Blier’s Blog: NYFOS@Juilliard / “The Land Where the Good Songs Go”

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.

–Steven Blier

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