Posted by: ronontheroad | November 14, 2014

Watching for a change

I am involved with local musical theatre groups, often as an accompanist and rehearsal pianist, as a member of the pit band, and sometimes as musical director.

On the whole, it is rewarding seeing how singers go from note learning through to delivering a performance. It amazes me that while they are doing that, they are also learning lines, movement, interaction, and dance routines, and memorizing these things. (But don’t get me started about directors, choerographers, and stressful rehearsals. I guess tears and tantrums go with the territory.)

The thing is, I don’t really get to see the shows – particularly if I am in the band. So for maybe six months, there are snapshots in a rehearsal room, facets of a show; but like filming, everything is out of order until we start running the show. Then I am concentrating on listening out for cue lines and watching the musical director (MD) and reading the notes on the page, and hammering out the rhythm so the dancers can hear the piano above the noise of tap shoes.

The director has a creative vision – knows what the set will look like, has plans for the lighting plot, props, costumes, deals with the blocking and getting actors into the right place on stage, and transitions between scenes. But, week in and week out, I see the learning process, feel the stress when things are not going well, becoming aware of the lib (dialogue) and trying to help actors match their timing with the music.

So recently it was a pleasure to watch a couple of performances of musicals that I had had involvement with different companies in previous years. Long Eaton Operatic Society (LEOS) performed West Side Story, and Beeston Musical Theatre Group (BMTG) performed Anything Goes.

So, what were the differences between being in the band for West Side Story a couple of years ago, and watching another company, another production in a different theatre, listening to a different band perform the same show? More importantly, for Anything Goes, the difference between watching the show and being involved during the rehearsals and the run? As an aside, there is a huge difference between performing and watching – music really isn’t just a spectator sport for me.

I knew the music and maybe I should apologise to the director for Anything Goes for singing along in the audience! (Though to be fair, Cole Porter did knock out a good tune or two, and Lenny (Bernstein) had a way with orchestration and using rhythm.) I was familiar with the plot of both, maybe not word perfect, but enough to recognise what was going on, and to pick out some of the jokes and (dare I suggest) ad libs.

The real difference was to see how the show worked – trying not to compare these productions with those I had been involved with- but to understand how people got from A to B, and importantly why. You see, when the band is playing, we are more concerned in listening to each other, to watching the MD’s conducting, to read “the dots”, and although we get to hear some of the lib, we often don’t pick up what the actor is doing to bring the words to life. Not every show is light-hearted (West Side Story is a re-telling of Romeo and Juliet and it ends in tears), but there are moments of humor, and the audience often laugh at … well I really don’t know why they find some lines funny – they were not funny in rehearsal.

But watching the show, you see the gestures, the looks, the flounces. You become aware of the interaction of the chorus – the interplay of the ship’s crew with passengers, the barely concealed aggression between the rival gangs whilst the principals are delivering their lines. That scene where the guy goes off stage left to reappear stage right a few moments later (band playing an underscore “vamp” to cover the time) makes sense as you see him leave his cabin and make his way across the ship to a cabin on the other side. And then return.

The director had the big picture – understood what was needed, how people had to be in the right place at the right time, had to set the conditions up so that it worked. And maybe that’s where I’m going with this: in life, we only see the fragmentary scenes, the problems, the difficulties, the joys and sorrows. But there is a big picture – with dramatic lighting, and stunning scenery, and great tunes – even if we don’t always get to see it. Life, as they say, is not a rehearsal.

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