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Sunday, February 13

First day of the rest of my life
Life after Guys and Dolls begins here. I am not certain at the moment whether that last show was my most favourite experience as a performer, but it was certainly time well spent in a very good theatre with a production that I could see few flaws in. However, life goes on and today was my first day working on South Pacific in earnest. I've held back to some extent in previous rehearsals, not wanting to do any memorising lest I corrupt my knowledge of Guys and Dolls.

I have two ways of learning something. It's either active or passive. In active learning, I force myself to pick up the words parrot fashion and repeat them until they stick in my head. In passive mode, I just know. When on stage, it's better to just know something than to have to use one's powers of recall. Learning a musical can be great since one can use lots of things to help with the memory. Just being in a particular part of the stage with a particular bit of the song playing and the sound of the last line can be enough to prompt you to move to another bit of the stage and sing the appropriate rhyme. If it's instinctive, then it makes for a better performance. If the lyric is written well enough, you may only need to hear it a couple of times to pick it up. As a regular debunker of Oscar Hammerstein, I would have to say that this is not always possible with his work, but I went to today's rehearsal knowing over 80% of what I'll be singing on stage next Tuesday, so it wasn't that bad. I have a few lines of script to blast out, so I did some active learning during the walkthrough rehearsal at the theatre. For me, this was just writing out my lines and looking at why I couldn't remember them. It's just a matter of finding the bits I'll forget and recognising how they fit into the bits I remember. By the time I'd analysed the 100 or so words I hadn't memorised, I'd memorised them. It's just the way my brain works. I'll not get too many chances to say them before there's a paying audience, but it should be fine.

The day started rather badly. I woke up at silly times of the morning, having been unable to get to sleep until about 3. I think I probably woke up worrying that I'd missed a cue, or perhaps dreaming about directors being disappointed in me. This must be some sort of reverse performance anxiety. I don't get that nervous about going on stage and my rare cases of performance anxiety dreaming tend to resolve themselves during the dream - i.e. I win the audience over. The only big performance anxiety dream I recall was when I was backstage in a production of Carousel which looked fairly shambolic to me. I had a dream in which I was trying, naked on a stage in front of the audience, to strike the props, as the whole show fell around my ears... that was not a fear of my inadequacy, though - it was a fear of theirs! Anyway. I woke up a few times over the morning, including a stint at around 9am. My leg was hurting and I couldn't get comfortable in the bed. Eventually, I forced myself to sleep some more. This was a good idea, though it meant that I somewhat squandered the opportunity of having a morning, emerging from the bed at around 12. However, I needed the sleep. The preceeding week had been very very draining.

Once out of bed, I showered for as long as I could possibly manage. I think I sang in the shower and I must compliment the bathroom for its acoustics. I frequently sing like an angel when next to tiles. Stick me on a stage and it's somewhat less impressive. A quick trip to the local shop for supplies - I felt like I hadn't eaten in weeks - and I had a full enough belly to fuel my trip to Whitley Bay for the walk-through of the show we're opening on the 22nd. It's the 13th today. The 13th of February - supposedly quite unlucky. The atmosphere in the theatre was not particularly uplifting. Somehow things felt very low.

Of course, I came to this group as something of an outsider, since I've not been part of the team all the way along. They've seen me maybe 3 or 4 times this year. I've chanced upon being there at all the critical moments and I'm quite good at being in approximately the right place on the stage and improvising what stage direction I need to take in order not to look out of place in the scenes that unfold. I had feared that I would be totally mystified by the requirements placed on me at this stage. I foresaw the possibility that I'd have to sit with the director for a couple of hours and take notes and then go away and learn them. Today, I felt a bit like I was only a couple of days behind other members of the cast. This was a bit of a surprise.

However, the reason it felt odd is quite similar to why it felt odd that day I arrived in time for my scene during Guys and Dolls to find a panic on the stage as a scene was not working. I had been in the relaxed mood of a dressing room and my expectations were to go along and do a certain scene at a certain moment. The drama unfolding outside of the dressing room was perfectly understandable to those involved, but I came to it as an outsider. So, as someone coming down from a show week, and having rehearsed the run up to that show in a particular way with a particularly precise director, it was a suprise to find the disinterested mob that I joined in with today. I'm pleased that I didn't need to take my script on the stage for any of the scenes. Only just... my cramming within the auditorium saved me from that. Some scripts were used by people who had had plenty of time available for them to learn not to need them.

Will the show be crap?

No. It will be a good show. People will enjoy it. I'm just going to have to get into the same gear as this different group with whom I haven't worked closely since March 2003. My last show with them put me back stage in June 2003 in Sweet Charity, a show due to re-open on Broadway later this year (I looked at the website for it; it stars Christina Applegate, whom I used to find attractive - she is no longer attractive and her performance looks terrible).

Stop! Hammerstein
I am frequently catty about Oscar Hammerstein. I've no problems with Richard Rodgers, but for some reason, I frequently find fault in the way that his lyricist and playwright collaborator assembled dialogue and lyrics. I have to admit that I'm being a cheeky young upstart when I do this. I must acknowledge that Mr Hammerstein was the centre of a revolution in musical theatre. He and Jerome Kern transformed the musical when they wrote Show Boat. The idea of a play with musical number in it which genuinely fit the show, was innovating. In-character lyrics were created to reflect the voices of the characters, rather than provide a launchpad for the performers playing them. Oscar Hammerstein created a number of shows which reflected their era while also innovating.

Yet, I can't help but be unimpressed with the degree of skill with which some of our well-known song lyrics were concocted. The standards were possibly lower in those days. Perhaps the pioneering work of Mr Hammerstein made it more important for people to find those magical lines. There are, though, so many annoying examples of lyrics which just need fixing. They need fixing because they're a bugger to sing, a bugger to remember, or quite simply because they look like placeholders - something stuck in the line for the time being until something better comes along... but then never did.

Alan J Lerner had a placeholder lyric in the song "I could have danced all night" - it was "I'll never know what made it so exciting, why all at once my heart took flight.". As a placeholder lyric, that ain't bad. The internal rhyme of "never know" and "made it so" is nice and the only bit Mr Lerner didn't like was the metaphor about a heart taking flight. It sounds like a serious medical problem. Sure, we anthropomorphasise the heart in songs, but Alan Lerner though it sounded naff. A heart doesn't really do that. He left the lyric in to his chagrin and yet it's one of the most well-known and well loved songs in musical theatre.

Conversely, there are lines in South Pacific which just should not have been put there. My current mental block is the line "It's a waste of time to worry over things that they have not" which is a bugger of a contrived phrase, hence the difficulty in remembering it. Lyrics should require very little effort of memory. I have heard people singing my own songs back at me and they've never sat down and learned the lyrics. In fairness, they only get the words about 80% right, often substituting something of their own, which is in keeping with the intent. As a pedant, that can irritate me, but as a writer, I have to accept that I only managed to make my lyric 80% memorable. Fair do's I suppose. It's not just about memory, though. A good tip from lyricist Don Black is that the words should hug the tune. Like Alan Lerner did with Frederick Loewe, Don Black would give something like a title or single line to the composer and then write the lyrics to fit the tune. I believe that Oscar Hammerstein worked the opposite way with Richard Rodgers. He gave a sheet of lyrics and Rodgers would set them to music. There is one line in the song "Bloody Mary" where this just failed. The first verse is fine:

Bloody Mary is the girl I love
Bloody Mary is the girl I love
Bloody Mary is the girl I love, now ain't that too damn bad


A bit repetitive, perhaps. Too damn bad that he couldn't think of much to say, perhaps. But it scans and it sings well enough. A recent programme I saw suggested that repetition in lyrics is a good idea as people seldom listen too intently to them. This is probably why you have to go and see some modern musicals several times AND listen to the cast album in order to get the subtle nuances. Anyway, it's verse two which goes wrong. I'll not write it out in full, since the repetition is probably not necessary on screen.

Her skin is tender as Di Maggio's glove

This line is sometimes replaced with the less anachronistic

Her skin is tender as a baseball glove

Now. Here is the problem. This doesn't phrase even remotely like the first verse. The "her" comes before the beat where we sing the "bloo" of "bloody mary" and the "as" needs to be split across two notes in the tune. It doesn't sing right at all. It could be fixed:

Her skin's tender as a baseball glove

But no. It ain't fixed. It's left as a bastard to sing. What do I know. I'm just a young presumptuous upstart. Actually, I'm not all that young. By my age, some of the great musicians were already dead, but let's not dwell on that. I will not let some notion of my age cloud my total ambivalence towards my 31st birthday which I shall celebrate by singing, not "Happy Birthday to me", but "Her skin is tender as a baseball glove". Such is the pleasure of performing in a musical on one's birthday.

In other news
Not much else to report. I bought a microwaveable curry meal for tonight. It was a main course, rice, starter and naan bread. It was billed as a curry meal for one, or as I like to call them - "A loneliness meal". I didn't feel particularly like I was eating a scaled down meal for a lonely wee guy until I saw the naan bread, which was smaller than a CD. Aaah bless. The lone eater doesn't need so much dough, apparently. It was, however, a nice curry and I think the under abundance of naan left me enough room to eat it all... and a low-fat chocolate trifle for afterwards. Gerrin!

If I can do any ironing before my exhaustion catches me up. I'll be happier. Otherwise, I may spend the week creased and not caring. Though I slept long, I'm still fairly tired, so I'd better get some rest and get ready for an action packed 7 days to come. I'm excited.

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