April 6, 2019

Set – Man of La Mancha – VST

I’ve got a lot bouncing around my head tonight.  It’s late, we had another terrific show and I’m revved up as I usually am post performance.  I don’t know about anyone else, but it generally takes me about two to three hours after the curtain comes down for me to be calm enough inside to be ready for bed.  These days this is the real lonely time.  I used to come home to Tommy working away in his studio, or busy on some project (which I would usually get sucked into) so we would talk while my system quieted down and we could think about bed.  Now I come home to an empty house and bounce off the walls for a bit, not really able to focus on much of anything until the adrenaline starts to wear off.  This show isn’t too bad as my track is very easy compared to most but I still have to push up my energy for the end of the show to get bureaucratic villainy across to the audience. As people whom I don’t even know have told me I’m scary at the stage door, I must be doing something right.

How does a group of people get together and create something as ephemeral and beautiful as this production?  I’ve been pondering that a lot over the last week or so and have been trying to figure out how to describe it in terms that those of you who are not theatrically inclined can understand.  I know my theater peeps get it but how do you unlock the door to that world to someone who may be an enthusiastic audience member but who does not have the time or the inclination to help in the creation of this type of art.  And how do I begin to convey the sort of nurture that I get from working with these people, some of them in show after show over many years and some of them new to my experience, but all organelles in a cellular matrix bringing forth life where there was not life before.  This particular production clicked early.  At the first full run through where we finally had all 19 of the cast present, something happened and we all recognized how good the show was and we all moved our work up another notch to be worthy of the material and each other.

I hate to say it, but theater starts with money.  The royalties, the physical production costs, the time and talents of professionals who have the skill sets to perform, play instruments, construct sets, build costumes.  It all costs.  In the community and semi-pro world in which I operate, only about a third of the operating budget can be raised from ticket sales.  (You can’t price tickets above what the market will bear, you have limited runs and seating capacity).  This requires a dedicated production staff who can raise money from the community via philanthropy, grants, and in kind donations.  Cathy Gilmore has been working her wizardry at the Virginia Samford Theater for nearly twenty years and has given me incredible opportunities to perform in her productions over that time.  She’s been quite complementary of some things I’ve done so I hope she’ll continue to ask me back in the future.  I really enjoy appearing on that stage.  It just feels right to me.  It’s not a huge stage (and there’s no wing space stage left where you’re always dodging the fly rail) but it’s comfortable for a performer, technically sophisticated, and has a nice intimate house of just over 300 seats so it’s easy to connect with the audience.   The first time I appeared on the stage was in 2004, playing the butler in Jekyll and Hyde.  I was scared to death.  I hadn’t done much stage work for the last fifteen years and even then, my background was in technical theater and backstage stuff.  What the hell was I doing singing in front of all those people?  But something clicked, I kept coming back and now, when I walk up those concrete steps and through the black metal stage door to perform, I relax and feel at home.  I don’t think I’ve had stage fright in that house for more than a decade.  I have done 17 shows there in 16 years and I hope there are many more.

The La Mancha cast celebrating another sold out house

Once you have some money in hand, you have to find your key creatives who will take the words on the page and the notes in the score and turn them into a vision which can be realized.  There are four people who are, more than anyone else, responsible for what appears on the stage.  The first is Henry Scott, the director.  I’ve known Henry for several years.  He directed a number of shows at Red Mountain Theater for which Tommy did the wigs and makeup and I know he introduced us.  My first memories of Henry are of him sitting calmly in the lobby at Red Mountain playing either a lute or a mandolin and just emitting a sense of calm, despite all the chaos swirling around him in the process of a technical rehearsal.  And that’s just who Henry is.  Always calm, always centered when working, and always getting his desired results through positive coaching rather than yelling and drama and negative feedback.  Henry has a background as a chorus boy and has taught theater and dance for years so he both directed and choreographed the show making all of the stage movement seamless in terms of transitions from book to musical staging.  This is my second time working with him and he’s such a joy that if he casts me again, I’ll have no problem pushing myself wherever I need to go to give him the character he wants and needs.  The second is Ben Boyer who designed both the set and the lighting.  I’ve known Ben as long as I have been around Birmingham theater and no one understands the capabilities of the VST space as well as he does.  He more or less built the set singlehandedly and he has always known how to light his sets for maximum effect.  Lighting is so important, especially in musical theater and so under rated by the audience. The third is Michael King, the music director.  Michael and I go way back as colleagues, working with him as both actor and director.  The man is a keyboard genius and a great coach.  He’s also another piece of the odd events that led me back to stage although I doubt he knows it.  Back in 2003, he and Diane McNaron did a show they called Masters Cabaret at some venue downtown.  Tommy and I had gotten to know Diane slightly when we all worked together with Ellise Mayor on the Birmingham Peace Project’s contribution to The Lysistrata Project.  (That story is told elsewhere).  After the Cabaret show, Diane, Ellise, Tommy and I were standing around outside the venue when Diane brought up the idea of us all working together on this improv cabaret she was thinking about and Politically Incorrect Cabaret was born.  The fourth is James Lebo who built all of the costumes.  James and I only met about two years ago.  Somehow, our tours through Birmingham theater had never intersected until that point but we definitely found ourselves with similar tastes, senses of humor and kindred souls.  He’s turned me into a churlish grandpa, a 19th century martinet and a 17th century conquistador so far.  We’ll see what else he has up his commodious sleeves.

This show, has it takes place on a unit set without intermission, a nod to the Aristotalian unities please, doesn’t have a huge running crew but who we have is choice.  Jenna Bellamy, our stage manager, cracks the whip and keeps us all on our toes.  My original theatrical background was in stage management so I have great respect for those who do it well.  What does a stage manager do you ask?  He or she is the person who makes sure that the interactions between performers and the technical elements of a production come off without a hitch.  He or she makes sure that all the cues for lights, sound, set changes, special effects happen and that each performance if of consistent quality.  He or she is the god of the theater during the run of the show.  We’ve also got Joe Zellner mixing the sound so that the balance between singers and orchestra remains correct. He also makes me scarier than I am by giving me a bit more bass and reverb and then my old pal Laura Kilgore Barnett who has done wigs and hair and came up with my Spanish grandee facial hair.

This brings us to the cast, my fellow travelers on this nightly journey.  Man of La Mancha is an unusual musical in that there is really no chorus or ensemble.  There are nineteen of us on stage and each one of us is a specific person in the moment.  The structure of the show with the prison frame and the prisoners telling the story of Don Quixote means most are playing their prisoner character and then also whomever they become within the story as Cervantes sweeps them up into his imagination and casts them in the other roles as the tale progresses.  I’m the one exception.  I’m the only character that belongs to the outside world so I am always the face of authority and the villain of the piece.  Villains are much more fun to play than heroes.  I usually get comic villains but this one is just evil and he gets his own entrance music.  I’ve decided that I’ll have had a good run if I manage to make it through every performance without taking a header down the dungeon stairs.  They lower into the dungeon like a drawbridge and they have no rail and I’m not wearing my glasses.

Quixote attacking the barber

While the show is an ensemble show and every part is necessary for the success of the whole, some parts are bigger than others and there are three principal roles.  Quixote, Aldonza and Sancho.  They have most of the songs and the heavy lifting.  Charles Wood is Quixote.  He is one of the professors of vocal performance and the director of the opera program at University of Montevallo, Tommy’s alma mater and he’s the real deal as a singer.  I met him once or twice when Tommy was there getting his music degree but didn’t get to know him well as Tommy was not in his studio.  Tommy always tiptoed gingerly around him. I don’t know the whole story but it had something to do with Tommy talking him into offering a history of opera class and then Tommy dropping it four weeks in for some reason.  I started to get to know him better a couple of years ago when we were both in a production of Die Fledermaus.  He is quiet, studious, and a perfect gentleman off stage and a giving performer on stage.  Aldonza is Kristi Tingle Higginbotham, one of the reigning divas of the Birmingham stage and has been for many years.  I know I first met her fifteen or so years ago when I first started to get back into theater but we didn’t really start to get to know each other well until much later when we were both in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, she as Miss Mona and me as the mayor.  We’ve done a number of projects since then, my favorite being Gypsy a couple years back where she played Rose and I was her father.  Of course we’re not that many years apart in real life and I wasn’t quite sure what to think when they told me I wasn’t going to need any age makeup.  She never seems to age.  The same is not true of yours truly.  Kristi is one of those people who could easily have had a New York career had life gone differently and we are so lucky to have her locally.  Nick Crawford, who plays Sancho, is one of those guys whom I have known through theater circles for a long time but this is our first show together.  He’s a brilliant comic actor and is always the most interesting thing on stage in any show he is in.  I’m glad to finally get to work with him and hope we have another project together sometime which gives us a nice juicy scene  together.

They are only thinking of him…

Who’s in the supporting cast?  Chris O’Rear as the Innkeeper.  Tommy knew Chris slightly as Chris was getting his graduate degree in vocal performance at Alabama while Tommy was getting his undergraduate degree and I remember seeing him as Sorastro in a production of Zauberflote at UA circa 2006.  I didn’t actually meet him or work with him until that same production of Die Fledermaus where I first worked with Charles.  He lives a ways out of town so he doesn’t do a lot of local theater which is too bad as he’s a great dressing room companion.  Shawn Reese is Carrasco.  I’ve known Shawn forever and we’ve done a bunch of shows together over the last dozen years or so.  Shawn is another one of my friends that never seems to age.  He looks just as he did when I first met him.  He’s also incredibly handy with hammer and saw and has been known to knock a set together over a weekend when you’re getting desperate. The housekeeper is Julia Hixson.  Julia is a local elementary music teacher with a powerhouse voice and stage presence.  I remember seeing her on stage before I started to perform and how she could effortlessly steal a scene, even in a small role.  Julia and I are often cast opposite each other as comic foils and she is such fun to work with.  She’s also a calming maternal presence backstage. Niece Antonia is Lauren Marino.  I’ve done a couple of seasons of opera chorus with Lauren who, while young, has an amazing voice.  I never realized how good until I heard her singing Pat Benatar with a bar band one night.  I first met Barry Austin, who plays the padre, more than twenty years ago when I first moved to Birmingham.  Steve and I joined the downtown Y and we would do our exercise routine between work and dinner that first year we were here before he became ill.  Barry was on the same schedule/cycle we were.  We had nodding acquaintance and I had no idea we would become friends and colleagues a number of years in the future.  David Pohler, one of my favorite young people, is the Barber.  I met David a couple of years ago when he was in the chorus of La Traviata at the opera.  He was getting his theater degree at Montevallo and ended up being one of the caretakers of my old friend and voice teacher, Bennie Middaugh, as he required more and more assistance as he descended into dementia.  David’s ability to empathize and provide care and companionship to Bennie, who was also my patient, made me realize that this is a special guy.  He’s off to New York next month to try his luck with the performing scene up there and I’ll miss having him around.

Rounding out the cast is a collection of folk who run the gamut and whom I have overlapped with in many different ways over the years.  Emily Hoppe, as the Innkeeper’s wife, is someone I had not worked with before.  I’ve known who she is for years, ever since she played Tracy in a production of Hairspray a few years back and I’ve always enjoyed her on stage and I’m glad I’m finally getting to know her.  Tahauny Cleghorn, who bellydances in the Moorish sequence, came into my life last fall with Hello, Dolly! in which she played Ermengarde.  She’s another Montevallo kid (as are so many of the folk in Birmingham theater) and obviously learned her stuff.  She brought along her brother Duke Cleghorn for this production, whom I had not met before this show.  Duke is a slight young man, but when he opens up, that boy can sing.  It’s rather scary to hear that powerful voice coming out of him.  He’s not the baby of the show, though.  That crown goes to Max Tatum who is still in high school.  He has been performing with the VST school program and was ready to graduate to the adult stage.  When I see Max wide eyed and soaking it all in during rehearsal and backstage, I cannot help but think back to teenage Andy when he was first starting out.  Only slightly older is Joe Ardovino.  I remember Joe as a child of six or seven.  His parents are both Montevallo music faculty and old friends of Tommy’s and I remember him as a child tagging along behind them at some Montevallo events that Tommy and I went to together.  Well, Joe is now fully grown and I’d love to be able to tell Tommy we’re working together.  He’d be tickled.  J.D. Blackmon and I go way back.  We first met about fifteen years ago when we were pirates together in Peter Pan.  We’ve done a couple of other projects over the years but hadn’t seen each other for some time when we both ended up cast in this.   He and Mackey Atkinson have a great duet on the song Little Bird and their voices blend so well together.  Mackey is another guy I’ve known for ever and a day, since he was a teenager.   We would end up at the same parties and other theater events for years but didn’t actually do a show together until about five years ago.  He also does my hair from time to time so you know whom to blame.  I’ve been hanging out some with Mackey and with Mark Nelson who is also new to me.  I had seen Mark in a couple of shows around town and admired his talent and I’m glad I’m getting a chance to work with him.

The only picture of me onstage from the photo shoot – Summoning Quixote before the inquisition

So this is the community, the circle, the family.  Tomorrow, we have our last performance and the set will come down, the costumes will go to storage and the cast and crew will all move on to new projects.  Some of them mayl be in the next show I’m doing (HMS Pinafore), some of them I may not work with again for years.  That’s immaterial; what matters is that we have built something special that will live on in our collective memories for years.

March 30, 2019

Me as the Captain of the Inquisition in Man of La Mancha

I was trying to decide what to entitle this post.  Man of La Mancha Part 2? Man of La Mancha, the sequel?, Son of La Mancha?  La Mancha 2: Electric Boogaloo?  None of them seemed quite right somehow.  One of the theater games often played backstage is to come up with the most ridiculous sequel to a classic musical or play and I can recall fleshing out the plot of Oklahoma! Two:  Jud’s Revenge in which zombie Jud returned with a machete and hay fork and killed most of the rest of the cast. It must have been a particularly dreary stretch of technical rehearsals for something or other. It’s one of the thousand or so little ways that companies bond with each other during the painstaking process of putting together a production.  The two hours of stagecraft that an audience sees represents hundreds of hours of rehearsal, design, construction, and various people wondering why they just don’t go out in the alley and hit each other over the head with a stick a few times as it would be less painful.   So why do I do it?

My parents, relatively cultured individuals, started taking me to both children’s and the occasional adult theater performance around the age of six and I can still remember some of those early experiences and how transfixed I was at the real live magic happening on stage.  When I was about 11, my mother, who had stopped out of the work force to be there for her young children, went back to work as an instructor at the local junior college, teaching various sciences.  Her boss, a man named Herb Bryce, was involved in local theater on the technical end and so my parents started going to the plays with which he was involved.  When he started working on a string of classic American musicals, my parents got tickets for the whole family and we started going regularly to see them.  This was the 1970s and the shows of the golden age were only 20 or 30 years old and were amongst the soundtrack of my parents’ youth.  I was already in love with musical movies courtesy of Disney and the family friendly fare of the 60s and after starting to see decent productions of good shows, I became more and more enamored of the musical as an art form and started exploring cast albums, reading scripts in the library and seeking out film versions at the revival house. (VCRs weren’t yet a thing…) 

Before make up

I never really thought about being a performer.  There was no tradition of it in my family.  My father had a nice singing voice and taught himself to play several instruments by ear but my mother was not very musical at all and I was much more my mother’s child.  I did learn to play clarinet starting in 4th grade and had become pretty good by high school but that was about it.  I always thought that performing was for people who were born with some sort of hugely innate talent and I was pretty sure that wasn’t me.   I did do some plays in school.  I got the title role in Rumplestiltskin in third grade because I was the shortest boy in the school capable of memorizing the lines.  I also remember being Abraham Lincoln in 5th grade with a beard rubber cemented to my face that made my skin break out for two weeks.  And I was pretty darn certain I couldn’t sing.

When I was a junior in high school, the school embarked on a building program and one of the new facilities they constructed was a theater.  In retrospect, it wasn’t much of a theater.  The fly system was primitive at best, it didn’t have a ton of backstage facilities but, when I walked into the completed building for the first time, something happened to me.  I looked up at the booth, through the backstage area and stood on the stage looking out at the house and knew that, more than anything else, I wanted to learn how to use these tools to make theater magic.  I signed up for the tech theater classes and did a little bit of everything backstage and it soon became apparent, with my organized and methodical ways, that I was a good stage manager and had some promise as a director.

Change out of civvies and put on the microphone

When I went off to college, I quickly learned how to find my people.  They were the ones who, like I, were interested in the magic of theater, especially musical theater.  There were so many bright and talented kids who knew so much more than I did that, even though I was double majoring in chemistry and biology,  I would have to spend as much time as possible working with and learning from them.  I worked tech crew, building sets and hanging lights.  There is a tradition at Stanford of dorm theater.  Dorms tend to be houses of 50-100 people and each dorm would put on a theatrical production sometime during the year.  I volunteered to direct our dorm show my freshman year (You Can’t Take It With You) which got me noticed and I moved on to stage management for campus wide companies.  I directed my first musical (The Pajama Game) sophomore year and by the middle of junior year, I had catapulted myself into the thick of the production/technical group of folks, many of whom remain close friends thirty-five years later.  My senior year, I directed the big student produced musical (Anything Goes) on the mainstage and, after graduation, headed off to medical school in Seattle where I continued stage managing and directing in community theater whenever my schedule would permit.

After graduating form medical school, moving to Sacramento, and hitting residency, I gave it all up.  Every third night on call and theatrical production do not mix.  I chose to focus on training and career and, nine months after moving to California I met Steve and built a life and relationship with him which provided more than enough drama for anyone.  I missed it and every once in a while, I would stick my toes into the Sacramento theater waters.  I made some friends who did theater and helped out backstage with props or sound or some such from time to time.  Steve and I also went to the theater every chance we could get.  Between Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles, there wasn’t much we missed in the 90s.  Then came the disasters of 1998 and the collapse of our California life and the need to move somewhere else if my career was going to continue.

I’ve told the story of the job search and the odd chain of circumstances that led us to Birmingham elsewhere.  The move was followed shortly by his illness and my need to keep myself devoted to two things, his needs and my job until his inevitable death.  My response to that and to my pain was to run away.  For the first year or so after he died, I spent every possible moment away from home that I could.  I booked business trips.  I took vacations.  I visited family.  I didn’t want to be in the house alone with my feelings and I just couldn’t think of another constructive coping mechanism.   I couldn’t completely abandon Birmingham.  My job did expect me to show up routinely but there was more flexibility in my schedule at that point than I have now so I could do a lot of long weekends.

Add Eugene Levy eyebrows, hollow the eyes and cheeks, and darken the furrows

I met Tommy in late 2002.  At this point, I’d been living in Birmingham for four years but I knew almost no one outside of the people I worked with.  We hit it off and by mid 2003 were more or less a couple.  Tommy had always been of Birmingham and was one of those people who knew everyone.  With a new companion, we started going to local theater routinely, egged on by church friends like Ellise Mayor and Ginny Crooks.  We started to get involved with production beginning with the Lysistrata project in 2003 which eventually morphed into Politically Incorrect Cabaret.  Tommy was musical.  Tommy had always performed.  He knew I had a background in theater and asked me why I didn’t perform as well.  I told him it was because I didn’t have any talent.  He pooh poohed me and told me how he had seen me work a room with my public speaking engagements and that there was no reason I couldn’t transfer those skills to stage.  I told him I liked musicals but couldn’t sing.  His response to that was to get voice lessons so I ended up working with Diane McNaron and soon came to realize that I actually could carry a tune.  I was never going to be Alfred Drake but I could handle a character role.  I started auditioning in 2004, kept getting cast to my complete surprise, and here I am some fifty Birmingham productions later.

It wasn’t Tommy who brought me back to life after Steve’s death.  It was his opening the door back into the world of theater.  Together we found our tribe.  The people we could love and be loved by.  The people we could count on.  The people who would have our backs and help us through our hardest moments.  That’s what keeps me coming back show after show – the circle of humanity within a company that demands your best, elevates you, and holds you up when you feel like life has stomped you into the dirt.  I don’t choose projects based on the size of my role or what song I get to sing or how many lines I have.  I choose them based on the group of people with whom I am going to share my life and my vulnerabilities for six or eight weeks.  Somehow I have been lucky enough to be accepted by some of the best performers in town as one of them.

Stick on some facial hair

I tend to have a very bad case of impostor syndrome.  I think it’s common in high achievers.  It’s that feeling that you don’t really belong in whatever position in life you’ve managed to reach and that if others really knew you and your insecurities, you’d be busted back down to buck private in a manner of minutes.  Having two careers, I get a double dose of it.  I’ve almost shaken it in my physician career.  It’s been thirty-one years since I graduated from medical school and people started calling my doctor.  It took me at least a decade to stop looking over my shoulder when someone used the word and another decade after that to start to feel relatively comfortable with my abilities and my role as a physician and healer.  I get a lot of accolades these days for my work in geriatrics.  I’m one of the few that’s dedicated my life to an unpopular and underserved specialty and I’ve been in one place long enough for people to get to know me so, even though I don’t think I really deserve them, I have learned to accept them with a certain amount of grace and humility.  I haven’t begun to shake the impostor syndrome as a performer.  Every time I am cast, I begin to worry if I could possibly be good enough, that they should have gone with another choice, that the audience will know that I don’t belong up there in that group of consummate professionals and all those other things the committee in my head will start telling me. It doesn’t matter if I’m the lead or a member of the ensemble in the back row.  I’ve learned to cope by turning my super-ego off when I walk through the stage door and leaving Andy and all his insecurities at home so I can just be present in that moment with those people and do the job that has been so carefully rehearsed that it starts to become second nature.

I have one more long post I want to do about all the feelings stirred up by Man of La Mancha.  I’m trying to figure out to write about the couple of dozen individuals involved in the show that make up my tribe.  How they entered my life, what they have meant to me, anecdotes of our time together around various Birmingham stages.  I have a lot of ideas swirling around but I haven’t yet figured out how to make it engaging to a reader and not just a litany of names.  It’s a challenge and I’ve always been about setting myself challenges and seeing if I can surmount them with my writing.  I’ll start putting some stuff down and see if it amounts to anything I’m willing to show in public.

I had one lovely experience last night.  A woman, whom I had not previously known, found my first post about Man of La Mancha on line as I had tagged a mutual friend.  She read it and it compelled her to immediately come down to the theater, buy a ticket and ask to meet me.  How flattering and what a perfect illustration of the theme of both the show and that post – the power of story and narrative to move people.  Sometimes I wonder why I’m writing these long posts and then something like that happens and it gives me the energy and the courage to go on.

Add the armor and voila…

March 28, 2019

Aldonza and the Muleteers – Man of La Mancha at VST

And just like that, Man of La Mancha is upon us all and open.  This was tech/dress week so it’s been rather busy.  Techs on Saturday and Sunday, dress on Monday, previews on Tuesday and Wednesday and opening night tonight.  The welter of activity on top of all my usual job requirements has kept me racing from pillar to post but I have managed to be where I need to be when I am needed there.  I once told my boss, when he tried to keep up with my schedule, that I have practically managed the art of being in two places at once.  I just have difficulty with three.  He never questioned my ability to keep all the balls in the air after that and I don’t think I ever disappointed him.  He has since departed UAB and my new boss is wise enough not to ask too many questions and just accepts that I’m able to do it all.

The 14-16 hour days are serving a practical purpose.  They are pulling me out of the funk I’d be falling into as the first anniversary of last year’s calamitous events rapidly approaches.  Today is the first anniversary of Tommy’s admission to the hospital after he developed rapid onset fulminant heart failure over the course of a couple days.  I had taken one look at him and his sudden onset lower extremity edema that morning and told him to get checked immediately before I headed off to work.  He called me a couple of hours later from the emergency room around the corner from my office to say that they had determined his ejection fraction (a measure of heart pumping) was about 25% (normal is 50-75%) and that he was being admitted.  I ran over as soon as I was able, got his orders for what he would need for the hospital stay, ran home and collected things up, flew off to my afternoon meeting, and then met him in his hospital room for dinner and to get him settled.  This was hardly his first hospital stay in our time together and we kind of had things worked out.  We both figured he’d be in a few days, get diuretics and then it would be back to normal with medication changes and close follow up.  We had no idea he would be there for the next month and would never come home.

So, over the month of April, I have to process the first anniversary of what was an agonizing hospitalization, physically for him as he became more and more tied to bed with intraaortic balloon pumps, and mentally for me as I tried to hold our life together and started to recognize just how sick he was.  In the midst of that will be his first birthday without him, he would be 54 this year; and at the end of the month, the anniversary of his actual death which was sudden and unpredicted, if not wholly unexpected.   I may be a little rocky over the next few weeks so if you see me staring off into space a bit more than usual, that’s why.  My melt downs tend to be interior in nature.

It is with this in the background that I am processing my experience with Man of La Mancha.  I was, of course familiar with the show and have seen a number of productions over the years, including the Broadway revival with Brian Stokes Mitchell some fifteen years ago but none of those shows ever really grabbed me.  Perhaps it was weak casting or production values.  Perhaps it was my mood going into the theater.  It had always struck me as one of those shows that had a better reputation than it perhaps had deserved.  I have certainly talked to folk who saw the original production Off Broadway down on Union Square in the mid 60s and how they found it profoundly moving, but I just didn’t get it.

Quixote and Sancho – Man of La Mancha – VST

When I was doing Hello, Dolly! this past fall, Jack Mann, the director of that show who was also slated to direct La Mancha came to me and asked me to be part of the production.  I was already committed to Tosca for the opera and the production periods overlapped so I was uncertain.  He told me to send me the Tosca schedule and then he got back to me offering me the part of the Captain of the Inquisition.  He doesn’t have a ton of stage time so it wouldn’t be a problem if I had to miss some rehearsals for Tosca commitments.  So, ever the glutton for punishment, I said yes, I’d love to do it.  I loved working for Jack and I knew who had been cast in the principal roles so also knew it promised to be a really good production.

Jack, who was suffering from lung cancer, unfortunately died at the New Year, a huge loss for Birmingham theater and it was necessary for Virginia Samford Theater to find a new director.  They made a superb choice in Henry Scott, who has been working in town for a few years, mainly for Red Mountain Theater.  Tommy had done a number of shows for him as wigmaster and thought the world of him as a director.  I had also been fortunate enough to be in a funky little revue show at Red Mountain called Whine and Cheese about aging which he had staged. 

Henry has a background in theater and dance (Steve and I actually saw him in the Tommy Tune Bye Bye Birdie at the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco circa 1991 when he was a chorus boy) and all the skills necessary to direct, stage and choreograph La Mancha to one singular vision.  As my part is small, I’ve been able to sit out and watch rehearsals and see how he can find small changes in blocking or business that make an enormous difference in the shape of a scene or the relationships among characters.  He does it all with a calm energy.  He never raises his voice, he finds a way to coach and coax the best out of you. I hope I get to work with him many times in the future.

I’ve been busy trying to figure out what La Mancha is actually about.  The simplistic answer is, of course, that it’s a musical version of Don Quixote.  Yes, the musical tells the story of the dotty Spaniard but it doesn’t do it in any sort of straightforward way.  The action is confined to a dungeon of the Spanish Inquisition.  Miguel Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, has been imprisoned for offenses against the Spanish Catholic Church (he tried to collect taxes from them in his role as a tax collector).  The true story of Cervantes is rife with such interesting episodes so the frame is based in fact.  The imprisoned Cervantes, to protect himself and his manservant from the depredations of the other prisoners, beguiles them with the tale of Quixote, assuming the role of the knight while his manservant essays his squire, Sancho.  The other prisoners are drawn into the tale to act out the various characters but the reality of prison and the dangers of the Inquisition keep intruding until Cervantes himself is finally called to give answer to the judges.  As he leaves, the prisoners, and the audience along with him, recognize how his presence among them and his storytelling has transformed them from helpless skulking beings back into humans of dignity and worth.

Cervantes leaves with the inquisitors. Back of my head in the stage right upstairs arch.

This makes it a show about many things.  First and foremost, it’s about the power of narrative.  Don Quixote, written contemporaneously with the plays of Shakespeare, is often considered the first novel.  Cervantes invented a way of connecting to readers through fictional characters and transforming those readers as his characters learn and grow.  And the narrative of the show is multilayered.  It’s the narrative of Cervantes telling the story of Don Quixote.  It’s the narrative of the whole show being given to the audience.  It’s the narrative the awakening of the humanity of the prisoners and the use of story to shine a light in even the darkest times.  As I am now in the grandparent generation, I keep coming back to storytelling as being one of my key functions, as it is of everyone in middle age.  The role of the elder in society is to teach the young who they are as people (the parents need to keep them alive and fed and educated) and this is best accomplished in story, be it myth, once upon a time, or a treasured classic book or movie that has survived for generations and can continue to be shared downward.   What else is it about?  It’s about hope and the need to hold on to it no matter the circumstances (a good lesson for our current political climate).  It’s about the wisdom of simplicity.  There are very few great works of literature that tackle dementia.  (It’s a taboo subject.  No one wants to look in that mirror and see the disease that destroys the self staring back at them.).  King Lear is the usual one cited (and it plays out in my waiting room every couple of months complete with bickering daughters and a parent who refuses to acknowledge his or her lack of capacity).  Don Quixote touches on it as well.  He, with his gentle delusions, lives in an alternate reality of chivalry and romance and his disorder lets him cut through artifice to more essential truths.  As audience, we are saddened when he is ‘cured’ and cheer when he returns to his quest.  But isn’t this point of narrative fiction?  For us to enter into the world and mind of the other, to a place where we can forget our day to day problems and live for a while in Westeros or Wonderland?

Henry is big on circles.  Rehearsals begin with a circling of cast and crew and the circle is important.  It’s a reminder that each of us is equally important and equidistant from the center, no matter the role.  We are a company that works together and respects everyone’s individualities and talents and at the same time we are a group that cannot function if every piece is not present.  But that’s what a show is and probably why I have always been drawn to theater over film.  Theater is ephemeral.  It doesn’t last other than in memory after the show closes and the set comes down and the costumes are packed away and the cast has moved on to other projects.  But, for one brief shining moment, a group of people come together and create something beautiful, something that they could never have created as individuals, something greater than the sum of the parts.  And that’s what a society endeavors to do.  Sometimes societies, like shows, can go terribly wrong and you look back afterwards and wonder what were y’all thinking.  But sometimes, everything goes very right and there’s magic on stage and the energy and enthusiasm of the audience lifts you to even greater heights.

Here’s to a great run everybody.

I have a bunch more to say about Man of La Mancha and the people involved but it’s late and I’m tired and I have clinic in the morning so I’m going to save that for later this weekend.

March 16, 2019

Opera Birmingham’s Tosca – I’m one of the priests next to the painting of the Magdalene

It’s another exciting Saturday night chez Duxbury. Kraft macaroni and cheese for dinner, a movie on the blu-ray so I can start work on another column, and a bunch of progress notes from the last week still to be written but which I have no real interest in working on tonight. (I did do half of them this afternoon, I’ll do the other half after tomorrow’s matinee.) No performance tonight. In the opera world, there are never performances on successive days. Gotta give the principals a vocal break so they can sing full out when there are paying customers.

Anyone who has been watching my FB recently knows that the last few weeks have consisted of work (the usual – supplemented by an occasional camel), the viral bronchitis from hell, now finishing it’s fourth week (the acute illness is long gone but it has left an inflammatory reactive airway condition that’s driving me mad), and rehearsals for Tosca with the opera and Man of La Mancha with Virginia Samford Theater.

Tosca opened last night. I counted it up on my fingers and it’s the 14th opera I’ve done since Tommy pushed me into the opera chorus back in 2009. Actually he didn’t push me, but when they were desperate for a larger chorus on short notice for Turandot that year and I asked him if I should go for it, he encouraged me to do it and I’m very thankful that he did. There’s no way I would ever have done something like this without him in my life. Over the years, I’ve been able to sing Aida, Carmen, The Magic Flute, Lucia di Lammermoor and so many other wonderful pieces of music.

Tommy had been intermittently involved with the opera for some years and joined the chorus on a regular basis in 2007 with La Cenerentola, a couple of years before I made my bow. He went from that to La Boheme and, the next year, Barber of Seville and Tosca. I wasn’t able to see that Tosca in 2008 (Kallen Esperian sang the title role and was by all accounts quite wonderful) as I had a show that ran opposite it but I do recall him rehearsing it and coming back from rehearsal excited about how it was all coming together. Tosca had always held a special place in his heart. Many years earlier, in the mid 70s, when he was a boy soprano, he sang the part of the shepherd boy that opens the third act for Birmingham Civic Opera, the precursor to Opera Birmingham. I’ve been looking in various archives for a program or picture of ten year old Tommy doing this but haven’t been successful. He never kept anything. If anyone out there who goes way back in Birmingham music circles has anything about this, I would be most grateful.

Last year’s opera gala – the last picture of the two of us together

All of this operatic activity, is of course, taking me into my head space of last year when we were busy putting together Romeo et Juliette. Tommy became seriously ill immediately after finishing work on the show, entering the hospital just after its closing and never coming out again. The annual opera gala happens about two weeks before the March opera, so as to build interest in the production and to allow the principals to provide some entertainment and as I look back on last years, it seems odd and almost like it was a different lifetime. It was the last major social event we attended. The last picture of us together was taken there. His car accident earlier in the day was probably the first indication of his rapidly worsening health as it was likely caused by a short syncopal episode from his heart which was already failing, we just didn’t know it yet.

Part of me wanted to sit out this whole opera season as there’s so many associations. I did skip the gala this year (I had a legitimate excuse. I had a Man of La Mancha rehearsal that night). I could not skip the opera or my usual chorus duties. That love, which was planted by Tommy, had to be nourished in his honor. In the weeks before he died, we had a couple of conversations about the up coming season. He was so looking forward to revisiting Tosca and trying to figure out how he could balance his front of house duties in such a way so he could be in the chorus for it. As the chorus doesn’t show up until half an hour into Act I, he could have made it work. Tosca is not a big chorus show. Two bits in the first act (including the Te Deum which is a show stopper) and then a cantata in the second act which is sung off stage. The guys have some off stage yelling at the end but it’s just not a whole lot of music or stage time.

Tosca and Scarpia – Act II

This production hits all the high points. Full of brio in Act I, creepy eroticism in Act II, and tragedy in Act III. Friday night’s audience was enraptured and I think we’ll have a similar reception tomorrow. It’s been fun working with Craig Kier again, one of the more laid back maestros but always exacting and precise in what he wants out of singers and orchestra. The more I listen to the show, the more I’m recognizing where Andrew Lloyd Webber cribbed some of his music from. Prima Donna from Phantom of the Opera is right out of the middle of Act I.

I’m playing a priest in Tosca. Usually, when it comes to opera chorus, I’m the town drunk so I suppose a priest is a nice change. I’m in the standard all black outfit with a white clerical collar. I did add one special touch, if you look closely at my feet, you’ll notice I’m wearing bright pink socks. One does want a hint of color. Don’t worry, Mary Gurney, the brilliant costumer, OKd the joke as next to no one is ever going to notice. I’m also carrying a rosary. It’s Tommy’s rosary. He bought it at the cathedral in Jackson Square NOLA one day. I’m not sure why. He had a fascination for the music of catholic ritual, especially the mass. One of his many projects that he wanted to get to eventually was to compose a Catholic Mass for children’s voices. I have his Liber Usualis and various other materials he was using for research. What I’m going to do with them, I don’t know.

Cavadarossi and the Firing Squad – Act III

Good opera heightens the emotions and brings both performers and audience to a slightly different plane of being. There’s not a lot of other theatrical forms that can do that. As I sit backstage and listen to Puccini night after night, I know I’m being transported in some way. Maybe it’s Tommy’s way of connecting. I just know that I’m both feeling closer to him and missing him more the last week or so than I have for a while. It might be at least in part the fact that I’m coming up on the anniversaries of both his birth and his death. Having done this before, those first year milestones are hard. I’ll soldier on, I always do.

And people are counting on my getting up tomorrow and being places and doing things…

February 25, 2019

I’ve just gotten out of a long hot shower where I’ve been treating my bronchitis with steam inhalation and my sore muscles with the shower massage heads. The master shower that does everything in this house was one of the selling points when Tommy and I decided to purchase it three years ago. When I go to move, I’m going to have to find something that has similar features. I’m spoiled. I was standing there with rivulets of hot water splashing down my sides and I started to sing the first act finale of Sunday in the Park with George to myself. I got to ‘arrangements of shadows’ and burst into tears and couldn’t stop for a while. Weird emotional jags usually means its time to do some processing so down I sit to do some writing and puzzle things out.

I came home from the Caribbean, launched into rehearsal for two shows at once and, of course, developed yet another viral bronchitis within 36 hours. I had to slow down a bit last week so as to not get too far behind the 8 ball and I’m on the mend, but the post viral inflammatory cough remains and I am still very tired and achy. Thank god for DayQuil and NyQuil. They keep me going. Monday is my hardest day stamina wise at work and I made it through without too many problems so I should be good for the rest of the week. And, I’m in bed before 8:00 so I should get plenty of sleep. (This is an invitation for me to wake up at 2:30 and be unable to get back to sleep but hope springs eternal).

The first show is Tosca at the opera. I’m usual third nobody from the left in the chorus (and I’m just fine with that at the opera). It’s not a big chorus show so rehearsal commitments aren’t arduous and it’s not a particularly big sing. There’s a bunch of supernumerary work in this one but I’m leaving that to the younger and more energetic folks. Two more music rehearsals this week, than moving into staging.

The second is Man of La Mancha at Virginia Samford Theater. I’m the Captain of the Inquisition (read jailer) which means I start the whole thing out by throwing Cervantes into jail and then I show up again at the end to get him back out of the dungeon. Again, not difficult. I’m the only member of the cast that doesn’t spent the whole 90 minutes of the show on stage. We were doing exercises on Friday night to get the rest of the cast to hate me and everything I represent. Kind of a cross between Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment and the last sequence of Suddenly Last Summer. Uncomfortable, either way. This one is going to be good. It’s only running two weekends rather than the usual three so I suggest getting tickets now.

Sunday in the Park with George at Birmingham Southern College

Now back to my moodiness, two things coming together I think. The first was going to see Sunday in the Park with George at Birmingham Southern College on Saturday night. It’s a show that’s always spoken to me. It premiered at the end of my senior year of college and, while I was too poor to get to New York to see the original production, I was able to devour the LP, discuss it ad nauseam with theater friends, and eventually see the original via Great Performances on PBS. I’ve always had an affinity for Sondheim. He writes from the perspective of the alienated outsider peering in the window at the party and I, like most gay men, completely understand all the nuances of that point of view. George, the protagonist, is the quintessential Sondheim hero, striving, dispassionate, aloof, focused to the point of obsession. Sound familiar? When the first act ends with the gorgeous chorale as Seurat assembles his masterpiece from the fragments he has been collecting and the audience is taken on a audio/visual journey of genius at work, I always tear up. This week, I was more than tearing.

What did it to me? I think it was actually an earlier scene in the play. When George and his mistress Dot realize they are at an irreconcilable impasse and part to the song We Do Not Belong Together. As I was watching the scene, I was smacked between the eyes. I always knew I was George but it had never occurred to me that Tommy was Dot. As they had their final arguments, tapes of any number of the fights the two of us had over the years unspooled through my memory and limbic system. The dynamics were identical. And just like George loses Dot, I have irrevocably lost Tommy. It’s a death rather than a departure but the end result is the same. Our A number one cause of conflict was my emotional remoteness and his constant need for presence that I didn’t always know how to fulfill.

I’m probably still on a bit of downhill run from the cruise as well. Someone once asked me why gay men go on cruises and other such group vacations together. It’s really mainly about connection and reaffirmation of a tribal identity. It’s about creating a space where behavior that may be looked down on by the straight world is not merely tolerated, but celebrated. We all get together, let our inner butterflies out for a time, recharge the batteries and then go back to our caterpillar existences for a while long, ready to face those challenges as we know there are others who have our back and like us the way we are. Over the years that I’ve been taking these kinds of trips, it’s been interesting to see the changes in the hospitality industry itself and how it relates to a LGBT charter. Twenty years ago, there was deep suspicion and it was hard to book the best properties or staff. Now, cruise staff fight to get assigned to those weeks. Gay men, as outsiders, treat staff courteously and with respect. Staff are invited to participate in the party. We tip well. And, most importantly, no children.

Universal Studios Hollywood

This has been a bit heavy so I better tell a somewhat light hearted story tonight. I was reminded of this one by something Amy Light had posted about what’s a food you hate that everyone else seems to love. So this is the tale of why Andy does not eat bananas. I used to eat bananas with abandon, like any good American middle class child. In Seattle in the winter, it was one of the few fruits you could get before the days of widebody air shipping of produce all over the world. Anyway, I need to take you back to the early days of Andy and Steve, I think spring of 1989 or 1990.

I inherited my father’s GI tract. It’s very finicky. It gets upset easily. It doesn’t like strange water in particular. Over the years, I have learned how to beat it into submission with a couple of medications but it still will get the best of me from time to time. For some reason, every time I go to Los Angeles, it gets set off. This has been happening since I was teenager and there’s usually been at least a day on every visit when it wants nothing more heavy duty than Ginger Ale.

Steve was an LA boy so, when we got together, we went to LA fairly routinely to see his friends. On this particular trip, we decided we wanted to go to Universal Studios to take the back lot tour. We’d both done it in the past, but never together. So we got up early so as to be there when it opened and get an early tram. I was queasy coming up the hill from the parking lot and told Steve that I didn’t want to eat anything. Steve, who never missed a meal, was sure I would fall over in a dead faint if I didn’t have something to eat, so he bought me a banana at the snack bar and stood there to make sure I ate it. I ate it alright. Five minutes later, my stomach rejected it mightily. We were in the middle of the ticket plaza. There was no restroom. All I could do was lean over the parapet and let the remains of the banana fly off the scenic vista and into the flowerbed forty feet below, much to the amusement and consternation of the other tourists hiking up the walk. Steve was mortified. But he did learn an important lesson. He never again force fed me anything if I said I wasn’t feeling well. My nausea centers also learned a lesson. Banana bad. I really haven’t been able to eat one since.

February 17, 2019

Travel day

Dateline:  Birmingham, Alabama –

And another trip comes to an end.  I went to bed early last night, intending to get a sound sleep and energy for a travel day which, of course, meant that I slept very badly, waking up every 20 minutes or so.  Perhaps it was too much red wine at dinner.  Perhaps it was the knowledge that I have to gear up for my usual life, rather than a more relaxed pace. Around 6:30, I gave up and got up.  The packing had been done the night before, the boat was already docked at Port Everglades, so there was nothing to do but have a leisurely breakfast and wait for my group to be called so we could disembark.  I must say, the cruise industry has the moving of large numbers of people down to an exact science.  Perhaps they’ve taken a course at Disney University.  They called my group at 9:15.  I was off the boat, reunited with my luggage, through customs and in a taxi by 9:50.  The airport is close to the cruise port so I was checking in for my noon flight by 10:15. I had been worried that I was cutting it a little close with that flight time.  I needn’t have been.

The flight to ATL and then from ATL to BHM were uneventful.  Birmingham was muggy and rainy and is apparently going to rain all week.  Ah well, I’ve had my sunshine quotient for the winter and my Vitamin D supplies should be replenished.  I was back at the house around four, unpacked, and then had time to run grab some dinner before my first chorus rehearsal for Tosca this evening.  I’d been eating such a balanced diet all week, that I must confess tonight was Bojangles fried chicken with dirty rice and mac and cheese.  Don’t judge, I was hungry.

Rehearsal periods for Tosca and Man of La Mancha are simultaneous but I don’t have a ton to do in either one of them so it’s mainly going to be a matter of me keeping my calendar straight so I show up in the right rehearsal hall on the right day at the right time.  Tosca is over and done with in four weeks.  Man of La Mancha opens in six.  There’s not likely to be much in the way of travelogue while all that’s going on.  I’m looking at a brief Seattle trip in late April or early May to check on the family but that’s going to depend on a lot of things falling into place.

No story tonight.  I’m finishing up moving all of these posts over to the blog site and looking to see what I’ve already talked about so I don’t get too repetitive.

February 16, 2017

The Beach at Half Moon Cay

Dateline: Half Moon Cay, The Bahamas:

I bounced out of bed around seven this morning, ready to go.  I seem to be doing this alternating thing between sleeping to all hours and wide awake with the sun.  I’m not sure what in my circadian rhythms causes that but on a vacation like this, it doesn’t really matter much one way or another.  I got up, had breakfast, several cups of coffee, grabbed my book and headed up to the observation lounge to watch us sail towards and dock at Half Moon Cay.  It’s one of those small islands that every cruise company seems to have somewhere in the Caribbean, where they can give passengers a beach day while still being able to control the experience and make sure the extra revenues continue to flow up to their corporate coffers.  As this is my first time on Holland America, this particular stop was new to me. 

The beach was lovely.  The water actually a bit cooler than I was expecting and therefore refreshing.  The food was the same as the cruise ship buffet line.   It was a pleasant few hours in the sun.  I got slightly pink, but not too badly burned thanks to SPF 100.  A flock of semi-domesticated chickens which strutted around the area provided free entertainment.   They should consider putting them on stage.  They might be better than some of the in house offerings. 

Eventually we weighed anchor, had one last tea dance on the fan tail (the them being jade so all the costumes were variations on green.  Think of 250 pound bearded men dressed as Disney’s Tinkerbelle).  I had a cocktail, watched the party and retired early as I am pretty much danced out for the week.  Then a very nice dinner with Jeff, West, Lee, and some new friends and packing up to disembark in the morning.  The show tonight is Ty Herndon.  I’ve seen him in more intimate settings in the past so felt do need as I am staying in the cabin and watching movies.  I want to see if I can get some decent sleep as it’s a travel day tomorrow and my first rehearsal for Tosca in the evening.

Tommy’s skin demonstrating why he didn’t like the beach

I’ve been trying to think of a Tommy in the tropics story to tell.  We didn’t do that much beach vacationing together as his skin tone was such that he burned about fifteen minutes after arriving at the airport and he had to hide under the nearest palm tree in a caftan for self protection.  (I am exaggerating a bit there but it’s my life so I can if I want to).  We did spend a week on an Atlantis Trip to the Mayan Riviera in the spring of 2004.  There, among other things, we spent a day at a nature/amusement park called Xcaret which featured several underground rivers that flowed through limestone caverns to the sea.  Tommy was in his element with these.  You put on a life vest, and bobbed along with the current.  It took about 45 minutes to traverse the whole thing.  Being underground, we were out of the sun, the water was warm, and with a travel group of gay men, we could hang on to each other as we floated downstream without anyone thinking anything of it.  I think we floated the whole thing four times.  There were various other things there such as a zoo, a swim with the dolphins lagoon, and some paddle boats through the mangroves but none of the rest of it has stayed with me.  Tommy was having serious back problems that trip and had to walk with a cane.  He had back surgery a few weeks later with some improvement but ended up having to have a second surgery about five years later.  But bobbing along in the water, he felt weightless and wonderful and I think he was as happy as he had ever been that day.