Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Never Show them the High C...

A day off from rehearsal yesterday.  Badly needed, actually, because my voice was a bit on the raspy side after five hours of music rehearsal on Sunday.  Back in the saddle today, however, so I need to start working on the music again. 

The ensemble in this piece does a lot of singing.  As of Sunday, they had just finally found a really good tenor (the music in the piece is incredibly difficult for the ensemble) and then the next day the baritone had to leave the cast for personal reasons.  So now a search is underway for his replacement.  Oy.

Hopefully, all of that will be dealt with today. 

I was thinking yesterday that I've heard Ron (our director) say out loud on several occasions that we need to 'serve the play.'  I'm terribly pleased to hear comments like that.  He also said the major job, in his opinion, of a director is to simply correct any mistakes made in the casting.  I liked that comment, too.  The last play I did involved a director that was intent upon making the entire evening about his directing, text be damned.  Consequently the entire rehearsal process turned into a battle to maintain the integrity of the text rather than move forward and try and present a fascinating story.  Every rehearsal became about trying to keep the director's 'improvements' out of the play.  It was exhausting.

Angie and I had my buddy, John Bader, over for dinner last night and I played a couple of the songs from the show for him.  Although John is not really a musical theater kind of guy, he immediately realized what a monster this piece is.  He also concurred with me in that he thought this was a play I had to do.

So today I put the blinders back on and start on the music again.  Today my goal is to find a way to make it through a long song I sing about a third of the way through the play without peaking too soon.  I'm remembering a rare piece of advice from Marlon Brando in his book, Songs My Mother Taught Me.  I, like many actors, picked the book up thinking Brando would break his decades-long silence about actually talking about his process.  He really doesn't in the book.  But he does, now and again, offer a little tidbit.  One of them is, '...never show the high C.  If you've got a high C, only show them the B.'  Good advice.  In essence he's saying always keep something in reserve.  It's especially apt advice for this show I'm doing now.  It would be so easy to blow out the engines early and show the audience all I've got.  Can't do that, though.  That's a rookie mistake and one I've been in danger of committing lately.

I just finished reading Tennessee Williams' Memoirs and there are several interesting things in it.  One is his assessment of the great Laurette Taylor as she was working on 'The Glass Menagerie.'  He reports that in rehearsal in Chicago for the play, all of the actors were, very early in the rehearsal process, weeping and gnashing their teeth and going for broke throughout the play.  Except Taylor.  She carried the script with her right up to the end, although it became clear she wasn't referring to it.  She kept her voice neutral, her emotions in check and was carefully observing what the other actors were doing.  In fact, he was concerned that her performance would be flat because of it.  But suddenly, as opening night neared, she put the script down and blossomed.  There was a late rehearsal that he recalled, about three nights before the first preview, in which Taylor said, rather off-handedly, 'I'm going to act tonight.'  What happened next, of course, was theater history.

The same happened in rehearsal for 'Death of a Salesman.'  In Elia Kazan's book he writes of his concern for Lee J. Cobb in the role of Willy Loman.  "We couldn't hear him, for one thing," Kazan writes.  "And when we could hear him, it was timid and weak."  But, like Taylor, the veteran Cobb was simply biding his time.  He, apparently, held off even longer than Taylor.  Opening night, of course, he was incredible.  I can't say that I'm a fan of this approach although there's no arguing with success.  I've always been of the mind that what you do in rehearsal you will do in performance.  It's a valuable lesson for young actors to learn, in fact.  However, having said that, I think there's something to holding off on the emotion inherent in this play, The Adding Machine.  In film it's called 'saving it for the close-up.'  In the live theatre, it's just common sense.

So starting today, I hold back.  I mark the 'high C.'  Never show them everything you've got.  The difference is, unlike Cobb and Laurette Taylor, I'll let Alan and Ron (the musical director and director, respectively) know what I'm doing.  I can only hope they'll trust me.

See you tomorrow.