Book writer Rupert Holmes seems like he’s feeling really great about now in the process of previews for the new musical, Secondhand Lions, at The 5th Avenue Theatre. He reports that as he’s standing in the theater or lobby and people figure out that he is one of the writers, a few effusively come up and hug him! They tell him, “I don’t know when I’ve laughed and cried at one show so much!”
For a new musical, previews are an extremely important aspect to its development. These performances are where all the hard work of actors, musicians, set/costume/lights/sound designers, choreography, backstage crew comes together, and when the writers begin to know how it all sounds and works.
Rupert says, “I wrote a line in CURTAINS, (the 2007 Kander & Ebb musical with a book by Mr. Holmes) that says, ‘The thing to do right now is not to invent anything new that is brilliant, but let’s make sure we’re taking out everything that isn’t fabulous.’ So, if that (aspect) is ok and this (aspect) is fabulous, let’s take out the thing that’s only ok. Every night the show starts getting better.
“You know that lull, we don’t have that lull anymore. The show is becoming shorter and we’re learning the important topics within the story that we’ve been telling and (whether) we might have digressed a little bit. You always have to say, ‘Let me think back to why I thought this was a good idea in the first place.’”
Michael Weiner and Alan Zachary, the music and lyric writers, agree. Michael says, “Now we have to look at pacing, calibration of the performances in terms of tone, making sure people are in the tone in the world that we’re creating. Timing of the music matching the movement on stage ends up being a big thing. Overall the most important thing is making sure the emotional story we’re trying to tell is coming across.”
Alan says, “It’s feeling great. We’ve all worked carefully in tandem creatively so there weren’t any big surprises. We were excited to see it all work together. It feels like it fulfilled everything we were looking for the show to do technically and emotionally.”
So, what kinds of issues are coming up that cause rewrites? Michael and Alan describe the first song of the show that introduces the Wild Lion Boys. In the story, these older uncles have been reclusive from their neighbors and didn’t want to be bothered, so they have created a story about themselves as dangerous, possibly even bank robbers.
Michael describes, “We had an opening number, The Wild Lion Boys. (When we saw the full rehearsal run-through) we decided the show was starting out too laid back. We wanted more energy and mystery at the beginning of the show. We wrote a new, higher energy song (titled the same, but) more mysterious and drawing you into the story. We didn’t know (that we needed that) until we were sitting in the run-through and realized that it wasn’t starting off with a bang the way we wanted to. We think this new song works a lot better. It’s exciting to figure out a moment and see that it works a lot better.”
Rupert says “It’s built into our process here. We listen to the (preview) audience and every night gather together and try to decipher what we can learn about our show from real people seeing it in real time. Some of it’s easy. If I have a joke and it doesn’t get a laugh three nights in a row, it’s gone. Unless I can figure out why it’s not getting the laugh. The other day I said, ‘Oh my gosh, the wrong person is saying that line.’ I switched it to another person and it’s a hilarious thing.
“The trigonometry of comedy is fascinating. There are actors who I hire, not because they have lines to say, but everything is funnier when they are on the stage reacting to what other people are saying.”
Rupert describes writing during previews as “commando warfare, but it’s an exhilarating and often exultant experience because you’re in a laboratory with 2000 smart test tubes (the audience) boiling away. I made revisions, some small, some sizable to seven scenes last night! You say, ‘If we move that song one scene earlier, it’s going to make what they say later make so much more…’ and sometimes you try it and decide, ‘No, we we’re good with what we had.’”
One of the fascinating experiments going on right now is finding out what ending is going to work the best. Rupert says that the director’s cut of the movie comes on the dvd with two other endings. They’ve been working to determine whether they would use one of the movie’s three endings or not. He says, “We’ve had a lot of different approaches in mind. The (end) song will be the same. I love the song. But what (will) we ask the audience and characters to accept on faith or to accept as fact, and with what evidence? We’re (currently) working on an ending that is uniquely our own and we’re excited about that.”
Rupert hopes that the audience has an, “intimate (experience) with these characters, with what family can mean and the disappointments people can have with the families they have (and the resilience to cope with them).” While he sounds a bit nonplussed that people want to hug him, (“I just happen to be the lucky guy (that the audience members want to hug)”) he’s feeling like that translates as, “It means your work seems to have meaning, and certain things are going the way we hoped it would go.”
Tickets available at The 5th Avenue Theatre website for this family-friendly musical.