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By Jack Viertel, Encores! Artistic Director
Appearances can be deceiving. Any theatergoer walking in to New York City Center to see an Encores! performance may think that what is about to unfold is a typical classic American musical. But ask the performers and the band and they’ll tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Encores! is very much its own animal. The rehearsal process is so short, and the adrenaline level of the cast and musicians is so high, that what you are seeing in some ways more resembles an athletic feat than a Broadway show.
From the very beginning, the idea behind Encores! was to present musical theater in a way that sounded absolutely authentic – we were willing to sacrifice everything to your ears. We would play original orchestrations featuring as many musicians as it took to do the original show, and maybe more. We would beef up choruses so that they could make that original, authentic sound. Fiorello!, which was the very first Encores!, was presented by a company dressed in formal wear. When we got to the dance music, the acting company stepped aside and we focused the lights on the orchestra while everybody watched and listened.
The productions have evolved over the years – we now have choreography, props, some scenery and suggestions of costumes that sometimes even approach the real thing – but the focus remains on the score.
The process itself is a kind of reckless love affair. The whole company gathers on the third floor of City Center on a Monday morning for the first time (sometimes the principal actors have met for two or three days at the end of the previous week). We go around the room and introduce ourselves, then sit in a semi-circle and read the piece for the first time. Those who know the songs are encouraged to sing. Then, after a 10-minute break, we split up into groups. The dancers start to learn the choreography, the chorus starts to learn the music, and the principal actors begin their blocking with the director.
For the rest of the week, almost no one but the stage managers have any idea what anyone else is doing. An orderly sense of mystery sets in. People are working, but what are they up to? Directors, choreographers, musicians and all of their assistants bustle between the third and fourth floors, the Green Room and a little conference room on the fifth floor that contains an upright piano. Sometimes the principals find themselves surrounded by the singers or the dancers, sometimes not. How’s it going? No one really knows. But a scant five days later, on Friday afternoon, we gather again, and the whole show is there – a story with characters, dances, choruses, scenes and transitions. In some cases (Pardon My English, Face the Music) it may be the first time in 60 or 70 years that the thing has stood up and walked, alive and breathing.
While all of this has been going on, down on stage the crew – carpenters, electricians, prop men and the like – have been pulling together the bandstand, set, lighting equipment and furniture, all under the watchful eye of our resident scenic consultant John Lee Beatty, who has designed every Encores! production to date. In other places, wardrobe people have been fitting the cast, and the costume consultant has been hard at work begging, borrowing, buying and sometimes even building clothes. Our lighting designer has been lighting the show on paper and in his head, but not yet on stage. And the sound department has been setting up microphones coordinated to the director’s blocking of the show.
On Saturday morning (our sixth day) the cast spends the morning on stage, beginning to work through the show on a set they’ve never seen before. If we’re lucky they get through four or five scenes. During this time the Encores! Orchestra has been rehearsing, under Music Director Rob Berman’s baton, over at Carroll Music on 55th Street and the West Side Highway. After a long lunch, everyone troops over there to meet the band. My wife bakes up a storm for this event (I do the dishes) – brownies, blondies, lemon cake, Linzer torte, apple and carrot cakes – because everyone deserves it. By now they are giddy, tired and hardly confident.
Then there is this seismic event: in a room packed with actors, singers, music staff, supporters and friends of the family, Rob strikes up a rarely heard overture, and this is the moment when everyone knows that we’re going to be just fine (most of the time, we’re right). Absolutely nothing compares to hearing a Broadway overture played by 30 musicians in too small a room. The cast is sometimes happy, sometimes stunned, sometimes delirious. Once, I saw a young chorus member burst into tears at this moment, and I knew exactly what he was feeling: he’d simply been born too late to have ever experienced this kind of ecstasy. (The show was Wonderful Town. Listen to the overture sometime.)
Three hours later we’ve sung through the entire score, eaten all the treats and applauded the band and each other roundly, and it’s time for a night out and a day off. On Sunday we rarely contact each other. There is, I suspect, a lot of sleeping going on.
Monday morning we’re back on stage, working through the entire show “in worklight” – which is to say there is no crew, props, costumes or furniture; just the actors, director, choreographer, music director, stage managers and a rehearsal pianist. The goal is to get through the whole show by 6 p.m. It usually doesn’t seem like much yet – a deserted theater populated by some lonely folks trying their best to pretend that they’re onto something.
On Tuesday, our crew joins us – lighting, sound, etc. – and after lunch the orchestra arrives. At this point we begin to see a show taking shape, and we have only 24 hours until we’ll be performing it for an audience. Again, we try to get to the end. We don’t always make it.
On Wednesday at 1 p.m. (nine days after our first full rehearsal) the director and choreographer clean up loose ends and stage a curtain call, and at about 2 p.m. Rob Berman strikes up the downbeat of the overture again, this time from center stage. On better days – not often – we make it through the entire show for the first time without stopping. It always seems like a miracle. It also seems like we’ve been working on it for about six months. I try to remind everybody that it’s only been a few days, and that they are all geniuses. And that, an hour or so later, 2,000 people are coming to see them. They always pretend not to be stunned. Then I go out for oysters and a martini.
Wednesday night, our invited dress rehearsal, is a joy and a terror. We have a wonderfully supportive audience, and they are kind to a fault. Meanwhile, we try to keep a stern eye on ourselves, making notes on what doesn’t work and what can be improved, tweaked, goosed or, if necessary, simply jettisoned. This, I think, is as close as any of us gets to the old-time tryout process that shows went through in the ’30s and ’40s, and we like it – the panic, the adrenaline, the fear. It reminds us that we’re in show business.
The next day we have five hours of rehearsal. And then we cross our fingers and hold our collective breath, and thank our lucky stars that no one made us go into other careers like scrap metal or statistical analysis. Then the lights go down, the curtain goes up and Rob plays the overture – really, we like to think, for the very first time. And we’re open.