Seven hours. That’s all. After 17 hours of rehearsal per week for two months, that’s all you have to show what you’ve done: three performances totaling a little more than seven hours.
Auditions began for the musical “Company” two months ago, but for some it was even earlier. I rehearsed for two weeks for my initial audition: 16 bars from the song “Sorry Grateful” and two pages of dialogue from the opening scene between the characters Harry and Sarah. It’s not the prettiest process. You always think it’s great when you’re practicing alone or with some friends, but as soon as you’re in front of the directors, anxiety and doubt kick in.
This was my fourth musical at Harvard-Westlake, and I like to think I’ve established a good, sturdy relationship with the Performing Arts Department, but you can’t rely on that friendship as much as you’d like to. The directors cast to serve the show, not the students. And a lot of people, even the ones who were cast, were worked up into states of paranoia and dread.
When callbacks were posted, everybody had one day to learn all the scenes and songs for every part they were called back for. I was called back for three parts, so I had one night to familiarize myself with three more scenes and one more song. Some people had to learn as many as five new roles.
The callbacks are different. You’re not alone in front of the directors like your initial audition. Everyone is crowded into the same room, and you get to see what you’re up against. Most of the time you are stunned by what you see. Harvard-Westlake has an abundance of talented kids who own the stage when they’re up there, and after the acting callbacks I thought there was a good chance I wouldn’t be cast.
After two days of callbacks for 14 roles, which was expanded to 18 after the auditions, the cast list was posted on a Sunday night right after the Senior Ring ceremony. I was cast as Larry, a 50-something, fun-loving rich guy.
Rehearsals began the next day. All 18 of us sat in a circle in the Drama Lab reading through the entire script. In that first reading, nothing was sung. Everybody read through the songs as if they were lines so that before we learned the notes, we had the emotions.
The first two weeks of rehearsal were all about the music. The whole cast picks apart each song note for note with our musical director Daniel Faltus, a pianist and musical director for the LA Opera. Stephen Sondheim does not write easy music. I’ve never had any formal singing training, so learning an eight-part harmony is, and was, particularly hard. The musical rehearsals are the soul of the show. Sondheim’s music is full of purpose, and he cares greatly about every note that he puts in a piece. For example, in the final number of the show, “Being Alive,” the melody of the opening song “Company” and the first act finale “Marry Me a Little” are played underneath the melody of that song, forming the body for lead character, Bobby’s, ultimate realization.
After all the music had been learned, staging began.
The play is rather metaphysical. Sondheim says the entirety of the show happens within one instant in, Bobby’s mind. So rather than interpret the show literally, and set it in New York City, the show was built around that idea. This led to a minimal set. There were no couches or bookshelves or terraces. Just four white benches and a piano, supplemented with small necessary props, all set against hanging curtains made of a semi-transparent material. Because everything was so minimal, the focus is placed even more heavily on the actors.
The staging of the show takes up around 60 percent of the rehearsal time. It’s here that you really learn about the people around you. You watch them develop their roles and become your friends. People really start to care about the show a lot more.
The musical is composed of vignettes with Bobby and married couples. Each scene was read through with directors, while everybody else continued to work on the music.
The second act opening number, “Side by Side by Side,” was the only dance number in the whole show. No dance auditions were held because the directors wanted actors who focused on character first and foremost. They wanted any dance in the show to be a natural extension of character. “Side by Side by Side” is 11 minutes long (only six minutes shy of the record for longest musical number). The staging of it took three days.
Once everything had been staged, blocked and memorized, the behind the scenes crew came in to do lighting and sound. There are dozens of lighting cues in the show, and each one has to line up with the actors’ placement on stage or a musical cue or a dialogue cue. We spent a full week just stepping through the show as lighting cues were corrected, created and adjusted.
The week after tech, we started dress rehearsals. Costumes, hair, makeup, microphones, everything is added on. My character, Larry, was originally outfitted in a leather jacket, but that was quickly swapped out for a blazer when the directors and I thought that it didn’t match my interpretation of the character.
Our first audience came on the Thursday before opening night. Parents and teachers and students attended our invited dress rehearsal, which ran smoothly until the seconds before we were set to take our bows. The lights for the orchestra didn’t go up and we were left in dead silence for about 15 seconds, which is an eternity on stage.
Opening night is an affair. Everybody is called two hours in advance. Last-minute fixes are made on top of putting on costumes, makeup, microphones and hair.
As much as you try to simulate the level that you will be performing at on opening night, you are never really prepared for the rush of adrenaline and nerves that come that night. I’ve been doing shows since I was in sixth grade, and it never gets easier.
Performing, for me, is permission to be foolish. It allows you to play out all those things that you shy away from in real life: rage, arrogance, over-the-top emotion. The two and half months during which a show exists are completely cathartic. It’s a long, emotional process and sometimes it seems silly that it all boils down to just seven hours.