January 12, 2014
On Friday our last family member arrived: guitar/ukelele/banjo-player Greg Utzig who’d done the show with Hal and me thirteen years ago. I love making music with Greg, but when he reports for work my flower-child days are over. You see, all week long I’ve been playing like a wild-man, reharmonizing chord progressions, messing around with snaky inner lines, and throwing in colorful piano riffs that are not in Kern’s lovely, sober sheet music. It’s not that I can’t keep doing those things when I play with Greg, but I have to do those alterations the same way and in the same places every time, just so he and I stay in sync. At first I feel as I have been put on a leash. But I am ultimately so enchanted by the sound of Greg’s playing that I man up and make the tough, adult decisions that need to be made. Things like: “E-flat-diminished-seventh at the top of page 3”—or: “that crazy chromatic scale I throw in at the end of the bridge has one whole step right at the end.” I have to be both a free spirit and a conscientious musician—devil-may-care fantasy wedded to OCD. Today I did something I hadn’t done all week: I actually wrote a few chord symbols in my score to be sure I’d stay faithful to what I told Greg I’d play. And he is such a great colleague. Every time I discover that I have altered the written changes—I’m often unaware of my various “improvements”—Greg gently says, “Oh, show me what we’re doing there.” (Not “you’re.” “We’re.”) And when I do, he always says, “Oh, that’s so much better than the printed chords.”
Highlights from the past few days? James reported to work today with a large rubber horse-head that he found “lying around his apartment.” Of course we’re using it. Alex McKissick’s ad lib rap during “We’re Crooks” gets more creative with every run of the song—“Oh look, a guitar, an acoustic guitar, that’s because it comes from Acousticia, look, there’s Steve, colorful socks and all moisturized, oh look, that music, the paper was made in Brazil…” Raquel has a bit in “Non-Stop Dancing” in which she enacts an 85-year old doing the shimmy with bad ankles. Ben has learned to move his hips. It’s been a good week.
We’ve been through that enchanting early-January NYFOS bootcamp, seven days of six-hour rehearsals. Everyone is dead tired and exhilarated. Tomorrow school goes back into session. It’ll take the elevator much more time to arrive and when it does, it will be packed with dancers and actors and bass players. My cast will be immersed in their full schedule of classes and coachings, and our private NYFOS/Kern retreat will have to integrate itself into the real world. This morning I woke up feeling sad. Room 335 has been a sweet haven for the words of P. G. Wodehouse and the music of Jerome Kern; for Hal Cazalet and Mary Birnbaum, who have begun to co-direct as if they have worked together for four years, not four days; for Greg Utzig and Leann Osterkamp, my assistant; and for my beautiful, hard-working cast. Tomorrow we’re gearing up for the shock of moving from the rehearsal room to the theater, at best a startling experience. Even after being a professional pianist for forty years, I’ve never quite been able to take that moment in stride.
January 9, 2014
There was a blessed event today. No, no one had a baby. But at around 4 PM I heard a voice in my ear murmuring “Hey, Stevie!” in an insinuating way, and I turned around to see that Hal Cazalet had slipped into the chair behind me. I knew he was due in from London—ETA 2:30 PM at Newark—but I never thought he’d saunter in so early or so casually. In fact I really didn’t imagine we’d even lay eyes on him till tomorrow. I have rarely been so happy to see a human being as I was to welcome Hal this afternoon.
A little background. Hal was my student at Juilliard in the mid-90s, and we went on to do several notable NYFOS projects together after he left school. He is a brilliant singer and actor, as well as a wonderful composer; I’ve programmed a few of his pieces over the years. Hal is also the great-grandson of P. G. Wodehouse, and it was because of him that NYFOS first did a Wodehouse/Kern recital, then entitled P. G.’s Other Profession. Hal and I took that program to Washington D.C., London, and New York, in tandem with Sylvia McNair; the three of us also made a Wodehouse/Kern CD in 2000.
I met Hal when he was the age of my cast. Today I found it heartwarming and sobering, in equal measure, to collaborate with this handsome, settled man, the father of three. Hal has mellowed, but he has lost none of the springy, apple-cheeked vigor I remember from his youth. He bonded instantly with Mary Birnbaum—they appear to be a co-directing team made in heaven—and he jumped into action when the two of us pressed him into service. Jet-lag? Not a sign of it. He was always a clever, adept performer—the funniest Nanki-Poo I ever saw, a deliciously slimy Don Basilio in Figaro, and a class-A recitalist in Schubert, Fauré, and Britten. But by now he’s become a true master of the stage, and he electrified the room with his charm and his stage smarts. After he showed Ben and Alex the choreo for “We’re Crooks” I finally said, “Hal. Please. Would you…just sing it for us?” There followed three minutes of pure magic—he instantly morphed into a pugnacious music-hall thug imbued with a goofy, light-footed grace. None of us could take our eyes off him.
January 8, 2014
Today was one of those days that could have been unpleasant. We had six hours of rehearsal in a room that was wildly overheated, as if to compensate for the ghastly cold outside. We took just one half-hour break, and later a ten-minute breather. In that time we staged four big group numbers plus three or four solos, and went over some of yesterday’s work too. Somehow we were still buoyant at 6 PM. Delirious and running on fumes, but buoyant. No director relishes doing the big songs that need choreography and repetition, but Mary Birnbaum kept her nerve. And I am always delighted that she lets me help her with the staging—something I can only do because I have the blessing of a musical assistant, Leann Osterkamp. That woman has saved my butt on this production, and I do hope she’s collecting valuable prizes for it.
Highlights of the day? Hmm, where do I start. In one song James Knight enacted a spry, booty-shaking senior citizen with denture issues; in another, Mary Feminear got to stick her head between Alex McKissick and Joe Eletto as they head off to what seems to be a gay nudist party; Hannah McDermott sustained the deadpan lunacy of “Cleopatterer” with a kind of ease that took my breath away. I am somewhat in awe of Raquel Gonzáles’s physical grace—she has the most extraordinary sense of stage space and such fluidity in her movement. And Ben Lund? Heart, heart, heart, heart, heart. –Steven Blier
January 7, 2014
There are things you just wouldn’t know about your students until you work with them. For example. Joe Eletto cannot do the shimmy. On the other hand, Alex McKissick can shake his, um, upper torso like an overachieving Maytag washer-dryer set on “Shred.” This came to light yesterday when we were staging “Shimmy With Me,” originally destined as Joe’s comic turn. But Mary wanted the guy in the song to learn the dance and boogie offstage with great panache. It turns out that Alex is not just an earnest, sweet-voiced, bright guy but a closet Mexican Jumping Bean. I imagine he could be arrested in some states for shakin’ it out the way he does. (The girls are also amazingly good at the shimmy. Where do they learn stuff like this? Don’t tell me, I don’t need to know.)
Hannah had her first day–her flight from LA had been delayed and she joined our program in progress. Hannah seems to be a girl living in 2014, but it’s clear to all of us that she’s really being beamed in from 100 years ago. Her freedom with this style is so sure that it makes me believe in past life regression.
January 6, 2014
All Iast semester I had been feeling uncharacteristically lazy about this year’s NYFOS@Juilliard show—a program of Jerome Kern songs with lyrics by P. G. Wodehouse called The Land Where the Good Songs Go. I had a fall season filled with fascinating (read: stressful) projects and I contented myself with preparing the songs and duets a little at a time, hopping through all the ensemble numbers in a single group meeting right before we left for winter break. It was the only time the whole cast was in one room. Now, this kind of laissez-faire is not my typical modus operandi. Like a salmon swimming upstream, I used to try to fight my way through a web of scheduling obstacles to “forge an ensemble.” I realized that I usually ended up with a roomful of exhausted students pretending to be patient with my efforts to play teacher. This year, I chipped away at the songs bit by bit and threw the ensembles together in one giddy, fabulous hour. My feeling was that I had either reached a new level of Zen Enlightenment, or completely fallen apart.
Wonderful news: the first day of rehearsal for The Land Where the Good Songs Go was not just smooth sailing—it was, well, water-skiing. Like the famous Blackwing Pencil slogan, “Half the pressure, twice the speed.” The cast was on top of everything, director Mary Birnbaum is a fountain of style and lunacy (I mean that as a compliment), pianist Leann Osterkamp spelled me at the piano so I didn’t have to bang out Jerome Kern for six hours, and I was as happy playing these fabulous songs as a dog rolling in mud.
Highlights? Leann confided that her father is a body-builder. Mary Feminear reclined on top of the rolling bodies of the male cast members and somehow kept singing. Ben Lund stopped time with his rendition of the title song, and Raquel Gonzáles did the same when she sang “Bill.” James Knight leads the way in stage fearlessness (the guy practically defines chutzpah); Alex McKissick seems as if he was born to be a Kern leading man; Joe Eletto has enough charm to light up Manhattan during a blackout. I feel encouraged—no, blessed.