Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The Payoff

I went and got myself a little culture last night. (In the land of my upbringing, here in the great northeast of the United States, that’s pronounced “cult-chah”.)

In my current music-ed line of work, I’m mostly in front of or otherwise in charge of some artistic endeavor or other. So, although it’s not a politically-correct phrase anymore, it’s still true: it’s nice every once in a while to be an Indian and not a Chief.

So I jumped in the car, drove for a while, found the former firehouse that had been converted into a little black-box theater, and settled into a seat in the back corner of the house (the better to not have anyone whisper “down in front!” at me). For twenty minutes, I perused the playbill and watched other people come in and decide on their favorite general-admission seats … and then the lights above me went down, the lights on stage went up, and the community-theater presentation of a rather famous musical show began.

To this show, I had carried a couple of items of unfortunate baggage.  Here’s the first:

In the mid-1990s, a snarky little movie was released called “Waiting for Guffman”, which told the story of a community-theater group in a Midwestern town. The movie was made by the same people who made “A Mighty Wind”, “Best in Show”, and “This Is Spinal Tap” – all “mockumentaries” which poked fun at recreational activities and their participants. “Guffman” has been a favorite of mine, not merely because one of the characters is played by an actor to whom I bear some resemblance. A lot of its humor comes from the foibles of some purveyors of the amateur musical-theatre activity. It does so as gently as probably can be done, revealing most of its story’s small-town would-be actors as enthusiastic, doggedly serious about their craft, and blissfully unaware that most of them are only vaguely good at it … and perhaps pathetically noble through all of that. Still, Fred Willard is in it, so there’s going to be a certain amount of over-the-top.

So I went to last night’s show having not been to a super lot of what could be called “local amateur community musical theater” productions. I’ve been involved in children’s theater for quite some time now, and I understand all too well the truth that in those shows, utter perfection will likely not be achieved. There, we’re focusing at least as much on offering our kids the experience of Putting On A Show which may inspire them to keep doing it throughout their lives … as we are on hitting marks, singing great notes, saying the funny lines such that people will laugh, and speaking clearly so the audience can hear.

I wasn’t sure what I should expect from, if you will, “grownups’ theater”. Or even whom I should expect.

The cast ranged in age from “just out of college” to “my kids are just out of college”. There were some very, very fine voices attached to a lot of those people, even if all of them hadn’t been voice majors. Good thing: it was challenging stuff. And much more often than not, the acting made me forget that it was acting.

And, as a pit-orchestra veteran, I appreciated how well last night’s pit orchestra rose to the challenge of the particular score they were tasked with playing, and also how well they did it from a location that was completely out of sight of the stage. That’s how “little” this little black-box theater was. The pit was somewhere backstage. I think. It was either telepathy or, more likely, a whole lot of quality rehearsal that gave the audience reason to believe that the pit was “out of sight” figuratively as well as literally.

A few paragraphs ago, I did mention that I’d carried more than one piece of baggage to the show. Here’s the other. It’s a piece of baggage that weighed on me at the start of the evening.

I own the DVD of the Broadway revival of this particular show, from about seven years ago. On top of that, I’ve bookmarked and carefully watched the video of a recent staged-concert version of this show, which is currently posted (infringing copyright heavily) on YouTube.

The people in those productions are professionals with the experience, and the willingness to study their craft, and the kind of talent, that gets people in position to be On Broadway in the first place. Slaving at the five-and-ten, dreaming of the great day when … they’ll be in a Show.

The Broadway people whose names we know – and *the influence of whose performances we can recognize in other people’s interpretations of their roles!* – are phenomenal performers. They are so good at their job that they can do it practically in their sleep … while deathly ill … or while myriad offstage calamities are simultaneously befalling them. No matter what, they are utterly, reliably skilled, such that they make us believe it’s effortless. They make us forget that they’re humans, and could flop at any moment unless they bring their “A” game all the time.

Most other people on earth who try to do what they do … stand a nearly-one-hundred-percent chance of not looking or sounding quite that good. Because for the majority of us (and I am part of that “us”, no doubt!), our “A” game will not look like their “A” game.

The people on stage last night were bucking those odds. As well, they were putting on a show that at least a few of the people in the audience, myself included, knew backwards and forwards. I found myself mouthing most of the words to most of the tunes. It sure wasn’t a totally new show, never-before-seen. It wasn’t one of those shows which closed after three performances on Broadway in 1951 and then faded into obscurity, songs and all. People knew what that show was supposed to look and sound like. And yet more perilous: some of us had brought precise and recent images of award-winning performances with us into that black-box theater last night.

Probably not fair to load all this on top of a cast made up of people with degrees in subjects other than greasepaint. But boy, it was fun. It was almost as if the cast was gleefully thumbing its collective nose at the risks of putting that sort of show on.

All of this is not to offer some kind of patronizing apology for the fact that the Broadway Illusion Of Complete Perfection tends to be seen only on Broadway. (Broadway people will probably be able to quote you chapter and verse about the miscues and screwups and other imperfections that they’ve been part of, even though the paying customers might not have noticed any of them.) No need to say something condescending like “not bad, for amateurs”. Last night’s was a thoroughly enjoyable show – probably because of, not in spite of, the fact that the presenters were taking part in the activity for the love of it.

The word “amateur” has taken on an unfair connotation. It’s come to imply low-quality performance, or a lack of training. But at heart, doesn’t it mean … “we’re just not getting paid”?

In fact, I think I had such a good time because the presenters generally didn’t make a living at it. Only a couple of them had majored in this stuff. Many had plenty of experience treading the boards, but it was their avocation, not their vocation. I think I discovered that, as much as I enjoy laying out big bucks every so often to see someone like Harry Connick Jr. strut his stuff, or to listen to the Boston Symphony Orchestra play a definitive version of a classical work, the payoff of a performance presented by people who don’t do it for a living can often be at least as great. That curtain call last night seemed genuinely joyful.

True: in my case, it helped that I knew a couple of the folks involved with the show. Full disclosure. I was rooting pretty hard.

Regardless … last night’s payoff was good and big.


[Most of the shows in the Marblehead Little Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” are sold out, but there may yet be a couple of tickets left for one of next weekend’s shows. Please do go here to find out. I think you will not be sorry you did.]


March 15, 2014 Posted by | arts, entertainment, music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment