Friday, May 07, 2004

Fiddler on the Roof - Music Director Diary Notes

Dear Diary...

The following are just some of my informal "diary" notes on the opening week for Fiddler on the Roof, from my own "Music Director" perspective. These are not intended to be rants or raves nor do I disclose specific names, etc. - I just want to try to capture some of the simple facts and observations from this experience. Often, when doing a show, it's hard for me to recall all the thousands of things that happen - emotions are high, stress is somewhat high and things are constantly evolving. Most will be lost, but here are a few highlights:

Monday May 3 - the highlights from this included my many, many mistakes, notably my disastrous cueing of the chorus in the opening number, "Tradition." This was mostly a communications thing as we weren't all on the same page as far as the first entrance went - but my eye jumping over a few staves and cueing everyone in early on the "dai, dai, dai, dais" certainly didn't help! How strange it was that the entire chorus could be so off - opps, it was ME! Other layers were still evolving too - lights, scene transitions that weren't always timely, tight, etc. It still wasn't entirely clear, musically, what underscoring was working and what was actually taking away. I mentioned that these Monday (first or second time in the pit) were usually the most challenging - this one did not fail to live up to that. I felt a little discouraged, primarily with my own performance.

Tuesday, May 4 - woke up early and wrote out detailed notes (big stuff) to the orchestra. So many great players the problems were primarily just simple communication things (when to come in, etc.) and the context of some of the things we were playing. Although I don't like those types of "Monday" runs, Tuesday was near stellar! Things came together in a big way. We nailed Tradition! And other numbers followed successfully. Trying to get a sense of the overall balance (we only have three pit covers open) - many said the orchestra was too soft - others said too loud? Which was it? Well, as it turns out, probably a little of both, depending on the action on the stage. Oh, one recollection: the Fiddler tripped on one entrance to the stage and that bugged him! But he did an amazing little ad lib when Tevye appeared to be late on his entrance. Speaking of Tevye - Bob is absolutely amazing. I can't imagine a better Tevye in all the history of this show, and that includes Broadway and Movie renditions. (Okay, getting caught up in the fever. I'll keep the raves in check!)

Wednesday, May 5 - (Preview Night), about 150 folks in attendance. A real audience. After the stellar Tuesday night rehearsal I was wary, but things went well. The applauses provided new challenges - still many scene changes and musical transitions a bit rough but getting better. Since we have an orchestra of about 50 (but only 25 or so in the pit at any given time), many musicians are getting the chance to see the show. This helps greatly, as being in the pit can serve to disconnect one from the overall emotion on the stage - even though the music being performed is certainly a key part of that emotional "thing" that makes it all work. So getting their reactions on balance, blend and feel were very valuable. Also got to chat with folks in the audience about the show - very exciting. Director's note: orchestra too loud! Yikes!

Thursday, May 6 - Opening Night! A very good opening night. A couple rough starts ("Miracle of Miracles") and some places were I would swear we were a beat away from total disaster, but otherwise we held it together with grit and brute force. We pulled down our volume in many key places and that seemed to work well.

Friday, May 7 - the day after opening night. This was an "exciting" show! Orchestra did great adjusting to the various unexpected events on stage (very minor line issues, some rushing of songs - I would have to blame fatigue more than anything). Our wonderful Tevye was feeling ill but delivered a fine performance - a dropped series of lines at the top of "To Life" ("to our agreement...err......but most important..") prompted us in the pit to simply go with the flow. It worked too. A bit of trouble in the dream sequence, but a nice recovery by Grandma. It's a long week - only two more shows until week #1 is over. I'm in no hurry to see this production end - enjoying it all. Audiences seem to like it too. We seem to end about 11 pm every night (we start at 8 pm).

Saturday, May 8 - as I recall this was a good show. As of this writing I have let the entire second week go by without detailing anything in this blog! That just means that for the most part the show, by this time, assumed a rhythm that was fairly stable.

Sunday, May 9 - this show was on Mothers' Day. In our family we've actually postponed Mothers' Day until Fathers' Day since things are simply so busy. The one notable event was that we lost a cast member to a broken ankle! Very sad for him, but he will hopefully have a speedy recovery.

Week #2

Since I didn't take notes, I'll just summarize this week with various streams of thought...flashes:

Two days rest - what rest?! Hard to sleep on Monday since we were all coming down from the rigorous week (a seemingly 15 day week!). Tuesday's lecture "An evening with Sholom Aleichem" given by Mike Aronson was inspiring! Learned a great deal about his life and writings. Wednesday - the show resumes its week 2. As I recall, this audience was very perky, laughing everywhere! Were we thin on strings? Yes, but it worked out great anyway. The orchestra and cast performed great - not loose at all; very tight for being off two days. Thursday - another good show as I recall. Friday -another a good show, but some rough spots in various solo lines. Saturday - I captured some photos/video/audio clips from the pit - a good call too because we were on FIRE! S.C.'s clarinet solo on stage was a knock-out! He's truly a pro and it showed! I was having so much fun - didn't feel like I was expending an ounce of energy. The orchestra executed so well - adjusting to the subtle changes on the stage and vocal delivery almost instinctively. This night was indeed a highlight. Sunday - yikes! Very tired. Arms feel heavy - a matinee show to boot! Feeling a bit sick too (cold/sinus stuff but no fever). Just hanging in. By the middle of act I no major mistakes so feeling a bit better. The show overall was excellent and we met at China Delight for food, friends and laughs. I had to leave early though to attend a VB rehearsal. Yikes! My chops? Where art thou? (Monday morning - lots of long tones, Arbans, et al. Gigs coming up soon!)

Week #3 - Closing Week of Fiddler on the Roof

Had a fairly restless two days off - was a bit drained after the second week - I'm certain I wasn't alone as many of the actors/musicians were grinding on.

Wednesday, May 19 - the third week began with this performance that was quite exceptional! The pre-sold hospital audience was very different from "normal" audiences; one of the rare occasions where there were some empty seats - for subsequent years we must tell folks wanting tickets to hang out on this night! Of note: the first bottle to find its way into the pit. Fortunately it pretty much rolled my way - I just snatched it up! Then, as if one wasn't enough, another actor dropped his as the last moment of the dance causing glass to shatter - small pieces of glass landed on at least one string player! From this point forward we switched to plastic bottles for safety!

Thursday, May 20: this show was also quite good - Tevye's hat went missing during the break after Act 1. There was a stuffed toy turkey on his chair. He was inflamed. His hat was found. The turkey was a coincidental joke by Lazar (presumably a reference to the inside joke of "5 chickens for the first five sabbaths of their wedded lives...") - no harm done. Tevye cried like a baby on Little Chavala - a nice way to vent! Orchestra is wonderful. Everyone hanging in there; we're all still adjusting. No two nights are the same, but there's solid consistancy throughout, even with the diversity of the pool of 50 players. I can't see doing a community show with an orchestra that is not "overbooked" like this. The payoff is twofold: rehearsing with a large group provides the power and support that younger/less experienced players can feed from; and second, when it comes to performances, allowing players to trade off/share eliminated a bit of the burn-out that can dampen the old spirits. With only three shows remaining, everyone seems in fine spirits. Oh, I'm aware of the toll on some folks, especially in the orchestra - but overall, I think the memories of the long nights will be smoothed into a feeling of accomplishment and job well done.

One final memory - vocal warm-ups: we did a 4-way round of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" with a fun twist: one time through all together, then break into the round. Once all the way through each respective part, modulate up a half-step (with a gracious and respectful nod to the great Barry Manilow's pop 70's arranging style) - the rub is that for a moment there's some amazing dissonance, but things worked out great. This proved to be a nice way to center in on ones key/tonality and trusting that it will somehow come together and it did.

Friday, May 21: A great show as I recall!

Saturday, May 22: Another great show. Perchik (T.C.) makes his infamous Cool Shoes performance run, misses Tradition. Apologies in the morning though!

Sunday, May 23: Show closes with a very tight performance! It was a great run and everyone seems to be in fine spirits despite the long run. One ghost in the mics somewhere (boom!). An emotional cast, which is to be expected (those new to shows don't realize that they never really end!) - I try to remind myself that the so-called close of one show merely marks the beginning of a new one. Shows come and go - its the folks we get to meet and work with along the way that matter. Friendships and great memories are made. Cast/Crew/Orchestra party at Papas Pizza: funny skits ("Dream Sequence") - got some video clips of this! MJR's words to entire cast. I spoke a bit to ensemble, specifically about the orch. players in attendence, though most weren't there. Never can say enough (certainly wasn't prepared to speak!) - forgot to say some really important things but hopefully the important stuff was conveyed even if not said directly.

I have a memory CD (orchestra oriented) with lots of photos, short video clips and various audio clips that give an idea of what we sounded like. It's quite amazing really and something I think will be special to have. Looking forward to sharing this with orchestra folks and others involved in the show.

Fiddler on the Roof - what an amazing show. A showcase for such extra-ordinary local talent, great music. I was amazed night after night with the craft that went into the script and score. It's truly a giant of shows. I felt our Corvallis Community Theatre rendition was done right - 14 shows, every single one totally sold out, standing ovations for every performance. It brought many members of the community together in a big way (folks who might never have met forged friendships) and provided an outlet for so many to practice their art/craft.

Well, on to the next show!

Break a leg!

Rob Birdwell (May 2004)