|Posted by Don Stitt on July 13, 2015 at 1:10 PM|
A BUMPY RIDE
I have had a great many happy experiences in my 50 years in show business, but I want to tell you about one of the other kind. Forgive me for not identifying the show or the players involved. But I think this can give you a glimpse into the kind of entertainment circumstance you do NOT want to experience. This all happened on a National Tour of a Broadway show.
At the first rehearsal, a girl who had never done so before was appointed “swing.” The “swing” is the person who “covers” all the dancers. The songwriters stressed that the choreography for the show should not be “cute.” As soon as they were out of the rehearsal room, the choreographer started to teach the cast some choreography that was so sickeningly cute that we were a little mortified. The new “swing” wanted to do a good job, so she asked a lot of questions, mostly of the director.
At the second rehearsal, we were told that the director had fired the swing for asking too many questions, and her replacement was introduced. We were also told that all of the choreography we had learned the day before was being thrown out because it was too “cute.”
We had already seen a person fired, and we had to restage one entire dance, and it was only the second day. (The number in question would eventually be restaged 14 different ways.)
After our last rehearsal in New York, we went to the town where we would be doing our “previews.” Two performances in Niceville, Florida, (which a coworker observed should probably be called “Slow and Surlyville.” The technical effects for the show were overwhelming, and the technical rehearsals, which were not completed before the first preview, prevented any consideration being given to the acting, singing and the dancing. Heavy scenery was suspended all over the backstage area, and the performers were forced to walk under the items, most of which would be lethal if they fell on a person.
One dancer, before the first preview, said, “I don’t know about y’all, but I’m a Christian, and I’m going to pray before the show tonight. If anyone else would like to pray with me, please do.” Because we were all aware how dangerous our jobs had become, the cast prayed together before every one of the 300 performances, starting with that first preview. Including myself; There are no atheists in foxholes. I am somewhat pleased to report that there were ONLY three fairly minor injuries at the first preview, which I was convinced would yield at least one fatality.
Surviving the first two previews, (and seeing the overblown technics of the show eat up so much of the rehearsal schedule before being deleted,) we moved on to the next city for the Official Opening. The show continued to rehearse the cast and change aspects of the staging right up to the opening curtain. It was stressful in the extreme. But we opened, and we thought that things would begin to ease up a bit.
We thought wrong.
Our star was a Broadway veteran who had a distinguished career as an athlete before becoming an actor. So I think it is very telling that the athlete-turned-actor’s back muscles had become so tensed up that the star in question was unable to perform any of the shows in the first town after the opening. The star could not, in fact, even walk. The understudy went on at the second performance, without the benefit of rehearsal. And because the understudy was the aspect of the production that most of the tech support was focused on that night, I made my entrance at that performance in a $2,500.00 tailor made suit...and no shirt. (This made the overweight, tattooed wardrobe mistress with the purple hair feel as though I had made her look foolish. I now had an enemy in the company, one who would leave little surprises for me in my quick-change shoes, including, but not limited to, safety pins, razor blades, and thumb tacks.)
As we were traveling to the third city, one of our dancers was detained by the police. It seems that he had found a wallet, and attempted to make some purchases with the credit cards therein. Off to jail he went. We had lost a second performer before arriving in the third city.
At the third city, our star returned to the show. And we were told that on Thursday, we would shoot a television commercial during the day, and do our regular performance at night. Because so many union stage actors are also members of the unions that cover film work, none of us anticipated anything less than a SAG or AFTRA contract to cover our work on the commercial.
But when we were changing into our street clothes for the dinner break after shooting was complete, the voice of the assistant company manager informed us over the loudspeaker that our contracts were coming to our dressing rooms for our signature.
“And if you turn it in, signed, before you leave, you’ll each get a hundred dollars in cash!”
Suddenly it became apparent that the producer was attempting to swindle us out of the union contract that we all simply assumed would be a part of the process. This revelation led to some dissatisfaction with our employers which would continue long after the union contract, which a coworker and I made some frantic phone calls to obtain, was signed.
One of our leading players suffered from migraines. Very severe ones. At one performance, he was unable to perform, leaving the work to his understudy, who was on tour with his wife and twin toddlers. While I have no doubt that no one had expected the understudy to this major role to have to go on for a few more weeks, it was rather disconcerting to discover that the understudy did not know his lines. Seemingly at all. Which became more problematic because the entire libretto, or “book” of the show, was in rhyming couplets. The understudy attempted to hide a script where the audience couldn’t see it. Unfortunately, he couldn’t see it either. And his attempts to ad lib in rhyme were simultaneously hilarious (to the cast,) and sort of pitiful.
Also in the third city, we were informed that the Production Stage Manager was being fired because of the chaos of the tech week in Niceville. I am attempting to keep this essay free from my personal feelings, but I must say that in this circumstance, there were a lot of people who should have been fired, perhaps including the director. But the Production Stage Manager had given his all in the service of the production, and he had, in my estimation, been scapegoated by the crew and the designers. I would be sad to see him go.
In our fourth city, a revelation came to light. One of our actors was an outgoing ten year old boy. He had become friendly with one of the adult dancers. So friendly, in fact, that he had shared a bed with that same adult dancer. While I certainly think that his mother was negligent in her parenting responsibilities in this regard, I guess you can’t fire a mother. The dancer in question was replaced at the end of the fourth city. And the dance captain, the person who “maintains” the choreography, had given his notice. We had lost four people in the first four cities.
In San Diego, the conductor grew impatient with his musicians. Said conductor was an unpopular fellow with the cast; at the opening performance, he became so enraged at the playing of the band that he literally walked out of the orchestra pit, leaving the concert master to conduct the remainder of the performance. Which was a relief...the concert master was a fine musician, and performed heroically.
The producers, however, offered the conductor a raise to return, which he did, for a time.
In Baltimore, we had to cancel two shows on a Wednesday because of a blizzard. We were all in a hotel adjacent to the theatre, so we all could have gotten there. But no one would have been in the house. So we got a night off for room service and “adult beverages.”
There was a girl who was under the age of consent, and she happened to be the daughter of one of the producers. She started sleeping with the sound man. Whereupon we arrived in a major city not far from Manhattan, and were told that we would be doing the opening night performance in that town with the sound board being run by an assistant who had never “run the board” before. I am told that no one in that city ever heard any of the show clearly while the assistant found his way around the board.
And perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that another cast member gave his notice that he would be leaving.
The crew for a big tour works long, hard hours. And they did so in New Orleans, where one crew member finished the load-out, and was photographed by the assistant stage manager, passed out cold backstage after the load out had been completed. This crew member was fired...and replaced by a heroin-user.
Performers continued to leave the show with alarming frequency. There was a time when a national tour was the next best job a stage performer could book after a Broadway show, but this tour was simply too much. I told my wife that I was considering leaving, too, but she convinced me that the younger performers needed a veteran performer such as myself to watch their collective backs, and I stayed with the show. I wish I hadn’t. The tour never really “settled in.”
Without question, the two worst-designed theatres I have ever played were both designed by the great Frank Lloyd Wright, a man who revolutionized architecture, but seemingly didn’t understand the needs of a theatre. Our stop in Arizona played to awful sightlines and poor acoustics, and it was there that I was further disappointed by the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness failing in his bid to win the Triple Crown at Belmont. And the temperature in Arizona was over 100 degrees for the entire week.
By the last stop on the tour, it was decided that we would have a brush up rehearsal. But by this time, the director had become fed up with the tour, and declined to make an appearance. Still, because the last theatre we played was owned by the one producer who actually cared about the cast, we were relatively comfortable for those last three weeks. And the producer must have known that the aforementioned wardrobe mistress was evil, because she was told that her job would be done for the last three weeks by the theatre’s own wardrobe mistress, and was sent home early. (This was the best news I got while I was on the road with that show.)
I got on the plane for home after the final performance with a heavy heart. The entire run had been an ordeal, the sort of ordeal that comes out of a circumstance where the main producer, who has amassed his wealth with non-union tours, and whose crews are accustomed to treating non-union actors with glaring contempt, throws professionalism, safety concerns, and respect for the acting profession to the wind.
On the plane ride home that night, I felt sad that I had no happy memories from the Broadway show I had gone on the road with. While I had made a few friends, they were few, indeed. And while I had made a union paycheck for 40 weeks, it wasn’t enough to afford me any real comfort.
Happily, a little over two years later, I was offered a chance to recreate my role in a production of the show at a historic theatre in Pennsylvania. And some of my former coworkers were brought back, too. But the house crew was respectful, helpful and courteous. The director trusted the material, (unlike the previous director,) and had respect and affection for his company. The choreographer was quite wonderful; he only needed to stage each number once, and the choreography was pleasant to look at, while still being simple enough to execute while the performers were singing.
So when someone mentions the title of That Show to me, and makes light of how unhappy I was doing it, I reply, “I had a perfectly wonderful time doing it! Two years later, in Pennsylvania.”
And because of that production, I had finally acquired some happy memories (and a lot of new friends) from my LAST 32 performances of the show I toured with for 300 performances, all over the country. And that last stop made it all worthwhile.