Monday, March 16, 2009

Deceptively complex

by Mark Elliott, Professor of Musical Theatre (Musical Director of URINETOWN)

I've done a lot of shows, but music directing URINETOWN is truly a labor of love. The composer/co-lyricist, Mark Hollmann, is one of my very best friends--we've known each other for over 20 years--so my desire to "get it right" with this show is even stronger than it usually is. I didn't see the show at the Fringe Festival, but I saw it off-Broadway, on Broadway, and the national tour, and laughed myself silly every time. I really want for our audiences to get the full impact of the brilliance of the script and score.

The music is deceptively complex, calling on the cast to sing intricate harmonies in several different musical styles, from Brecht/Weill gothic to Gospel pop to musical theatre jazz. Our cast is doing a great job, but they're finding out the discipline it takes to fully realize this music.

We're very fortunate to have some wonderful musicians who will be joining us in a few weeks--it's not often that we can use an orchestra the size that the Broadway production had, but then again, not many Broadway shows are scored for a five piece orchestra!

I've looked forward to The Theatre School doing this show since I first saw it in 2001, and I can't wait for it to all come together.

Photo: Mark Elliott plays along during a recent URINETOWN rehearsal.
Photo by Jake Kvanbeck

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Champion of the Text

by Matt Ducey, BFA 4/Playwriting (Dramaturg for URINETOWN)

People always wonder what a dramaturg does. And it’s kinda hard to answer succinctly. The job varies from production to production. The best way I’ve heard it put is that if this were the movie Titanic, the dramaturg would know which silverware was used, where the forks went, how the ladies walked and will have researched all of the class structures of the ship. It’s our responsibility to know everyone and everything about the production.

In terms of my role in URINETOWN, the dramaturg is responsible for creating an actor packet, which we pass out at the first rehearsal, which talks about the themes of the show, the different specific references and general research about the show itself. The actor packet is meant to give the actors a broader sense of what’s happening in the show. For example, in the actor packet I included research and articles about water shortages in our current world which relates to the water shortage that plagues the people in URINETOWN.

Most of my research for URINETOWN was geared toward our current world. My goal for both the actor packet and program note was to bring the ideas of this fictional world into 2009 America. We are facing a huge global crisis, both financially and environmentally and the people of URINETOWN are facing the same challenge.

I was also fortunate enough to get to sit down with the creators of URINETOWN, Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, and interview them about the show which I was then able to pass on to the cast and crew. I am also responsible for writing the program note, which is a short essay found in the program that speaks to a big theme in the show. My team and I will also be responsible for creating a lobby display that will help to immerse the audience into the world of the play while they’re waiting to get into their seats.

The dramaturg is the champion of the text. So when I go to rehearsals, the main thing I look for is , “Is the production being faithful to the script?”. I’m also looking for big story ideas. Are we getting from “Point A” to “Point B” smoothly, and without confusion.

This process has been thrilling. Dramaturging a musical has been a really unique experience and getting to experience the show along with the cast has been a joy.

Photo: Dramaturg Matt Ducey (third from right) observes a read-through rehearsal with URINETOWN creators Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman and members of the URINETOWN creative team.
Photo by Jake Kvanbeck

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Different World

by Amy Gilman, BFA 3/Scenic Design (Scenic Designer for URINETOWN)

Immediately from reading the script of URINETOWN I was excited about working on this production. The entire feel of the script and the music has certain grit to it. Musicals give the design team an immediate style by simply by having the added element of music already in the show, and probably the toughest part of designing for musicals is to be true to the flow of the show (“Wait a minute, there are how many scenes?!”) If scenes cannot move with the sound of the music in a musical, the entire thing does not work, no matter how well each element is designed. Of course in many ways URINETOWN is not a typical musical, and of course Dexter Bullard is not a typical director for a musical. I am really excited to be working with Dexter. He has a specific wit to the way that he presents pieces, which seems to meld seamlessly with URINETOWN.

From the beginning, we knew that the environment was very important to defining these characters. In the premise of URINETOWN, these characters have come to be in a different world than we as a design team and our audience inhabit. They had been shaped by growing up in the Stink Years, just as people would have been changed by growing up in the Great Depression or during times of war. During concept phases of the show, current events emphasized that we do not live in a world which is unfamiliar with economic disaster or corporate greed. I started out by thinking of what would be different in this world, and in what ways is it similar to the world we are in now. Dexter told us up front that he wanted to play these characters as real people, and not over the top, so our URINETOWN has a lot to do with the real world though it has grown into a different tattered place. We recognized that this world used to be similar to our own, and all of the designers have kept that in our minds throughout the process.

We have ended up with a set with lots of levels for dancing and setting apart people who are in different locations at the same time. We realized that Bobby talks and sings about the sky a lot, but really the sky is far away and it is out of reach, so there is not a lot of openness to the set. In the back there is what I have been referring to as a ground row, but most of it is about 8 feet tall making it more like a back wall, but it cuts off a lot of the visual accessibility of the “sky” cyc in the back. The colors of the set have become mostly subdued. The colors reflect the dismal world that these people live in with a lot of the color during the show coming from our lighting designer, Camden Peterson.

First rehearsal was about two weeks ago now. The start of rehearsal always signals a huge transformation of the entire process. It is really a sudden switch from the intangible, conceptual planning of a show to the concrete realizing of the show. As Dexter, Mark, choreography, stage management, and the cast get into the physical task of moving around this complicated space, the scene shop has just starting building the show. We are at the point that I just sit and hope that all of the crazy things that we have imaged will turn out to be as remarkable as the show that is in our head. The set, that is now still mostly on paper in drafting and painter’s elevations or in ¼” scale in my model, will soon become part of the living, breathing organism that is a show.

Photo: Amy Gilman talks about her design while showing the model of the set during the first rehearsal of URINETOWN.
Photo by Margaret Morton

Thursday, March 5, 2009


By Jeremy Kahn, BFA 4/Acting (plays Bobby Strong in URINETOWN)

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been two weeks since we auditioned for URINETOWN. The audition process was unique in a number of ways. At The Theatre School auditions for all the plays going up that quarter take place over one VERY busy weekend. The air is thick with tension and anticipation as we actors prepare to show our best in everything from Shakespeare to children’s theatre. Yet, this time there was something different. All weekend there was the sound of singing and the smell of dancing coming from one corner of the building. This, of course, was the audition for URINETOWN.

We were asked to prepare 16 bars of a song from a musical and come prepared to dance. As you can imagine this was a bit of a departure from the memorized monologue or scene most non-musical auditions require us to prepare. Each actor entered the singing audition alone. I was pretty nervous as I shuffled toward Mark (our wonderful musical director) at the piano, trying not to sweat on the sheet music I clutched in my hands. I recognized the various directors and designers in the room to watch my audition, but I couldn’t help feeling very alone up there. I don’t remember much, but I’m assuming I sang my song, because next thing I knew Dexter thanked me, I collected my music, and I escaped back to the lobby of The Theatre School.

Next it was time for the dance portion of the audition. This time there was a whole group of us. After a quick warm-up Brie and Jason (our lovely choreographers) began to teach us a section of one of the big musical numbers called, “Cop Song.” They told us that they had come up with a word to describe the quality of movement they were looking for: “rusky.” Then they proceeded to teach us a bizarre, and indeed, very “rusky” dance that many people really began to get the hang of…I was not one of these people. Still, I have a philosophy that if you can’t do something well, you might as well do it funny. I said to myself, “Jeremy, just dance your little heart away! It’s going to be okay.” It was okay and before I knew it we were done.

After the first set of auditions, lists are posted of who’s called back for a second audition for each play. The callback list for URINETOWN went up Saturday night and I was called back for the part of Bobby Strong. This time we were asked to prepare specific sections of songs from the show. Each actor was given sheet music with his or her name on it and we had until the following morning to prepare to sing it.

Sunday the energy was different inside the school. The tension was still there in full, but a new focus existed in the building. Actors had specific parts to read for and specific peers who had become their competition.

We were blatantly reminded of this in our singing callback when all the guys stood in a line and one by one took turns singing the songs. Yeah… it was really intense. After that, we were off to the dance callback where we recreated the “Cop Song” dance from the first audition (I still didn’t quite have it down… yeah… kind of sad). And after a long weekend it was time to go home and wait for the cast list to go up. When they finally did I was thrilled to see that Dexter had cast me as Bobby Strong.

The first rehearsal took place less than 24 hours later.

So far the rehearsals have been going really well. Dexter explained from day one that we would start by learning the music and the dance. We would take the time we need to get the musical numbers “into our bodies.” The first week was all focused on singing. We met with Mark individually to work on solos and all together to sing through the group songs. At the end of the week we had learned the music for the entire play! On Sunday we did a “sing through” where we sung every song in the score. Considering we had been working on URINETOWN for less than a week it was incredible. It had been an exhausting week, but after singing through the play there was a new energy in the room. Some of my own personal anxiety about doing a big musical was fading away and I don’t think I was alone. I finally was completely on board with Dexter’s early assertion that we can blow people away with this production.

This week we’ve been learning choreography. Well…some of us. Brie and Jason must remember my audition, because they don’t have me dancing much at all. I can live with this. Everyone is attacking the dance numbers with the same fervor that they did with the singing. Like I said, I haven’t been around much, but what I have seen of the musical numbers looks awesome.

It’s going to be really fun.

There’s something about rehearsing this play, with this company… I can’t help but smile… a lot! It’s a remarkable thing when you can get a huge amount accomplished each night and still have a blast. It’s a testament to every person in the room’s work and positive energy. I look forward to every rehearsal and feel kind of sad when I’m not called. The coming weeks will be busy and sometimes very stressful, but I have no doubt that they will be ridiculously fun and that we’ll end up with a successful production.

Photo: Members of the cast of URINETOWN work on choreography in rehearsal.
Photo by Margaret Morton

Monday, March 2, 2009

It's the best job in the world

by Anna Ashley, BFA 4/Stage Management (Stage Manager of URINETOWN)

Anna Ashley here, stage manager for URINETOWN. This is the eighth production I’ve worked on at TTS, it’s my final show here, and it’s a show that I’m thrilled to be a part of. As the stage manager, I’m in charge of facilitating all of the artistic and technical elements of the show. I make sure people know when they need to be places, and make sure changes are clearly communicated. In addition, my team and I maintain the rehearsal room, then organize the logistics of running the show once we move into the theatre. My fabulous assistant stage managers, Margaret Morton and Kelly Montgomery, will run everything that happens backstage during the show, and I will be calling light, sound, and fly cues. It’s a big job, and, in my opinion, it’s the best job in the world.

I began working on URINETOWN about 4 months ago. At that time, Dexter, the designers and I met bi-weekly or so and they would talk about the design concepts and ideas they had for taking this show and bringing it to life. And now, at the end of February, we have beautiful designs that can’t wait to be realized at the Reskin once we reach tech.

First rehearsal is always an exciting day. After these months of planning the aesthetic of the show, we finally have a cast – the big missing piece of the puzzle. It’s always refreshing to see them get so excited as the designers explain the world we’ve been creating – the world that the characters being portrayed by the cast are living in. They huddle around the model box that set designer Amy Gilman has marvelously crafted, excited to see where they’ll be dancing and singing for this show. Emily Maynard, costume designers, gives them a glimpse of who their characters are based on what they’ll be wearing, so they can all have some imagery of what this show is before diving into learning all the music, choreography, and their lines. It’s a wonderful first taste of the fully realized show. We don’t truly see that again until tech.

A typical first rehearsal will begin with introductions, various housekeeping things (making sure we have everyone’s correct e-mail address,) design presentations, and a read-thru. Well, because this is a musical, we couldn’t exactly read through the show, so after all of the presentations and business, Mark Elliott, music director, dove right in and began teaching them the opening of the show. And boy, do they sound good. We’ve got one week done. It’s a big, challenging show, and I have no doubt that it will be an incredible production.

Top left: Stage Manager Anna Ashley (far right) looks on with other members of the URINETOWN team during the first rehearsal.
Bottom right: Costume Designer Emily Maynard presents her costume renderings to the company.
Photos by Margaret Morton