out their favorite tunes.
Fast forward to this spring: The Chance gets the regional rights to Hair: The American Tribal Love Rock Musical, which by itself is A Big Deal, but is made even bigger when the producers decide to revive it on Broadway as well. Bill Strongin, the aforementioned music director, has to assemble an ensemble at minimal cost. Typically, Bill plays piano by himself, which keeps the budget low, but, for Hair, a tinny spinet was probably not going to be up to the task. So Bill suggested we sort of “get the band back together” from the previous summer.
My first reaction was “Are you insane?” I had volunteered as a backup-backup rehearsal pianist for some shows previously and they had been very difficult experiences for all involved. It’s one thing to plink away in your living room, at whatever tempo feels comfy, stopping and starting at will, skipping the difficult passages. It’s a whole other thing to have to hang with professional singer/dancers/choreographers, in a dimly lit theater, with a barely scrutable heavily marked up score. Bottom line, I had been there, and knew I couldn’t do it. Plus I have a job that often requires me to be out of town during the week.
But the lure of having some people to play with was pretty tempting. With the poopy economy, my business travel had been sharply curtailed. And, given the funds available, it was quite possible if I didn’t want to play, that Bill would have to go with Plan B: playing the spinet by himself.
I told Bill I’d give it a try as long as he agreed to certain conditions. I had to be able to miss any performances where I had a business travel conflict. We had to rehearse as much as possible before the shows. And, if I sucked, he had to fire me. Bill was fine with that.
I got the score sometime in April. To my chagrin, there were over 50 songs! Some of them weren’t very long, but I was pretty sure at this point that I was doomed. I once spent an entire year learning three Christmas songs and I was pretty shaky on those come go time. This was FIFTY SONGS and the show was opening July 15th.
Having no better plan, I set about learning the score as best I could. I divided the pieces up into “Easy”, “Tricky”, “Ugh!” and “Forget about it…” There were three or four easy ones, I knocked out the first day. For the rest, I had my work cut out for me.
I practiced 5 hours or more every day during the week and even more on the weekends. When I wasn’t practicing, I’d go for a walk around the reservoir and listen to the London cast recording. I’d like to describe some sort of “Rocky” montage that starts with me hopelessly overwhelmed, and then, perhaps after downing a dozen raw eggs, ends with me doing the musical equivalent of the Stallone happy dance at the top of the Philadelphia Library steps. Unfortunately, real life is not like the movies. In eight weeks, I made some decent progress on some, less on others, and none at all on quite a few. I was pretty sure I was going to be canned at the first band rehearsal, and, to be honest, I was thinking it would be nice not to have practice so much afterwards.
Sometime in June, we got three of the four of us together for our first run through. As it turns out, my fellow bandmates hadn’t done much practicing yet (there was an issue getting the individual instrument scores), so for a little while, I was actually more familiar with the music. Even better, I soon realized that I had been practicing the songs as if I would be playing the piano by myself. Once I let the bass player play the bass line, the guitarist play the chords, and the singer sing the melody, well, frankly, there wasn’t much I really had to do. I suppose Bill knew this all along, but it was quite the revelation to me. For the first time, I began to think maybe I really was going to be playing in the Hair band (so to speak.)
As if by magic, some of the songs I hadn’t bothered to learn were actually cut (I found out later that few productions of Hair are done the same way with the same songs.) To make up for it, we repeated a couple for the curtain call and the exit music.
As the opening approached, I was asked to stand in for Bill for some evening and Saturday rehearsals (he teaches) and, for these, I did have to play everything by myself. It didn’t go that well musically, but it did help me get a sense of the actual flow of the show. There’s an infamous nude scene in the show (which was a source of some consternation to the cast) that I never actually saw as I always had my eyes desperately glued to the score lest I miss a note.
As the show came together, there were about seven or eight songs of the fifty that were mostly me, about three of which were practically only me. I made sure I focused a lot of my practice on those. Fortunately, they were all relatively easy. In addition, since Bill was playing the bass lines, I was able to use both of my hands to play what was normally the sole responsibility of the right hand. This allowed me to do a pretty decent job of even the “tricky” right handed parts.
Nonetheless, on opening night, I was a nervous wreck. I had made some pretty obvious flubs during the dress rehearsals and being anxious only served to undermine my confidence even more. Reading nearly fifty songs in a row from a three quarter inch thick score, in a dark, hot band attic requires calm stoic focus. Unbridled terror, a racing pulse and voices urging one to flee do not comprise the ideal state of mind for a quality musical performance. Still, I tried as best as I could to swallow my fear (and a little Xanax) and soldier on with the festivities.
Once I made it through the three opening weekend performances my fear level dropped considerably and by the third weekend, I was actually enjoying myself (which, for normal people I guess, is the whole point.) For various reasons, the number of performances per week was not consistent for the entire run. For three weekends of the original six week run, we had to do six performances, one each on Thursday and Friday and two on Saturday and Sunday. I came to dread the back to back two-a-days, especially the second day. Fortunately, I had severely cut back my caffeine intake at the start of the run (coffee is basically a nice warm cup of stage fright) so climbing back on the brown train on Sundays helped me get through.
The show was a huge hit. Every single performance of the entire run was completely sold out. They added six more shows and all of those sold out too. The original producer of the ’60’s version, Michael Butler, drove out from Tucson to see us. Cast members from various Hair revivals showed up. Local publications The OC Weekly and the Orange County Register as well as the LA Times, and Variety sent reviewers. Hair groupies (yes, there is such a thing) travelled from far and wide and showed up in full costume. Most were older than me – I guess dreams die hard.
I ended up playing 36 shows to full houses. Mistakes? I made a few. But far fewer than I thought and I don’t think anyone outside of the production noticed any of them.
It was a pretty exhilarating and exhausting experience. While I was grateful that the one show I ever played in was the biggest in the eleven year history of the theater, I was also very happy when it was finally over.
Given my age and modest abilities, I have pretty limited upside performance potential at this point, but, I think I did get a teensy bit better. The pressure to learn so many pieces in such a relatively short time forced me to focus my practicing, concentrating on my weaknesses and tackling shaky measures head-on, one note at a time. I don’t think there is any question that playing in front of a paying audience brings an inherent heightened level of concentration and the sheer number of hours of performing certainly didn’t hurt either.
I’m going to dust off the Christmas carols for a short stint in a Solvang hotel in early December.