January 12, 2003
An interview with
ArtSavant will inform, provoke, & amuse.
We will surprise you.
Come back soon to see how...
ArtSavant will inform, provoke, & amuse.
We will surprise you.
Come back soon to see how...
After the Sunday preview show, we were able to meet with Michael Bush, Michael Aman, and Joel Silberman, the creators of Let Me Sing, as well as actress Marla Schaffel.|
Let Me Sing is about the evolution of American music and American attitudes, which began to coalesce at the beginning of the twentieth century. In a previous interview, you’ve explained the nascence of this play. We’d like to talk about how you three creators began to work on it once the idea was born.
MB: The truth is, I had probably said it to two years of classes: that something was bubbling around in my brain, and it was either a book or a show. Michael (Aman) was taking my class.
MA: I was getting a degree in dramaturgy at Brooklyn College. He said to me, after class one day, "I'm thinking of turning this into a musical about the history of musicals." I asked to work on it as a dramaturg, and do the research that I thought would be required. He said to put a list of songs that I thought would be in this show, and gave me another assignment to do Irving Berlin alone.
MB: The first idea was that, if I just did the songs in a particular order, they would tell a story. So we were making that list of songs when Joel happened to call one day.
JS: I had been four years in California and was longing to come home to New York. It was October of 2000. I remember it very well. I called Michael from my office and said, "Help. I've had enough. I need to come home. The time out here is not productive creatively. Get me out of here." I was looking for a project. He said, "Funny you should call. I'm developing this project called Yankee Doodle Rhythm." The title is after a Gershwin song. We'd been working together for twenty years, putting together shows that were all songs, which was why he was convinced he could do it with songs in a running order. He asked if I'd be interested, and I leapt through the phone. That was the beginning of our collaboration.
MB: We started with what's called a twenty hour reading, where you get as much work out of actors as you possibly can. You can work an equity actor for twenty hours, including the presentation.
MS: It never works out that way, though.
MA: No, the actor puts in a lot more than twenty hours.
MB: They're very common in New York. At that time, there were only three characters. Gretha Boston, who plays Ethel, was one of them. She's been with the show since the beginning. We discovered very quickly in the reading that three was not enough, and the title was wrong. Joel came up with "Let Me Sing."
MA: If you look up the lyrics for "Yankee Doodle Rhythm," you'll see they're a little touchy, politically incorrect.
MB: Then came the idea came of defining our characters, asking where they came from. Interestingly, we always knew how it began, and we knew it ended with the Oklahoma monologue. I'd showed a picture of that moment to my class, when the cast came downstage and threw their arms out and pointed to the audience. It's a moment that Trevor Nunn chose not to recreate, in the new Oklahoma, which I thought changed the whole thing.
So, we knew that much about our show, and we started to create our characters, and by this time we'd decided how to divide it up, how we were going to work together. It was my idea that we would have these characters arrive to an art form, arrive in New York City in 1900. We traced it through to World War II, giving them the material they would have been given, basing it on real characters who typified the American dream. One of the characters that fascinates me is the one that Randy Skinner portrays, a type that Irving Berlin called a "swell-egant." He was all smoke and mirrors. So many of the Fred Astaire characters were dressed to the nines but they were broke. It was all a facade.
So we knew those elements were there, and that Michael would lead the book writing, and that I would co-write, and that Joel would take on the mammoth job of the music and the arrangements. The other thing that we discovered very quickly is that we needed to go back to a foundation of authenticity. Joel is a wonderful interpretive artist. A lot of the first arrangements were sort of late twentieth century in style. Then we realized we wanted to hear the ragtime played the way it would've been played, much slower than we now think of ragtime.
In July of 2001 we did a three-week workshop where we cast it, really, with five characters. Randy also choreographed the show and his character, Buddy, was the last to arrive at the party. We decided we could make him a link. Our sixth character had one line of dialogue in the workshop.
MA: "And I can dance!"
JS: That was it.
MB: I think I was the most surprised of us all, when we put it up at the end of three weeks.
JS: It's really been interesting. Michael has this idea. I call him on the phone and he tells me the idea. I say, "This is a very commercial idea." And he says, "Really?" He was just in love with the stuff.
MB: My therapist said, "Look what you called the damn thing." Let Me Sing. It was after twenty years on the front lines, working with the best. Still, I wasn't, metaphorically, singing in my career, and I felt I had something to say. I was still struggling with the clarity of what it was I wanted to say. I'll never forget that, in the first presentation, people were sitting around me and crying. One guy was just bawling. He said, "It reminds me of what we've lost."
Interestingly enough, just after that you were offered this job at the Rep.
MB: Frankly, this was probably the genesis of everything. This play was the thing that made me leap.
MA: Explain your philosophy of creation.
MB: Facing middle age, we fight off - now this is going to sound like therapy - the fear of death. I realized that the best way to keep darkness away from my door was to create. The opposite of death is creation. I love the way Bob Moss (who directed M. Butterfly this fall) put it. You get to a certain point in your life and say, "I have one or two adventures left in my life and it's time to take a chance... or don't." I decided to take this job and produce, write, and create this show.
The title, Let Me Sing, speaks very clearly to the idea of individual opportunity. Marla, when did you first hear about the project?
MS: When I was told I was going it for an audition.
JS: That's funny. We weren't auditioning you.
MS: I hadn't heard of it before that. I was sent a script. I read it, and went in.
MB: She walked into the room, and we were all delighted.
MA: She'd just played Jane Eyre.
MB: She and I knew each other because I'd done the workshop of Jane Eyre at MTC.
MS: The twenty-hour reading.
MB: Which was huge.
MS: It was the first New York reading. The play was three and a half hours long.
MB: So you're already down to less than seventeen hours. Anyhow, the minute the door closed behind Marla, all three of us knew she was it. We were acquaintances, but I hadn't dared ask Marla Schaffel to audition. We'd just set it up as a meeting.
MS: I thought it was an audition.
JS: She comes in and I think that I'm not going to get to hear her sing. I'd been away and hadn't been able to see Jane Eyre. So, she's captivating, she's charming, she's beautiful. Okay, great. But what does she sing like? We had everybody sing through "You Made Me Love You." A third down from where Marla sings it in the show, I might add. I kept listening, and thinking that someone is going to walk in and be able to do this character voice. She came in, fully prepared to sing, and we were wonderfully surprised and happy. I asked where she'd like the song, and she said, "Let's do it where it's written." My heart leapt into the sky, because it's a unique, period sound. It's higher than we hear women sing today. She had not been given the song in advance, so she was reading it, and we went nuts.
MA: She walked out the door and we started jumping up and down. Marla has brought that to the character you see onstage. If you listen to Irene, you'll notice it starts with that high sound, when women were still wearing corsets, and develops up to "My Ship," which is done in a deeper, richer voice.
MS: The style of singing changed.
MS: When they asked that I do that girly, girly voice, I realized that was very important to the story they were trying to tell, and the development of women being women.
Kind of a Betty Boop voice.
MS: It is a Betty Boop voice.
JS: It's Helen Kane, a very famous singer of that period.
MS: It's a very telling thing that women would "sell" themselves in this girly, Boopy, sexual fashion. Then they could slowly, but surely, become themselves. I should say, the white women. This is how white women offered themselves as sexual beings.
MA: Whereas, Bessie Smith did it with a very different sound.
MA: Your character mentions the Gibson Girl. That's exactly where you start off.
You started with sixty songs. Which of the songs were never in danger of being cut?
MA: "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"
MA: "Someone to Watch over Me." "Can't Help Loving That Man of Mine."
JS: "Twentieth Century Love" was there from the beginning, because it was storytelling. "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" was there because it's storytelling of a period.
Which Bert Williams wrote.
JS: Yes. "Suppertime" was there from the beginning. "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning." "September Song" was important because it really did turn, in terms of this playwright, Maxwell Anderson, coming into the time and becoming a songwriter/poet. And a song that was made famous, with one of the most gorgeous melodies, by a non-singer. Walter Huston sang it. It became this iconographic song for a time.
MA: It was interesting to rediscover these songs, and what Joel brings to the table is this incredible vocabulary of period sound.
MB: "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning."
JS: Yes, and "Look for the Silver Lining." Those were the icon songs. "Fascinating Rhythm" was newer.
MB: And "Alexander's Ragtime Band."
In the post show discussion yesterday, I thought it was interesting what was said about "Alexander’s Ragtime Band" being the first modern hit. Can you talk a little about that?
JS: Ever. It's the first time a song went all over the globe in a year.
MB: Any of the biographies on Irving Berlin, and they're numerous, spend time on how he wrote it. Ragtime had actually gone out of fashion. He really did set out to reinvent it. His joke was that it wasn't syncopated. And we've had many conversations on what an "Alexander" is, and how important that was. It was used to describe an "uppity" black person, and also used by African Americans to describe a black man who's pretentious. The title is racist in itself. He set out to reinvent ragtime, and he succeeded.
MA: It brought back the rag as a popular form of music.
How long had ragtime been out of fashion?
JS: Well, it was written in 1911.
MB: And by 1907, ragtime was out and the waltz was all the rage. "The Merry Widow Waltz" was the song.
JS: Scott Joplin thought that ragtime was American Mozart. When you listen to it, all that's added is syncopation. Leaving a beat out of the Alberti Bass is what he did. In that moment, he created syncopation.
MB: You see, ragtime was the equivalent to slang. So, to answer your question, "Alexander's Ragtime Band" was as monumental as "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" was in 1964 with the Beatles. It changed everything.
In the process of winnowing down the list of songs, at what point did the talents of the particular actor come into play?
MA: When was "My Ship" decided on?
MB: We'd been talking about it for months. It was on the short list. We'd tried a number of other songs in that spot, and Marla knew the song. It's all been very organic, and I'd like to think that everyone would agree that I'm a real collaborator. I really do ask for ideas.
We’ve heard from our friend Bob Croghan, the costume designer, that this felt like a true collaboration. What does the creative team do to facilitate that? And for Marla, to what extent have you shaped your development of the character on the page?
MB: I believe in letting people do their jobs. I put the team together. If I hire someone and then have to micro manage them, I should have hired someone else. I'm a great believer in someone bringing their expertise to the table, and I let them tell me. I am, sometimes, because I'm used to putting on one-night events, inclined to think that any decision is better than no decision. I hate lack of decision out there in the air. Sometimes I come down with a "no" on something very quickly, and I learned, for our writing process, that Michael distills. He starts with the bigger idea that is never as specific as I want it to be. But he hones it, and hones it, and all of a sudden it starts to become specific. Once I learned that, I had to put my hand over my mouth, and let him do the work. Because I've worked with Joel for twenty years, there's no one I trust more with sound in the house. If something goes wrong, I call him out onstage and let him do his job. And I'm not an actor, and actors need to investigate all the different ways it can be done. Then the director can turn around and to the actor and say, "This is what I think the choice should be."
MA: That was well illustrated when we were rehearsing "Silver Lining."
MB: I'd rather listen and say nothing than give a stupid direction. I'll say, "I don't know."
JS: It's so much fun to collaborate with Michael. He looks over and says, "So?" It's not like you sit there and wait. I've worked with directors and waited for them to have an idea. With Michael, it's more like, "Who has an idea?" It's not that he doesn't have an idea. He'd like to collect everybody's ideas before he throws weight to any idea by telling you what he wants. Most of us, in collaborative teams where there's a leader who clearly articulates what he wants, will find ways to try to support it. That's what it's about. Michael leads very much from the middle. He gets the other ideas out on the table, then put his out. We all have learned that the joy of this collaboration is that there isn't any one idea that is the idea, it's that it will lead someone to another idea. So we learned to say anything to each other. When we were able to do that without any judgment at all, it would eventually lead us to the right solution.
MA: Harmony works a lot better than a solo. That really leads to the second half of your question.
MS: More often than not, you don't work with a director who is a collaborator. It's an autocracy. I've spent the last ten years of my life really focusing on new musicals. I want to be heard from. From my perspective of the show, participation affected what's on the page a great deal. We try things, we look at them from fifteen different perspectives, and we see how they work. What I ask for is the opportunity to create a complicated character. It's hard, when we're working with archetypes, to decide what the character is going to be. The leading lady, the ingenue, can be very boring, but when we're trying to talk about women from 1900 to 1943, the subject is very complicated. I want my character to get to be truly as complicated as the issue is.
MA: Marla kept challenging the words, which was wonderful. The character has gotten more complex. There's a depth that wasn't there in the beginning.
MS: I challenge the words in the songs as much as I challenge the words that Michael uses. So, is the song correct for the character? Maybe we can find something better. We went through several songs. There were songs that were there that weren't serving the piece so I just begged you to cut it. Don't wait for a week. Just cut it now. Let's move. That's the joy to me of doing a new musical, and it's a rarity to be part of the process. I'm very grateful that we have this communication.
How different is the play from where it was at the beginning of the run at the George Street Playhouse?
JS: Oh, a lot.
MB: In some ways, it's just come into its own. I conceived it for this physical space, so when I sat down to plan it, the Booth Theatre is what I saw in my head. George Street is a very different space, and the set looks at home here in a way that it didn't there.
George Street has a thrust stage.
MS: Yes. When you work in that style of theatre, you're so close to the audience that you can almost sit in their laps. It facilitates an entirely different style of playing.
JS: I agree with you. The gift from George Street is what Marla is talking about. Most actors, and Randy said this from the beginning, are not comfortable with being able to see people's faces and having them close enough to see the sweat. But the kind of performers we're talking about, from the early twentieth century, were enormous personalities who were unique to show business because they would speak to people directly. A thousand people in their living room was their normal life. When you're training people to be that, there's no way to do that but trial by fire. Put them out in from of people. Give them stuff to say. They'll grow as actors. They have to grow to fill the space, in terms of persona. Behind the proscenium, one can hide.
So you think the immediacy of the audience there helped to actors continue to connect to an audience here?
JS: I think it was an unexpected gift. We realized, soon into this, that to do this piece we were going to have to go into some major diva/divo training. Some people, like André De Shields, came to the project like that. He's larger than life. Other people are actors. It doesn't mean that they can't be larger than life in their characters, but they're not larger than life in their personas.
MS: It's not so much that for me. It's really a different craft. Playing a vaudeville or cabaret style, where if someone heckles you, you can play off the heckler, that's a craft unto itself that we don't have so much anymore except for stand-up comedians. It was a great training ground to learn how to do it at George Street.
MB: To me, this is a large musical masquerading as a small one. When we went to put it on its feet, tech-wise, it was huge. The intricacies of the cues, and the turntable.. one of the things that happened is that I figured the set out.
MS: John Caird said it when we were working on Jane Eyre. It's like you get a kit.
MB: It is. It's exactly like that.
MS: You have all these pieces, and you don't know how to play with them. It's like a Leggo set, and once you realize all the possibilities, you go, "Oh yeah!"
MB: That's really what a director's job is. I have to keep in mind that a piece of the set needs to be moved, or an actor needs time to change costumes. The ladies did it to me a couple of days ago. It was a turntable moment. Marla said, "Can we talk to you? I know this might not be the right time to say this." And I said, "Yeah, what?"
MS: And I proceeded.
MB: I walked off the stage, got halfway up the aisle, turned around and said, "Ladies, you're right. I just got what you're saying, and you're right. It's a great idea. Let's try it." It took me that long to filter through all the concerns. It was about an emotional through-line, and we'd always had a little breakdown there. We fixed it. And we've tried to create a little more tension, and go with the fact that the six characters compete with each other. I now look at the opening number as "One, two, three, go!"
MS: It's a funny thing. We don't really compete with each other, because we couldn't be less alike. But it's almost the competition to be the biggest star in the world.
JS: Who's going to get the biggest hand, who's going to get the loudest laughter? Who's going to get the eleventh hour moment? Who's going to get the first moment?
MB: What can I learn from him? What can I take from him? Marla does her dance in the opening number, and she gets to her spot just as Randy comes in. They do the exact same pose.
MA: There are elements there that weren't there at George Street. The characters just posed then, and didn't acknowledge each other. They're aware of each other now. You can see the feeling. Danny Gurwin's character now, when he's watching Marla dance, is thinking how beautiful she is. It adds complications right away.
MB: And I asked Danny, whose character is a Russian immigrant, about the moment when Ethel comes onstage. "How many black women did you know in Russia?" There's this exotic creature just coming into your world. What would your reaction be?
Do you think it’s fair to call Let Me Sing a feel-good show with a lesson?
MA: There's a lot of challenge in it, and it's not always feel-good.
It's one great number after another.
JS: It's a feel-good show, for sure, but has a lot of moments where you live through American history and it's not as pretty. And if we have our way about it, it'll even take on more of that edge. That's one of the things we're enjoying finding.
MB: If we weren't entertaining people, it'd get perceived as a history lesson.
Let's talk a little about André De Shields' additional material.
MA: The poetry that he recites. That's from André's hand.
MB: We have a character who talks in rhymes, and another who speaks prose. I like the difference in rhythms. André's background, as a teacher of black history, brought a perspective to us that overweighed the rest of it in workshop. Our collaboration helps to make it equal. The other thing is that André has worked with choreographers that he often felt were not as skilled as he is. One of the joys for me was how instantly André gave himself over to Randy Skinner. They are a mutual admiration society. André was beaming in the first days of rehearsal because he had a choreographer who was speaking his language.
MA: There's a dance at the end of "Shine" where André dances on one foot across the stage. He was working so hard in the rehearsal room. Afterward, André was so happy. He said,"You challenge me. Push me."
MB: During the last rehearsal at George Street, I thought I was done. Ding, ding, you're out of time. And André and Randy come to me and say,"We just want to do a little encore to "Swing." Before I knew it, they'd worked out a whole number and we put it in.
You’re still in previews, so it may be too soon to tell. What's your opinion of how southern audiences may react to the racial elements of this show?
JS: I've played audiences internationally, and audiences respond differently everywhere. I find this a better audience than most. First of all, Charlotte has had constant infusion of financial center energy. There are people here from all over the country. It's not exactly a southern audience. Having said that, I do feel people like to laugh in the south. They come to have a good time. They're not sitting there with arms crossed thinking, "Okay, do it."
MB: There's a generosity. You come out in a Charlotte audience and say "Good Evening," and they say "Good Evening" back.
JS: It's rather nice.
MA: With the racial stuff, though, I noticed that a line that got a chuckle in New Jersey got an out and out laugh here. It stopped Gretha's speech.
MS: Southern audiences have an appreciation of that conflict.
MB: I was actually much more worried about the Molly character (played by Stephanie J. Block). She's Jewish, and a much more exotic character down here. This audience is younger, too. Because there's not such a tradition of going to the theatre in the south, the audience that's developing in the south are my contemporaries.
Marla, what made you choose this project?
MS: Michael Bush. That's it.
What's next for Let Me Sing?
MB: Manhattan Theatre Club has an option, and people have come forward and expressed interest in being a part of it. I wanted to wait until the show was ready, and I always wanted to bring them to Charlotte to see it. I want to promote the Rep, to promote Charlotte as a viable place to develop work. There will be a future life to this piece. Audiences respond to it. And there's no denying that timing is everything. And on September 12, 2001, it did dawn on me that this piece might speak to people in a way that it wouldn't have before the eleventh. It's resonating now. So, whether it's a commercial run, or it pops up in other regional theatres around the country, we've created a very viable, produceable piece. Businessman that I also am, a six-person musical that can be done with a three-piece band is something that every theatre in America can consider doing.
Thanks for talking with us.
~ Lydia Arnold