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Cable Car…Nympho…what? Huh?
I think the thoughts that immediately came to mind were questionable. Is this a musical about a prostitute riding the Powell train car into Sodhom and Gomorrah? As far as I recall, I don’t remember that being allowed on any of the public transit systems here in San Francisco (although, that’s not to say it’s not happened).
When I was contacted by composer Tony Asaro, we had been Facebook friends (because you know that’s how you know it’s real) and I hadn’t really heard his music before. I was quite intrigued, but also scared and curious. I’ve been part of what seems like a ton of musical readings in which there were various parts that didn’t really sync up together. Everything from love sick zombies, ghost neighbors, imaginary drag queens, and doomed Pompeiians – most of them have dropped off the face of the earth never to be heard of again. Not to say that they weren’t good, but I know getting something like that off the ground and out of workshop mode is a herculean feat.
Personally, I love taking part in readings. For an actor, that’s one of the only times you get to actually create something. Let me restate this: it’s not that I don’t create in any of my shows, I do. But when you’re given new material that no one has ever seen, you take that cut of beef and you run straight to the kitchen. Opportunities like that are golden.
I recently did a run of Evita and played Che, the revolutionary who narrates the show and sings to the rafters while doing it. It was my second time playing the part, and I loved it. The last time I played “him” was almost five years ago, and I’ll be honest in saying that I don’t think I was quite ready for it at the time. I can tell you there a lot of things that change between your twenties and your thirties – I was just a little more solid in myself this time around.
When you’re given a part such as Che, there’s a lot of expectation that happens. Actually I’ve found that to be true with several of the parts I’ve played. Che Guevara. The Emcee. Angel. All of them have amazing Tony Award winning actors attached to them. So there’s always that notion of the audience wanting that exact replica. But for an actor, that’s the kiss of death. I could never be Mandy Patinkin, Alan Cumming, or Wilson Heredia – I would be doomed to fail. That’s the challenge as an actor: How do you honor the past, while finding the present?
For me, every studied piece informs the specifics. I know that Che’s favorite drink was Yerba Mate and his motorcycle’s name was La Poderosa. Did the audience ever see that? No, but it’s this information you carry around in your subconscious that informs what a character may/may not do in life. It’s these specifics that help an actor (or at least me) define a character and crawl out of the shadow of the predecessor. People will always draw comparisons, in fact, when I was rehearsing for Che Guevara, people kept comparing some of it to my work as The Emcee in Cabaret.
“Duh.” I thought. “It was me in both roles, just different parts of myself.”
I always think about what Meryl Streep says in terms of acting. “Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.”
I’ve come to learn recently that I spend most of my time playing “characters”. Long gone are my ingenue days, and instead, I’ve traded them for characters who have some sort of flaw or quirk. So when the character breakdown came out for the show, I saw that I was playing a woman and several men.
This nympho sure does get around.
If you’ve never taken part in a reading, it must be said it’s not for the faint of heart. A normal rehearsal process allows you several weeks to think about the characters you’re playing. A reading usually only lasts days.
Only days to learn your lines. Only days to learn all of the music. Only days to get it all together.
There isn’t time for a redo. You take a look at the characters for the first time and then you make a choice and go with it. You don’t really have the option of not making a choice, which is why readings aren’t for everybody. You’re relying on pure adrenaline (and hopefully talent).
You constantly get re-writes, all the way down to the day of the reading. “Here’s a new line, add this, cut that. This makes no sense, this line is being removed … this character has been removed entirely.”
You don’t get attached much to any one of your characters in a reading. Why? It’s not until the writers actually hear the dialogue that they figure out something or someone just. doesn’t. work. Despite what you feel are your greatest efforts, that nun in a vampire outfit sometimes just doesn’t make the cut.
It’s the nature of the beast actually. I can’t tell you the many characters I’ve played in readings which don’t end up in the final revision. I can also tell you how many characters I’ve played in readings in which I don’t end up in the actual staged version. Actors are there to provide a voice, but they also provide the building blocks for what will end up being a fully fleshed character. Sometimes the show just goes in another direction, and you have to be okay with that. You just have to take comfort in knowing that some of the choices you’ve made ended up playing a part somewhere in the development process.
Remember when I said it wasn’t for the faint of heart?
When the rehearsal process began I was quite intimidated but excited. Being in the business as long as I have, you would think it would become easier – it doesn’t. The entire creative team was on-hand to hear these characters speak for what was essentially the first time. Terry, Tony, Kirsten, Ian, Robert Michael, and Carey – all listening intently and ready to pick apart anything that didn’t work and hold onto anything that did.
At the risk of making it a huge and long article, I won’t go into every single particular about the process. Sure, it was a short, a little scary – but hell, it was fun. I can tell you honestly as far as readings go, it was one of the most enjoyable processes I’ve had in a long while. The story of the Cable Car Nymphomaniac was quite astonishing and I didn’t know it was based on a true story. It was hard to resist not getting on the Powell Cable Car hoping it would derail and MUNI would be responsible for paying off all of my student loans. That would be a whole other musical: Cable Car Student Loan Payoff.
The thing about reading is that they’re only as strong as their creative team. And the creative team (majority from NYC) was supportive and strong. I’ve been quite lucky to work with great creative teams over the years, and this one was no exception:
Terry (Director) encouraged us to make choices, strong choices, and just go with it. Without these choices, they would never know exactly what worked and what didn’t. She balanced the difficult line of authority while still letting us find our voices.
Tony (Music) (more on his music later) was there to really help us understand and transcribe any and all of his music – what a luxury.
Kirsten (Playwright) just listened intently, always ready with a notepad and a pencil to jot down thoughts and ideas about characters and lines. Her lines were written so expertly and they didn’t hit you over the head with intent.
Ian (Stage Manager) provided the logistics (as well as organization) to the entire process. On a side note: My chihuahua Bam Bam still talks about Ian and the ye old days of Legally Blonde and their interactions as Emmett and Bruiser respectively.
Robert Michael (Music Director) took the music and helped us wrap our heads around its lush and intricate properties. With the amount of time he was given, I have to give him much props as it was HUGE task.
Carey (Executive Director of FOGG) one of the people that helped this entire shindig happen. Like I said, putting things like this up is not easy, so I highly respect people who give so much to making new pieces (any piece for that matter) happen. Also, her and FOGG’s vision rocks.
And of course the cast: Monica, Courtney, Steve, Tony, Rinabeth, Kristin, and Ashley. Amazing actors and actresses who brought the characters to life. Talent everywhere and truly humbling to be around.
I’ve dedicated this part of the article to the music of Cable Car Nymphomaniac expertly written by composer Tony Asaro. For those of you who happened to attend the reading, what a treat right? For those who haven’t yet heard his music – just you wait Henry Higgins.
It’s a rare occasion that you’re given something so meaty and yet so delicate. I know, I keep making cooking references but it’s really the only other thing I can equate it to – maybe I’m just hungry. Too much of this and you burn it. Too little, and it falls flat. It’s all about finding the balance.
What I loved so much about Tony’s work in Cable Car is that it was so musical but it wasn’t trite. It was difficult, but once you cracked the “code” you understood it. Actors and musicians are always looking for these types of pieces: challenging pieces of work that really tell a story.
It’s not just thinking about lyrics, or a part of the music. It’s putting it all together to make a cohesive picture. Does this time signature lend to the speaking a pattern of the actual character? Would this character actually sing in this style? Do the spoken words give us an idea of the type of character this is? It’s all in the specifics people. Specifics inform the action, and the action informs the audience. It’s a whole circle of life type-of-thing (cue Simba).
There were several moments in Cable Car in which I got chills. I won’t spoil them for you here, but I definitely felt vibrations.
I guess after the doing this reading it means that my Facebook friendship with Tony is now legit. Actually, I am quite honored to have been a part of its development process and so grateful for everyone for allowing me to participate. The path of a new musical is a hard and arduous one, and I hope that I was able to at least make a contribution on its journey.
In the process of fear, curiosity, and excitement, I discovered many things about myself and my processes. I think that’s why we get into the arts: discovery. I know as artists we should never be content with just getting to the destination. Rather, it’s the journey with all its bumps that we should be enjoying, whether or not we know that our cable car may go careening down a hill and leave us with an insatiable appetite for something.
We shouldn’t ever be afraid of the ride.
“Chug, chug, chug, chug, chug.
The cable cars go,
Chug, chug, chug, up the hill.
You’d never expect yours would get wrecked,
but odds one of them will, that’s half the thrill.”
– Gloria Windham
Well played Gloria, well played.
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