I don’t remember exactly how I got snared into the role of musical director for a run of Tim Rice’s Chess that was mounted by my university’s theatre troupe but when I did I soon found out that theatre had an even worse effort-to-money ratio than playing rock & roll did, a truism that I could hardly believe was possible.
Anyway, the fact that I signed up to do it again a year later brings to mind that old “Fool me once…” saying, but the truth is after listening to the soundtrack from Little Shop of Horrors I think I wanted a shot at being part of a show that was actually pretty cool (unlike the vast majority of Chess), so shame on me, I did it.
I actually remember the rest of the band from this one. It was the wonderful Steve Tatone on keys, the amazingly versatile Mike Essoudry on drums, me on guitar and a guy just out of high school named Bogdan on bass. Though I was good friends with Steve and Mike I had never met Boggy (as Steve called him) before; frankly I have no idea how his name even came up. I was a bit concerned because he was pretty young. When I first spoke to him on the phone I mentioned that the music was very bass heavy and did he think he was up for it?
“I’ve already learned the entire album,” he replied with a youthful confidence and nonchalance. I hadn’t even listened to the entire album yet; he was hired (for no money of course*).
The band got the music together in a tiny rehearsal room in the university’s music department while the expansive cast practised in the theatre singing along to recordings from the official soundtrack. Probably my favourite moment of the entire experience was the first time we got together and ran the show as a single unit. The cast sounded great and were buoyed by their first run through with real musicians. Having the sound waves of real drums, loud distorted wah-wah guitar, thumping bass, and rollicking keys really oomphed the cast and it was after this rehearsal that the director decided to move the band from our makeshift orchestra pit near the emergency exit up onto the stage instead. She wanted the actors to feel the music and we musicians really appreciated having the vocalists so close. It made us feel like a band, albeit one with about thirty backup singers.
I’m sure you’ve seen Little Shop; our show was basically the same as theirs, scene-by-scene. But how did we do Audrey the Plant? you might be asking. Well, that task was left to a young introverted leather-clad kid named Mike who was an avid motorcyclist and huge into puppeteering, not in that order. Mike built and operated several versions of Audrey. He made a small handheld one that he would operate from underneath a table, a medium-sized Audrey that he basically wore, and a huge, nine-foot tall dry-ice spouting monster of a Plant that he operated from behind by vigorously pulling up and down on huge levers. And he was great at it, like world-class. Adding to an already impressive feat, Audrey the Plant was actually voiced by someone else (also named Mike) standing offstage, so Mike the puppeteer learned all the dialogue so he could lip-synch his puppets along with the disembodied voice of Mike the voice actor. It was all so fun to watch.
(Incidentally, Mike was getting together a show to pitch to the local cable station about a group of puppets that had their own motorcycle club. I think it was called The Fuzzy Gang – or was it The Fluffy Gang? – and I recorded a nifty jingle for it. It was an odd-metred funk thing with horn harmonies that I recorded in my basement apartment using a trombone I had [but didn’t play] and a borrowed trumpet. I recently found the recording and I gotta say, it’s catchy. Needless to say, his show never got off the ground, which is too bad.)
Anyway, the show ran for two three-night weekends – this ticket stub from March 26th, 1999 was the penultimate show – and it was a heck of a lot of fun all the way ‘round. Especially, of course, the wrap party, which had me butterflying from one circle of gushing extroverts to another. I suspect that wrap parties are why most people start acting in the first place.
*So unrewarding was theatre that all of the musicians were working for free (as MD I got a $100 honorarium). I remember with some level of embarrassment asking a professional horn player I knew if he’d like to be involved. He was very excited and wrote all the rehearsals into his daytimer. Then with pencil poised he asked what the pay scale was and when I told him the gig didn’t actually pay he frowned and started erasing everything.