032598 Chess, Ottawa, ON

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“From square one I’ll be watching you…”

I tell you, when I think back to the mid-to-late ’90’s I reel at how busy I kept myself.  I was teaching guitar at three different places, in three or more different gigging bands, taking classes towards another undergrad degree (Bachelor of Religion this time), teaching a course at the university, working with the NAC Orchestra, booking/promoting concerts, and doing probably another dozen or more things that I’m forgetting, all at the same time.  I mean I was busy, man.  My daytimer was my bible, and it was chock full of scriptures; all musical.  Funny that I was still broke all the time.

Anyway, in a spare moment I went to one of my friend and roommate Rico’s cast parties and heard myself agreeing to take on the role of musical director for an upcoming show that the university theatre group was staging.  I had never seen a musical before (I guess Pink Floyd’s The Wall was a musical so I’m already lying), had never been involved in theatre before (aside from being in a play when I was in high school, an experience that permanently scarred me and scared me away from acting), and I had no idea what a musical director actually did (though I was – and remain – hopeful that it meant getting a band together, divvying up the scores so they can be played by the instrumentation you managed to scrape up for no pay, finding a place to rehearse, showing up on time [which was actually my biggest skill], and leading rehearsals), but I thought I could squeeze it in.

And somehow I did.

The show was called Chess.  Now, I know you have never heard of it but boy, I bet you know the song that kicks off Act II: One Night in Bangkok.  Yep, the tune came from a musical.  Not only that, but a really boring musical about the Cold War and a chess match.  Go ahead, google the lyrics.  It’s an ’80’s rap song about a Cold War chess game.  Astounding that it was a hit, really.  

Overall doing the show was a really good experience, though it was a huge, monstrous pile of work (for which I was paid an honorarium of $100; the rest of the band and the entire cast got about a hundred bucks less than that).  It was fun to get a bunch of music (which was written by the two guys from ABBA) off the paper and into a young band’s fingers, and even more fun when the rehearsals eventually expanded to include the cast and the chorus.  It was cool to hit a power chord and have about thirty people sing along in four-part harmony.

And I sure learned a lot about theatre.  Like how much practise goes into these sorts of things, different rehearsal techniques, that in amateur theatre large casts equal better ticket sales so there are always lots of backup singers, that getting your name in the program is considered a very, very big deal, and that even amateur actors can be enormous prima donnas.  Geez, one of the leads refused to sing at any of the group rehearsals – at any of them! – so we never heard his parts integrated with the music until opening night*.

Which is also when we found out that the lead (who was also president or whatever of the theatre group) couldn’t sing in the proper range, or at all probably.  Oh, how he made me cringe inside as I smiled all big and professional from the improvised orchestra pit for those four nights (and one matinée).  

The two best parts?  Playing that Bangkok song, especially with the cool spacey intro that most people forget about, and the cast party.  Cast parties are a blast; it’s a whole bunch of over-drinking giddy extroverts trying to outdo one another so there is generally lots to see.  Of course a cast party was how I got into the whole mess in the first place, and it was probably at this one that I agreed to musically direct a second show… 

(I don’t remember the band…was Mike Essoudry playing drums in it?  I do recall that the piano player was Glen Gower, who played the organ at Ottawa Senators hockey games at the time and is now a politician in Ottawa.  I never did ask him for free hockey tickets…I was much too busy to attend hockey games back then.)

*This ticket comes from opening night, which was March 25th, 1998 (I’m like 97% sure it was ’98, but there’s a chance that it was ’96); the show ran until March 28th.  Of course this was not my ticket.  When I wasn’t looking down at my guitar or over at one of the other musicians I was watching the show from the orchestra pit (a spot of floor below stage left that blocked the emergency exit).

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