Pseudo or Pseu Don’t

A while back I received a phone call from a producer concerning a new show. I had been expecting the call. He explained the show and then said, “we’re looking for a pseudo-music director.”

I immediately stepped in the conversation and asked him to please elaborate. After talking some more it was clear to me that the producing team didn’t know what they wanted and we’re looking for someone to ‘consult’ on their show. They didn’t think they needed a music director because the composer plays piano, so that should work, right? In truth I was hired to help the composer music direct the show, who had never music directed before.

As I explained to the producers, you get what you pay for. And in this situation they were throwing good money after bad. Time was spent having me articulate to the composer what the actors needed in rehearsal, rather than dping it myself. It was clear to the producers after the fact that they should have replaced the composer and hired a full-time music director.

When you have a team of capable individuals, who know how to do their jobs, they make the work seem easy. When you have individuals doing jobs for which they are not suited, the difficulties of the work becomes painfully obvious.

It’s hard to describe all that a music director does. This situation was one that showed to the producers the difference between being able to play the piano and being able to lead a cast of actors in rehearsal.

When the producer asked for a pseudo music director my gut reaction was to tell him to take a hike. Hire a professional or don’t, but please pseu-don’t ever ask for a pseudo anything.

I Think I Scan, I Think I Scan

When we hear a great melody with great lyrics we don’t always stop to consider how the lyric and notes are working together. When the strong syllables are on strong beats in the music, the phrase feels natural; this makes it easier for the actor sing it and for the audience to understand it.

Making lyrics scan properly is necessary for a successful song. Too often contemporary lyricists and composers do not recognize this, and the wrong em-PHA-sis is placed on the wrong sy-LLA-ble. We sing, “the HILLS are a-LIVE with the SOUND of MU-sic,” not, “THE hills ARE A-live with THE sound OF mu-SIC.”

Not only does it sound wrong, but it emphasizes words that are not as important. When working on a new show, the writers need to be incredibly aware of this. Singers reading new music and lyrics will stumble over misplaced accents and poorly set lyrics, making it difficult to learn and eventually commit to memory. And actors can help writers by pointing it out when they are presented with new material.
I’ve heard every excuse from writers, saying it “sounds cool,” or “the character would say that”…

When you’re setting up multiple verses or choruses the melody has to be the same, so when the melody emphasizes a note, the syllable should be a strong syllable in every chorus.

It’s an issue similar to having bad grammar. Be smarter with the lyrics. And on that note, my thanks to readers who have checked my writing and have commented on it; every now and then I get excited about a topic and forget to proof everything.

Cut To Commercial

There is a fallacy about being an artist.  People think we starve for our art; while we may not be rich off of our paintings, poems, or patter songs, we need to eat just like everybody else.  And I prefer to create on a full stomach.

Arguably the goal is: be creative and sell that creativity.  But sometimes when artists sell their work, or become commercial, there often is the criticism: they’ve sold out.  Well, hopefully their record, book, or art collection sells out.  But what is wrong in turning a profit for your hard work?  If you, the artist, believe in your work and can stand behind it, more power to you.

I spoke with a friend a while ago about writing.  We discussed the more commercial musicals and the not-so-commerical musicals.  We were both working on the latter of the two.  We debated what makes a show sell, what gets an audience, and then he asked the real questions: who are you writing it for?  And more importantly: do you want anyone to hear it?

It was liberating to ponder the questions.  If you are creating for the sheer joy of creation, perhaps you don’t need to concern yourself with making money.  However if it is your vocation, you need to sell your work.  And if you listen to every bit of criticism from producers or consumers, you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to please everyone and your work becomes vanilla.

So often I see work being done that is trying to be something it isn’t.  Musicals like Oklahoma, Mamma Mia!, The Phantom of the Opera, are so successful because they are exactly what they are, and not something else.  I think one of the greatest dilemmas we face as creative artists today, is trying to guess the market, or write another Oklahoma because it is commercially viable.

Don’t write Oklahoma.  We’ve already got that show.  I think of writers like Tchaikovsky, Puccini and Gershwin, writers who wrote beautiful, lyrical, commercial music, that was also true to their artistic voices.  Hopefully by finding that artistic voice, it is genuine and unique, and worth buying.

A Lonely Town

A friend came over a while ago to work on some music.  He had a big audition and needed to work on his cut of the song.  It was a bit of business, but it was also good to catch up on life.  Aside from working on music, I hardly see this friend.

It reminded me of an old cliché of New York: it’s a lonely town.  We don’t seem to socialize too often outside of work-related functions.  I go through spurts of social activity: heading out one night here or there to meet a friend, or network with a business contact.  But rarely do we ever just ‘hang out.’

I’ve visited other cities where this doesn’t seem to be the case.  There are more neighborhoods and communities.  And we have no excuse to create a sense of community, but it’s hard.  We are surrounded by people on the subway and on the streets.  A moment of privacy is coveted.  When I get home I don’t want to be around anyone or socialize with anyone.  In fact, I often feel it takes a great deal of energy to go out and be sociable.  I doubt I am alone in this.

For these reasons I think we all relate to the New York stories we read about and see on stage.  One of the first examples that comes to mind is the musical, Company, a show that depicts so many New York moments of being alone and longing for connection.  I also think these excuses of isolation point to why there is an underlying theme of connection in New York art.  People write about and sing about wanting to connect all the time.

Besides the art, how do we connect?  Where are the genuine connections to be made in a place of millions of people, all too busy to take the time to say ‘hello’?  I find I have a great deal of acquaintances, and a few close friends.  That could also have to do with my personality type, but it’s also the environment that is New York.

When we’re working at our respective crafts as actors, dancers, musicians, it’s so important to make time for the other parts of our lives.  Taking time to be sociable, and listening to someone else’s story, can only enhance your life.  And whenever we get anxious or depressed, which is bound to happen when we’re creating, stepping outside of your own problems gives you perspective.  It’s a lonely town, but it doesn’t have to be.

One Helluva Town

New York is a great place — the best place arguably. It’s not an easy place to live, work or play, but it’s worth it if you work for it.

A friend recently told me that a young man in high school is convinced he should skip college altogether and come straight to NYC to become an actor. Bravo, and good luck. Seriously; that takes chutzpah and tenacity, the likes of which you only see in New York.

However, I would strongly encourage anyone who is thinking to come to New York at the ripe young age of 17 or 18, to think again. We can argue the values of higher education, which school is better or worse, until we’re blue in the face. At the end of the day I think there is value in starting what you finish. When you begin a bachelor’s program, you are committing yourself to a discipline and a structure for at least four years. And while you think you know everything at 18, there might be some growth yet to be had while in the safe confines of a college or conservatory.

If running away to be an actor is your goal, I fully support you. However, there are graduates from all the major universities and conservatories, waiting tables and going to open call auditions; and they have as much drive and more than someone walking in from out-of-town.

College is tough; if you get into a good program you’ll get training you wouldn’t get otherwise. You’ll have to jump through hoops you’ll hate, but you’ll be the stronger for them. To be the Devil’s advocate, you can also take similar classes in New York, and you should do that after college anyway.

When I sit in countless auditions seeing all the resumes, I’m curious where everyone went to school. They need to be great at what the do, but if I recognize the program they attended, it can shed some light on their background. If a young person walks in with no accredited program on their resume, they need to be incredibly impressive. How do I know if they have the work ethic behind their voice or acting? Maybe they have a great audition but no training to sustain an eight-show week schedule.

Follow your passions and dreams, but also plan for them. It won’t happen overnight; it takes time.

On Sight

I spoke with a singer recently who was performing in an ensemble. Some of the singers in the group were able to read the music at sight, some could not. At a glance, it appeared as though some could just pick up the music cold, and sight-read it without any preparation. While this might be true, some still had practiced in preparation for the rehearsal.

No matter how you prepare for a rehearsal or performance, you should always appear in control of the material. Life isn’t fair; some performers in the group will be able to just pick up the music and read it beautifully. For the rest of us, we practice.

When I see you in performance I don’t want to see you working. You’ve probably said, or heard someone else say: “they make it look so easy!” Yes, they make it look easy because they’ve done their homework.

When I prepare a score, I go over it a hundred times. I know I can fake it and still get by, but to make it effortless and seamless, I know for myself I must go over it again and again, until it feels easy.

Sadly, some of the singers in this ensemble did do their work and still had difficulty with the repertoire. There’s no substitute for hard work. If going over the music 99 times doesn’t quite get you the ease you need to perform it, go over it 100 times.

There was a figure given to me a long time ago: the last 20 percent of learning a new piece of music is just as hard as the first 80 percent. The first part being the notes, rhythms, nuts and bolts, etc. The last part being the musicality, the fluidity of the piece.

When everyone’s schedule is tight and there’s so little time to work together, there’s no time for excuses. There’s also no time to be learning the music when you’re trying to build the piece with a group.

Tune Up

Audiences love great performers. They have a visceral response to someone who excited then, and who they think is doing a great job on stage. Performers, likewise feed off the praise and adulation.

The audience cannot be the only gauge to a performer’s success or failure.  Similarly a performer’s health and technique is not be measured by the response of their audience.
I worked with a singer a while ago, who had never had a voice lesson. This singer felt that based on the audience’s respond to her performance, she was doing great. It was clear to me at the time that without some vocal instruction, her voice would slowly deteriorate.

Deep down I think performers know when they need to get instruction. They should treat that as part of their job; going in for a check up maintains a level of excellence, but also a level of health.

The commercial arts can be tricky in this regard. If a performer is selling tickets, who cares if she is destroying her voice? She’s making money. And some would argue that vocal health doesn’t matter, if you’re making money and having a career, what’s the issue?
This opens up a wide range of topics, but when you boil it all down, it comes to the individual. They must decide what kind of career they wish to have and with what level of care they want to approach their work.

We all want to perform and be successful, but we can’t rely solely on the audience to tell us how we are truly doing.

But I’m A Leading Man!

Working in the performing arts you run across a myriad of people.  Performing attracts a wide variety of people, and it allows people to be expressive, be themselves, and accept each other; that’s the hope anyway.  So it should come as no surprise that there are a lot of gay men and women who work in the arts.

I was working on a show a while back, where we ran into a slight problem.  A problem I’ve witnessed many times, as I’m sure you have if you’ve spent any length of time in a theatre.

Our leading man was gay.  I assure you the problem was not that he was gay.  I say this with a bit of candor, ebbing my way into slight sarcasm.  I am also gay (shock. awe.).  He couldn’t “act straight.”  If I was speaking this, I’d have my hands in the air curling my two front fingers like bunny ears.

The air quotes I apply here are because: what is acting straight?  We all face stereotypes of being labeled “gay,” “straight,” “lesbian,” “queer,” etc.  And depending on what context these words are used they can be friendly or hateful.  I recently overheard some high school guys using the word “gay,” like it was a bad thing.  “Dude, that’s so gay!” I didn’t realize that was still a thing.

So our leading man was gay and couldn’t act straight.  In other words: we couldn’t believe he could fall in love with her, and she with him.  For better or worse the majority of romance written in the majority of drama is between a man and a woman.  And as we fight for equal rights and representation in the world, the fact remains that Curly falls in love with Laurey, not Jud.  And likewise Laurey falls for Curly, not Ado Annie.  Just think about that musical for a second… (spoiler: “Oklahomo”)

We must be ourselves, otherwise we don’t know who we are and how to access our emotions.  But we also cannot get so wrapped up in our sexuality that it defines who we are.

I remember coming out thinking I had to act certain way.  I think everyone, straight or gay, goes through an amount of trying to identify with a group or clique until we find who we are.  I see actors, mostly younger, trying to behave a certain way.  In a chorus of a musical there are groups that form; it’s somewhat like high school.  And while chorus boys can sometimes get away with being more flamboyant (you know who you are), leading men have to believably act straight.

So what to do?  Like any acting challenge, it’s about embodying the character.  It’s not about being gay or straight; you’re taking on a role and the role calls for you to fall in love with this other character.  Stripping away the sexual preference, we can attach the feelings that come with love and affection, and the scene can play out.

When I play auditions, or work on a show, I see actors who cannot get away from their own personality when acting out a scene.  This applies to all actors, regardless of sexuality.

I’d be interested in hearing more thoughts about this, as it is a sensitive subject for some.

You Have Your Looks, Your Pretty Face

Sometimes I think people place too much emphasis on their looks.  While this is something I’m sure we’ve all felt about people around us, or perhaps ourselves, we can’t help but notice how we notice outward appearance.  And in a visual medium such as the performing arts, looks matter.

I sit in audition rooms with a lot of actors.  Not being one of them, I sometimes feel invisible.  This is not a bad thing by any means.  They are all gorgeous, and it’s fun to watch them preoccupied with their own gorgeousness.  They spend a great deal of their time looking good.  They have to; it’s a part of their job.

But while they are looking good, primping and perfecting their make-up, hair or tight shirt to show off their muscles, they also have to perform.  They have to sing, act and dance.

At a certain point I find looks nearly irrelevant.  When everyone looks good, no one looks good.  This may be somewhat of a blanket statement, but at the professional level of performers in New York, practically everyone is attractive.

What I find interesting are the performers who think their looks are enough.  I’ve worked in situations where the good looks of the performer overshadow their other attributes.  And while you need to attract the casting team, who hope you’ll also attract an audience, you also need to be articulate, engaging and charismatic.  And while the rest of the cast is working on the routines, or memorizing lines, there is always that one cast member who is flaunting his or her arms, flexing in the mirror and checking out every hair on his or her head.

It gets old.  And I say this in hopes that they realize it: you have your looks, now show us something that isn’t so obvious.  Being self-aware of your good looks can be a turn off.  It’s like dating: someone who knows they’re so wonderful and gorgeous can be alienating and frankly dull.

Being aware that you look good is important for the job.  But don’t let your looks be your defining attribute.

The Best Conversation Ever

I played a concert recently with a variety of performers.  The program ranged from classical theatre to rock and pop.  It was eclectic to say the least.  Each song had a different arrangement, and different amount of choruses and repeated sections of music.  In some cases the number of repeats depended on the singer and how the audience responded.  If the song was really ‘rockin’ then we’d keep playing and get the audience to respond.

When we’re all playing together it’s a conversation.  One player takes the lead and the others follow.  When the singer is ending a repeated section of music, he or she motions to the band, or we hear the lyric that cues us into the next section, or the end of the song.

Playing with great musicians who can converse back and forth this way is the best conversation ever.  Through glances, and expressions we can read each other and know what the other player is going to do.  It’s exciting when everyone comes together and connects.

Prior to the performance we rehearse and talk about who is going to take which solo when.  But the best part of live performing, especially with music that is slightly improvised, or based in a jazz setting, is the element of being in the moment.  When everyone is on top of their game and can communicate effectively with their instruments or voices, it’s captivating.  And the audience can feel that, too.

So often we are honing our skills, getting better at our own instrument.  When I’m preparing for a concert or accompanying a singer, I practice on my part of the whole.  Once I meet with the other performer(s) the goal becomes listening to what they are doing and responding to that: breathing and exhaling with them.

They say ‘acting is reacting.’  Great actors react to what they are given in a scene by the other actors.  In those instances they are literally having a conversation.  In music it is listening and playing off each other, like a conversation.