General 2-28-2005

Letters from a Writer: The Never-Ending Script

Jean Sramek's account of the Phantom continues: The team is finally ready to start rehearsals for "Phantom of the NorShor," the lightest-of-opera parody of, well, you know. How does intention turn into performance? By strange and twisting paths . . .

Jean Sramek

It’s done it’s done it’s done it’s done it’s done it’s done IT’S DONE. It’s done! The script for Phantom of the NorShor, a new comic opera by Colder by the Lake Comedy Theatre (that’s me and my cohorts), is done.

It’s done, except for that one part we’ll have to change, because the usher/student scene works better in Act III; there’s no way we can really test it on paper—we’ll have to wait until we actually read through it and hear voices together. And if we can get whats-his-name who teaches voice at UWS to audition, then maybe we oughta switch the songs at the end of Act I, since he can obviously handle a more challenging part. Oh, and wouldn’t it be funny to put all those Andrew Lloyd Webber musical jokes into one bit (maybe a parody advertisement … maybe at intermission … ah, we’ll figure it out when we block it) instead of scattering them throughout Act II the way we have it now. And were the gals from Chorale serious about wanting to be in the show, or just messing around? Because having them in the League of Ladies scene will change everything. Oh! And will the joke about the Blacklock nudes still be funny in April? I guess we’ll have to take the comedy temperature of our perceived audience in mid-March and see. We can always change it. Maybe Tyler won’t mind.

Okay, he’ll mind. But maybe he won’t want to kill us.

Tyler says the libretto has to be done by next week, so he can finish the score and the original songs he wrote for the show. In December 2003 (when we wheedled him into doing this), he said we had to be done by April 2004. Last summer he said we had to be done before the school year started. Last fall he said Beethoven’s birthday, and not a minute later. Our long-suffering composer/arranger has sufficient reason to want to kill Margi and me, although I’d like to think his desire lacks the urgency it did four years ago, when we reached similar levels of libretto not-quite-done-ness for Les Uncomfortables, the first comic opera we created as a threesome. When one is introduced to our quiet genius of a composer (who is one of the funniest people in Minnesota, a quality that is belied by his soft-spoken manner), one does not immediately think “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” One thinks, “This is the kind of guy who would say ‘Beethoven’s birthday’ instead of ‘December 16th’.”

I’m fairly confident that Margi and I won’t be shot just so Tyler can watch us die. For one thing, I doubt the three of us could coordinate our nonstandard employment schedules and fly to Nevada together for a weekend of gambling and dude ranch relaxation. For another, he’s been through this before, and he trusts us. The show opens on April 22; that evening, the script will be done. Until then, it will hover between 97% and 99% done.

Lest I misrepresent the creative process required to make good comedy theatre, let me emphasize that an original, full-length satirical opera isn’t merely a bunch of jokes about Duluth weather and City Council scandals, thrown together with some piano accompaniment. It’s big and unwieldy and you have to hire an orchestra. It takes time and revisions and a forest’s worth of photocopies. In addition, Colder by the Lake uses an ensemble approach, which in this case means that the actors chosen may determine, slightly, the direction and content of the script. We have written and scored parts specifically for certain actors, but sum of the actors chosen will be greater than their individual roles. While we are workshopping this new script, there will necessarily be additions, augmentations, things slashed and burned and other things birthed by the wonderful being that is a group of funny, talented people working together on a new show.

It’s not The Music Man. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ll bet that Meredith Wilson’s director and stage manager and cast wanted to kill him, just to watch him die, during the rehearsals for the very first The Music Man. I’m sure every piece of great theatre brought the killing urge out in the most patient of performing artists. I’ve done plays with neatly bound and printed scripts ordered from Samuel French, scripts in which nothing was changed. In these shows, when the stage directions said “[he moves DR to door, picks up satchel, and exits],” that’s what happened, and no one gave anyone else the option of mulling it over until Beethoven’s birthday, nor did the librettists run breathlessly into rehearsal and hand out photocopied sheets labeled “Act II, scene 3, insert between page 17a and 17b.” No, those plays were fully done, long before rehearsals started. Oddly, those shows were full of people who wanted to kill each other.

We’re doing a new show in a funky old theater, with crazy theatre artists. The script will change. A prop or a costume skirt will be the inspiration for a lyrics change in Act III; we’ll figure out how to hang those damned chandeliers from a ceiling with no catwalk, and it will mean cutting or moving a scene; Margi and I will solve problems that, on paper, weren’t problems (and Tyler will help us, or save us, as needed); a spontaneous bit of rehearsal goof-around dancing will be kept; during the show’s run it will turn, innocently, into one of the funniest bits in the show. This kind of stuff happened with Les Unc, and it’ll happen with Phantom of the NorShor. Make no mistake: it will be rehearsed and polished and ready to go. But it won’t be done.