BOSTON CREAM PIE
Should you ever be in Maine -- and maybe you never will be; I never have -- you would see that the winters are wretchedly long and the summers are ever-to-short. Even down in New Jersey, I remember wondering if and when the graying snow piled in a heap in the high school parking lot across the way would finally melt. In such a situation the opening words of "June Is Busting Out All Over," are absolutely appropriate and are some of Hammerstein's cleverest lyrics:
"March went out like a lion, A-whippin' up the water in the bay.
Then April cried and stepped aside and along come pretty little May.
May was full of promises, But she didn't keep 'em quick enough fer some,
And a crowd of Doubtin' Thomases was predictin' that the summer'd never come......."
For the cast of Encore's "Carousel, June didn't really bust out at all. As long as it was March, April, or May, there was plenty of time before our first performance on June 21. However, there always comes a point when what wasn't, is, and now it was indeed the beginning of the sixth secular month. Time to get ready. The elaborately choreographed prologue on which Rob had lavished so much attention was coming together and actually making sense. All the players were available; just about all the scenery had been finished -- even the carousel.
Only someone who is somewhat deranged or totally dedicated to her craft would lavish so much time and energy on scenery which is used for at most eight minutes in a three hour production. Of course, what does that say about the mental competence of the rest of us, the small but dedicated crew of set painters who came to work every Friday morning when normal people would either be fussing over their Shabbat preparations or hanging out with a cup of hafuk (cappuccino) in some place like Tal's Bagels? Much of my efforts with a box-cutter would find realization in this scene, but there was one place in which my implement of choice would be useless: creating the carousel horses themselves. Six pieces of virgin plywood were sacrificed in this endeavor, Roxanne's outlines cut out by more skilled artisans with a jigsaw. Six of our most skilled volunteers were assigned to paint one horse apiece, each horse in several different colors. The finished products were then affixed to some long strips of wood -- also painted and wrapped in colored ribbons -- and the poles were then attached at the top to something else which was connected to something else, and this whole apparatus, festooned with ribbons and decorations from my cut cardboard, was attached by a pulley which could be raised and lowered on the Hirsch Theater stage. While it was on stage, the carousel would be discretely turned by the 'riders' during the final moments of the prologue when Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan are at last face to face.
The final few weeks before the show was set to open were the most demanding for all of us. In many ways, putting on a stage production is like making a movie. Let's say you're filming a screenplay in which the opening scene and the final scene twenty years later both are shot on the same little street near the Eiffel Tower. The actors involved will be dressed differently and made-up differently to show the passage of time, but the two scenes will be shot at the same time. Because movies are shot without regard for chronology or story line, it is quite possible that these actors may not know what the film is about until they see it screened.
The cast of "Carousel" may or may not know what the play is all about, but we certainly need to know when and from where we come on stage to do our bit. In effect, each scene has been rehearsed separately (just as every movie scene is shot separately), and now it would be time to put everything together, to start doing "run-throughs." Only now would the cast begin to understand where their parts fit into the collective. To complicate matters further, somewhere close to opening night, "The New Savoy Orchestra," the collection of musicians which Paul was able to assemble, would get involved, and the tempos played on the keyboard we had gotten used to were subtly changed, enough to throw off the singing and dancing. Adjustments, and more adjustments.
It was now "crunch time," one week to go before opening night. This is the time when you can expect to have a 'rehearsal from hell,' when everyone wonders how we would be ready for a live audience. (Actually we did already have a live audience -- just not a paying one. At this point, all of the non-actors who are essential in putting on a stage production began showing up: the people who create and keep track of the props, the folks who do makeup, the lighting technicians, the kids who help move the scenery, the sound crew, the young fellow and his assistant who would be responsible for projecting the over-titles in Hebrew.) Some of the cast members were still dropping or mangling lines. One of my buddies called out, "Are you all right, Captain Watson....." The problem was, he was Captain Watson. Rob pointed out this kind of mistake was elementary, my dear Watson. (Groan!!!!) In addition to cast members messing up their lines, the singing and the movement wasn't as fine-tuned as it needed to be, and the costumes needed work. However, the props were arriving. For months I had been walking around during the prologue with nothing in my hands. Finally........... my 'cotton candy' was ready. I have no idea what Chanie used to create it, but it looked like the real thing. No more would the actors have to whisper to me, "What are you 'selling,' again? Nothing like having and being the real McCoy. Now I could sell cotton candy with the best of them!
With a little more rehearsal time, most of the kinks were straightened out. One problem remained, however. The show was clearly too long, running a full three hours. If you're making a movie, the answer is simple: the offending pieces get left on the editing room floor. Whole scenes, whole characters can be judiciously excised -- and no one will be the wiser. Not so simple when it's a play with live actors and opening night was................. yesterday. Rob realized that cutting out parts of the dialogue or shortening certain songs was too problematic at this late stage in the game. The only alternative was to quicken the pace, get things moving faster. I can help!!!!!!!! I had one line of dialogue just before the "June is bustin' out all over" number. After one of the Jeff's asks 'Nettie Fowler' (Tamar), "Got any of them fried donuts ready yet?", I hopefully inquire, "How 'but some apple turnovers?" (my character, Rufus Snodgrass is big on apple turnovers). Up to now, I had been waiting about three seconds after Jeff's line to start mine. I figured I could cut it to one second without my line being lost. The cast in general took heed. We shaved ten minutes off the show time -- just by talking faster! There is a moral here somewhere.
Straightening out most of the kinks should be, and usually is, sufficient insurance against the dreaded 'performance from hell,' but it is no guarantee. Sometimes 'stuff' happens. We had done well on opening night; sales were good and we performed credibly. We certainly expected to do better the second time around. The next show, a Wednesday matinee, was well attended; at least most of the seats were sold -- although traditionally the matinee crowd tends to be an older, very polite (i.e., not given to spontaneous exhibitions of enthusiasm) crowd. We should have realized we were in trouble when two of the musicians hadn't shown up. One of them did arrive, one minute before curtain time. The other one never appeared; she thought the matinee performance was Thursday (which it had been in prior years). What to do? Paul had to improvise her part on the keyboard, something he is capable of doing. But why did so many of our otherwise nimble-footed thespians decide en masse to bang into the props and pieces of scenery in the wings and backstage during this particular performance? The clatter was heard in the auditorium, although that wasn't the biggest source of noise. Our usually staid and polite audience had become infatuated, nay, addicted, too their cell phones -- despite the usual admonition before the curtain rose to turn the blasted things off. One of the orchestra members advised that he heard at least fifteen such interruptions during this the course of this performance.
There is a scene in act 2 in which Enoch Snow (Jordan) and his intended, Carrie (Aviella) quarrel, and he starts storming off the stage. What should happen is this: Carrie is supposed to stop him and ask him to forgive her. He shakes his head. She asks him to "say something soft and sweet" to her; he declines. She asks him again, this time stomping her foot for emphasis. In exasperation, he turns to her and enunciates very carefully, "Boston Cream Pie." The cast (and perhaps the audience) reacts in consternation. Except that as this scene unfolded, the audience and the principals could hear the ring of a phone and then the unmistakable voice of a Jewish matron. "Hello, I'm at the theater......" Two hundred plus heads turned her way; the usherette came running down the aisle. On stage, the ball was dropped, the cue was missed, whatever. Before anyone realized what was happening, the irate suitor was off stage, without any of the aforementioned dialogue being spoken. Silence. Fortunately, Nettie (Tamar), realizing what had happened, continued with the lines she would have spoken later, enabling us to finish the scene and get off stage. if she hadn't done that, we might still be standing in place on stage at the Hirsch Theater, with our audience wondering why the show was taking so long -- in between conversations on their cell phones.