Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Lyra" - The American Ninja Warrior of shows

Hey everyone!

Today’s my first day off in a while. And by “off” I mean it’s my only day without rehearsal, so I have to get all my “human stuff” like laundry, grocery shopping, etc. done today, in addition to going over my material, sending some faxes, and returning e-mails. So not really a day off in a relaxing sense, but I did manage to squeeze in an episode of “Dr. Who.” J

Last week we staged the whole show – which is actually much less daunting in a reading situation then it sounds. For those unfamiliar with the development process of a musical, the way it works (at least these days) is:

After you’ve finished writing the show you sit down with a combination of really good actors, and really smart theater friends and do a table read and talk back. You do table reads as many times as you need to to get to the place where you honestly feel like you can’t learn more about your show until you get it up on its feet. Then you do some version of a Staged Reading (which is what we’re doing.) A staged reading means that the actors have learned the music, and rehearsed the dialogue. Usually there are music stands set up at the front of the stage, and actors, using their scripts and scores, perform the show for an audience made up of everyone from industry, to potential collaborators, to friends, to the public. There is at least minor staging to assist in visualizing the show – all things the actors can do with script in hand (or on a music stand as the case may be.) Stage directions are read aloud to assist with visualizing the show as well. The music is performed either with just a piano, or a band. From there the show may move on to a workshop (a workshop is somewhere between a reading and a full production. I like to think of them as readings where the script and score are memorized so more staging can be accomplished. Possibly with some sets and costumes.) From there the show hopefully moves to a regional try out (a full but smaller scale production) and then a no holds barred production.

So our blocking basically consists of standing up, going to a certain music stand, and doing the scene. There’s certainly more to it then that, but that’s the basic idea. This reading actually gets a bit more physical then usual especially in one of the clowning numbers where our resident clown Shereen Hickman (seriously – girl’s worked with Cirque) gets to actually do some physical comedy in the number, and for me in act 2. Surprise spoilers! As in “The Little Mermaid” Lyra loses her voice – which means I get some really fun moments where I get to communicate completely physically and not worry about my script. There’s some other physical moments in there too but I don’t want to give too much away…

Madeline O’Hara is our director and I absolutely love working with her. Both she and I have worked very closely with director Gabriel Barre (Maddie was our A.D. on “Forever Deadward”) and this is the first time I’ve worked with her where’s she’s completely taking the reigns. She reminds me very much of Gabe when she directs (probably the highest complement I can pay to a director,) while still having a very unique, confident voice and I’m just having the best time working on this show with her. This is probably the hardest musical you could ever have to do a staged reading of (seriously, a huge part of the storytelling is completely physical, and circus related – the opposite of the vocabulary you have for a staged reading, not to mention the locations in the show range from a circus tent, to an ethereal limbo, to two characters literally standing amongst the stars. YOU try directing those moments with ten actors on a tiny stage stuck behind music stands.)

This show is a beast.

Speaking of that, we had our first band rehearsal last week!

First band rehearsals, unless you have a multi million dollar budget, ten assistants to your composer and M.D. who can do all the copy work (meaning imputing music into a computer program called Finale, or simply transcribing – not copying the music at Kinkos…) and weeks to rehearse your musicians, band rehearsal is both incredibly exciting, and utterly terrifying. There’s simply not enough time.

But hearing the music with all the arrangements for the first time is a truly glorious experience – and the arrangements Evan has come up with are stunning. I know it sounds very trite coming from one of the writers, but this is a cast album I would listen to every day (seriously – I already do so with the rough demos, and not just because I need to learn my songs, but because I really love the music.) C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien said that (forgive me for horribly misquoting) one of the reasons they wrote the Narnia Chronicles and the LOTR books was because no one was writing the kind of books they wanted to read, so they just wrote them themselves. I feel similarly about “Lyra” in a way. With “Lyra” I’m working to write the show that I’ve always wanted to see – I guess it means we’re at least coming close if I want to listen to the music incessantly.

But there is a flip side to that. And the flip side is that in order for the music to be as unique and complex and beautiful as it is, it’s also has to be hard as hell. It’s the rules. The musical circle of life lol. (That’s not to say that all beautiful music has to be hard, but usually unique and complex do go hand in hand with hard.) Even I, who wrote the lyrics and have been living with some of these demos for over a year, am being challenged by the music, and am drilling it on all of my off time. It’s subtle. There are parts that when you listen to them you think they’re a piece of cake… then you try to do it. Not so much. And that can be compounded by the fact that songs always sound totally different when you hear them with a band instead of a piano. For example, I have a song in the show (it’s a brief moment) that opens with a cool little vamp. It’s one thing on a piano – it’s another thing when it’s on a bass. Sounds freaking fantastic, but you just have to kind of mentally readjust.

Our band is ridiculous. Seriously, these guys are amazing. I doubly admire instrumentalists for their ability to sight play a chart. You would never send singers into a full music rehearsal just expecting them to perfectly sight read their parts – but that’s exactly what’s expected of instrumentalists every day. All of our musicians are awesome, but personally I’m very excited for my good friend Robin Lai to be working with us. Robin and I met when he came in as our drummer on “Forever Deadward.” Since then we’ve formed a band together, and Robin even produced (and played on) the spiffy “Lyra” demos you can listen to on our website ( It’s just great to have talented friends in the room. And I’m looking forward to getting to know the rest of the band better.

As I write this I just finished “assembling my book.” Basically that means combining your script and score in the manner most helpful to you for whatever reading you’re doing. Usually you take out the pages that have lyrics on them and replace them with sheet music for that song, but sometimes it can be complicated if there is dialogue overlap, etc. Evan’s done a beautiful job incorporating the dialogue into the score proper, so that’s not as much of an issue on this show. Personally I like to keep my book as minimal as possible for a reading- esp. a staged one. I like to be so familiar with a show that I can really be out and acting, instead of feeling like I always need to look down to keep on track. Also, because for a good portion of the show I can’t speak, I don’t really need my book for a decent amount of it, but then when I do I suddenly have to flip a bunch – so the more I can minimize that the better. I tried doing the run through yesterday without my score at all, and it went fine, so what I decided to do was just use my script, and write in what my intros are just in case I need them (several of my songs transition between 12/8, ¾, and 4/4 which, depending on how they’re played, can sound very similar so writing something like: 3 and ¾ measures of ¾ is actually really helpful, and all I really need.

Now you might be thinking: “Hey! She wrote the book and lyrics, why does she need to use her script at all?!” Well, sort of yes, and no. I actually have most of the show memorized – but for uniformity sake I need to take my book up with me for every scene I do. However, sometimes memorizing your own work is HARDER then memorizing something by someone else, because in addition to the draft you’re performing, you also have every other draft you’ve ever written in your head. Seriously – yesterday at rehearsal I said a line without glancing at my script only to be corrected by our stage manager. The line I said was totally the right line – three drafts ago. Sometimes muscle memory can actually screw you up. Not to mention I don’t want to accidentally forget my blocking, which part of the music is a vamp vs. a hard entrance, etc. without a lifeline. And I actually use my script as a prop in places.

We did our first full run through yesterday. I’m actually pretty impressed with how tight Evan and I have gotten the show at this stage of the game. A typical musical runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes with an intermission. Currently “Lyra” is (give or take) about 2 hours and 20, 25 minutes with an intermission. Typically at this point in development you’re desperately trying to figure out how to get your two-hour second act down to an hour fifteen. But then again the fact that we’re so tight now could mean that there’s an important moment we haven’t realized we’re missing yet…

Speaking of that, especially since this is the first time getting the show up on its feet we’re still very much doing rewrites. A couple days ago I did a big cut on a monologue one of the characters had and this morning I suddenly realized that there’s a big dramaturgical moment that we’re missing in act 1. Ultimately I think it maybe needs a bigger rewrite, but I rewrote one of the early scenes today and I think it at least does a decent patch job for our purposes (with only a week to go we don’t have time to write whole new numbers, teach them to the band and cast, and restage them before our first performance on Thursday.) But a few lines in a scene isn’t a big deal. It’s actually one of the reasons for actors carrying scripts with them – so that the writers can keep making changes up until the last minute and the actors don’t have to be stressed about memorizing new material at the eleventh hour.

I’m trying to take care of myself and deal with my exhaustion much as possible. It’s hard because the creative team literally doesn’t get breaks during the rehearsal of a new musical. Every time the cast goes on break it’s time we desperately need to have a meeting, do a quick rewrite, etc. Our stage manager is having to make sure we all remember to eat. Food kind of ends up being the last priority on the list (poor Maddie had her lunch sitting next to her for hours yesterday and literally only got like two bites in.) Between physical exhaustion (despite it being a reading my body is actually getting really tired – come see the show and you’ll understand why…) and my mind not turning off I’m not sleeping great – sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with the song playing in my head (lol wanting a soundtrack I was obsessed with – be careful what you wish for…)

We’re having lots of laughs in rehearsal. Which is actually really important when you’re working on a dark, primarily serious show (there are comic moments, don’t worry…) It’s helpful to counterbalance the drama with silliness. For example nothing breaks the ice the first time you run a kissing scene like accidentally banging your chin into your partner’s shoulder. (If anyone asks, I totally planned to do that to break the tension in the room. It was planned. IT WAS PLANNED!) I’m also still cracking up over an accidental misreading of the line “…and apparently some restructuring of my employees” as “…and apparently some resurrecting of my employees.” The hilarity was that, given the person speaking, the line still totally made sense.

Someday, after “Lyra” has won all the Tonys, I’ll become ridiculously wealthy writing a parody of my own musical…

Tomorrow officially begins “Hell Week.” We have to kind of just hang on to the speeding train until we close on Sunday. And then it will be over. For now. I’m sad already.

Next Monday is my first rehearsal for “Hamlet.” Oy.

I really hope you can all come to “Lyra.” It’s going to be a great show. I love it so so much, and am having a blast getting it up for the first time!

Also, we’ve been uploading interviews with the cast and creative team. Check the one that are up already below. And Thank you Dana Goldberg for the stunning animation!

Shereen Hickman, Judy

Ilana Gabrielle, Nymphet 1/Amelia

Craig Sculli, Pierrot

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