I don’t know how Adam Cates and Mary Birnbaum do it. They are able to sustain positive energy hour after hour as we slam this show together. Today we had an ambitious agenda, and when I heard them say “We’ll stage the four operetta numbers in two hours,” I raised an eyebrow. And no, we didn’t make it. On the other hand, the songs we did get done are full of invention—elaborate vaudeville turns in one duet, a full-on choreo-staging for another piece I’ve often done (far more simply) in the past. There are literally hat-tricks and a skeleton dance, along with all the salsa and merengue.
To start the day we took a few moments for everyone to talk about their connection to Latin culture. The singers with family ties to Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, and Puerto Rico were thrilled with the energetic freedom in our project. “This is how we party where I come from, and this is my language,” said Santiago Pizarro. “I can’t believe I get to sing and dance like that in this building.” But the singers from other parts of the world had their own unique take on Cuba. “In Korea they did a TV show set in Havana,” said Joyce Kang, “and I really loved it. It was very vivid to me, and I always think of those colors and that light when I’m working on my songs. That’s the Cuba I know.”
I am just getting to know the pianist Shawn Chang, who is assisting me on the show. In past years I haven’t had two pianos in the room, so either I played or they did. (Occasionally we played four-hand piano.) But this time Shawn and I both have pianos—admittedly his is a rickety and unbeautiful upright with only three wheels. It’s what the famous Juilliard piano professor Ursula Oppens would have called “an unmusical instrument.” At this point in rehearsal I haven’t really decided who’s doing which songs in the show, or which ones will use two pianos. But Shawn has plunged in head first, and we are currently playing everything together. I haven’t stopped him.
He’s very gifted, and a fast learner. In every song I have to figure out where he’s situated himself in the registers of the piano—is he staying up high, is he in the middle?—and then I supply the rest of the sonorities (usually more bass and some tinsel at the top). This is very much the way I work with my duo-partner Joseph Li, but he and I have known each other for a longer period and we have a telepathic system for creating arrangements. We carve out our territory. This is more of a free-for-all. Still, Shawn and I are steadily working our way towards our own wireless connection. Right now I just want him to explore.
I know that at some point we’ll have to settle on something less chaotic. So far, I occasionally rein him in or encourage him to build on something I especially liked. He learned the show from a recording of me playing it, so his hands are often exactly in the part of the piano where I expect to be, doing what I expect to do. I am experiencing the joy of coming up with something new. Oh the trips you take when someone is parked in your parking space…!
Pictured: Adam Cates, Mary Birnbaum, and me in front of the poster at Lincoln Center