Scratching the directing itch

“To open the show, I always like to do one thing that is impossible. So right now I’m going to suck this piano into my lungs.” —Steve Martin

About 8 years ago, I decided I was going to break away from the standard park-&-bark assembly line kind of recital, at least at the end of the year. What I really wanted to do was a scenes recital, sort of like the one Richard Crittenden puts on as the final project of his Acting for Opera workshop each summer. I was going to assign middle- and high-school students scenes from musical theater and opera.

One disadvantage to being a private teacher is that I don’t have a set venue in which to do performances. Every recital involves finding a space, usually at a church. For an ordinary recital, I would need the space on the day of the program, perhaps an hour or two before so that my students could run their songs with the pianist. For a recital like this, we were going to need the space for at least one prior rehearsal. Plus my students would have to come to each other’s lessons during the weeks leading up to the performance.

We held the first recital at a nearby church, with rehearsal scheduled for all day Saturday. The first sign of trouble was when the church called me to inform me that there would be a wedding Saturday afternoon, so we wouldn’t be able to use the church past noon. That was just a few weeks before (shotgun wedding, anyone?). Then 4 days before, I was called and told that there would be a funeral in the morning, so Saturday was out. We could rehearse Wednesday night and we could rehearse Friday till 6pm, when the wedding rehearsal would begin. We had no pianist for Wednesday, and only half the cast was available on Friday. We rehearsed during those two limited times and ran the music in my studio on Sunday.

The performance came and it was rough. The room was really, really live, and the majority of my students were young beginners who had soft breathy voices and little performing experience. While the live room was a boon to those who had larger voices, it made the smaller voices sound as though they were muffled with a wet blanket thrown over their heads. =

BUT – there were a few moments that were incredible. Carl Levie & Jamie Gorman doing a scene from Susannah (I know, what was I thinking?) that took people’s breath away. Jennie Leevan, then 8 years old, singing “April Showers” while backed up by 3 seniors wearing rain slickers and holding parasols – cute, silly, but it made everyone smile. And although I can’t say the whole show was a success, it was good enough that I had to do it again. And again.

We’ve had varying levels of success since – never schedule a program for the day after prom when your best singers are all juniors – but overall, the recital (now “a High School Showcase”) has been extremely rewarding for everyone involved. Last year’s program was so incredibly well done and a tough act to follow that I decided to take a break from doing scenes and incorporate my new love, cabaret, into the format.

Amanda McBroom once called cabaret “personal musical theater” and said that sometimes when you put together your songlist, a theme appears. That’s what has happened with our upcoming June 7 showcase, “Look for Me in the Songs: An American Song Centennial.” We will be celebrating the work of American composers (half of whom are actually alive), still following the mostly ensemble format of the past 8 years, but relaxing the staging component a bit to break new ground.

The show will be June 7 at 3:30 at Underwood Memorial Baptist Church in Wauwatosa. Admission is free!

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