another openin’…

Well, not just any other opening.

Tonight, the Bloomington Playwrights Project — “the only professional theatre in the state of Indiana devoted exclusively to new plays” — will open its production of Make Me Bad, a brand-new, dark-and-twisted, psycho-thriller musical by writers Drew Gasparini and Alex Brightman.

It’s hot, it’s edgy, it’s already sold out its opening weekend.

And it’s the first main-stage musical to happen at the BPP without me.

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Yes, I’m making it about me.

I worked with a lot of theatre organizations during my time in Bloomington.  All of them, in fact.  With the exception of the Jewish Theatre of Bloomington.  So there’s that.

But the BPP was, hands down, the theatre where I felt the most at home.  And not like the sappy kind of “feels like home” that suggests everything was smiley and happy every second of every day, because that’s not a home.  That’s a greeting card.  The BPP was a real home, with all the fights and disagreements, the awkward moments and belated apologies — all those rough edges that occur when people who care about each other spend way too much time together in a single confined space.

But there was also the feeling, at the end of the day, that there was no other group of people who made those rough edges quite so worthwhile.

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I started at the BPP as part of the education program — a role that would continue, literally, until the day before I left town.  It was 2009, and I was music-directing that summer’s production of Guys & Dolls, Jr.  Just as the program was wrapping up, the BPP Board was narrowing down its choices for a new artistic director, since the current one — Rich Perez — was moving to Chicago.

I should point out, before going any further, that the BPP, at this particular moment in time, was little more than a shit-box — in physical space, in artistic decision-making, and in reputation.  All of that changed with the arrival of the new Artistic Director, Chad Rabinovitz (I won’t get into all the details, because Bloom Magazine already did with this really great profile a couple years back).

I don’t remember exactly when — probably the following summer, while I was back directing thirty-some-odd adolescents in a production of 13 — but Chad mentioned he wanted to add a musical to the main season, he had one all picked out, and that he wanted me to music-direct it.

Now, I’m still not entirely sure why he offered me the gig.  I suspect it’s because he was still new in town, didn’t know any other music-directors, and I was already attached to the BPP.  But whatever the reason, it was welcome step forward for me.  I was about three years out of school, with Alexander still in the early phase of his PhD program, and I finally felt I was making progress establishing myself locally as a music-director.  I had already done two shows with the still-emerging Cardinal Stage Company, which focused on more traditional regional theatre rep.  I figured, if I could balance that on one hand, with a string of new works at the BPP on the other, I’d leave Bloomington with both a well-rounded resumé and a sweet network of contacts throughout the theatre industry.

So I gladly got on board with Chad’s musical ambitions.

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The show he had in mind was sprung from the notion that a full-length musical could (never mind should…) be inspired by a single song that had been written years before without any greater context in mind —

 

“Greta”, by singer-songwriter Jeremy Schonfeld, would eventually blossom into Kissing Frogs, a Friends-esque musical romp with a little something for everyone:  a hot, blonde leading lady and her equally hot leading man; a sassy, feuding gay couple; a few well-placed musical theatre jokes… oh, and zombies.  There were zombies.

Sadly, the many ups and downs of bringing Kissing Frogs to life on stage are far too many to explore in this particular blog-post.  So, for now, I’ll simply point out two of that production’s more lasting effects…

First, of course, was the decision that new musicals should definitely have a regular place on the BPP’s season.  Even better, for me, was that Chad kept hiring me to music-direct them.

The other major development from Kissing Frogs was that it launched an ongoing artistic relationship between Jer (as we all, eventually, end up calling Jeremy Schonfeld), Chad, and the BPP.  Two years after Kissing Frogs, Jer would partner with long-time BPP family member, Emily Goodson, to create SPUN — which received a production at the Phoenix Theater in Indianapolis, and is slated for a run at the Adirondack Theatre Festival this summer — as well as Greta, the Kissing Frogs “reboot.”

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A quick word about Jer.

He’s a giant of a man, with an equally sizable personality, and I could not have picked a musical colleague more different from myself if I tried.  He’s pop and rock’n’roll — I’m classical and old-school Broadway.  He makes music intuitively, spontaneously — I prefer the comfort of well-prepared sheet music.  He calls out drum and guitar licks like speaking a second language, and I just stare blankly wishing I knew what the fuck he was talking about.

The work I did with Jer consistently pushed me out of my comfort zone and, I am certain, forged me into a stronger musician.  Certainly a harder-drinking one.

I can’t wait to work with him again.

*****

The show formerly known as Kissing Frogs had dwindled to nothing — the book-writer lost interest, the producers moved on to other projects.  It needed some new life.

That life came in the form of Emily Goodson, who is one of the most beautifully and unabashedly vulgar people I know.  She knows no boundaries, no filters, and her writing never fails to leave me doing spit takes with my bourbon-and-diet.

The uptown, Manhattan sensibility of Kissing Frogs was radically transformed into a down-to-earth, Midwestern tale of frustrated ambitions, confusing relationships, and bowling.

It was fantastic.

Only a few musical numbers were carried over from the original — the title song, of course, and the epic “Here’s To You” — which meant that Jer was writing new tunes at a furious pace.  He was back in New York, working from his piano and (I shit you not) making a voice memo recording on his iPhone of each new song as he completed it.  He would then email me said voice memo, which I would try my best to interpret and transcribe into vocal charts for the actors.

How were musicals ever written before the Internet?

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We knew Greta would be my last mainstage show at the BPP.  And I tried really, really hard not to think about it.

But there I was, nonetheless, on opening night — an emotional wreck.

The whole cast, crew, anyone and their mother involved in the show, went bowling after the first performance.  I tried so hard to have a good time.  And for a brief few seconds, I succeeded.

I was at least a couple of drinks in.  Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock’n’Roll” was blasting over the sound system, and I had just thrown the ball down the lane.  I turned around, smiling, dancing a little to the music, and Nat Zegree — one of the stupidly talented young actors from the cast — came up to me and said, “Just now, that was the youngest you have ever looked.”

I’m pretty sure I kissed him for that.

It was, as they say, all downhill from there.  I kept drinking, of course, which never helps.  But I also started taking a real, long look at the people I was with.  I started thinking about all the time I had spent with them, all the work we had done together.  And I felt this overwhelming sadness at the realization that I was leaving it behind.

*****

I wasn’t in much better shape the closing night of Greta, either.  Of course, in that case, it was a string of physical, not emotional, difficulties I was facing.

Primary among them was the fact that Alexander and I had just barely begun packing for the move.  I was busy with gigs, and he was knee-deep in dissertation writing, but we were still trying to find every spare moment to at least try and pack a dish here, a book there.

At the same time, I was embarking on one of my most artistically ambitious projects to date — leading Monroe County Civic Theater (the amateur, community theater company I ran) in a week-long marathon of Shakespeare readings.  Seriously.  To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of MCCT’s Shakespeare in the Park, we read all thirty-seven of Shakespeare’s plays in just eight days.  And, by a quirk of the calendar, the first two of those days overlapped with Greta‘s closing weekend.  Which meant that by the time I got to the theatre for the last performance of Greta, I had already spent the day with Two Noble Kinsmen, King John, Two Gentlemen of Verona,  and Richard II.

I was also — because why not? — coming down with a serious cold that was robbing me of whatever shred of energy I had left.  In an attempt to beat it back, I had stopped at a Village Pantry on the way to read Richard II (I was reading the title role) to pick up some cold meds.  I was in such a rush I just grabbed a package of bluish-green liqui-gels off the rack, assuming they contained some form of pseudoephedrine.  I was wrong.  I had actually bought — and swallowed without looking at the package first — a complete dose of NyQuil.

I was still, though just barely, awake when I got to the BPP, and am still amazed I got through the show without completely passing out.  The performance is a blur, as is the entire clean-up process that followed.

Afterwards, one of the show’s actors congratulated me on a good show.  All I could muster was a half-coherent “thanks” as I wandered off to continue striking the band.

*****

As the show was being struck, Chad gathered as much of the cast, crew, creative team, and BPP staff in the lobby as he could.  There was a cake.  It had note that read, “You transformed the BPP.”

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It was for me, and Chad had a bottle of champagne popped and ready to pour, all in order to acknowledge the time and effort I had devoted to the Bloomington Playwrights Project.

I don’t really like being held up in this way.  The BPP had already honored me plenty with its Arts Educator of the Year award the previous September (that’s a story for another time).  Plus, while I may have invested a great deal in the BPP, I can’t quite go so far as to say I have any claim to its transformation.  I just hope I did my job well.

As we were standing around the lobby, bubbly in hand, Hannah and Julian — two cast-members whom I’d worked with since their earliest IU days — started into the inevitable chant of “Speech!  Speech!”  I shot that down pretty quick.  I was in no shape to make any kind of public expression.

But had I been, this is what I would have said:

When Chad first came to the BPP, he held an artists’ showcase — a few stand-up comedians, an improv artist — and asked me to play some background music at the keyboard as people mingled in the lobby.  The audience was — typical at that time — sparse, and Chad was visibly frustrated.  Just before the show began, I said to him, rather cynically, “Welcome to the BPP.”

Without missing a beat, he said, “Nope.  This is the new BPP.  Bigger and better.”

That set off a red-flag for me.  It’s been my experience that people who say “bigger and better” are really good at accomplishing the former and just assuming the latter will happen by default.  But I think it’s safe to say that under Chad’s leadership the BPP is, without a doubt, both bigger and better.  And it has been an enormous privilege to have been a part of it.

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There’s so much more to say.  So many shows, actors, designers.  So many people who became a vital part of my life.

And that’s not even including the time I spent working with the kids of the Youth Musical Theatre Ensemble, which I led for six summers.  That… that will take more time to reflect on…

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Speaking of which…

One of my theatre kids is making her professional BPP debut in tonight’s production of Make Me Bad.  Her mother tells me I’m going to be surprised by how far she’s come.  I have no doubt I will.  She’s pretty amazing.

*****

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