Chuck (charlesofcamden) wrote,

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Near-Idiocy Experience

I’ve been in some terrific shows, and I’ve been in some dreadful shows. The usual risks associated with being in a dreadful show are such things as playing to tiny audiences, seeing one’s good name take a beating in the local press, and feeling one’s self esteem shrink with each dismal performance. The risks don’t usually involve actual mortal danger, but there have been exceptions…

This show wasn’t merely dreadful. It pioneered new horizons and experimental techniques for achieving dreadfulness. The signs were all there on the day of auditions.

The time was 1979. The place was a crumbling old movie theater on Detroit’s lower east side, the kind that was being torn down left and right in that era. This one wasn’t especially ornate or architecturally significant; it was just a big musty old theater. I’m sure it was a nice enough place in its day, but that day was long gone. A local county commissioner had bought the place and had decided to produce live theater there – non-paying community theater, but theater nonetheless. I was there to audition for their first production, which the flyer said was to be the musical Damn Yankees. Quite a throng of east side actors showed up as well. But before any auditions could take place, our director got on the stage and had an announcement to make.

“I’m glad to see so many people here for our Damn Yankees auditions. The only problem is, we’re not doing Damn Yankees; we’re doing The Music Man…”

I never did find out why we switched shows. A bunch of folks got up and left right then and there, but many stayed, including yours truly. While I would have loved to do Damn Yankees, The Music Man had been my first-ever high school play a few years earlier, so I knew it and loved it. The fact that I could immediately go onstage and perform the song “Trouble” from memory meant that I was definitely in.

Oh, but let’s not get carried away here – EVERYBODY who auditioned was cast in the show. Whatever genuine theatrical ability we had on hand was spread pretty thin (with a few distinguished exceptions). I was given the role of Ewart Dunlop. He only has a handful of scripted lines, but he is a member of the Barber Shop Quartet, so I was pretty jazzed about it.

The show opened 17 days after auditions. If you’re not a theater person, take my word for it – that’s a brutally short time in which to put together any show, much less a big musical with choreography and suchlike. In the lead role of Harold Hill, our director cast the very worst person who auditioned for the role. I’m not exaggerating here. At auditions, he was the one guy who you saw read and you immediately thought something like, “Well, HE’S not an actor, the poor fellow. Hell, he can barely read a sentence without losing his place. Well, maybe he can play a townsperson…”

But no, there he was the next day at our first rehearsal as Harold Hill. It was a disaster. What could our director have been thinking? Ah, we got the answer to that question at the third rehearsal, when our director announced that he’d had to replace the actor playing Harold Hill with… himself! As I got to know the director better (and I must confess that I crossed paths with him on a few occasions after this), it became crystal clear that this was a recurring modus operandi in his directorial style.

The next clue as to the sort of people I’d hooked up with came when our director announced that there was to be no costumer for the show. He pitched it to us as a positive thing – as a “rare creative opportunity” for us to costume ourselves. I cannot bring myself to describe for you the assortment of efforts (and non-efforts) that went up on that stage opening night, but it was sad. I can’t even call it a sad spectacle, for there was no element of spectacle to it, only sadness.

But let me get back to the “mortal danger” I referred to earlier. We did not have an orchestra to accompany us; we had a pianist. Yes, a pianist, but at first, no piano. The search was on for a cheap or free piano. Yeah, because people give away perfectly good pianos every day. But somebody knew somebody who knew somebody, and the director announced that there was a church basement in another part of town housing an old piano that nobody wanted. About 6 or 8 of us volunteered to go over there and get the thing.

So there we were in that basement, pushing junk and rubble out of the way to clear a path to the stairs. I don’t believe that any of us had ever moved a piano before, and nobody was in charge. The piano was an old upright that weighed a freakin’ TON. I do believe there was no small amount of cast iron in the thing. It took at least two people just to move it across the floor. We maneuvered it to the foot of the stairs, and that’s where the real drama began. Would that our show had offered a tenth of such drama.

We had no ropes, pulleys, or levers. Just a bunch of strapping young men and a steep, narrow stairway. It quickly became clear that we had way more people there than we could possibly use. It’s like this – You could get two, maybe three people behind the piano to push it up the stairs. While you could theoretically have a couple of guys above, pulling it up, the actual amount of force you could add from up there was rather minimal. Meanwhile, down below where the real lifting was being done, it took every bit of force we could muster just to get it up a step or two. And there was no place to rest during the climb – whoever was down there had to have the stamina to keep pushing all the way to the top. And the price for making a mistake was going to be very high.

Not wishing to accept defeat (or common sense, or self-preservation) so quickly, we commenced to pushing that damn piano up the stairs. We actually got it up about 5 steps or so before we began to lose energy and the piano began to push us back down the stairs. We at least managed to guide it back down without letting it go completely. At that point, it occurred to me, and I’m sure to the others, that if we were near the top and the piano began to push back, it could very suddenly begin to hurtle down as a terrifying dead weight and crush us into nasty, bloody, twisted masses of flesh and bone. There was a moment where we sort of looked at one another to see if any of us were seriously interested in renewing our efforts, now that a tangible peril was staring us in the face and causing even the most macho among us to reconsider. No, it was over. Let’s not say the piano won and we lost; let’s call it a win/win. The piano could go back to moldering in the basement on its own timetable, and we could go back to living our lives with all of our limbs intact.

* * *

A piano showed up at the theater a few days later. I didn’t know where it came from and I didn’t need to know. For my costume, I wore my one and only suit coat, a fashionable item of brown polyester.

The next show they did right after Music Man was Fiddler on the Roof. I didn’t audition for it, but I knew people who did. It seems that the director (same fellow as Music Man) cast someone dreadful as Tevye and tried to replace him with himself. This time, though, the producer (the county commissioner who owned the theater) stepped in and forced him to cast someone else.

I will close with one additional anecdote to illustrate the sort of people who were running this operation. Our final dress rehearsal was rough; filled with stoppages and problems. Even those of us who were relative neophytes to the theater biz knew that we were trapped in a desperately bad show. Our producer sat in the back of the empty theater that night watching, along with several people we did not know. After the curtain went down and the strangers had left, our producer had a few words of wisdom to pass along to us.

He was a corpulent old coot who reeked of sliminess, corruption, and nicotine. He spoke in a low, slow voice that managed to be simultaneously gruff and syrupy. He was very nearly a living human incarnation of Jabba the Hutt (though I use the term ‘human’ with reservations). “I was watching the show tonight with my friends from New York,” he began. He placed heavy emphasis on the words ‘New York,’ “and they told me that what you kids are doing up there is every bit as good as what they’re doing on Broadway!”

OK. I’m not here to defend Broadway. I’ve seen some incredible stuff there, and I’ve seen some… un-incredible stuff there. That being said, it is an outrageous, bald-faced lie to pass off a statement like that as truth. It’s one thing to try and encourage a cast on the eve of opening night; it’s another thing to tell a lie so big it leaves stretch marks on your tar-covered soul.

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