28 April 2017

"Ready, Set, Freeze!"

by Erik Piepenburg

[Among the topics I cover on Rick On Theater is how theater gets made—the jobs and processes by which a production gets on stage or a script gets written and prepped for production.  On  25 April, the New York Times published an article about the final hours of rehearsal for a new Broadway musical, Bandstand, before it’s “frozen”—when, as the article’s on-line subhead puts is,  “The director of ‘Bandstand’ had to introduce changes — then let go.”  Bandstand, with a book by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker, music by Oberacker, lyrics by Taylor and Oberacker, started previews at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on 31 March and opened on 26 April for an open run.]

The show “Bandstand” counts down the hours to its final fixes.

In theater parlance, a show is “frozen” when — on a designated rehearsal day, usually about a week before opening night — no more fixes, cuts or additions are introduced. While not contractually mandated, it’s a decision and a deadline, determined by the director and the creative team, that give the cast a sense of an ending. Up to that point, the actors rehearse by day and adjust their performances for an audience that night.

To understand what happens in the hours before a show officially freezes, I spent much of last Wednesday afternoon at the Jacobs Theater with Andy Blankenbuehler, the director and choreographer of the new Broadway musical “Bandstand.” The show is a comedy-drama, with a swing-infused score by Richard Oberacker and a book and lyrics by Rob Taylor and Mr. Oberacker, about a piano-playing World War II veteran (Corey Cott) who returns home to Cleveland and forms both a band and a relationship with a fellow soldier’s widow (Laura Osnes). Now in previews, the show opens on Wednesday.

The day before that rehearsal, Mr. Blankenbuehler said he’d made 100 changes — “a line, a shoulder, an arm,” as he put it. At the Paper Mill Playhouse, where “Bandstand” had its premiere in 2015, 22 minutes — including whole numbers and scenes — were cut from the show in one day, he said.

But the day this show was frozen wasn’t quite that eventful. Still, it found the high-energy Mr. Blankenbuehler, who won Tony Awards for his choreography of “Hamilton” and “In the Heights,” running from the house to the stage and back almost nonstop, making fixes until the 5 p.m. deadline.

He compared the process to a home renovation: “You build the structure, and put the tile in the kitchen and all the knobs on. We are doing that final hit list before we say to the contractor, ‘We are good, we can move in.’ ”

Dancers in the Dark

11:48 a.m. For the first fix of the day, Mr. Blankenbuehler had to figure out why light and actor weren’t gelling in a “button,” a tiny moment that signals to the audience that an element in the show is over. He consulted with the lighting designer, Jeff Croiter, on how best to handle a first-act transition in the number “You Deserve It,” set at a bar and involving the actor Drew McVety and the ensemble.

“I keep giving the actors the note to be sharper, but I’m now realizing that we are not helping them with the lights,” Mr. Blankenbuehler said. “So we are just shifting the button cue to bring the focus in just a little further.”

After huddling with Mr. Croiter, Mr. Blankenbuehler smiled as Mr. McVety, who plays the bar owner, became perfectly isolated in the light as the ensemble clapped in slow motion.

12:08 p.m. With the actors in street clothes — T-shirts, sweatpants and, for some of the women, kerchiefs — Mr. Blankenbuehler spent about 20 minutes going over individual notes. “Hold the glasses like they are real things,” he said to the assembled actors, referring to the props they handle in the show’s many nightclub scenes. “Make sure the eggs reach the table,” he told one actor. He asked Ms. Osnes to take “one step stage right” in one of her scenes.

“I appreciate that,” Ms. Osnes, a two-time Tony nominee, later said of Mr. Blankenbuehler’s attention to detail. “I think it makes the difference between great and excellent.”

How to Bow

1:10 p.m. Mr. Blankenbuehler spent almost an hour fleshing out a fully choreographed curtain call for the first time. He repeatedly moved actors in and out of position and asked for shifts in lighting as they tried out their cues.

He asked the actress Beth Leavel to speed up her entrance and come farther downstage center before gesturing to Ms. Osnes and Mr. Cott, who were on deck backstage. Before finishing, Mr. Blankenbuehler asked four male dancers to do a little quick step that he thought might work just as the lights come up before the bows. They learned the moves in about five minutes, and they were in the show when I saw it the next night. (It worked.)

2:05 p.m. Repeated calls of “Five, six, seven, eight” echoed throughout the theater as Mr. Blankenbuehler figured out the right way to properly light Ms. Osnes and Mr. Cott as they came into position during a number featuring an onstage microphone. He then spent about 10 minutes making tiny adjustments to a complicated-looking dance sequence, finessing over and over the dancers’ leg extensions and speed as they sang the lyrics “the boys are back.” In the show the moment lasted all of about three seconds.

Two Words

3:25 p.m. Mr. Blankenbuehler spent about six minutes chatting alone with Mr. Cott about a crucial scene early in “Bandstand” that pivots on two words Mr. Cott’s character says. The words were cut about two weeks ago but were recently restored.

“I asked him about whether or not it’s working,” Mr. Cott said afterward in his dressing room. “We are going to try again for tonight. That’s where this process gets fun. You have to bounce things off a live audience and see whether it works or it doesn’t work.”

Mr. Cott didn’t want to disclose what the two words were, saying they “give a big plot point away.”

What a Wiggle Will Do

4:09 p.m. Mr. Blankenbuehler demonstrated come-hither moves to two female dancers (far right, above) for a musical transition that involved a standup bass. He showed the women how he wanted them to wiggle their hips, give flirty little looks and shrug their shoulders as they lead the men offstage.

He liked it. They liked it.

“This transition didn’t feel like it was ending,” Mr. Blankenbuehler said as he watched the performers execute his changes. “The girls swishing their hips there tells the audience, O.K., the moment is done.”

4:34 p.m. The mood in the theater began to feel frenzied as crew members disassembled the work tables that had been set up throughout the theater.  Looking irate, Mr. Blankenbuehler loudly asked about turning off the house lights, just after they had come on. He then called for stage management to meet him upstage to discuss how best to bring a door offstage.


4:53 p.m. Mr. Blankenbuehler said he knew that he could keep fixing or suggesting, sometimes to the detriment of the work. “Many of my notes are overanalytic,” he said during a break. “They are me digging deeper when it’s not really necessary. The forced deadline of today is really good. It’s like someone saying, ‘Take your hands off the table, you’re done.’”

So as the countdown to 5 p.m. neared, he gathered the cast onstage for a final round of notes and thank yous.

“All the good work couldn’t have continued if walls were up at all, and there were no walls,” he said. “I owe you all alcohol.”

The cast members then huddled, stretched out their arms in a circle like football players, and shouted: “‘Bandstand’ frozen!”

At 5:03 p.m., Mr. Blankenbuehler was sitting in the house, looking exhausted but smiling. He said he was satisfied that the show was in good shape.

“We worked hard enough in advance of today that we actually finished the job,” he said.

[Past articles on the making of theater have included the work of stage managers and dance captains (“Stage Hands,” 14 January 2014), set designer Eugene Lee and wigmaker Paul Huntley (“Two (Back) Stage Pros,” 30 June 2014), and swings in a musical show (“Swings,” 9 March 2016).  That’s in addition to many articles on acting, directing, reviewing, and even a few on playwriting.)


1 comment:

  1. 'Bandstand' opened on Wednesday, 26 April 2017, and the reviews were mixed. Show-Score surveyed 26 notices for the Broadway production (there were also reviews of the pre-Broadway run at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse in 2015) for an average score of 72.5. There were two high scores of 95 (Huffington Post, am New York) and one low rating of 35 (Hollywood Reporter). Sixty-five percent of the notices were positive, 27% were mixed, and 8% were negative. (I adjusted the posted tally to omit the older reviews; Show-Score's round-up also included one out-of-town notice, the Chicago Tribune, which I left in my recalclations.)

    Alexis Soloski's New York Times review (27 April), which had a score of 60 ("mixed") called the play "an openhearted, indecisive new musical" and said, "'Bandstand' is an undercooked slice of apple pie, served with a dollop of anguish."