Sunday, September 30, 2007

Notes from London (Part Three)

We're heading home from London tomorrow, which means today is a bit of a panic of packing and last-minute things, but I wanted to write one more time before I left the UK. It's really one of the joys of my career that I get to travel so much and I get to spend extended amounts of time in places other than my home. This trip has been so great, and so different from the last time I was here.

Last week I wrote about all the master classes I was teaching, and I've taught several more this week, but I've also served as pianist for some master classes my husband taught. People often ask us how we handle the fact that we do the same thing for a living, and I'll admit that there are times when we're probably too competitive for our marriage's comfort. That said, the truth is that he's so good at what he does that I find it inspiring. Our master classes are very similar in terms of what we teach, but as I watch him do what he does, I inevitably learn something that I can then take into my own practice. Some people might call that stealing, but I prefer to think of it as responding to inspiration.

That's really what I wanted to write about today. A question I got asked a lot while I was here is, "Where do you find your inspiration for the things you write?" I've answered it differently every time it was asked, but the common fact is that I respond to things that are good. When I see a great piece of theater, I want to come home and write good theater. When I hear a Mahler symphony (one of my favorites), I want to come home and write great music. And while I was here, I experienced lots of things that made me want not only to write, but to read more, to learn new languages, to research things more in depth.

I've talked before about how nostalgic I am, but another great part of traveling is getting to reconnect with people from your past. Whilst in London (see how British that sounds?) this time, I was able to attend the premiere of a new string quartet written by one of my former composition professors, Dr. Michael Alec Rose. The piece was performed twice -- once at the Royal Academy of Music (where I heard it) and again at the Priory Church of the Cathedral of St. Bartholomew the Great. Dr. Rose was going on about what a wonderful space St. Bart's was, and so a few days later, pushing a sleeping baby in a pram on a windy day, I peeked in to take a look. Begun in 1123, St. Bart's is one of the oldest churches in London, and certainly one of the most beautiful. It was also just enough off the beaten path that I was the only visitor there for the 45 minutes I spent in the space, and somehow that made it even more sacred. You might even call it ... oh, I don't know... inspiring. I've also found inspiration this month at the National Portrait Gallery, in the audience of Jason's show PARADE, and sitting in my friend's flat watching boats go up and down the Thames. I've been inspired by my daughter, by funny things that people say, and by books I've read that linger after I've turned the last page.

As we pack up the house and prepare for a long flight tomorrow, I just want to thank the many people who were involved in all the work we did here. Thanks to the Contempo Theatre Company who produced my concert, to all the schools who asked me to participate in master classes, to the teachers who let me into their classrooms and the students who let me into their work, to the actors who sang my songs and the fans who came to the concerts and bought the CD, to the babysitters who stayed in our home and taught Molly so many new songs, to the nice Londoners who gave us directions along the way, and mostly to Alastair Lindsey-Renton, our agent and friend, who did everything else.

Home calls.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Notes from London (Part Two)

You'll have to forgive me for not posting in so long. These Brits are keeping me busy. The photo to the left is the team of people who were a part of my British debut concert at St. Paul's Church in Knightsbridge. In the back row you've got Amy Maiden, who is half of the Contempo Theatre Company which produced the evening, Damian Humbley, some girl who showed up in a black dress, Jo Ampil, Daniel Boys, Eliza Lumley, and violinist Ben Lee. In the front is Caroline Sheen and producer Alastair Lindsey-Renton. Caroline also had a beautiful red dress and these fantastic shoes she wore for act two, but her act one song required her to wear exercise clothes, and so there she sits. Bless.

And now -- about the concert itself. I'm always amazed that it's not over in three minutes and that there are more than six people in the audience. And especially in another country, in a city where I've never been promoted, it still astounds me to be able to say that the concert was two hours long and the audience held about 200 people. I sang three songs, and the other five singers each sang three or four, as well. The more I do this thing -- performing my own music -- the more comfortable I get. I have to say, this time I was really at peace with the singing I had to do (instead of being a nervous wreck about it) and even though the banter between songs was goofy and off the cuff, I think it went over well. (Does anyone know if Olga and her date actually made it to the concert?) So, a huge thank you to all involved. I am really happy.

The day before the concert my team all gathered at Dress Circle to sign CDs and sing a few tunes. As I was playing, I saw that several people were watching me through camera lenses and sure enough, the next day there we were on YouTube. So, for those of you who couldn't be there, here's a taste of what you missed.

In addition to the performing, I've been working around the UK doing master classes. So far I've been to The Brit School (click here to see the write up we got in their blog!), Knightswood School in Glasgow, Scotland, the Royal Acadamy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), and the Sylvia Young Theatre School. We've got more schools booked all throughout next week, and I'm also accompanying some of my husband's classes he's teaching. The thing I've been surprised by, more than anything else, is how similar musical theater students are everywhere you go. The work I did with British students this week is the same work I do with my professional actors in my class The GYM. I'm constantly asking actors, "Who are you talking to?" "At what point in the song do you feel like your character is changed?" "How is the music giving you the clues you need to act this song?" And students everywhere are working in their classes and their coaching sessions and their lessons to answer just these questions. One of the most surreal moments for me was driving in to Glasgow from the house where we'd spent the night before, and our driver was engaging us in a conversation about the differences between Rodgers and Hammerstein songs and Rodgers and Hart songs. It was a pretty deep conversation about a very specific topic, and as I looked out the car window, I saw the most rural countryside, sheep, and ancient stone buildings. Even here, when I'm as far north as I've ever been, these songs are famous and, even better, relevant.

I leave you with a quick word about the Donmar Warehouse production of my husband's show PARADE. Go. It's one of the most astounding things I've ever seen, and the response from the London audiences has been amazing. Three curtain calls last night. I am so proud of him and the work they have done for this much smaller version of the show that originally played at Lincoln Center. Press night (official opening) is Monday. Keep your fingers crossed.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Notes from London (Part One)

I think it officially starts when you take your American money out of your wallet and you say, "Well, I guess I won't be needing this for a while." I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm still trying to read the numbers on the coins to see how much value is attached to each one. Ugh. Such a foreigner -- and I've even lived in London before. Years and years ago at Vanderbilt I took a summer abroad to study British Lit and Fine Art over here. I remember reading the British novels. (It was one of my favorite classes ever.) I remember going to the museums and sitting through the slide shows. I remember taking the train trips on the weekends to see more of the country than just this city. I remember mastering the Tube and lounging in the pubs and seeing great theatre (and not-so-great theatre). Apparently I just don't remember the coins.

That's Molly in Southwark walking along the Thames. COME ON. I didn't get out of America until I was in college. In fact, that trip to London so many years ago was my first time out of the country (and I suppose I'm not counting Mexico and Canada, even though they are actually different countries). The fact that my two-year-old daughter has a passport and it has already been stamped is astounding to me. It's so easy now to be worldly, and yet Americans tend to get stuck within our own fifty states. Granted, those are some big states. A Brit yesterday asked me how far it was from New York to Los Angeles, and I said, "Oh, it's about a six hour plane ride." His jaw dropped, and he tried to figure out how far from London a six hour plane ride would get you. "South Africa?" he suggested. I don't think it's THAT far, but the vast amount of space we take for granted in our country is unique to us, that's for sure.

It took me two days to get my cell phone to work over here, and during those two days I had to call my cell phone company in America twice. The second time I got this girl with a deep Southern accent who was helping me to figure out the code that would unlock my phone and allow me to use it abroad. She said, in a thick Alabama drawl, "It must be so different over there in London." I really hate making small talk with people who can put you on hold, but I engaged. "Yes, yes, it's pretty different, all right. But it's not SO different because at least everyone here speaks English." "Oh. Really? They do?" she asked. Is it possible that we're so self-involved as a country that some Americans don't even realize that English people speak English?

So, anyway, I'm going to do my part to represent America with grace and class. Next Sunday the 16th, as I mentioned in a previous blog, I'm doing a concert of my music at this amazingly beautiful church in Knightsbridge, London. (For those of you coming, it's just behind the Barclay Hotel.) We start official rehearsals tomorrow, though the five singers have been rehearsing on their own for about two weeks. I've got an Irish nanny showing up to watch my child while I'm in rehearsal, and I imagine she'll walk about with the pram and take along some spare nappies while she's sorting out what to do to keep the day from being rubbish. I can't wait.

Concert tickets: CLICK HERE

Books I read for my British Lit class at Vanderbilt, many years ago. I can only remember a few of them. Anyone reading who took the class with me and can remind me what the others were?

1. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
2. Little Dorrit (Charles Dickens)
3. Heart Of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)
4. The Time Machine (H. G. Wells)
5. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)
6. The Woman In White (Wilkie Collins)

Saturday, September 01, 2007

A Matter of Perspective

It's all in the perspective. I missed my entry last week because I was traveling, and I'm still on the road but I realize that's no excuse. In fact, traveling often leads to insights that you certainly wouldn't have if you were sitting on your duff at home, so let's start there.

A little over a week ago I flew from LA to Boston and spent several days on Cape Cod. There's a theater there I've mentioned before in this blog, and because of the many summers I spent there during college, that part of the world is incredibly special to me. You know how there are places that resonate with you -- where you feel a kinship with the very land, the people, and the history that surrounds you? Cape Cod is like that for me. I feel like me when I am there. (Interestingly, Scotland is like that for me, too, and I've just found out I'm going to get to go there later this month. But more on that later.) Meanwhile, tell me this isn't the most spectacular picture ever. If you've purchased my CD (with the booklet), you might be wondering... and the answer is yes. Same beach, same baby, one year later. Those of you who downloaded the album on iTunes (and thank you for doing so!) didn't get to see the fantastic graphic work Derek Bishop designed. And those of you who dowloaded it illegally -- shame on you. But the rest of you know what I'm talking about.

The College Light Opera Company was producing THE SECRET GARDEN that week, and as I sat in the audience watching it, I was thinking about how interesting it is that your perspective can change so much over time. When I was 20 years old and getting to conduct a show for the first time (32 singers and an 18 piece orchestra!), I thought the singers I was coaching were the greatest I'd ever heard, the conductors I was studying with were uniquely informed about how musicals work, and the audience on Cape Cod was capable of making me as nervous as I'd ever been. Now, some (mumble mumble) years later, and with all due respect to all of those people from earlier chapters of my life, I've heard so many more great singers, learned from so many more conductors, and been far more nervous than I ever was at CLOC. Sitting in that audience, trying to remember who I'd been at the beginning of this career, I found myself listening to the inside of my head more than listening to the show. And though the actors might not agree, I think that's all right. It's nostalgia, it's self-evaluation, it's observation. It's a change in perspective.

After we left Cape Cod, we drove through New England on a beautiful late summer day and wound up in Vermont, where we visited family. Two days in the mountains with a great aunt and uncle in their 80s. No cell phone service. No internet. It was magnificent. I realized how dependent I've become on being able to be in contact with people all the time. A year ago I remember thinking, "what do I need a Blackberry for?" and now I check it at least ten or twelve times a day. Once you get used to the constant flow of email and text messages, it's shocking not to have them. When, at the end of the trip, I drove back into an area where my cell phone received service, the messages came pouring in -- and I was relieved and disappointed at the same time. Wouldn't it be nice, for at least parts of every day, to be truly unavailable?

After Vermont, we headed into New York. I lived in NY for ten years before heading out to California two years ago, and coming back to the city always feels like coming home. My dearest friends are here, and thankfully I've gotten to connect with almost all of them this week. I know my way around NY better than any other city on earth. Most of the time, even now, my work leads me back to Manhattan. And yet, for the first time in two years, it was clear to me that NY is no longer my home. Instead of pining away for it, I found myself thinking how grateful I was to have the things I have "at home." Again, my perspective had shifted.

One of the great things I got to do this week was attend a performance of GREASE on Broadway. After working as the vocal coach on the TV show for months and months, I sat in that audience knowing that I was having a truly unique experience of watching the show. I know Max and Laura's voices in such detail, and I know their personalities but I haven't been with them for the last few months as they made the transition from aspiring actors to Broadway stars. I know that score so well, and I was hyper-aware of every change in the vocal arrangements, the orchestrations, the placement of the new songs. I know the conductor and most of the cast. I know the director. I even knew the sound guy running the board at the back of the house. I was sure that I was going to sit there completely unable to enjoy the show because I was so in my head. But you know what? I really liked it. Perhaps it's because of my relationship to the show that I had such a good time, but I was really proud of those performers and really happy to have been a part of it along the way.

Next week I cross the big pond and start rehearsing for the September 16th concert in London and the numerous master classes I'm doing in England and Scotland. (See? Scotland! We came back to it!) I have no idea what I'll be posting about, but assuming I don't wind up in Vermont again, I'll be back each week. Can one write a blog with a British accent? It certainly would change your perspective. See ya then.