On Interviewing a Broadway Performer

In my capacity as a theatre critic for John Garcia’s THE COLUMN here in Dallas, I see one or two shows a month. Most are regional or community theatre shows. Occasionally, I’ll do a review of a touring company coming through town. It’s a gig I enjoy.

Of course, during Covid, there was no theatre to cover. Then I had two shows of my own to direct for local companies. It’s really just in the past two months that I’ve been getting back to doing this job that allows me to be of service to my theatrical friends and the audiences who may (or may not) want to go see a show.

This past week brought a new addition to my normal duties. Garland Civic Theatre is doing a little-known musical. It’s called “Carnival,” and really only one song from it, “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round” is readily identifiable, even for stage musical aficionados. It opened on Broadway in 1961 to great acclaim, helmed by Gower Champion, who had directed “Bye Bye Birdie” and went on to direct “Hello Dolly” and “42nd Street.” More about that last show (which ran for nine years on Broadway) in a bit. “Carnival” is a musical adaptation of the movie “Lili.” It tells the story of an orphan girl who ends up in a tatty travelling carnival. Her only friends are some puppets, but behind the puppets is a broken man who needs desperately to be loved. It is part big-show, big-number musical, part dark contemplation of not knowing who you are, or how to make it into the next day. I would hope it would get done more, as it’s not your normal fare. Dramaturg alert!

One of the original cast members from the Broadway show ended up being a prolific director of musicals here in the DFW area. His name is Buff Shurr, and he just turned 95 years old. He was in the original 1961 Broadway production, first as a Roustabout and dance captain, and later on tour as Marco the Magnificent, alongside Jerry Orbach at the Schubert Theatre in Chicago. He was being honored on the opening night of this performance.

I had an opportunity to speak with him (and his charming and interesting wife, Janiz, who also worked on Broadway in the specialized capacity of doctor for theatre folks) for a few minutes prior to the curtain going up. He told me a few good stories about working with the original Broadway director of the show, Gower Champion, who regularly enjoyed a glass of milk with an egg in it for his breakfast. He evidently also smoked all the time, which didn’t end up going well for him. Mr. Shurr stated that Champion’s gift was that “He had a sixth sense of physicality. He knew how to group his actors, and to give you interesting rhythms.” Mr. Shurr then demonstrated the syncopated clapping and stomping of one of those dance moves, his whole body engaged, his face alight.

We got to talking about Broadway, and his career path. He told me, “I made one mistake—we all make mistakes, don’t we? Mine was that Gower liked working with me and asked me to come be his assistant on his next Broadway musical which was going to be based on a little Thornton Wilder farce called ‘The Matchmaker.’” Mr. Shurr turned him down to continue to choreograph Industrial shows, which produced a good income. “It was a mistake, that’s for sure,” Mr. Shurr continued. “That musical was ‘Hello Dolly.’”

He had to go meet his admirers who were gathering in the theatre lobby. He’d brought the hat he wore as the lothario Marco the Magnificent to the show, and charmed everyone when he put it on his head and struck a dashing pose. Still a performer.

That was when I took a few minutes to speak with Janiz. She told me she’d been called to be backstage on opening night of “42nd Street” in 1980 by the producer, David Merrick. “He told me just to stand in the wings and have my bag at the ready.” During the enthusiastic curtain calls, Merrick went onstage and announced that Champion had died that morning, not living to see his greatest hit onstage. Merrick had kept the news from the entire cast and crew and had asked the family to keep it a secret as well. Janiz told me it was gut-wrenching, that nearly everyone in the theatre started weeping and that one of the cast members collapsed from the shock. I actually remember hearing about his death while I was at Northwestern, studying theatre. It was striking to be standing next to someone who’d been there that night.

Let me tell you this—later, during the course of the show, there is a fun number, “Sword, Rose, and Cape.” In it, the dancers mimicked the clapping/stomping rhythms that Mr. Shurr had showed to me. I got chills. How wonderful that the continuation of some of Champions’ choreography continued into this production, which Mr. Shurr consulted on.

I wish I’d have had longer to speak with them both. There’s something about hearing that kind of history from someone who was standing on the boards in that space and time that is irreplaceable. Oral tradition is powerful for a reason. Speaking with both of these Broadway veterans gave me goosebumps, as well as a sense of continuity. I felt connected to the talented performers they were recalling who’ve slipped off this mortal coil. Yet here we are, still blessed by their work all these years later.

So to all of you singers, dancers, and performers upon the stage… please keep doing what you’re doing. Our world needs it.

On Visits Back and Good Friends

This past week I got to go back to a place that holds a special place in my heart. Johnson City, Tennessee. It’s where my husband and I lived for ten years, raised our kids, and found our rescue dog, who later rescued us.

It’s where we made great friends. The kind that you can pick up conversations with even though a long interim—over five years — has passed, it doesn’t seem to matter a bit.

A wonderful theatre company is producing my latest play there in September. JCCT is the longest-running theatre in Tennessee, and I am part of their 137th production year. My play was sponsored by Bravissima! It’s a group of philanthropic women who make a yearly commitment to support the arts in that community. I got to be in on the auditions, and workshop “Death By Design,” my funny, snarky murder-mystery send-up of Agatha Christie set in a modern-day Appalachian B&B. It’s got lightning, thunder, a variety of surprise deaths, twists and turns, and a real ghost. I think you’ll enjoy it.

We have a great cast and crew, and it’s helmed by a friend of mine, Melanie Yodkins. We had a lot of fun this past week, so I didn’t mind the work or the long hours. I got to teach three acting classes, meet new actor friends, and work with some extremely talented people. The play goes up next month, y’all should go see it if you’re in the JC neighborhood.

Going back to Johnson City was emotion-filled. Our family was very happy there, and there are so many memories. It’s a small town, but a growing one, so my memories of places didn’t exactly match up to current reality. I didn’t get lost as I drove around in my rental Prius (loved it! 57 miles to the gallon!), but there were times when I was slightly confused, old buildings replaced by new constructs. I was struck by what I’d forgotten. The hilliness. The green that is so vibrant it makes your eyes hurt. I made sure to get out and walk or hike daily. I didn’t get to swim in Lake Watauga or do the Laurel Falls hike that intersects with the Appalachian trail or swim with my old master’s swim group this visit. Maybe that was for the best, as this trip wore me out. And did I mention it is very hilly there? Like I think they added extra hills or something.

While the theatre kept me busy, I had time to visit too. Mom friends, Swim friends, dear friends. I had lunches and dinners and walks with as many as I could. In serendipitous timing, I even got to attend a fiftieth wedding anniversary party. Talking with old friends is so easy. You not only revisit memories but get to find out what is new, whose kids are married or have babies. You can talk for hours with ease. It made me misty and very grateful.

Friends put me up for most of my visit, too. I had cats for companions for my first five nights. Here is a picture of one of them, Doom.

I visited old haunts, walked the streets of Jonesborough, and drove out to Mountain View foods for a tasty handmade sandwich and whoopie pie. The overlay between my memories of those places, and their current reality wasn’t jarring, but it was there. A new park, a whole new development of houses, a tree missing.

What hadn’t changed was the love and friendship of the people I left behind. It was so good to reconnect, and to realize they are never really gone, and that new memories are just waiting to be made. #luckygal, indeed.

On Hospital Food and Modern Dance

My mom has been in the hospital for nine days with pneumonia at UT Southwestern here in Dallas. She’s on the path to recovery thanks to a lot of really great modern medicine and doctors and nurses. My dad has been with her frequently, but now he’s at home having picked up some sort of bug himself. She’ll need oxygen for a while, and a machine and tanks and long green hoses now sit in our dining room where this picture was taken last year on her 91st birthday.

Going to the hospital is not my favorite thing. I’m sure I’m not alone. Over the years I’ve spent many days in them, wandering the halls when such things were permitted, strolling the grounds, eating in the cafeteria.

This particular hospital has decorated its halls with lovely modern art and has window-filled areas you can go to when your loved one is having a procedure done. It also has an excellent cafeteria. I can almost see meeting someone there for a tasty, inexpensive lunch, even if there’s no one we need to visit or bring flowers to. Parking is $3, but there’s plenty of space to sit and eat and talk.

My stress level has been high the past nine days, so my food choices have been a little off. Sometimes the only thing that will do is a Diet Dr. Pepper and Sun Chips. I’ll make up for it later in laps and steps and smoothies.

Speaking of steps. I saw some great Modern Dance this past Friday night at the Moody, which is a lovely space in downtown Dallas. It was a tonic to be in a theatre and see something new, beautifully staged and crafted. I had to write them a rave. You can see my extended review of B. Moore Dance here: http://thecolumnonline.com/review/07-11-2022_B-Moore-Dance-Season-3-Finale/ I am always grateful for my gig as a theatre critic that allows me to see all sorts of different performances.

It made me feel better to see those dancers in fab costumes follow vibrant choreography, extending and creating beautiful lines that evoked emotion. Between that and the curated efforts of the hospital to make what can be a terrible-awful place into something showcasing both lovely art and tasty food made my week infinitely better.

I hope you have some moments to enjoy what others have created from their thoughtfulness or talents this week as well.

On What Goes On Before, During, and After a Community Theatre Play

Two days ago, my play “Like Kissing Moonlight” closed. Over 600 new people got to see this delightful production about a family navigating a crisis point. The actors did such a wonderful job. The audiences laughed, a few cried, all enjoyed their two hours in air-conditioning as temps spiked over 100 degrees here in Texas.

A few posts ago, I covered the odd verbiage that surrounds the theatre, and what Tech Week is like.* This post is about the activity an audience member doesn’t see before then, a pulling back of the curtain, if you will. What I can say with all certainty that all of us crew and performers want is to do a good show and that you have a good time.

I just thought a few folks might find this interesting.

There were nine actors onstage for my show. There were a lot more crew people and artisans that worked behind the scenes who brought the show to life. Here is a timeline of what goes on in the life of a little community theatre play. Please keep in mind that most of this is a labor of love. The pay is minimal if you get paid at all. The theatres themselves are mostly non-profit, too.

First, of course, the writer writes the play, then starts the often-arduous process of finding a theatre to produce it. This can literally take years. A dramaturg reads it, thinks it might be right for the theatre, and brings it to the decision makers. Seasons for Community Theatres are usually set 1-2 years ahead, as the rights to obtain popular shows are based on geographics. The companies such as Samuel French that own the rights to distribute plays will not allow you to do a newer show if someone nearby is also doing it. The theatre will then approach directors, who are usually booked a year or two in advance to see if they’d like to direct the show. The director will submit a proposed budget for the show, and what their vision is for the piece.

Once the play is locked in for the season, the director’s budget is approved, and the rights obtained (generally $100 per show) a producer is chosen, who will work on publicity and help staff the show, and who will be working what is called ‘the front of the house,’ the ushers, the box office folks, etc. They find a graphic artist designs the program and posters, as well as help assemble the design team for the show. They order the scripts or have them made. They handle the money and reimbursements, collecting receipts along the way, making sure the show stays in budget.

The Props, Costumes, Set, Lighting, and Sound designers are found and then sent a script so they can start planning alongside the director for the look and feel of the play. The designers also find running crew if appropriate, or sometimes the stage manager will take this on. A running crew are the folks who change sets, move props, and help actors change costumes during the actual run of the play. They become like family and cannot be flakey. The director finds a Stage Manager and perhaps an Assistant Director as well to help everything run smoothly. The bigger the cast, the more need there is for a strong AD. If it’s a musical, a Musical Director is brought in, and they find a rehearsal pianist, and make arrangements for any orchestra or band. Renting scores is incredibly expensive, so they watch who has those music sheets like hawks. If it’s a musical, you’ll need a choreographer too, and need to make time for them to do their work in the schedule. The director is in charge of all of these things happening in a timely manner, and replacing people if issues come up. It’s a volunteer army for the most part, so there is inevitably someone who thought they could do the show that ends up needing to be replaced. I have replaced nearly an entire cast. I don’t recommend it.

The director sets a rehearsal schedule and a point of contact, such as a FB page for easy communication. The producer makes sure the space for rehearsals and the show itself is available and posts announcements for actors to come audition. The set designer brings in a model or drawing of the set, and it is discussed before the go-ahead is given to purchase the materials needed to create it. This all happens 2-3 months out from auditions.

The director blocks (how the actors move around on the set so that they can be seen and heard at the right time and that they are making pretty pictures on the set as well, and can make entrances and exits) the entire show based on the set design, and meets with light and sound folks to be sure what they are seeing in their heads all match and that the physical equipment at the theatre can execute that.

The director then decides how they want auditions to run–readings from the script (called cold readings), prepared scenes or monologues, and if there will be call-backs or not. If it is a musical, the Musical Director is in on this too, and the choreographer. The stage manager and the AD and sometimes the Producer help make sure the auditions run smoothly and on time.

Actors come, bring a picture and resume, fill in audition forms, read for parts.

The Director, and anyone else who needs to have input, cast the show. The director contacts the people who are cast. This is a happy job.

First read-through involves the costumer who is taking measurements and sometimes the production photographer who gets headshots for the program. Schedules are handed out.

Rehearsals begin. This is usually a 4–6-week process, between 15 to 30 of them, depending on the show’s complexity. While the director is blocking the show and the actors memorize their lines and movement, the design team is hard at work building the set, gathering props and costumes, hanging and focusing lights, and designing the sound–doorbells, incidental music, whatever will enhance the production at hand. Sometimes the actors help build, other spaces have a crew of people who help build and decorate the set. If there are fight sequences or intimate scenes, a specialty person is brought in. We love our fight coordinators and intimacy coordinators because everyone gets to be and feel safe night after night.

The producer lines up reviewers, publicity opportunities, and makes sure the programs get designed and printed. The director approves and participates in publicity, as does the cast when asked. I love doing radio and television spots, other directors hate it.

Tech week comes… see my post about that. A production photographer comes in to get the shots needed for the reviewers and publicity. Tech week is for sure a full week of non-stop work for everyone. The running crew figures out what needs to go where, who has that fast costume change, that this piece of furniture needs to be placed in exactly that spot. The actors figure out where personal props (ones they carry on and off the stage) need to be, and the mayhem starts to settle.

Then, if you are lucky, you get a preview night, where friends and family or invited members of the community come to see the show. This is especially helpful if you are doing a comedy, as laughter (while dearly appreciated) needs to be gotten used to.

Opening night is always exciting! Call time for every show is usually an hour to an hour and a half before the house opens for the audience to sit down. Fight sequences are run through in slow motion, and vocal warmups soar from backstage. Gifts from director to the actors are given, the control of the show passes to the stage manager who calls all the cues of the show, and coordinates front and back of the house.

The curtain goes up… and hopefully… magic happens.

After the last performance of the show, everyone joins together to return props and furniture and borrowed costumes to their rightful owners. The set is taken down bit by bit; the flats stored for the next use. Sometimes you paint the floor back to black.

Then you go out for drinks and dinner and laugh so that the bittersweet pang that settles in doesn’t hurt quite as much. Yes, it’s true, that particular show with those particular people will never be together again.

But while we were together, all of us, front and back of house, on stage and off… we created something special.

That’s show business. Here’s some of the wonderful cast and crew. “It’s the people you miss.”

*On Tech Week and Theatre as an Alternate Language