Okay, so now it’s time to introduce you to project number one: the day job. As I mentioned in the About page, I teach drama at a local independent school. One of the associated duties with such an illustrious appointment is the undertaking of a musical every spring.
I admit, I had mixed feelings regarding this particular chore when I first started. A little secret: although I did theater all through high school and college, my early influences weren’t Broadway musicals. Actually, that’s not entirely true: one of the seminal experiences I had early on was right after I moved up to Santa Barbara from Los Angeles while I was in high school. One of my favorite television shows at the time was Quantum Leap, where Scott Bakula does the ILM Watusi through time, fixing little problems in people’s lives as he goes. My favorite episode (which, thanks to the miracle of Netflix I have watched about twelve times this past year) is the one where he pops into a working-class actor playing a second-rate tour of Man of La Mancha, which I actually sort of recognized because someone at some point had given me some sheet music from the original score for piano practice. Watching the show, it all seemed completely magical to me – the makeup, the costumes, the music. Then, as I was watching television in Santa Barbara, I saw an advertisement for a production of Man of La Mancha playing at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, starring Raul Julia and Sheena Easton. I convinced my grandmother to drive me down to Hollywood, which was about a 90 mile trip. She visited with my aunt while I went up to the ticket window and plunked down my own money for the ticket. I sat in the second balcony by myself and fell in love. A few months later, when I met my first girlfriend and fell in love for the first time, she loved the show as well. What can I say? The whole show resonates with me. To this day, if I see a production of Man of La Mancha advertised, I have to see it.
However, aside from this singular, powerful example, my early experiences with theater were very, very non-musical. My high school drama teacher did not get along with my high school chorus teacher, and so rather than Rodgers and Hammerstein, we got John Guare and Lanford Wilson. We did gritty little plays that high schoolers had no business doing. Then when I went to college, I happened to go to a school where the theater and music programs were similarly bifurcated, and I was introduced to Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Tennessee Williams. Rather than tap dancing I learned dialects. It’s just how I was made.
Now I find myself with the unique opportunity to experience the side of high school that I never knew: the big musical. Of course, I have been somewhat resistant to the whole exercise from the beginning. The school I teach at is tiny: there are fewer than 200 students in the entire high school. The number of kids who have actually had singing and dancing lessons is miniscule, so putting together an entire musical cast is always a challenge. Much to my surprise, we seem to find the right people every year and pull it off. It’s not what I would call easy, but it gets done.
Now, I find myself at the beginning of my yearly journey through the Valley of Uncertainty, staring ahead at the road that stretches to the horizon and asking myself “is there any way in hell this is actually going to happen again?” Luckily, after four years I have learned not to let my mind mess with me too much: I attack the darkness with structure and preparation. First, pick a show.
Since we are a K-12 school there is a lot of pressure for me to do “family-friendly” shows. Of course, the high schoolers want to do Rent. I’ve addressed with problem by alternating between edgier shows and family shows every year. Two years ago we did R&H’s Cinderella. Last year we did Chicago. This year, it’s back to Rodgers and Hammerstein: Once Upon a Mattress. I happened to see the 2006 Tracy Ullman movie over the summer, and realized it would be a perfect vehicle for our lead actress, a graduating senior who has been with me every show I have directed thus far. Another castle set and flagstone floor. Wonderful.
My first challenge is figuring out what to do about the music. I have worked with the same pianist the past three years; however, I’ve been trying to incorporate more kids into the shows to get a broader base of support. I’d love to have a student pit band, but of course that means I don’t use the solo pianist I’ve used the past three years. I love the artistic process of directing, but hate the politics. Next week I have to make a decision and run with it.