The Work : Notes On A Lab
Notes On A Lab :
First day of school at New 42nd Street Studios
New 42. It’s where it all happens now. If your producers can afford it. Heart of Times Square, windows floor to triple-height ceiling, nice locker rooms, clean bathrooms, friendly-but-firm door staff (“You really do need your ID tag, sir. Every day.”) and working elevators in which you bump into everybody else working on their new Broadway show. It’s very nice. Inside. Outside you have to wade through a lot of tourists—bless them and their money—and a lot a folks trying to part them from their money, but one of the fastest and friendliest Starbucks in Manhattan is just a few doors west and right next door at Pax the $6 plastic clamshell container of pre-cut watermelon (my grandfather would have a fit) is really pretty good, and once you’re inside you’re sealed off from the general public. Which is why those ID tags are so important.
This time around I was walking into New 42 for three weeks of lab work on The Sting. A new musical based on the 1974 Best Picture Oscar winner of the same name. And the timing could not have been better. The previous week had ended with a psychic whiplash of an audition for a very big, very commercial, probably very long-running upcoming Broadway show where, in the space of a ten-minute call back, I went from king of the world to crippled by kryptonite with the uttering of two sentences from the very important and very friendly director. “That was great!” she said, “Now, show us some hip-hop moves.”
Yep. Did. Not. Book. That.
But, thankfully, for the next three weeks, my calendar and brain would be too full to mull over that disaster too many times. I had three weeks of the magical state of double duty in front of me, a thing I’d never even heard of until only a few years ago and something that is still hard for me to really believe could be true. I’m already in a show and I get to work on another show at the same time! It’s nuts. It wonderful. And it’s nuts.
Old Guy/New Guy
The biggest difference between the first time I walked into New 42 eleven years ago and walking in four weeks ago is not that I know all that much more now. The biggest difference is that I’m a lot more comfortable with the state of not knowing. That first time here was for the national tour of Spamalot, which I booked while living in Harlan County, Kentucky. I spent a lot of energy during that process desperately trying not to be as green as I was. I was thirty-nine at the time and very unused to being the new kid in any room. But I really was in that one. Flash forward eleven years and I’ve got six years of touring and five years of living and working in New York under my belt but still, I feel very “new kid” in a lot of rooms. I’m fifty now. Usually, the folks my age I work with have been living and working here for twenty-five years or more. The ones younger than me often have twice as many credits as I have, Broadway and otherwise. I’ve gotten to sort of enjoy this old guy/new guy combo and The Sting lab was a great example of that.
John & Jen (and Lara and David)
Even though this room was packed with Broadway vets (some Tony winners, some personal idols, some legends) nearly the entire group was new to me personally. Out of forty or so people I knew and had worked with four: Our director, John Rando, cast me in Getting The Band Back Together out at George Street Playhouse back in 2013. In the cast, Jen Rias (double duty with War Paint) and I had spent time together on the Spamalot national tour and Lara Siebert Young (double duty with a teething baby at home—girl, the struggle is real) and I met for the first time just a few floors below earlier this year in another lab. For Susan Stroman. Who I now call Stro. Eeeeeeeeeee!!!!! David Chase in the music department and I had met on Tuck Everlasting, two floors up, February of 2016.
Let me give you a rundown of who else I was getting to work and play with:
“If you’re the smartest guy in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”
The writing team of The Sting pretty much guarantees that I’m nowhere near being the smartest guy in the room. This is a very smart room. And it’s more than just three random smart guys, but three smart guys for whom who I’ve a particular fondness.
Confession: my twenties, thirties, and early-forties were spent in a sort of love/hate/fear/loathing relationship with Broadway. Could have been sour grapes. Or scared grapes, really, since I never really tried to be on Broadway. Or maybe sorrowful grapes, but grapes were definitely involved and I managed to avoid the whole thing, as a participant that is, until my forty-fifth year on the planet. As an observer, though, I would make the dutiful pilgrimages to Manhattan from whatever far-flung outpost I was hiding out in to “go see a Broadway show!” Up until I graduated from conservatory (at 23 years old), those trips would bring me joy. After, they more often than not just pissed me off. But, like I said, pretty sure grapes of some sort were on the menu. Eventually, I stopped spending all that money to come to NYC and started going to London instead. Much better situation. Of course, I wasn’t seeing a lot of musicals there, but I was seeing large format theatre and it was inspiring me so I let Broadway drift off my radar. Two shows shifted my thoughts and feelings about all this: Urinetown and The Drowsy Chaperone. I saw them because, in both cases, fellow theatre folk whom I trusted recommended them to me as “something better and smarter than what you think is going on here.” They were right. And how. I’m so glad.
Hollmann, Kotis, and Martin
This is all to say that the guys at the writer's table for The Sting were Mark Hollmann, Greg Kotis, and Bob Martin. I couldn’t believe it when they were behind the table in the audition room, I never got used to it when they were behind the table in the rehearsal studio, and looking back now I can hardly accept that not only were we in the same room, but we actually worked on things together. And I got to thank them for Urinetown and Drowsy in person. Just nuts.
Then there’s Rando. He’s no slouch. Here’s my short take not on why he’s great at this gig but why I genuinely like working with and for him: he’s a sentimental smart guy. His brain is no nonsense and his heart is all nonsense, or strike that and reverse it. He got a surgeon’s eye but he often talks in Warner Brothers cartoon sound effects. I don’t think I really know John at all, but man do I enjoy him. And trust him.
I loved him and he loved me and that was easy because I did not dance a lick in this show. I walked in time for two counts of eight. Really. That’s it. But, watching him build numbers was a pleasure, made all the more enjoyable by being able to watch safely from the sidelines with a cup of coffee in my hand. There was one dodgy moment: Tara Rubin (to whom I owe this entire chapter of my life) was at one of the two presentations since she’s the one got us all in the room. In the break between acts I went looking for her to hug her neck and thank her for the gig. I found her in the hall next to the elevators talking with Warren. I hugged her, thanked her, and was just making my exit when she turns to Warren and says, “You know, he’s in Cats. He can dance.”
Now, let me be clear with you here: I am a poster child for the actor-who-moves-well category that Broadway has all but abandoned. If placed in the back and in the shadows, as I am in Cats (That Andy Blankenbuehler, he’s another smart one), one could with great generosity of spirit perhaps say that, in the most literal and limited sense, I can dance. But this unconditional statement that I “can dance” from one of the most trusted casting directors on Broadway to one of the most prolific choreographers on Broadway?!?! I could not abide it. I can report, with no exaggeration, that I jumped up and down as I shouted, “Noooooo!!! Tara! No, no, no, no, no! Why did you say that?!?! Warren! No! Let’s all just forget this ever happened! Tara!” And away I slinked.
Tara. Oh, Tara. How could you?
My entree into theatre was through music and I have always gravitated toward that corner of the rehearsal room where the music staff is camped out. This process was no exception. Dominick was a new MD for me, but was just the best. Let me define “the best.” He valued me. Out loud. Multiple times. To me and to others. I know it makes me a bit of a cheap date, but I’m his. Sold. I also dig his voice-leading and harmonic sense. Music nerd. Me. Yep.
Kazee and I had actually met once before when in the spring of 2006 he was put on a train to Boston to have a callback for Mike Nichols to replace in the Broadway company of Spamalot. Mike was busy with us opening up the tour and so Kazee had his audition on the stage of the Colonial just off the Boston Common one afternoon between our rehearsal and that night’s preview and I was asked to stay over the dinner break to be the reader. So, of course, I did. I mean, Mike asked. Kazee booked it, by the way.
Flash forward and here we are doing scenes and a song together. Here’s what I’m still pondering about my recent time with him: he is so fucking relaxed. On stage, I mean. It’s a place that allows his mind do comic things that mine simply can’t. Or won’t. At least not at that level. Not yet. He fascinated me. I watched him like a hawk for three weeks. Always something to learn. You just have to pay attention.
J. Harrison Ghee
J. was doing double duty with this and Kinky Boots in which he is playing Lola. Tallest Lola on record, I’d imagine. Since I’ve spent some time in at the factory over at the Hirschfeld we’re sort of extended family. He brings me love from the gang, I send my love back. I’m instantly at ease with this young man. And I’m impressed with his ability to carry starring roles in both this and that at the same time. That is the heaviest version of double duty and he bears it lightly. Grace and charm. Style and substance. And a damn fine flirt.
If you’re too young to know who this man is, take a sec to Google him. I’ll wait.
Ok, so he’s a national treasure of the American Musical Theatre. Sweet man, too. Here’s my Hinton moment of love: On break, after a big tap number that the ensemble delivers with thundering gusto, Hinton is sitting over in the corner near the writer's table. Standing next to him is Britton Smith, one of the young men of the ensemble. Standing next to Britton is Peter Benson, great character guy, probably near my age, more on him later. They’re talking flaps. As in the tap step “fuh-lap”. I’m eavesdropping mid-conversation, but I gather Britton’s not happy with his and Hinton and Peter are giving pointers. Hinton, mostly. Peter is serving as Hinton’s amen corner. I’m tearing up just remembering this and typing it out. It was so beautiful. Britton is standing and flapping. Hinton is watching. Peter is watching. Finally, Hinton says, “Sit down,” in that matter of fact, mechanic-to-mechanic way that dancers can talk to each other (which actors rarely do). “Sit down?” “Yeah, sit down and do it. You need to be doing it with your ankle and you’re doing it with your leg. Sit down.” Britton sat and started flapping. “Yeah, “says Hinton. “Yeah,” says Peter. “Yeah?” says Britton. At that point, I walked away feeling that I was trespassing on something holy. Not exaggerating.
That’s right. Cady Huffman. Now, I’d actually been in a room with Cady before, too. One of the first readings I was in when I moved here (thanks, Tara!) was a musical based on the Iron Chef TV game show. Go ahead. Take a moment with that. I was the French chef (feature ensemble) and Cady was the baddie (third lead). We were eight music stands apart and we never spoke. That was on me. I was very, very shy. I mean, come on. She’s Cady Huffman. Thankfully, I’m over that. We got on great this time. Two things about Cady on this one: yeah, yeah, she’s funny (and she really is, on and off stage). We got that. But, there’s this lovely act two bedroom scene she has with Kazee where the (smart!) writers reprise her earlier, hell’s-a-poppin' comic number as a sweet, simple statement of love and concern and it is so clear and true, and heartfelt. And beautiful. Just beautiful. The comedians, man. Given the chance, they can just kill you. That’s one thing. The other thing is that that comedy number she had? The one that’s the reason you hire Cady Huffman? I never saw it. I only heard it. I wasn’t there when they built it because, originally, my character wasn’t in the scene. Later they put me in, but I’m in the adjoining room when Cady does her stuff, listening at the wall. So I’m hearing it, I’m seeing and hearing the folks out front react, but I’ve no freaking idea what she’s doing. I guess it’s funny. Whatever.
Ok, ok, I’ve actually been in a room with Patrick, too. An early reading of The Heart of Robin Hood not long after the Iron Chef reading. I was a horse (not-so-featured ensemble) and he was the baddie (third lead). We were never in a scene together and we spoke only once. Again, totally on me. Well…also…he’s Patrick Page. He’s scary. Lovely when you’re speaking with him but pretty damn forbidding when you’re not. The one time we spoke in that process was just me telling him we had someone in common. A colleague of mine from my days writing curriculum and teaching for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was, back in the day, Patrick’s “girl assistant” when Patrick was a—wait for it—professional magician. Isn’t that great? He was a magician! Of course he was! Patrick’s another one I watch like a hawk. I can’t do what he does, naturally. Totally different type, instrument, etc. But I play villains often and he plays villains often…so, you know…steal from the best. Right? In The Sting, his character is, among other things, a card player of a very high skill level. And, wouldn’t you know it, those years as a magician sure do come in handy when you want to just stand still, rumble out your lines in subsonic tones, and expertly manipulate a deck of cards in each hand without looking. Sweet. Just…so…freaking…sweet.
Jon Jon Briones
The sweetest man I’ve worked with in a long time is the meanest son-of-a-bitch on stage at the Broadway Theatre. He’s The Engineer in Miss Saigon. That’s also a pretty heavy lift as double duties go. I walk past his theatre a lot as my theatre, the Neil Simon, is just around the corner. I used to look at the big poster of him out front and think, “Damn. Bet he’s a piece of work.” Now I look at it and go, “Awwwwww, Jon Jon’s pretending to be all mean. What a sweetie.” Also, he’s just my kind of guy. Watching him craft some very specific hat puppetry for his verse of our patter song won me over completely.
Peter and I think we were in the same dance call for Promises, Promises late in 2009. They called it a “movement call.” They lied. I will never forget and certainly never forgive. Peter, on the other hand, booked it and ended up going on for the lead. So, you know…whatever. Peter is a Broadway mainstay and was one of my favorite things in this lab. He is what I think of as a microbial actor. Watching him, he just is the guy. Every breath, every tick, every glance, every inch, even the microbes on his body shift into being the character's microbes. It’s poetry watching his moment to moment existence in the piece. Truly.
Now here’s a double duty: new musical comedy by day, making audiences queasy in 1984 by night. Duvall is a great dude and a man’s man smack dab in the Charles Durning type/category and, as you’d guess, it’s Durning’s role he’s playing in The Sting. I didn’t think of Durning once after day one.
I’ve never worked with Price and it’s the rare piece that would hold both of us as we’re kinda the same type of guy: a straight up character utility man in the small-to-medium model, a basic Mr. Potato Head of the American Theatre. A gentle soul, tapping for the first time in his life like he was born to it, nailing his variety pack of roles, the minute I met him I thought, “Ah, my people.”
Broadway credits for days and still counting. Double duty: Bandstand. Now, I knew I knew Drew’s name, and I recognized him, but I didn’t put together that he’d been one of the universal standbys at Spamalot on Broadway. Which I love! Because, in this room at least, his three rolls were so tightly drawn, one the mark of a con, one a high stakes poker player, one the hard-assed FBI agent, they were such nice, concise, pen-and-ink portraits that to think of him in Spamalot…? Well, it means he’s a transformer. And he doesn’t tell you he is. Now that’s a bit of a character man Holy Grail.
You say you need a guy who can play a casino heavy and a train conductor and, gee, it’d be swell if he could really, really dance? Yeah, you need Jimmy Borstelmann. New to me, but then, I’m new to him and to this whole world so, I’m playing catch up here. But, now I’m not so worried about seeming like I know everything, I’m happy to ask when I don’t know. I’m sitting over by the side of the room with Cady watching a dance number and I point to Jim and say, “So…. What’s the deal there?” Cady says, incredulously, “Jimmy? Jimmy Borstelmann?” then matter of fact, “He’s a legend.” And she gives me the 411 on Jimmy Borstelmann. He comes over and joins in. Charming as hell and, again—no exaggeration—if there was dancing going on, I had a hard time looking at anyone else besides Jimmy.
If Tommy Bracco had not been born, Musical Theatre would have invented him—out of sheer necessity and joy. I’m a fan.
…of “fuh-lap” fame. Yeah, yeah, he can dance and sing, but where I was digging his action was in a short little exchange where he plays the guy renting out the set-up for the fake bookie hall. In the movie this is a tasty little turn by Avon Long (there’s a fun bio to look up). Beside Ray Walston (who played the part I played in the lab) Long is who stuck in my 10-year-old-character-man-in-waiting mind the most when I first saw the film. Britton shook Long from my mind on his second pass at the scene. Plus, those eyes. I mean… “Hey there, America…”
Preston Truman Boyd
Every show needs a “well I certainly didn’t expect that man to be able to do that!” guy. Watching the galumphing, full-length-and-then-some drink of water that Boyd is suddenly launch into a floor-punishing tap explosion… Well, I certainly didn’t see that coming. But I sure did like it. Plus, he can sho holler.
Y’all watch out for this one. Baby of the room (I think), had just made his Broadway debut in A Bronx Tale when we started the lab. When he wasn’t out there dancing so very prettily, he was seated, quietly, with his nose in a book. Now, you know I’ve got a soft spot for that. But, seriously. Watch him. I think he’s a long-gamer.
Lara Siebert Young
Anyone who greets me with an inside joke from our last job (did I mention we were working with Stro a few months ago?) is aces in my book. And a comfort when you’re fighting that new kid feeling on the first day of school. The second thing Lara said to me on day one right after a withering “Oh, you,” was “snip, snip.” You wouldn’t understand. She and I are gonna be in another room together real soon. I can feel it. I hope the baby will have stopped teething by then. For both their sakes.
Still trying to figure out if/when I’ve been in close proximity with her before, but so glad I was for these three weeks. My specific moment of love with Carrie was the first and the all following times I saw her gorgeous and genuinely funny exit out of the casino scene, providing perfect cover for a transition, getting a laugh, and telling the story. All character. All behavior. No lines. Solid.
I love me some Jen Rias. And it’s so nice to have that beautiful face smiling back at you at work every day. It’d been too long. I’ve a soft spot for all the folks who were part of my nearly four years with the Spamalot tour, but Jen’s on the list of, “She’s in it? Then I want to be in it, too!” A light in the world, that one. Even when she’s doing that double duty (War Paint).
And then there’s when you meet a new light. This young lady is her own PRG lighting package. Love and light made manifest. And I’m so jealous of her. She and Carrie are headed out on tour with Color Purple soon. I loved being on tour and if she wants to know where to get the best pint of Guinness or the best huevos rancheros or the best museum or the best… whatever in pretty much any major- or mid-market town in North America, I hope she’ll call me.
I’ve been waiting to get in a room with her. There are these certain women of Broadway ensembles that are just legendary. Sometimes they’re Stro girls, or Casey girls, or Jerry girls, or… everybody wants them and hires them. They’re the names you hear other dancers mention. A lot. I’m always a little scared of them. Because they’re fierce. And I think they can steal your soul my looking at you hard. I’m fairly certain Angie could do that if she wanted. She didn’t. But she could.
Describing qualities of dance is tricky, but I enjoy trying. This piece and Warren’s work require several different tones of dance. For me, it’s tones that add up to style and styles that add up to the vocabulary and thence to the world of the play. But, that’s just me. I sit and watch the various dancers work in relationship to those tones, embodying them, expressing them, working within them, working around them. But they, of course, maintain themselves as they do so. They don’t change bodies as they go. I was fascinated watching Sherisse move from number to number. How to describe her signature, her stamp that was evident in every number while being wholly appropriate to each one? It took me to the last day to see it, and I don’t know if I can really nail it in words but I’ll try. She is flexible steel. A band of metal that can be coiled into a spring, that can whip the air like a blade, that be stiff in its straightness or soft in its curvature. There’s a tensile strength there that is truly compelling in every number. Fascinating dancer.
I got the least amount of time with Ariana as she joined us late in the process. As a bit of a rescue mission, in fact, which she pulled off, smooth as silk even as she was doing double duty with A Bronx Tale. I only saw her work from the back as by the time she was put in we were running the piece. But I heard her. I heard this weird, wonderful Billie Holiday coo of a voice spin out of her. Now, of course, we did this lab under the normal fluorescent lights of the studio. Nothing atmospheric or focused or even dimmed, but when Ariana sang—the plywood counter and cabaret stools of our makeshift diner set-up was all of a sudden framed in the deepest, darkest, loneliest Edward Hopper-esque light and shadow. Very, very cool.
Leaving New 42… For now.
On the last day, on my walk up 8th Avenue back to my night job in Cats, I could already feel myself missing this group. There’s a lovely moment at the end of the play where the gang has done what they came together to do and it’s over and they all pack it up and part ways and when Rando was talking to us about it he ended with, “You know. It’s like at the end of a production. You feel great, you did it, but you're sad that magic is done.” And, yeah, we all did know.
I know I did.
I’m still feeling it a week later
August 18, 2017