SMASH Fact or fiction? Episode 5 “Let’s Be Bad”

Happy Thursday and welcome to the fifth episode of SMASH Fact or fiction?  I always start with a small disclaimer, so please read the fine print.

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome back to America’s favorite TV trivia game show. If you’ve missed the previous posts, check out Why Smash Matters and our first four game shows, for the pilot episode  episode two episode three episode four. If you are new to My Own Space the blog, my name is Sharon and I’ve been in pretty many Broadway shows.  I am also friends with Theresa Rebeck, the creator, writer, and all around guru of the show–so I am here to remind you that I am in total support of the fact that the show is, in fact,  a TV show–a fictional drama–not a documentary.  Right?  Right.  Good.  Please initialize your understanding of this fact here: ______.  We are not out to do anything except use the show as a launching point for fun conversation about the theater world.  Based on the success of A Chorus Line  and other backstage shows, we here at My Own Space assume there is a basic appreciation and curiosity of what happens behind the scenes on Broadway.  Or else, one might rightly ask, what in the world are you doing reading this blog.  Right?  Right.  If you can’t sing at least part of the song “Tomorrow”, you’re in the wrong place and should maybe try this instead.

Truth be told, you don’t really even need to watch the show to play along, but you might be confused at points and you will not win the grand prize which is hidden behind door number fourteen and might be a year’s supply of whip cream to eat seductively in the window of the Westways Diner.

Here we go.  Lights up…cue theme music….

I will make a series of statements based on events in this weeks episode, and then give my opinion on whether the statements are “fact” or “fiction”.  You play along.  Get your buzzers ready.

Let’s talk about the behavior of the creative team in rehearsal.

1)  It is totally normal for a member of the chorus to be asked to demonstrate how to sing a song in front of the entire cast.  Fact or fiction?

I will rate this as “fiction” although in a way it is partially fact.  I think while it makes for good TV viewing, if  it actually happened in a crowded rehearsal room that the director asked a chorus member to sing a song in a style for the lead actress to mimic (as was seen when Karen sang “Happy Birthday”) there would be a flurry of phone calls to the actor’s union with complaints of a hostile work environment.

Okay, that said, I can absolutely report in that there have been numerous occasions when someone has been asked to demonstrate something in front of a group, but it is always on their own part.  Example.  If it is a vocal rehearsal and the group as a whole is having trouble nailing a certain sound–like–oh, okay, let’s use the example from the show and make it about vibrato.  Let’s say I was in the ensemble of a musical that had a very specific sound the music director wanted, like a pop/rock sound with NO vibrato, and the group as a whole was struggling to get it, but one person was really nailing it MAYBE a musical director would have that person sing it alone for the rest of the group to hear and mimic.  I have seen that happen once or twice.

More common would be in a dance rehearsal that the choreographer would pick someone out to demonstrate a step.

In both instances, though, it has to do with the group doing something in unison.  It would never happen that a person would demonstrate something to another actress if it wasn’t her role.  Nope.  Never.

Along those same lines….

2)  Actors can coach each other.  Fact or fiction?

Fiction.  Say it again.  Fiction.  Maybe MAYBE a lead in a show would get together informally with an understudy and give some advice if the lead knew the understudy was going on for the first time, but it would be very technical.  It would be stuff like, “When you do the quick change from the princess costume to the whore costume, be sure you put your shoes on first because once you get that corset on you can’t bend over to tie up your boots.”  Like that.  Or, “When you go on for the first time just know that the conductor is really hard to see from this part of the stage.”  Helpful hints.  But it would never be that a person in the ensemble coaches someone who is playing the lead on how to make the sound.  That would be the job of the music director.  More on that in a minute.

Let me talk you through the rule about actors coaching actors.

There are hard and fast rules that an actor can not give another actor “notes”.  Example.  Let’s say I am doing a party scene and there are a lot of people onstage.  Let’s say two or three times in a row someone who is doing a dance in the party scene steps on my foot.  I am not allowed to go up to that actor and say, “Hey, can you dance on the other side of the stage so you don’t step on me?”  Nor could I go to someone else and say, “When we do that scene, I want you to get more mad at me.  I feel like you are acting like a wimp.”  It’s not allowed.  I have to go through a chain of command that involves the “dance captain” who is the person in the cast assigned (and paid) to be in charge of traffic flow onstage.  The dance captain is also the person who works in conjunction with the music staff and the stage managers to get a new cast member ready, and get the understudies ready.  So you see, given that rule, the idea that Karen would be SCHEDULED to do a coaching session with Ivy?  Actress to actress?  No way.

3)  The composer of the music teaches the music to the cast.  Fact or fiction?

Fiction.  (We are three for three so far!)  The person who teaches all music at rehearsal is the Musical Director.  I am especially sensitive about this one because my husband is a music director, and we are always watching the show and saying, “Where is the music director?”  Rob Meffe–my husband the music director–is weighing in here and wants to add that frequently the composer will teach the music if the show is doing a “reading” because they don’t want to spend the money on a music director.  His direct quote?  “It’s a bad idea, but they do it all the time to save money.”  But in a paying show or a workshop at this level, there would absolutely be a music director.

Let me talk you through the who’s who in the music of musical theater.  There are more people than you would think.

1)  The composer.

The composer is the person who wrote the music.  Just the music.  Example?  Richard Rodgers.  Richard Rodgers wrote the music (as in the tune you hum and not the words) to many shows, his most famous being The Sound of Music.  Here’s a fun fact about composers.  Many of them do not read music.  Richard Rodgers did.  Irving Berlin did not.  Either way, they do not have the specific skills needed to be a musical director.  That’s a different animal.

2)  The lyricist.

This person write the song lyrics only.  Sometimes the composer and the lyricist is the same person.  Like Stephen Sondheim.  P.S. If you are keeping score at home, Sondheim reads music and plays the piano.

3)  The music director.

This is the person who teaches and coaches the music to the cast and fulfills the wishes of the composer.  The music director also works in conjunction with the choreographer and the director to make sure the story telling of the show is congruent.

4)  The arranger.

This person, who is also some times the music director, is responsible for taking the melody line and making it a song you can play on the piano, making it a song that a lot of people can sing in harmony, and a song that an orchestra can play.  Are you surprised?  Did you think that is what the composer does?  Yes, occasionally.  Much more often the composer works very closely with the arranger to make the show sound the way they want it to.  Famous composer/arranger relationships include Stephen Sondheim and Jonathan Tunick, Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Cullen and Richard Rodgers and Robert Russell Bennett.  This is really musical theater geeky factoids, but the point is to show you how many people are involved in JUST making the music!

Thanks for playing!

(To read the next post in the SMASH Fact or fiction series (“Chemistry”) go here.

 

 

 

 

 

About Sharon Wheatley

Mother of Charlotte and Beatrix. Sometimes an actress. Sometimes a writer. I'm glad you're here.
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3 Responses to SMASH Fact or fiction? Episode 5 “Let’s Be Bad”

  1. Sarah Sublette says:

    While you're chronicling the "musical staff" of a typical show in production, please don't leave out the essential role of back-in-the-day pianist-composer/arrangers like Trude Rittman and Genevieve Pitot and others who, for the heavy-dance shows, worked with choreographers putting the dances together from scratch, adapting the composer's songs where possible, but then supplying plenty of de facto composing on their own. For Ms. Rittman, this would include the King and I's "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet (she quotes a Rodgers melody once, for a handful of bars, but otherwise it's entirely her creation, orchestrated by Bennett), or the nuns' music at the opening of The Sound of Music. Oh, and there were plenty of Music Directors who also did the vocal harmonizations for the choral numbers….but that's another story (Lehman Engel, for one).

  2. Old Character Man says:

    Not to rain on anyone's parade, but the "actor coaching actor" thing actually happened to me a couple of years ago. I was Cogsworth in B&B and the director asked me to "coach" the Mrs. Potts on her accent. I was appalled and apologized to the actress (who was a friend of mine). She took it in stride, we spent about five minutes "coaching" and another 30 bitching about the director (who was not rehired).
    You're right about it being wrong, though, and it should NEVER happen!

  3. Frances Limoncelli says:

    Here's a quite belated factoid from someone who is way behind on reading your blog. :)
    After Oklahoma, Richard Rodgers' arranger was my great uncle Salvatore Dell'Islola.

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