Steven Blier on the NYFOS@Juilliard Residency: Day 5, January 8
Yesterday we had a break in our routine. It was our first day without Adam Cates, the choreographer, and that always makes us feel as if daddy has gone away. (Were we bad?) And Mary Birnbaum, our director, also took most of the day off for meetings time-sensitive chores; she just popped in for half an hour to look at some of the group numbers. I had to man up and run the rehearsal, which felt a bit like flexing a muscle I hadn’t used in quite a while. (Would anyone listen to me?)
It turned out to be a good day to work on music and words, rhythm and style, subtext and interpretation. Those things go on the back burner when people are tap-dancing and gyrating their hips. Instead, they get relegated to the realm of subconscious work. That’s not inappropriate, but it’s important to revisit these things explicitly.
And then, of course, the big event of the day: our 3-hour session with Broadway icon Mary Testa, who had also come in as a guest coach last year. Mary is clear-sighted and direct, finely tuned to acting, very musical, and open to anything except BS, against which she has a very powerful filter. Like me, she is not averse to beautiful, powerful singing, But (also like me) she also needs to feel emotional connection, emotional surprises, spontaneity, aliveness. Mary is not connected to the world of opera; she didn’t know who Peter Gelb was, had no sense of his current régime at the Met or its controversies. (That was deeply refreshing, especially in a Juilliard rehearsal hall.) Mary is in the moment, and she wanted us to be as well.
I had wondered which of the singers would be most open and relaxed around Mary, and I also wondered how she would respond to these young performers from a different walk of musical theater. The answer was: a couple of them weren’t quite as open and daring as they had been at their best rehearsals, and needed a few runs and a bit of Vitamin M to get their mojo going. But when it did hook in, the room lit up. And a couple of others (whom I didn’t think would be quite to Mary’s taste) got her highest, most immediate accolades. My takeaway? I was thrilled to see that this cast of “opera singers” was able to conquer Miss Testa, who is not what I’d call a pushover. Her one piece of advice to them as classical singers was something I’d been saying for a couple of months: when they sing together, they have to clip the words a bit more. “There’s just so much voice comin’ at us, and you have to spit a little harder.” It’s true: when you have a big fundamental tone, the consonants have to stand very tall to match the vowels.
Mary was looking for what she called oppositions—the underside of the joy in one song, the sadness and anger under the triumph in another. I was proud to see that in many cases my cast was able to present her with that kind of complexity right from the first reading. We got a couple of, “Wow, I have nothing to add to what you just did. I loved it.” And some lovely doses of Mary Testa-ese: “ ‘Old Black Magic’—it’s not about love. It’s about lust, and it has to be an unexpected kind of desire. Something you don’t associate with yourself. Like…’I’m a housewife from Oregon, and I suddenly want to be tied up and blindfolded while I have sex with my neighbor.’” Pause. “I don’t know where that came from. But you get my point?” Amanda did. We all did. Or in “Skylark,” when Dimitri was talking about the seeing the bird: “It’s not about the bird. The bird is just a vehicle for you to see another living being, and realize that you are also another living being, and then you are able to admit for the first time: ‘I am lonely.’ And that is a big thing to say.” And always: “Don’t plan what you’re going to do. You’ll cut off all the good stuff. Don’t try to be perfect. It isn’t interesting.”
Mary was invigorating and confidence-inspiring, and the beauty part was that she wasn’t trying to pump up the cast. She responded without a lot of filters, so that her advice was real and her enthusiasm genuine. She is so dear to my heart. I am glad she’ll be back with NYFOS next autumn. How nice for me. How nice for everybody—to paraphrase Bette Davis.