|I recently performed with a jazz band for a one-woman show. It involved a portrayal of six great singers of jazz and blues from 20’s to the 60’s (e.g., Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, and Billie Holiday). I’ve often told musicians and the public in general that playing for a show is different from playing a “regular” gig. There’s a certain type of discipline involved when you are a part of a theatrical production. You have to keep one eye on the actor and one eye on the music. Sometimes the music is fairly easy and at other times, you may run across a song with various time signatures. One thing is certain: you’ll come across a lot of key modulations. You’ll have long rehearsals leading up to the opening night, but it’s all worth it in the end. And - I am a firm believer that there are gremlins living in theatres! But I’ll get to that later.
The last show was the most meaningful because we (the band) weren’t just musicians playing behind a singer. As the time periods changed, so did our characters. We had lines and were able to create our characters as we chose, without alternating the show. When the singer performed as “Billie Holiday” it was scary. If you closed your eyes, you would’ve thought Miss Holiday was actually on stage. Even the audience was amazed; it was as if the late singer’s spirit took up residence in the actress’ body temporarily. It was great learning a little about acting. We had a funny scene where we where on stage playing a blues tune in the big-band style. During the rehearsals we were able to get our laughs out but once the show opened, we had to “stay in character”, reacting startled when the actress came out on stage (as Ethel Waters). She would storm out and cut off our jam session. If we had laughed, that would’ve given the scene away. “Miss Walters” chewed us out because we weren’t rehearsing the song we were supposed to play with her. The actress’ timing was perfect because she never came out at the same point in the music. The woman always managed to surprise the hell out of us!
In another scene, the stage was covered with blue light and the singer and I did a short duo. I began the scene by playing a few notes of the melody “Am I Blue” using my bass bow. As she began to sing, I changed to using my fingers, playing notes enharmonically to her ad libs over the melody. The purpose of my music was to stir her character’s memories/thoughts of loneliness. I kept myself at an angle where I couldn’t see her face. In that scene she would stop singing abruptly out of frustration/emotion because her character (Ethel Waters) wanted the memories to stop, so I listened to her voice inflections to know when to stop playing. I chose to be at an angle because if I had faced her, that would’ve looked rehearsed. By looking away and listening to her, her abrupt ending seemed more realistic. I’ve played for productions of “Godspell” and “The Wiz” where there was a large cast. This was the first time that I had more freedom to really be a part of a show. I have a great time playing music for the theatre, but this time it was special…
Now – as for gremlins at a theatre: believe me, they’re in there! One night during the show all of our lights on the music stands wouldn’t come on. On another night, the trumpeter’s music kept falling. There was a night when the power line for my amplifier “decided” to go out for half of a song. I like to put all of my music in order for each act so that I’m not fumbling around during the show. Anyway, during the first act, I discovered that my part for a particular song was out of order. I didn’t realize it until the scene came up. I was certain that I had put everything in order prior to the show. I wound up playing the song from memory. Later, during the intermission, I found that the song I was looking for was stuck to another one. I was wondering if that was going to happen to me. It’s happened at some point for the past 8 theatrical productions I’ve been a part of! It’s the gremlin’s way of telling me to memorize the music. I know: I sound like I’ve lost it, but I haven’t, I assure you!
Then there are injuries where you learn what the words “The show must go on!” really mean. Before the first rehearsal, the saxophonist broke his foot snowboarding. We called him “Hop-A-Long” after that. Last year, while going down some steps from a platform where I had been playing with the band for the show “Bubbling Brown Sugar”, I missed a step and over-extended my left foot. I was taking my acoustic-bass down the steps at the time. I still can’t figure out how I kept from making my bass fall! My foot hurt like hell the next day and on top of that, I had two shows to do! I stand when I play so the word “stamina” really comes to mind in those kinds of situations. While I played for the show, I didn’t have any pain. As soon as the performance was over, the pain was “back to life” as if my foot was saying, “Hey stupid! I just wanted you to remember what happened yesterday!”
In spite of it all, it’s the magic of the theatre that I love. For me, it’s great working with actors and actresses who can sing and dance as well as act. I’ve also begun to learn more about the behind-the-scenes work that goes on with a production, such as setting up the lighting design. Another benefit is that performing for shows helps to keep your sight-reading skills up. Sometimes I have to work with substitute pianist. I usually wind up being the assistant musical director. I memorize shows well, from knowing the actors’ cues and positions on stage, the light cues, music tempos – everything. My mindset is that I don’t want the actors to feel that something’s different. I want the show to run smoothly, so by learning all those things and assisting the substitute pianist, it helps him and the actors to be at ease.
If you ever get the chance to play for a musical, do it. The theatre is a world in itself and you just might like it.
BY Kim Michele LaCoste
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