Yesterday afternoon was the reading of my new musical, The Distant Bells and, first and foremost I have to say that it went very well. But for those of you unfamiliar with these kinds of things, it was a 29-hour reading. That means it was a very basic reading of the show. The actors stand – most often at music stands – with a binder holding their script and score. There are no costumes, props, set or lights. There is no staging aside from standing up and moving to your music stand when you’re in the scene and sitting down in your chair when you aren’t. A stage direction reader helps to fill in anything the audience needs to know and wouldn’t get from just a reading and the music is played by, in this case, a skeleton orchestra of piano and drums.
The 29-hour part comes from the fact that each actor is limited to 29 hours of rehearsal. Now, that might sound like a lot of hours per person, but it most definitely is not. When you consider how much music has to be taught, learned, worked and polished along with character and scene work, those 29 hours fly by like a monkey in Wicked. On top of that, the creative team is usually (as we were) making changes every day to improve and hone the piece. It’s a crazy week and, frankly, it is a minor miracle that any 29-hour reading ever comes together – and yet, most of them do.
Finally, on the last day of the reading, people arrive – producers, actors, agents, friends, etc – to sit in metal chairs flat on the floor under the florescent lights and see the show. It’s not anything close to what the show could/would ultimately be but, in many ways, it is the purest form the show will ever take. It is about the show, the story, the characters, the music, the lyrics, the dialogue and that’s really about it. It is about the actors and their portrayal of the characters to an extent, but, even that is secondary because, in such a short rehearsal period, nobody expects fully realized performances.
So, in the end, we do these readings to “see if there’s anything there”. To learn from the living portrayal of the characters as embodied by the actors. To learn from the audience response. To learn from just hearing the material come alive. In some cases, the material proves weaker than you thought on the page. In some cases, the talent of the actors elevates the material and makes it seem better than it is. Figuring out which is which is a major challenge to a good creative team.
In the end, it remains to be seen if The Distant Bells will have a future life and, if it does, what form it will take and how it will all unfold. But, I do know that, yesterday, the amazingly talented cast did me very proud! I am so grateful and indebted to Chita Rivera, Ana Gasteyer, Rachel York, Andy Mientus, James Snyder, Chris Sieber and Jason Tam! The entire creative team and staff of course has my heartfelt thanks as well, but I must single out two people that I first worked with on Altar Boyz so many years ago – my music director, Lynne Shankel (who is brilliant and wonderful in so many ways) and my director, Stafford Arima (without whose tireless insight and talent I would never have survived!). Also, a big thank you to Todd Haimes, Jill Rafson, Stephen Kopel and the Roundabout Theatre for allowing us to do this reading under their auspices.
As I relax today I find myself torn between quoting two things from the show. The first one is the last lyric in the show: “Okay, time to see what happens next”. And the second is the first spoken line of the show: “Men are like Picassos – most of them are fucked up”. I wrote them both and, even though the second one doesn’t apply to this moment, I just like it, so I’m gonna keep them both in my head for now!