Picture the beginning of each episode of the TV show “24”. The black screen, the beeping which starts slowly and gets faster and faster, the pieces of the digital display that flicker on and off as the ominous, music swells in volume. Then, almost as soon as the number fully forms, it flickers away again into darkness and the music fades, ending with that electronic sizzling sound. You know, like this.
The title treatment conjures up stress, tension, high stakes and an ever-present ticking clock. Now imagine it said “29” instead and you have my mental opening to the ubiquitous 29-hour reading. That theatre mainstay where the writers, director, music director and a group of intrepid actors gather for 29 hours spread over (usually) five to seven days to learn and present a reading of a musical. The task is mammoth and, whether you are presenting to a group of trusted friends or a gathering of every major producer in New York City, the ticking clock and level of pressure to deliver would make Jack Bauer wet himself!
Of course it’s “only a reading” – meaning the actors don’t have to memorize the score or the book and there is no staging to speak of. Sit in your chair when you’re not in a scene, walk to a music stand when you are – it’s rarely more complicated than that. And the people that come to these readings are accustomed to what it means to see a presentation that happens only days after the first rehearsal. But still…
For me, at least, the first time I share something I’ve written is a nerve-wracking affair. That goes for a single lyric, a full song and, especially, an entire show! I suspect it’s similar to how a parent feels sending their child to kindergarten for the first time…if the child were only two years old…and had to get to school alone…by sky-diving into a jungle.
And so it was on Monday October 28th, shortly before 10am, that I found myself walking into the Duke Theatre on 42nd street in Manhattan, about to begin a 29-hour reading of my show Dog and Pony (music and lyrics by me, book by Rick Elice). That’s right – we were going to put the show together and present it to a room full of major producers and investors on Friday November 1st – barely 29 hours of rehearsal later! Beep…beep…beep…
It’s here that this post runs the risk of turning into one of those “so blessed” things you read on Facebook that are, frankly, kind of annoying. And it is very true that I’m fortunate to have had this opportunity and I am grateful in the extreme for it! To have your show read and produced is what all writers strive for and I am thankful it’s happened even once much less more than that!
You see, The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego is producing the premiere production of the show later this season – amazing! – and we assembled an amazing group for the reading – fantastic! The reading, directed by the wonderful Roger Rees featured a stellar group of actors: Christian Borle, Annaleigh Ashford, Beth Leavel, Heidi Blickenstaff and Derek Klena. Go back and read that list again – believe me when I say, as a writer, to have a group like that giving their talent and time to work on your musical is…well, it’s really, really, really, really good! On top of that, to have one of my trusted music directors – Bryan Perri – teaching and beautifully interpreting the score with the actors meant there was no way I could’ve felt better going into the reading!
So away we went and hour 1 began. When I first decided to write a blog post about the reading I thought I’d keep a small journal during the week. Then I’d be able to go back and grab moments specifically like “1:25pm, just heard Christian sing the act two ballad…wow!” and so on. But in truth, while that did happen and I remember many more wonderful moments like it, writing them down never happened and the entire week is kind of a blur.
In some ways, the time flew by and it feels like those 29 hours happened in an instant. In some ways, it feels like we were never not rehearsing. In the end, the invited guests arrived, the actors did the impossible and presented the show with finesse and, just like that, it was all over. What people thought about it is yet to be learned since, as I write this, it’s only been a day or two, but the initial reports are that we succeeded in what these readings are meant to do – give people an idea of what the show is and will be when fully produced.
I slept copiously and ate poorly for the two days after the reading and, much like our good friend Jack Bauer, I feel a little battered and bruised by the experience. But also like Jack – and more importantly for us both – I have a deep sense of pride in what everybody involved accomplished against impossible odds. And as I settle back into “normal” life, I know that, despite how crazy it seems, it will all happen again sometime very soon…beep…beep…beep…beep-beep-beep-beep…sizzle!