by Marc Bruni
“Marc, it’s Jack. I have this idea...”
When Jack Viertel asked me to come onboard to direct the first show of the City Center Encores! season celebrating their 25th Anniversary, I knew it would be a unique endeavor- excerpts from 8 shows of wildly different genres introduced by Bob Martin in his alter-ego as “Man in Chair.” I immediately called choreographer Denis Jones. We, along with musical director Rob Berman and casting director Jay Binder, began to assemble the principal cast who could step into the roles created by Broadway greats of the 1960s and 1970s.
Vanessa Williams said yes. Bebe Neuwirth said yes. Judy Kuhn said yes. We wondered if there would be any men in the show. Marc Kudisch and Doug Sills said yes. Phew. Joel Grey (the great who created the titular role in George M!) agreed to be a surprise appearance in the finale. The pieces were coming into place, and it was looking to be an all-star affair. Only when we started to assemble the ensemble cast, however, did we realize that the true stars of the show would not be the ones getting top billing.
Normally, the principals get the most stage time, carrying the story and appearing in a larger proportion of the show. Not so here since our principal cast would be divided across the eight shows, only needing to appear in one or two segments of ten to fifteen minutes each (an attractively manageable amount of material to learn.) The ensemble would need to appear in all the segments. And the shows we’d selected to include in the evening included the depiction of quite disparate communities of people. Groups filled with idiosyncratic individuals who could execute a thrilling hora. And sing complicated choral anthems. And do silent movie schtick. And tap dance. And. And. And.
We embarked on a casting process to find a group of seventeen singer/dancer/actors who had the skills the shows required and who were ready to turn challenges into opportunities. (Challtunities?) After repeated sessions, we found them - some veterans of Encores!, some newbies, some not exactly sure what they signed up for, all not yet aware of how many costumes they’d have.
Challtunity #1: What is everyone going to wear?
Encores! began as a concert series with tuxedos and evening gowns but has evolved over the years into basically fully produced shows (but without the corresponding Broadway budget), and costuming a cast of 32 is a daunting task. I called Alejo Vietti who immediately said “Marc! I don’t know how I’m gonna do this!” Normally, the ensemble might have a few looks over the course of an evening, but at least everything would be in the same historical period. Not here. Our theatrical sampler platter would be all over the map. Undaunted, Alejo went to work. He began searching and pulling as we created a detailed spreadsheet in preproduction- tracking each of the ensemble members and specifically indicating who we thought they would portray in each sequence. Michael X. Martin, for example, ended up needing an octet of outfits:
- Mexican auctioneer
- U.S. Customs Officer at Idylwild Airport
- Greyhound Bus Driver
- Israeli Reveler
- Freddie, Silent Movie Villain
- Reverend Lapp, Greenwillow’s pompous preacher
- Keith, 1960s era cruise passenger
- Turn of the century passenger on USS Hurrah
Many others in the ensemble had similarly schizophrenic tracks, and the count ended up at well over 150 characters. Alejo miraculously and resourcefully created gorgeous, fully formed looks for all - down to the hats and suspenders. A flurry of fittings was scheduled, and Alejo gave us fitting photo montages to show exactly what the array of characters looked like- now we just needed to start rehearsal.
Challtunity #2: How do we get the show staged in a little over a week?
Rehearsals began on a Thursday and the designer run was scheduled for a week later. With almost two full days of the eight days in the rehearsal room taken up by ensemble music learning, Denis and I ended up feeling less like Ron Field and more like Ron Popeil with his “set it and forget it” method. There’s so little time that it’s a sprint to just hit everything once before the run through. (In this scenario the “forget it” portion only applies to the creative team who can get the ideas out of our heads and on to the cast, leaving brain space to move on to another piece of the puzzle - of course the ensemble actually needs to remember it!) Most of the focus initially is on the broad strokes for the ensemble. What do these characters want and how are they pursuing that? And on a more basic level, who are they, where are they entering from and exiting to? And which show is this again?
Challtunity #3: Flu Season.
Principal cast member Tam Mutu was the first to go down and he was out for the sitzprobe and the first day onstage. An inconvenience, yes, but with six other segments to rehearse without him, we had plenty to do. The next day, however, the flu claimed ensemble member Michael Mendez, and with no swings on the Encores! contract, his absence was much more difficult to work around. He, like every member of our ensemble, was in practically everything. Thankfully, he rallied to return for the dress rehearsal, as I’m not sure how we would have been able to do the show without significant re-staging if he or any of the members of the ensemble had missed a show. (With the assistance of the Quil family of Day and Ny, none did.)
Amidst all this, our standout ensemble maintained a positive attitude, did their homework, and continually made themselves part of the solution rather than the problem. They made our fictional visits to Mexico, Israel, England, New York, Greenwillow, and Silent Movies distinct, adding in their own bits of detail and emotional life as we made it to the Tuesday invited dress, the opening on Wednesday, and through to the closing on Sunday. By adopting a “Keep Calm and Let’s Stage Just This One More Scene Before Lunch” philosophy, hopefully everyone left the experience as war buddies but with a minimum of PTSD. At the closing night party, I had a conversation with one of our ensemble members who said “That wasn’t so bad- maybe we could have done a few more shows in there.” Now there’s an idea…
Til then, I will say “Hey, Look Them Over!”- thank you to our all star ensemble: Alex Aquilino, Carleigh Bettiol, Kerry Conte, Rachel Coloff, Rick Faugno, Eloise Kropp, Matt Loehr, Michael X. Martin, Michael Mendez, Justin Prescott, Wayne Pretlow, Lindsay Roberts, Steve Routman, Sara Jane Shanks, Jaquez Sims, Diana Vaden and Jessica Wockenfuss.