Putting It Together – Production Journal, with Associated Rants and Bitches

Putting It Together - Cast
Putting It Together - Cast
Photo Credit: Sarah Bord

Art isn’t easy
Every minor detail
Is a major decision
Have to keep things in scale
Have to hold to your vision

 


Stephen Sondheim – Putting It Together

The Piece

I’ve been listening to this show for 22 years, waiting for the opportunity to assemble a team and Put it Together. The words to that song are true: Art isn’t easy. I’ve marveled as Pat and Christine created a show and put their stamp on the material; as Kat, Janet, John and Nicholas rehearsed for hours, while Sarah kept track of it all and made sure we had breaks every 90 minutes. Meeting Mary this spring was fortuitous icing on the cake. I hope we can do it again.

 


Chris Bord, Producer’s Note, July 2015

Stephen Sondheim’s Putting It Together was originally proposed by producer Cameron Mackintosh, who’d badgered the composer to update his 1976 revue Side by Side by Sondheim. That show was a simple collection of songs – a greatest hits package. Putting It Together started the same way in its UK incarnation, but when it came to New York in 1993, Sondheim and director Julia McKenzie added a basic plot, featuring a middle-aged couple, an early-20’s couple, and a narrator/interloper at an all-night party in a glamorous apartment.

The show distills and underlines two predominant Sondheim themes: the creation of art, and the difficulties of love and marriage. By 2015, Sondheim’s themes have grown a bit stale – the tribulations of upper middle class white couples aren’t as fresh as they seemed in the 1970s. The music endures, of course; however, except for Send in the Clowns, Sondheim isn’t well known outside of theater circles. Nevertheless, my personal interest in this particular collection has endured for years. I like the distillation – divorced of plot, the themes double and triple upon themselves via similar songs from different shows. In some ways, the show is an extended inside joke – when a character suggests a party game in Act 2, based on the theme word “marry,” seven songs follow, all circling the concept. I’ve spoken with people who find the device tedious, but the more I listened to the show, the richer (and funnier) it became for me.

The 1993 Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC) production was killed by critics. It marked Julie Andrews’ first return to the New York stage in 30 years, and while she received positive notices, the show was criticized for not using her enough. (Critics also considered the show itself rather pointless.) I think the musical numbers are balanced across all five characters, but I’m open to the criticism that too many of the songs had already appeared in Side by Side. I saw a version at Syracuse Stage in 2009, which I despised – in my opinion, the emotional highlights from the 1993 MTC cast album were avoided aggressively. No qualms with the singing, and the set was marvelous. Still…

John
Photo Credit: Brian Engle

The Songs

We’d rehearsed for three weeks, but I didn’t realize it until the dress rehearsal. I kept wondering why these experienced actors kept dropping lines. Finally, it hit me – Sondheim is just freakin’ hard.

 


Pat Stone – Director

I Googled “Why is Stephen Sondheim so hard to sing?” The best explanation I found: “There are a lot of lyrics, sung very quickly. The key changes many times in each song, the rhythms are tricky, and the accompaniment often has little to do with what is being sung. Plus, the harmonies are dissonant, usually in a different chord than what the accompaniment is providing.” Performers who are good at Sondheim make it look easy. I’ve often thought, “That’s a pretty basic song.” And I’ve listened to Putting It Together for years – the music never struck me as difficult. Until I tried to learn it.

I worked with two instructors as I memorized my part. I recorded our sessions, very helpful – of course, both instructors interpreted the material differently. At the end of the day, Putting It Together is the hardest score I’ve worked on. I joke that Jerry Herman takes 30% of your brain’s free space, Bernstein takes 50%, Andrew Lloyd Webber takes 80%, while Sondheim takes everything and more. I performed in Lloyd Webber’s Evita when I was 17; Putting It Together was much, much harder. 18 songs for my character, only 6 lines of spoken dialogue. I piled the songs precariously on shelves in my mind; the slightest distraction in rehearsal fucked me up.

PIT - Cast
Photo Credit: Janet Engle

The Players

Ounce by ounce, putting it together
Small amounts, adding up to make a work of art
First of all you need a good foundation
Otherwise it’s risky from the start
Takes a lot of earnest conversation
But without the proper preparation
Having just a vision’s no solution
Everything depends on execution

 

Stephen Sondheim – Putting It Together

I like relationships. Putting on a show requires hours and days and weeks, so it’s better to do it with a group of people that gets along. If you work with the same artists over and over again, the shorthand that develops is priceless – not only is it easier to communicate, there is built-in trust and a shared artistic vocabulary. I used to have it with my friends Richard Enders and Peter Loftus, less so with director Dan Fusillo; I had it for 20 years with Mary Lourdes Kalil, a dance instructor; I had it with Delia Foley and I’m building it with her successor at Mohawk Valley Ballet, Missy Larish. Because of these concerns, I’d rather hand-pick a cast and crew than rely on auditions.

Kat Krumbach is why I wanted to do Putting It Together at this moment in time. I’d gone looking for actresses in 2013 when Dan Fusillo asked me to collaborate on his production of Next to Normal. We needed a teenager for the part of Natalie. I attended several area high school shows and saw Kat in Legally Blonde. She was the real deal. As it turned out, neither Kat nor I were cast in Next to Normal, but I used her in my 6-person I Love You Because, February 2014. She remained on my mind – I pictured her in Xanadu, and also Putting It Together. I gave her CD copies of both in Spring 2014 and said, “Be ready.” She was.

Janet Engle was another I’d worked with; we’d met at the audition(s) for Next to Normal. Janet and I played lovers in I Love You Because (I wasn’t my first choice for the role – he backed out, and left me to take the part.) I asked Janet to do Putting It Together, she turned me down, then changed her mind. A brilliant soprano. Sopranos are necessary, sometimes difficult; often worth the difficulty, and still, always necessary. Janet is a friend. This is her third show for me, the performer I’ve worked with more than any other. I was going to find somebody else to do my part, but when Janet signed on, I was in. We’d be lovers once again.

My first memory of John Murphy is when I saw him in the premiere of the original musical Bawdy Town, although I must have seen him before that. This is what I wrote about him in that show: “John Murphy has an easygoing charisma and is only slightly overmatched by some of the less predictable melodies; he is enjoyable even if he can’t really sell the material.” (I’ll forgive anybody who calls me an asshole for that – limited offer.) I met John when his wife Marilee directed me in God Of Carnage (2015) – John baked the clafouti I ate every night. When I directed The Mikado, a cast member suggested we try to get John: “…but I doubt he’ll be available. He’s very good, and very busy.” He is very good, and I was amazed when he agreed to do our show. John is one of those people you want by your side in just about any worrisome situation – he soothes savage artists of any kind, and of course, he bakes. An amazing, easygoing person.

I met Nick Williams on the musical Tommy, at Mohawk Valley Community College. I don’t know if we spoke then, but he became close with my daughter Sarah. Nick worked on The Mikado last summer, memorizing his parts before attending his first rehearsal, just a week before opening. Nick is a music major at SUNY Fredonia; like Kat, I didn’t think he’d yet played a role that revealed the breadth of his talent.

Christine Krumbach was about to graduate from Syracuse University when I first spoke with her about Putting It Together. It was Sarah’s idea, actually – “You know Kat’s sister is doing music direction for The Addams Family at New Hartford High School.” I asked Christine, music education major, to be music director. She thought she’d like the challenge. Neither of us knew at the time how hard it really was. Seriously – every song changes keys five or six times. And we needed transpositions. At Christine’s request, I hired a pianist to play the show.

Mary Sugar is a real Broadway pianist – she played 11 years in New York, then several years on touring shows and finally two years at Lincoln Center in Washington, D.C. I met Mary in May 2015, when we both worked on a show in Syracuse. She asked what I was doing next, and I told her. She asked if we could use her, because she hadn’t ever played Putting It Together. I said we couldn’t afford her. When Christine asked me to find a pianist, I sent Mary an e-mail: “I know this is below your usual rate, but would you come for [a really small, insulting amount] per night?” Mary answered, “Yes, because it’s you.” Bonus: Mary can transpose on sight.

I didn’t want to take a part – like my other shows, I wanted to direct, and only agreed to play in it when several others turned down the opportunity. (This confuses me – people who seem to live for the stage and bemoan their lack of good parts won’t take a role when it’s offered sans audition, along with the promise of a small stipend and the possibility of profit sharing.)

Once I decided to sing, I needed a director. Hiring Pat Stone might be the best decision I made. I don’t think I could have memorized my part if Pat wasn’t directing, and Pat had dozens of good ideas I hadn’t considered. Pat and I met when we played lovers in The Seagull – my concept for the relationship was that I was already done with her, and I had to endure her real tears every night as she pleaded with me to give her another chance. I have a difficult time crying in real life, let alone on stage. (I’ve tried picturing nuns shattering bottles of 30 year-old Scotch, which doesn’t help; it does help control other impulses though, so I might need to refine my imagery.) Pat had already stepped in to refine my last production, The God Game – I trusted her.

Nick + Kat - dance
Photo Credit: Brian Engle

The Process

Bit by bit, putting it together
Piece by piece, working out the vision night and day
What it takes is time and perseverance
Dealing with details along the way

 

Stephen Sondheim – Putting It Together

I think 3 weeks of rehearsal is perfect. Give the performers their scripts a month before the first rehearsal, let them spend time with the material. Then get together, for blocking and choreography, with the expectation that everybody is memorized. (It hasn’t actually worked that way yet, but I like the model.)

3 weeks of rehearsal might be perfect, but it’s short when you’re producing a show as well as appearing in it. There has to be coordination between technical teams; schedules need to be sent; posters created and hung, programs designed; costumes arranged; props obtained; rehearsal space and performance venues secured. A dozen other things I won’t list because I’m getting stressed trying to remember them all. Most expenses have to be paid up front, too. Royalties, printing, props… (Did you know when you use wireless mics, you need a new 9V battery for each mic, for every performance? And non-lubricated condoms, to keep the mics from shorting out because of sweat. And clear medical tape, to keep the microphones in place. And small hair clips, to attach the mic cords to clothing.)

We rehearsed at The Seton Center at Our Lady of Lourdes church in Utica. Rehearsal space is something many don’t think about – getting an area as big as your stage, as cheaply as possible. I’m fortunate to have a relationship with OLOL, and the pastor regularly complimented us on what he was hearing as things progressed. The single mothers living upstairs with their young children might not have appreciated the “high C’s” after bedtime, but they never complained.

We moved in to the historic Earlville Opera House (“one of six known functioning second-story opera houses”) on Tuesday, for our first tech rehearsal. Earlville’s rental rate for non-performance days is $250. (They charge $375 if an audience attends.) Sarah and I spent the day setting up lights and sound. EOH has no air conditioning. Although the space has wonderful acoustics, I feared audiences would lose some of the faster lyrics, especially those sung in a low register. Joe Fanelli provided five wireless mics, which entailed setting up monitors as well, so the pianist could hear us, and so we could hear ourselves. Earlville’s 1892 baby grand Chickering piano was the central part of our set (it’s becoming a Moss Island trademark to place the pianist on stage among the actors.)

Our first rehearsal at Earlville involved getting used to the space. Mary arrived Wednesday night, for our first musical run-through with her. Dress rehearsal was Thursday. Our sound and lighting operators were both inexperienced – I’d set everything up in a way that made sense to me, gave them a quick tutorial, then expected brilliance. But how can a performer mentor the tech crew? I realized on Thursday night, as I missed my 300th singing cue while wondering about missed tech cues, that I needed to let it go (with apologies to Idina Menzel.)

Chris + Janet - backstage
Photo Credit: Janet Engle

The Stories

Note by note, working on projection
Lips, teeth, throat, looking for a moment to inhale
Keeping the emotional connection
Even when your fellow actors fail
Pointing up the subtext by inflection
Helping your director reach perfection
Even though you have a strong objection
To the way she’s handling the direction

 


Stephen Sondheim – Putting It Together

After our Sunday performance, the cast and crew gathered at The Colgate Inn for dinner. I asked everyone to share a memory from the previous three weeks. The following recollects some of those.

On Wednesday night, one of our performers had difficulty singing a certain song – the accompaniment had nothing to do with the vocal line, which seemed to be in a different key/rhythm than the vocalist (not really, but Sondheim can seem that way.) The performer left the stage and sat in the dressing room. I followed, to check on morale. Unfortunately, we all had wireless mics on, which hadn’t been muted. Everything we said was delivered to the pianist’s ear via the monitor, right next to the piano. Suddenly I heard from the stage, “I can hear you insulting me.” It might be the most awkward theatrical moment I’ve ever encountered. Over the next several hours, apologies were made, feelings soothed. I think it turned out well, but it was dicey for a while.

Kat and Christine shared that this was the first time they’d really worked together on a show, an amazing experience for the sisters. Christine had never worked with adults, just students. Kat had been doubting her skills as a performer – she actually wrote, “I wondered if you had too much faith in me.” No way. I’d do the whole thing again just to make the point that Kat is one of the best young performers I’ve seen in more than 25 years. I shared that I’d been concerned about Christine (who also choreographed the show), and mentioned it to another music director I know. “We all have trouble at first. The only way is to just do it.” (So I bought her a pair of Nikes.)

Pat said her favorite memory was production meetings with Christine at Domenico’s coffee shop, then watching what they’d discussed actually happen in rehearsal every night. I asked Pat how much of their vision had been achieved, and Pat answered “All of it. More than all of it. There’s nothing we wanted to do that you guys couldn’t pull off. Then you all brought your own ideas and made everything that much better.”

John’s memory was transporting six people to the theater one night (actors and audience), with a high school sophomore (friend of the family) giving everyone notes on a show he hadn’t even seen yet.

Sarah remembered Pat sitting backward on a chair and falling off (stage managers – they’re different.) “Wait – I wanna change my moment. Make it the Tuesday we set up and people kept coming in to watch us.” The Opera House was hosting a quilt show in their galleries downstairs, and people would wander up to see what was going on in the theater. I joked that they must have said to each other, “Quite a realistic quilt, that one.”

Janet shared the following: “Our cast and crew – very kind and lovely people to work with. I enjoyed watching Kat grow in her part and make it her own. For me, I always really enjoy the cast and getting to know each other, sharing the music, the fears, and finding all the hidden meanings, friendships and character developments. I leave every show having learned more about me, the music, and each other.”

Nick: “Singing Being Alive every night.”

Somebody hold me too close
Somebody hurt me too deep
Somebody sit in my chair
And ruin my sleep
And make me aware
Of being alive
Being alive

 

Somebody need me too much
Somebody know me too well
Somebody pull me up short
And put me through hell
And give me support
For being alive
Make me alive
Make me alive

 

Make me confused
Mock me with praise
Let me be used
Vary my days
But alone
Is alone
Not alive

 

Somebody crowd me with love
Somebody force me to care
Somebody let me come through
I’ll always be there
As frightened as you
To help us survive
Being alive
Being alive
Being alive…

 

Stephen Sondheim – Being Alive

Kat + Sarah + Janet
Photo Credit: Janet Engle

The Show

Bit by bit, putting it together
Piece by piece, only way to make a work of art
Every moment makes a contribution
Every little detail plays a part
Having just a vision’s no solution
Everything depends on execution
Putting it together (That’s what counts)

 

Stephen Sondheim – Putting It Together

I warned my team that I was going to write about our show. I’ve done it before and upset various people. I rarely think of anything I’ve done as a success, but this is why: What’s left to accomplish after a success? I’d rather walk away with a dozen things I want to do differently next time.

So here it is: Putting It Together wasn’t entirely a success. This is what I think was great: every performer had a few moments worth the price of admission. Mary Sugar’s piano accompaniment is about the best I’ve ever heard; plus, she saves singers – if we wandered, she hammered a melody or a rhythm to get us back. When it all meshed, the sound was sublime. The lighting was strong and even, if not as striking as I’d hoped. The sound was sometimes inventive, and the wireless mics were free of interference (one attendee said they were the best he’d heard locally.) Susan gave great followspot, and Sarah did her best work yet as stage manager. I personally scored some great criticism that will help me to grow in the future.

Of course I can’t review the show – I was on stage, and have no independent take on it. My favorite bit of Pat’s direction was when she began and ended the Little Night Music sequence with the cast in the same positions, sprawled and stoned (genius). I know the show was worth seeing; I think I would have written a mixed review if I’d been in the audience. But make no mistake – I would have been in the audience.

I learned one lesson quickly. There’s a couplet in Putting It Together:

Lacking any scenic ostentation
This is not a Mackintosh production

 

Stephen Sondheim – Putting It Together

The joke is that Cameron Mackintosh is famous for producing very lavish productions – Miss Saigon, Les Miserables, etc. He also produced the 1993 Putting It Together, which wasn’t as lavish. I tried to think of a 3-syllable substitute for “Mackintosh” that would sell the joke in Central New York – I decided on “Summerstage.” The point was supposed to be, “What other theater program has a much larger budget than this one?”

After opening night, I received the following message: “You might want to re-consider the Summerstage line. Everyone knows there’s bad blood between you and Summerstage, and it’s a cheap shot that’s frankly beneath you.” I was stunned. I pointed out the context, to which my friend replied, “Oh, we didn’t hear the preceding lines.”

Fuck me.

I offered it to the cast. John Murphy came up with “Glimmerglass,” which didn’t hurt any feelings and was brilliant, to boot. THAT line got the laughs it should have. (John is on my speed dial now.)

Chris - Backstage
Photo Credit: Janet Engle

The Aftermath

You’re always sorry, always grateful
You’re always wondering what might have been

 


Stephen Sondheim – Sorry-Grateful

I’ve listened to almost nothing but this show for a month. I’m happy to return to my iTunes library (I was 975 songs behind on my annual goal of listening to every song at least once per year.) I’m sleeping better; I feel lighter. My wallet feels lighter too, which I can deal with.

I sent an accounting to the team yesterday – the show cost $5,800, against $4,300 income. That income includes ticket sales, and generous donations from various parties (particularly Earlville Opera House.) Pat insists we need a grant next time, but I stubbornly reject the idea that art needs to be publicly subsidized. (I’m probably wrong.) When I made up a budget in the spring, I figured we needed a little more than half the attendance of The Mikado (my previous show at Earlville) to break even. We didn’t come close to that – we sold 158 tickets for three shows. Still, we gave every team member $40 for gas and expenses. It should have been more.

One person suggested that the Moss Island blog was hurting sales – that people wouldn’t attend Moss Island shows after I’d paid to see their shows and wrote unflattering things about them. And my jaw drops, I ponder moving away from Central New York and then I get over myself. But seriously. I asked a friend why we didn’t see a single Board member from Players of Utica, despite the fact my cast and crew have donated more than 1000 volunteer hours at Players over the past year (a LOT more). “They might be hurt by some of your negative reviews.” Ah. When I panned a show at Syracuse Stage this spring, they thanked me for attending and asked if they could share the review. Most reviews I’ve written in the past year about Players of Utica were positive; not a single thank you, comment, share or anything else. “Believe it or not, most members of the Players Board don’t attend any shows outside of Players.” Well, I do believe that. (CLARIFICATION: I was confronted last night by someone who pointed out that individual Players Board members do thank me for my writing and also share it on social media. They do, and I should have been much more clear in my point. The official Players of Utica entity doesn’t say thank you or share, to my knowledge; the official Syracuse Stage entity and other theater groups do engage and encourage not only my writing, but many arts bloggers. To the individual Players Board members I upset with my comments above, I apologize and hope this addendum better expresses what I’d intended to communicate.)

So… I have to be grateful to everyone who’s still willing to put on shows with me, despite the fact that I write about the state of the art in Central New York. To be fair, I didn’t see anybody I’ve raved about this year in the audience for Putting It Together, either. I’ve spent $1900 attending shows over the past 12 months. ATTENDING shows. (I’ve never been given a ticket, even for Rome Capitol Summerstage. I used to provide $5000 of lighting for their shows every summer, for $500. One might expect a several-lifetimes pass for that kind of donation. Another sordid story.)

My cast and crew deserved an audience, and I’m pissed they didn’t get a better response.

Griping aside, Susan had the idea to write up a “strike checklist,” to help us take down the show. List every task for the carryout; as each person begins a task, have them initial the item. I’ve NEVER seen a better strike – we had the show torn down, the theater cleaned, the equipment back out to cars in an hour. An absolute pleasure.

These are my artistic gifts, in descending order of expertise: Lighting, Writing, Producing, Sound Effects Design, Directing, Performing. I decided after this show I could use some voice lessons, movement lessons (I’ve done ballroom dancing lessons, believe it or not), and improv training. There is nothing about this difficult process I’d change, with the possible exception of the size of our audiences. I’m better than I was when I started. What more can I ask for?

And, at the end of the day… Thanks to my cast and crew for taking the journey with me. I’m going to drink some Scotch, sleep late a few mornings, then do it all again. Let’s do it together.