Now that we’ve decoded the roots of Celebration (see my blog posts here and here), it hasn’t been hard to put this exquisite, vulgar, wild piece of theatre together. The hardest part lately has been just figuring out traffic patterns on our altar-like stage and out in the aisles (one of my favorite tools from our ArtLoft days), and figuring out the logistics of some of Tom Jones’ crazier moments.
I haven’t really had to talk to the actors as much as I had expected about what this show is and how it operates. I think they’ve come to an understanding of all that as we’ve put the pieces together.
Maybe the most important thing I told them was to think of the entire show as a ritual. Celebration follows certain conventional musical theatre rules, it appears to follow others, but it ignores even more. It’s a wonderful, subversive, quirky combination. As Tom Jones has said repeatedly, this show was an experiment. It would have been harder for all of us if we’d been thinking about this show as a traditional linear narrative love story with an obvious antagonist. As I quoted in my last post, Jones wrote in his intro to the published script, “When we moved Celebration into the Ambassador Theatre on Broadway, it didn’t feel as good. It seemed somewhat silly up there, not because it was less effective than a Broadway musical, but because it wasn’t a Broadway musical.”
Understanding that was the most important thing about our process. I had a sense of this before we started work; I knew that I needed a hand-picked cast for this one, including actors who have done other shows with me that made up all new rules. Those of us who navigated the wild waters of Hair, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bukowsical, Jerry Springer the Opera, Threepenny, and American Idiot are more or less comfortable going out on the artistic tightrope without a net (pardon the mixed metaphor).
The characters in Celebration have arcs, but not necessarily the arcs we would expect. They all fit musical comedy archetypes, but awkwardly. Mr. Rich is clearly the musical comedy villain (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Zak have this much fun), and yet almost the whole story focuses on him. His desire to feel emotion is the central plotline. Angel seems like an old-fashioned musical comedy heroine, but she isn’t looking for love, just advancement. While Hope Harcourt may have used her “feminine wiles,” Angel uses her bare breasts.
Orphan seems to be a typical musical comedy hero, cousin to Billy Crocker and J. Pierpont Finch; but really, he’s closer to Leaf Coneybear. Though Orphan falls for Angel – and can you blame him, the first time he ever meets a woman his own age and her boobs are hanging out there like that? – his central motivation has nothing to do with love. All Billy Crocker wants is Hope. All Orphan wants is his Garden.
Would it be too crass to say Orphan wants Angel to be his new garden…?
The other thing that’s just now occurring to me is that the usual musical comedy hero is a good guy but also a smartass, going all the way back to Little Johnny Jones in 1904, and as recently as Nick Bottom in Something Rotten. But Orphan is never sarcastic. There’s no darkness in him. He’s like a character from one of my own musicals, Johnny Appleweed, no judgment, no ulterior motives. That’s not a musical comedy hero. That’s an archetype in a religious ritual. Which is why Orphan doesn’t have a name.
And then there’s Potemkin, con artist and self-preservationist. It occurs to me that Pippin’s Leading Player is an almost exact twin to Potemkin, just more show-bizzy. When Fosse inserted this new character into Pippin for Ben Vereen, had he seen Celebration? The difference of course is one of stature. Leading Player is God and Satan. He controls reality. Potemkin, on the other hand, starts the show warming his hands over a trash can. He controls a freaky pageant in a rich guy’s ballroom. As much as I love Pippin, I think I prefer Potemkin.
So here we are, a week before opening the show, and I’m feeling pretty great. All that’s left to do is figure out the last few logistical things, especially a couple things related to costumes, and polish and tweak the small stuff.
One thing I know – one major ingredient has not yet been added. Masks. Our ensemble, called Revelers (because the action is set on New Year’s Eve), wear masks throughout the entire show. And Scott Schoonover, local scenic designer and mask maker, is making custom leather masks for this production. I’ve seen pictures of three of them, and they are fierce. The night they first wear those, everything will change, and I’m pretty sure it will take us right where we’ve been heading.
People are going to have so many mixed reactions to this show. If you ask them afterwards what it was about, they might not be able to put it into words. It’s less a story than an experience, a ritual that mirrors the cycles of life, or as I put it in the press release, “the freakiest New Year’s Eve party you’ll ever attend.” It’s very funny (the line that cracks me up every night, as Potemkin sticks a giant hypodermic needle into Mr. Rich: “What do you think I am, a jazz musician?”), it’s vaguely R-rated, and you’ll have these melodies in your head for a month.
But, if only on a subconscious level, I think everyone will sense the universal truth in this story of ours. And they will laugh a lot. I think this show will work a lot like Hair.
So tonight we have our last non-tech run-through, and do our best to work out all the little problems. Saturday is our lighting cue-to-cue, and Sunday the band joins us for the sitzprobe, the one rehearsal in which we run through the entire score with the band and actors, focusing only on the music.
Next week, we’ll have three full tech run-throughs, then a preview next Thursday, and opening night on Friday, with our after-party! There’s nothing more fun than adding these final elements to the work we’ve done, as we get to see our assembled puzzle for the first time.
I cannot wait to share this with our audiences…
Long Live the Musical!
from The Bad Boy of Musical Theatre http://newlinetheatre.blogspot.com/2016/09/each-seed-conceals-mystery.html