Wednesday is always the last play-day. People are still giggling over their memory slips, I calmly look the other way when I play a wrong note (which means I am looking the other way quite often), and a certain amount of experimentation remains the order of the day. Sunday’s performance seems centuries away. Everything changes tomorrow, when the glass is definitely half-empty. But today we were in the song-sandbox all afternoon, with the glass safely half-full.
I hustled hard to get to the hall on time and almost made it, speeding down the main road at full speed on my wheelchair, braving oncoming traffic, checking my watch every 40 seconds. I streaked in through the back door, feeling semi-triumphant, only to find the cast completely absorbed in the task of eating their lunch. The room had the deep, meditative quality of a yoga class. Kelsey emerged from the Bikram-haze to offer me a bag of Caesar Snapea Crisps (really good), and I realized that no one was in much a hurry. I reverted to Orient Mode (“We have all afternoon”) and set my nervous system to “Chill.”
It is fascinating to watch this cast sink into the poetry and music. Their first readings had been very good—it was clear everyone already made a real investment in the program. But as my friend Alvin Epstein once said about a young woman working on a scene from Blitzstein’s “Regina,” “It takes years to make a bitch like Regina.” The leap from understanding a song intellectually to living a song as if you’d written it…well, that too can take years. But you can go pretty far in a week if you are in an environment where that is clearly the artistic goal. And a week is what we have.
I’ve been keeping my eye on Kelsey, who has a couple of big acting songs, as well as two that are more lyrical. She is the baby of the group and I feel protective of her. Not that she needs coddling—she’s a strong, self-starting young woman with a keen eye and the soul of an artist. On Monday and Tuesday she’d given very nice, very intelligent readings of Bill Bolcom’s “Toothbrush Time.” But today, something shifted. We talked it over yesterday, located the song in a physical way, filled in some backstory and details. Specifics, like “Where are you? What’s to your left, your right? How long have you been there? What are you wearing? Whom are you talking to—in your mind—a girlfriend? Your shrink?” All of a sudden the piece was happening in real time, and the character’s frustration and compulsiveness were bubbling under every line. Personally, I am a little tired of this song—I first played it in 1979 and it has that not-so-fresh feeling they used to talk about in TV ads. But working with Kelsey today, it rose again, Lazarus-like, and I almost felt as if I were hearing it for the first time.
I am working with four very nice people—decent, sweet, generous colleagues, real boy- and girl-scouts. What is hardest for them is to play characters who are not so nice, not so idealistic, not so saintly. In a group number, supported by one another, they can match Don Rickles for insult humor. We end Act I with “Outside of That, I Love You,” and they practically have a food fight onstage. But that’s comic anger. Real anger, bloody-mindedness, selfishness: these take some real work when they crop up in solo material. I think back to Alvin’s words about Regina—“it takes years to make a bitch.” Can we condense that down to four days?