Sunday, August 03, 2008

Community Theatre - Part Three

About fourteen months ago, I posted video and photographs from my first experience in community theatre, a production of Meredith Willson's The Music Man at St. Bernard's Studio Theatre in my hometown of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.

After going off to Georgetown University, where I performed in my first college theatre show (Stephen Sondheim and Larry Gelbart's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and working backstage on several other productions, I returned to Milwaukee the following summer and had my first experience of performing in repertory.

In the summer of 1978, St. Bernard's Studio Theatre for the first time (but not the last) produced two shows and performed them on alternate nights. While my expectations at auditions were not particularly high -- I was just looking forward to joining my friends in the joy of putting on a show -- it turned out that I was cast in major roles in both plays. It was the first time in my (short) career on stage that I was able to play the romantic lead, the male ingenue and title role in Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend, and also the first chance I had to play a character role, The Old Actor in Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's long-running off-Broadway gem, The Fantasticks.

(Back at Georgetown in subsequent years, this would turn out to be a pattern: playing naive boys and eccentric characters in such shows as Lanford Wilson's The Hot l Baltimore and Neil Simon's The Good Doctor.)

Around the same time that I found and edited the Super-8mm film-to-video transfer of scenes from The Music Man, I also found archival film of The Boy Friend and The Fantasticks. I posted the scenes from The Fantasticks over a year ago on YouTube, where it has had a trickle of traffic, and I posted The Boy Friend footage a few weeks ago.

I recently discovered, however, that I also had a live audio recording of a performance of The Fantasticks. (I also found another audio recording of just Act II from a rehearsal some months later; read on for the explanation. The Act I tape must exist somewhere, but it was not kept with its counterpart.) So I decided to re-edit the old footage, add a few photos, and superimpose the live audio -- as best I could, given the non-professional editing software I use -- onto the video.

Considering that I had to digitize excerpts from deteriorated 30-year-old audio cassette tapes without the benefit of high-end hardware, the result is pretty good. In fact, I was able to match the movements to the sound almost precisely in the "Episode" sequence that begins at marker 00:38 on the video playback. (The last few minutes of the audio track have some distortions, but those should not be too distracting -- I hope.)

I wonder if this effort indicates that I have an unseemly fetish for historical preservation of documents and artifacts? Or does it offer justification for my being a lifelong packrat, to the consternation -- and sometimes exasperation -- of my friends?

Here, then, is the newly re-edited video of The Fantasticks, as presented by St. Bernard's Studio Theatre in July 1978. (The audio was recorded at a special performance on Wednesday, July 19, in that year.)

The Boy Friend had more official performances in July 1978 than The Fantasticks (4 vs. 3) and it also had a considerably larger cast, which meant more friends and family enticed to see the show. (This was my sister's first performance on a public stage; those who know her will recognize her, at 7 years of age, in the "Sur la Plage" sequence.) Considering that both shows were performed in the gymnasium of a Catholic parish school, with much of the cast emerging from the same parish's members, drawing an audience from extended families was an easy expectation.

For those who don't know it, The Boy Friend is a pastiche of 1920s musicals. It uses every cliche from that era: an exotic setting (the French Riviera), aristocratic characters (including mine, who was pretending to be working-class to escape his overbearing parents), a lonely rich girl, a randy French maid, a flirtatious secondary female lead, and an older man with an eye for younger ladies. The music echoes Gershwin, Berlin, Rodgers, Porter, and other composers of the era. The lyrics work for what they're meant to do, but none of the songs are particularly memorable in their own right in the way the compositions of those giants being aped were. Wilson later went on to write something of a sequel, a pastiche of 1930s musicals called Divorce Me, Darling!, which did not have the same staying power or appeal that The Boy Friend has enjoyed. (There is, however, a recording that has developed a cult following.)

Perhaps it was unusually precocious discernment on the part of my 19-year-old theatre maven's brain, with the (correct) judgment that The Fantasticks is a superior musical play, or perhaps I was just neglectful, but I failed to make an audio recording of any performance or rehearsal of The Boy Friend that summer. Consequently, this video has as its soundtrack excerpts from the Broadway OCR, featuring Julie Andrews in her first New York role (preceding My Fair Lady by one season).

In any case, here is what may be the only archival video of the 1978 production of The Boy Friend at St. Bernard's Studio Theatre:

Both shows had something of an afterlife.

A couple of weeks after we closed, we had an opportunity to perform a handful of songs from The Boy Friend at an enclosed shopping mall in suburban Milwaukee. (To be truthful, I don't remember which mall it was; perhaps someone from the cast may remember and post the information in the comments section, below.)

What I do remember is how disorienting the experience was. (She wasn't around then, but I imagine it must be how Tiffany must have felt years later.) The acoustics were atrocious; we could barely hear the people singing five feet away from us, much less hear the piano next to the stage. While a few shoppers stopped to see what was happening, most went about their business, chattering more loudly than they usually would in order to be heard above our music.

Still, it was fun to get back together with fellow cast members in August, before people dispersed to go to school or on last-minute vacations. It might have been the last time I wore that red jacket and white Gatsbyish hat.

Months later, St. Bernard's Studio Theatre was given an opportunity to put on a benefit performance for the Wauwatosa Junior Women's Club. Rozeann Campbell, our director, choreographer, and producer, decided that revisiting The Fantasticks would be best.

Although the benefit, to be performed at Wauwatosa West High School, was scheduled for February 24, in the middle of the school year, I could not pass up the opportunity to do a "revival." So I flew home from Washington in time to do one rehearsal and the performance. We had to do some reblocking, because the Tosa West auditorium had a proscenium stage and our original production had been done on a thrust stage, but the adaptation was relatively seamless.

The rest is something of a blur. The auditorium was full, there were friends and family in the audience, and we had a terrific cast party afterwards. And I flew back to Georgetown feeling a bit puffed up and prematurely professional.

A bit of a backtrack here: Over Thanksgiving Weekend in 1978, I made my first-ever trip to New York City. At the top of my list of things to do was to see the original production of The Fantasticks at the Sullivan Street Playhouse. At that time, it had been playing continuously for more than 18 years; there were still more than 22 years left in its original run of 17,162 performances. It was a stirring event for me, as it would be for any musical theatre geek.

Ironically, the other show I saw during that trip was the musical version of the cult movie, King of Hearts, which only managed 48 performances, another flop by Joseph Stein.

Speaking of Joseph Stein, come back a year from now and I'll tell the story of St. Bernard's Fiddler on the Roof. If you can't wait, you can see the video on YouTube now. (It's more of a slide show with authentic performance audio, however.)

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