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.
A few years ago I had the brilliant inspiration to take another pianist on board to help me with the Juilliard rehearsals. We work six hours a day, seven days in a row, and in previous years I found myself morphing into a rehearsal pianist, exhausted, taking short cuts, husbanding resources, fighting for survival. By the performances, I felt as if I had nothing left—every inspiration seemed to have dried up during the process of getting the songs ready. All of this changed when Leann Osterkamp became my right-hand (and left-hand) person for the past two shows—an ace pianist and a deeply generous, caring person. When she graduated, I began to despair…until I reached out to Christopher Reynolds, a current Juilliard pianist who had done such stellar work at our Caramoor program, a year after Leann had been there.
Chris said yes, and I knew it would be smooth sailing. He’s scary-smart, quick to learn, and so responsible that I feel he’s teaching me how to be a professional. Like Leann, he showed up knowing all the songs cold, in their transposed keys. Neither he nor Leann had done huge amounts of popular music before—they’re virtuoso classical pianists “paper-trained,” as I call it. But both of them feel the beauty of the Great American Songbook, and watch me like a hawk. This is a style you learn by listening and observing and absorbing, and I’ve been charmed to see the way Chris is starting to imitate my voicings at the piano. Yesterday he even was sitting like me (I have, perforce, an unconventional way of positioning myself in the piano chair). And when 4 PM arrives, he’s there with my daily cup of tea. I’ve chosen to let myself be pampered.
Two days ago I came back from rehearsing in another room, and found that the two pianos in our rehearsal room had gotten switched. Chris approached me with a rueful expression. “I…did a really forceful glissando, I guess, and…broke a key.” “You broke a string?” No! I broke a KEY.” And he opened his palm to reveal a piece of black wood, which used to be a C# at the top of the keyboard. We pianists carry our strength in odd places, so don’t approach us in a dark alley. You’ll be sorry—remember that C#.
The work continued today much as yesterday, with a significant difference. In the morning I received an email in which Sam Levine brought up a thorny question: “Do you think anyone will be bothered by the racial and gender politics in the show?” He was referring especially to an Arlen tune, “Two Ladies in the Shade of the Banana Tree” from House of Flowers. Clearly Sam, who is very smart and very aware, was uncomfortable with it, and I could see where all of this was coming from. The song is sung by what we would now call two sex workers in a brothel, and they extol the virtues of their island and the beauty of its women. It’s a rollicking piece with a great tune, sunny spirits, and a bit of sass. It is fun. It is not Brecht. And yes, it was written by white men, a straight Jew (Arlen) and a gay gentile (Truman Capote).
I’ve played this song for years without a second thought. To me, these women come across as cheerful, brazen, somewhat vain, happy to be alive, and clever. They are denizens of a musical comedy, not a documentary about the exploitation of women, 50s girly-girls. I grew up with these stereotypes and I am used to them—knowing that they have little to do with actual life.
I was thinking Amanda and Mikaela could sing it in our show, but I didn’t want them to do it if they found the song creepy or creaky. So I auditioned the material for each of them separately, and they both loved it. We’ve even performed “Two Ladies” already—at Henry’s in October. Brought the house down.
But because of Sam’s qualms, we started the day with a discussion about American culture and American history—and political correctness—and the contemporary urge to rewrite older works to bring them “up to date”—the costs, the benefits. These are hot-button issues right now for performers, and our talk lasted over half an hour. Mary Birnbaum made sure that everyone contributed. The boys, of course, were happy to speak their mind (especially me); the girls were at first more reticent but came out with some amazing thoughts. Bless Mary for making sure everyone in the room contributed.
Amanda said that she had no problems with this piece—she thought that it showed spunk and pride and a healthy kind of vanity. What she had trouble with was someone else—as she put it, “some rich white woman in Row H”—telling her what she should feel angry about. She did not want to undergo that kind of censorship. Mikaela agreed about “Two Ladies,” and didn’t see any problems with it. Her issues had to do with some of the black dialect in her other Arlen songs, “Sleepin’ Bee” and “Sleep Peaceful, Mr. Used-to-Be.” Seeing phrases like “Maybe I dreams,” or “But you’se alone on another train tonight,” she questioned the portrayal of ethnic women as uneducated. At first she thought it was condescending, but we’ve talked about it a lot (and discussed Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, and the history of written dialect in American letters). I think she now has a different understanding of what had looked like the Ebonics of musical theater.
Kelsey finally spoke, and told us that she had deep feelings about this—and also about her comedy number in which she plays a very non-P.C. version of Carmen Miranda (and is hilarious, with a thick Latino accent). The reason? “Well, my great grandfather was Tetsu Komai, the first Japanese actor in Hollywood to play real, speaking parts. He’s the head servant in The Letter with Bette Davis. And he had lots of other roles. But he was always playing Chinese characters, not Japanese. This was during the Second World War, and the Japanese were the enemy. And of course, all Asians were thought to be pretty much the same. But he made a career playing these stereotypes, and he did what he had to do, and he carved a path for other Japanese-American actors.”
It was a very interesting discussion, eye-opening for me on many levels. I learned a lot about my cast, and I learned even more about myself. Do I gloss over stereotypes too easily? Am I too complacent? And I reflected about growing up seeing only two types of gay characters in movies—flaming queens (in comedies) and guilty, tragic people (in dramas) who usually committed suicide or got killed. It’s different being part of a minority that can make itself invisible, with a little effort. But the psychological damage is just as deep. The choices did not look good, and they scared me.
Starting a new project is like starting a new love affair. You come in with excitement and high hopes, and you promise yourself that it’s going to go smoothly, fueled on daily progress and sustained industry.
In reality, of course, every day brings its moments of bliss and its moments of blister. Day one was largely bliss. We began with a read-through of the whole show, and while it felt about as long as Die Götterdämmerung, each act didn’t actually run much more than 45 or 50 minutes, a perfectly manageable length. In the previous semester I’d had the leisure to work on most of the solo pieces and duos, and they mostly remained in beautiful shape, with some stunning performances. The ensemble pieces, however, had not gotten as much attention—it was very difficult to get everyone together in one room at the same time during the semester, and we managed it only once. Assembling the group numbers smoothly therefore depended on everyone reading and assimilating my rather detailed messages and my musical scrawls sent as PDFs. This is apparently a mushy area for some people, and I admit there were a few moments when I felt my blood pressure spiking.
There’s no denying, however, that this cast is comprised of seven amazingly stylish performers, endowed with rhythm, humor, sensitivity, and breathtakingly beautiful voices. And it was a blast to watch director Mary Birnbaum and choreographer Adam Cates work their magic. These two bring so much imagination and craft to these songs, most of which I have known for decades. Harry, Hoagy, and Harold is off and running—no, flying.
The picture is from the opening song of the show, Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Old Music Master.” In this piece, Dimitri Katotakis plays a 19th century composer who is visited by two emanations from the future; they tell him that jazz will take over the world in a hundred years and he’d better learn to swing if he wants his music to survive. In Mary and Adam’s staging, the ghostly spirits are Dimitri’s coatrack (played by Amanda Lynn Bottoms) and desk (played by Kelsey Lauritano); they come to life and shake some serious booty. Dimitri, the old music master, is convinced.
Come hear these young talents in Harry, Hoagy, and Harold on January 13, 7:30pm at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre at The Juilliard School (tickets here) or on January 17, 3pm at Flushing Town Hall (tickets here).
This week’s Song of the Day selections come from the founders of Five Boroughs Music Festival Jesse Blumberg and Donna Breitzer. NYFOS is partnering with 5BMF in January to bring our NYFOS@Juilliard program Harry, Hoagy, and Harold to Flushing Town Hall. Thanks, Jesse & Donna!
We’ve come to our final SOTD post for this week, and what fun it has been to share just a handful of our favorite NYC-themed songs – especially a couple from our own Five Borough Songbook. For our final song, we’ve gone to one of the most beloved and enduring musical tributes to New York City: Harry Warren’s classic “Lullaby of Broadway”, which won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1936.
Written for the film Gold Diggers of 1935 – which is NOT, surprisingly, about rough-and-tumble prospectors in California, but in fact presents a convoluted storyline involving multiple money-grabbing manipulators – the song has remained popular and has been recorded by the likes of The Andrews Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Bette Midler, and more.
And of course (SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT), Harry Warren just happens to be one of the composers featured in Harry, Hoagy and Harold, the wonderful NYFOS@Juilliard show that we, 5BMF, have the honor of presenting at Flushing Town Hall on January 17! More info here.
Here’s the original clip of the song from Gold Diggers of 1935, with a very minimalistic and slightly spooky single shot of a face slowly coming into view:
Here what has to be the most chill version of the song ever, performed with ultimate hipness by the Mel-Tones (what, you don’t regularly lounge around your living room with friends, casually crooning out jazzy harmonies??)
And because she’s Donna’s favorite, here’s Doris Day:
Thanks again to NYFOS for letting us take over the blog this week! Signing off with all our best wishes for a wonderful holiday season and a happy new year!
Jesse Blumberg & Donna Breitzer
Five Boroughs Music Festival
New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • email@example.com