Romance, Character Development, and More

[THIS IS LONG. I WROTE A NOVEL. SORRY….]

Regarding love/crushes/friendships and so on in the show. Going off of what Katie said regarding why we didn’t write overt romantic plots — I want to reinforce the idea that it’s absolutely possible that you & your director build in something which is extra-textual which could be tracked by the audience. I would love that, actually — it would be the extra dimension that this particular company brings to the show.

As it happens — the song “Turn The Page” evolved a little bit when I was doing the track — there are now some lyrics which fit the idea of not only friendships but other types of relationships — so we can perhaps understand that with the cobra-fication gone, love and friendship can be restored, uninterrupted. One of our thoughts in general was that, even though “the gang” seems fairly cheery and upbeat and chatty in a lot of the scenes, there is an underlying tension under everything — the sentiment expressed in “Higher” is everywhere, the pressure is on them all the time. So I could see a case being made for you all deciding that Character X and Character Y are/were a couple … but one effect of the constant pressure and sleep deprivation and worry is that no one has the time or energy to invest in their relationships. Friendships and romantic relationships are all hanging on by a thread. So the characters we meet are doing their best to try and bring some kind of normality/fun to their lives, but they are still in a daily war zone. The stress of it is never far away.

Regarding character impact. Last night I saw a production of the Ahrens & Flaherty musical A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE at NYU. It made me think of KELLY in some ways because it’s a large-ish ensemble piece — it’s set in Dublin in 1964 — a lot of the action deals with a community theater group. Each of the members of the group has their “shtik” — the hook to their character. Some of the roles have more text to them than others — but the guy who knocked it out of the park in that group had maybe a total of ten lines. His character was the prop guy who has to fill in for a couple of 2-line Roman-soldier types in the play they’re rehearsing. He has a line like, THERE YONDER IS THE PRINCESS and he bellows it to make sure he’s heard. The director in the show is like, uh, maybe not quite so loud. Then he does it again in an in-your-face stage whisper… and gets this look on his face like a golden retriever who is so happy that they brought you a ball. It was genuine and sweet and you could tell that this prop guy was thinking, why, I’m kind of great at this acting thing. The audience roared. And he literally had been just one of the crowd up until that bit. The thing is … after that moment of powerful (and hilarious) connection, I tracked him for the rest of the show. He had a point of view in every scene he was in — and in most of the scenes, he was again just one of the crowd of people at their rehearsals. But I could tell what he was thinking. He was alive and connected and had made a character continuity for himself — not in a hammy “look at me” way which was distracting — in that great way of being fully alive and present, regardless of whether he was delivering text or not.

One of our goals in creating this show was taking on the challenge of servicing a large cast and sculpting “bits” that would be memorable for a large number of characters. In a small cast play, it’s easy. I have a musical that’s written for a cast of three — of course they each get massive amounts of stage time, so it’s a different kind of writing task. If you’ve ever read about/studied vaudeville — the variety-act form that was one of the roots of musical theater — performers in that form each had their “bit” — this one is the funny guy who does a comic-yokel routine, this one is a bombshell in a slinky gown who sings songs about heartbreak, this pair do a quarreling-couple comedy act and they dance. And so on and so on … so they have their “thing” that they do — and it’s memorable. We think about that kind of thing when we’re creating a show. And in this case, we had the glorious advantage of seeing video of each of you, and trying to think, okay, what kind of shtik or “bit” can we give this person?

So the challenge is first ours: how can we conceive of characters who each have a “hook” that is memorable to an audience — either in book scenes, song, or movement. The kind of thing where the audience is like, Oh right, he played the mayor in that one bit. Yes, she’s the girl in the blue who had that bit in the dance. After we lay that ground work, then the challenge is yours — and it has two parts to it. One is, how can you make each “bit” memorable. You can see that there are a lot of “routines” in the show — Whip and Rikki’s study prep bit — Bee and Kick’s joke trading — Darzee’s “I’m on my own special otter planet” impassioned speech — etc. That’s actually the easy part.

The next part of the challenge is this — I always describe it as drawing a constellation. If the lines of dialogue are “stars” — two different actors could take the same three lines of dialogue and “connect the dots” so that they create two completely different constellations. You see this in action if you ever see two actors take on the same role. But to me it’s more impressive when you see an actor who has a limited amount of text and manages to create a completely three-dimensional human being who is much more than those three lines… like the three lines they have are just three stars in a larger constellation. It’s like they “solved the mystery” of what dimensional human being would happen to say those three lines in these situations. But they have a full existence, no matter where they are or what they’re doing.

We’ve aimed to create characters who are smart, who have differing attitudes and points of view, who have varied relationships with everyone on stage. But of course we’re limited in the number of lines and number of people who speak those lines … so the show’s living-breathing-come-aliveness depends on all the things that aren’t spoken — the daily behavior of these particular individuals in this particular place. Most crucial I think are the individuals who quietly are Cobra-fied when we aren’t looking — Scarlet, Feather & Prairie. They contribute to the overall feeling of the school scenes as the world slowly becomes more menacing and colder … and perhaps we’ll notice that the girl who (say) was always chewing on her pencil and doodling and staring at the clock and kicking her chair is now ramrod straight and smiling … smiling … smiling … in a very unsettling way.

I’m sure you’ve heard all this before … but it’s the kind of thing which has a very real impact in a production. I saw a show once on Broadway called STEEL PIER, by Kander & Ebb (the guys who wrote CHICAGO and CABARET and many others.) It was about the dance marathons in the 30s… so a lot of crowd scenes … a lot of characters who had to make their mark in about a dozen lines. One tiny bubbly blonde really stood out — gave each of her lines a very particular sharp reading which was not only funny but completely gave you the understanding of who that entire human being was — what her “constellation” was. That was Kristin Chenoweth’s Broadway debut. It was the kind of thing that made me look in the program to make sure I remembered her name.

So each of you will be giving us a great gift as you investigate these characters and draw your own constellations — to breathe real life into this world. I can see that that is already bubbling in your minds — the comments and questions are all on the mark — as you are each fierce guardians of these people we will create together …

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