Saturday, August 18, 2007

Announcing the Concert in London 9/16

At long last, it's time to talk about LONDON! For those of you who keep up with my husband's career, Jason's already in London working on PARADE, which I'm sure he'll tell you is going to be a smaller version of the show that played at Lincoln Center in 1998-99 and won him a Tony Award for best score. The Donmar Warehouse, an extremely prestigious theater in the UK, approached Jason about bringing the show overseas, and he jumped at the chance. As he was saying yes, we both realized that that would mean he was away from home for about two months. Without much debate, I said, "So I guess I'm coming with you."

It's a tricky place we're in, because bringing along the wife and kid is not always included in negotiations. (Maybe Stephen Schwartz can get that kind of a deal, but we're not there yet.) So our choices were: (A.) be separated from wife and two-year-old child for two months or (B.) fork over a bunch of dough and bring them with you. We split some differences. Wife and child are coming for the second month only; Brown family is picking up the extra expense.

I tell you all of this probably-too-personal information to say that London ain't cheap for Americans these days, and for many reasons, obvious and otherwise, I was thrilled when Amy Maiden and John Ellis of the Contempo Theatre Company called and said they were hoping I'd be in London with Jason because they wanted to present a concert of my music, thereby introducing me to the London theater community. What started months ago as a crazy brainstorm of ideas has finally settled into an actual event, and with the most brilliant help of agent and producer Alastair Lindsey-Renton (There's a British name if ever I've heard one), a concert is about to be born.

Here's what you need to know -- especially if you live in England or are planning to be there next month.

SUNDAY, September 16th, 2007
8:00 pm
St. Paul's Church, Knightsbridge

And, I'm excited to announce, I have a most amazing cast. I don't even know all of them yet, but I'm googling them and emailing them, trying to figure out who should sing which songs, and I'm kind of blown away that they all said they wanted to participate.

Jo Ampil, Daniel Boys, Damian Humbley, Eliza Lumley, and Caroline Sheen

Here's the announcement on Facebook -- and you don't have to be a member of Facebook to view it. (But if you are a member -- hey, wanna be friends? I'm totally addicted and spend way too much time on this site.)

I fully intend to keep blogging while I'm across the pond, as they say, so watch here for more news. Also, Alastair seems to be having quite a bit of success setting up numerous master classes for me while I'm over there, so if you're a theater student in the UK, you might even wind up in my class before the month is out. How cool would that be? And how amazing is it that I get to teach at places called "The Royal Academy" and such?

Finally -- with regards to last week's blog -- don't even ask me about the nightmare that was required to secure a passport for my daughter. Some stories are better left untold.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Guilt, Worry, and the Anger of No Recourse

"So what are you up to these days?"

It's a question that fills me with dread. No one really wants to hear about how it's all I can do to make it from one end of the day to the other without having to change my clothes. Keeping up with a toddler and a career feels like two full-time jobs, and yet when I'm faced with the above question I find myself scrambling to say somthing that doesn't feel pitiable. I talk about the job I just completed, the CD that came out three months ago, the shows that I've been writing and re-writing for months. Having spent ten years in NY and now two more in Hollywood, I am pretty good at spin.

But the truth is, I know all of us who free-lance are filled with horror at the idea that we're not doing enough. We're not working hard enough, we're not getting enough credit, we should have more shows on our resumes and more hits on our websites.

I had a composition professor in college who had ordered personalized pencils that were inscribed to say "You should be composing now." I was as torn back then as I am now. He was absolutely right. I should be composing now. But I also should be spending more time with my family. And exercising for an hour each day. And reading more books. And keeping up with the news -- especially the news of my industry. Not to mention the fact that I've always wanted to be fluent in another language. And to take voice lessons. And to play the piano for leisure instead of just for work. And I have all this great kitchen equipment; I really should cook more often. And buy food at the farmer's market. And stay in touch with my friends who live far away. And conserve energy. And floss.

You people with actual jobs, how on earth do you do it?

We've had a lot of family stresses around here this week, but like my friend Seth Rudetsky writes in his blog, I know that ours are luxury problems. We have friends and family with actual problems -- health crises, failing marriages, jobs in jeopardy. I have nothing like that to complain about, and I am extremely grateful. But in lieu of such a grand worry on my plate, I am filled to overflowing with petty worries and pedantic anxieties. I can't believe how many times a day I wash dishes. No matter how many hours I spend responding to email, I invariably forget to deal with something that will have unfortunate consequences the next day. Today, while I was trying desperately to finish something on my computer, my daughter decided to write on the wall with a crayon. That's what I get for not paying attention to everything at once.

When you're functioning in the world of luxury problems (overcommitted, overextended, overwhelmed), you're only one step away from the kind of frustration that can completely wipe you out. It's nine pm, you've finally gotten to a point where you can stop and have some dinner. There's nothing in the house so you order takeout. You and your husband request a salad and two entrees, and when the food comes, nearly forty-five minutes after you phoned in the order, you pay the nice delivery man and send him on his way. Only ten minutes later, when you're plating the food and looking forward to sitting down for your first moment of quiet in a week, do you realize they've forgotten to include your entree. It's not that there's NO recourse. It's that at this point nothing will make you happy. Even if the restaurant recognizes the mistake and offers to send another perfectly lovely delivery boy over with your entree, your night is ruined. They can't give you two hours of your life back. You're furious, and I call it the anger of no recourse.

It's the anger that builds when you're stuck on hold and you have no option but simply to wait for someone to tell you the piece of information you need to get on with your life. It's the even bigger anger that comes when you've already been on hold for ten minutes and you finally get a person who tells you he's transferring you to another department, and he disconnects you. But mostly, it's the anger that comes when you're doing everything exactly right, treating people with respect and giving them all the benefits of the doubt, and they screw you over anyway.

I didn't mean for this blog to be so filled with bile, but in writing about my work, I suppose sometimes I have to write about how impossible it is to do my work. I know you all have the same petty frustrations in your own lives and you'll be happy when I stop writing about mine. Things should be better tomorrow. I have five hours set aside for writing, and there's a pencil on my piano that says, "You should be composing now." What could possibly get in my way?

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The view from behind the piano

It seems to me that theater people are always looking for work, and then as soon as they've settled into something that's running for a while, they're looking for a way to get out of it. The SOUTH PACIFIC run (which ends today) wasn't long enough to build up that kind of anxiety. There were only three performances, after all. But my job as rehearsal pianist ended on Thursday at five pm, right before the performances started on Friday. It's a weird thing to be a rehearsal pianist. You're one of the most crucial people to the rehearsal process. You play the same songs over and over again while the dancers learn their steps, the singers learn their tunes, and the chorus learns its harmonies. If, God forbid, you're late, rehearsal doesn't start until you get there. And then, when the orchestra comes in to play the performances, you're done. Everyone else goes on and gets into costume and moves into their dressing rooms, and you're officially unemployed. (Sometimes you get to play WITH the orchestra, but in this case, the 55-piece orchestration did not call for a piano.)

Sometimes during the rehearsal process a pianist will have to play things in several different keys. That happened this time for me. Before the rehearsal period started I was practicing SOUTH PACIFIC out of the published copy of the score I have at home, and about two days before rehearsal started, I looked at the copy of the score that the Hollywood Bowl had sent over. It was marked with cuts in the dance music and the underscoring, and, to my surprise, it had several indications at the beginnings of songs that said things like, "Down a whole step in the key of D-flat."

For those of you who aren't pianists, I'll try to translate. What that means is that the music is PRINTED in the key of E-flat, but you're expected to play it in the key of D-flat. It's not an impossible transposition, but sight-transposing is one of those skills that you have to practice doing to be able to do it well. I haven't done it in a while, so for the first few days there were clunkers every now and then ("a hundred and one, pounds of fun, that's my lit-tle Honey STINKY NOTE!") To his credit, conductor Paul Gemignani would look at me and laugh, knowing exactly what had happened and trusting that I would get it right next time. I did.

In one such moment, I looked over at his laughing face and said, "You know, I'm not Paul Ford." (Paul Ford is one of New York's finest pianists and has the enviable reputation for being able to play any piece of music in any key, even if he's never heard it before.) Gemignani, who has been Stephen Sondheim's primary music director since the 1970s, said something like, "You know, even Paul Ford couldn't do that when I met him. I told him that if he wanted to play auditions for me he had to learn how to transpose. So I guess he took me seriously and he taught himself how to do it."

By the end of the two-week rehearsal process I had gotten really good at transposing, and I'm inclined to follow Paul Ford's lead and fine-tune (so to speak) this skill. I've spoken to other musicians and it's amazing to me that even though we all are asked to do transpose at some point or another, none of us thinks about it in quite the same way.

(This next paragraph might get a little bit music-geeky, so if you're not notationally inclined I won't be offended if you skip it.)

If I'm given a piece of music to transpose at sight, I tend to think of it as having been written in a different key signature. Up or down a half step and I just change the key signature. A piece written in E that you have to play in E-flat is easy. Just think three flats instead of four sharps. Re-reading accidentals takes some getting used to: sharps become naturals, naturals become flats, flats become double-flats which you have to re-spell in your head anyway. Up or down a third and I just imagine there's another line on the grand staff, and I read it accordingly. But once you get into transposing more than a third, you're in confusing territory and you kind of have to rely on your ears instead of your eyes. (Am I going down a fourth or up a fifth?) Other musicians I've known have told me that they do it all by ear, but I imagine that gets tricky if the piece you're playing is something you've never heard before. I'm so fascinated that not everyone thinks of music theory in the same way. Write in to the comments section if you have something illuminating to say about all of this.

(Welcome back.)

Actors sometimes need their music transposed for the purposes of auditions. A song that's just a bit too high in F might sound fantastic in E. Or someone who wants to show off her belt might be disappointed that the high note in her song is only an A, and raising the key a whole step allows the climax to mean something in her voice. I encountered a situation in my class this week where someone was singing a song that tends to be the make-or-break song tenors use in auditions, and he wanted to transpose it down a step. In that particular case I advised him to sing something else, rather than have all the musicians behind the audition table scratching their most-likely-masculine chins and wondering why it sounded so low. Sometimes transposing doesn't matter. Sometimes it does. Sometimes a bright song can seem darker when you change the key, or vice versa. Regardless, if you're an actor, you should NEVER EVER NEVER EVER NEVER take a piece in to an audition and say to the pianist, "I usually do this in the key of G." You might get a pianist who's great at it. Or you might get "Sing for me, my Meadow-CLUNK." Better to be in control of your own destiny. Either have your music printed out in the proper key or take along a pianist who isn't going to stomp all over your audition.

All right, I've ranted long enough. In closing, I'll pass along this one-liner I love. Another musician once told me, "You know you're a musician when you can't see a dot on a page without hearing it in your head."

The question then becomes, "In which key?"