Watching “Somewhere” Bloom (redux)

In honor of the upcoming new production of Matthew Lopez’ extraordinary play Somewhere at Hartford Stage next month, I am reprinting my all-time favorite post, originally published just over a year ago:

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For five magical weeks, I had the rare and exhilarating opportunity to see a play emerge from page to stage.

"Somewhere" Cast TheatreWorks 1/2013 photo by Tracy Martin

“Somewhere” Cast
TheatreWorks 1/2013
photo by Tracy Martin

Somewhere is a play, with dance, by Matthew Lopez, directed by Giovanna Sardelli, choreographed by Greg Graham, which was originally produced at the Old Globe in San Diego in mid-2011 and was so extensively revised I would say it re-premiered at TheatreWorks on January 19, 2013.  The play is about a theatre-obsessed Puerto Rican family in 1959 New York, living in a west side tenement destined to be demolished to make way for the building of Lincoln Center, dreaming of show business and making it in America despite tough times and an absent father.  Auditions for the road trip, and in the second act the movie, of the musical West Side Story, frame the immediate focus of those dreams and the rentry into their lives of a childhood friend who is now the assistant to Jerome Robbins and could help those dreams be more than fantasy.

As a Trustee of TheatreWorks and a designated producer of this play, and with slight but cherished prior relationships with Matthew and Giovanna, I was granted full access to rehearsals starting from the first read-through.  In this writing, I want to share aspects of that experience which non- theatre professionals like me rarely get to see.  Although the play is terrific, and I truly believe and hope it has a long and exciting life ahead, my initial intention is for this to be more about the process than the result.  But, inevitably, my deep affection for this creative team, these actors, this crew and this work will be clear, so my advance apologies if this seems like a Valentine to Somewhere.

My own relationship with Somewhere  began during its original run in San Diego in June of 2011.  Matthew Lopez had sent me an email telling me about it and I had engineered a quasi- special trip to see it.  The year before,  I had seen and loved his play The Whipping Man,  also directed by Giovanna Sardelli,  and knew they were a remarkable creative team.  I own up to corny but Somewhere  made my heart sing.   The play is a drama but it was so funny!  I had never seen such dancing in a non-musical (and this was staged in a small theatre-in-the-round at that point) and the theme of the play — weighing the costs of following your dreams against the costs of giving up on your dreams – seemed to me should speak to every soul.  On my return, I immediately sent an email to Robert Kelley, Artistic Director of TheatreWorks and his team involved in season selection recommending they all read Somewhere and consider it for our 2012-2013 season.  (I found out the script was already on Meredith McDonough’s desk — then our Director of New Works.  I had originally met Matthew at a TheatreWork’s writer’s showcase so of course he was already on their radar but I like to pretend that my recommendation was a tiny influence on the show’s selection.)

THE CAST —  Every single one of this five person cast was perfect for his or her part in Somewhere.  It was as if the playwright had known them before he wrote the play.  And, of course in one case he did – his aunt Priscilla Lopez — the Tony-award winning actress of stage and screen, the original Diana Morales of A Chorus Line, and everyone’s favorite storyteller at breaks, played Inez, the matriarch of Somewhere‘s  Candelaria family.  Her stage children were Alejandro (played by Michael Rosen who can make your heart break or soar with both his dancing and his acting), Francisco (Eddie Gutierrez, who was so funny during rehearsals that Matthew wrote extra lines for him to showcase that skill) and their younger sister Rebecca (the sparkling and radiant Michelle Cabinian).  The fifth member of the cast was Leo Ash Evans (who I would go to watch dance and act any part, anywhere).

Priscilla holds court during break photo by G. Sardelli

Priscilla holds court during break
photo by G. Sardelli

Forgive a brief fangirl tangent here, but please – Priscilla Lopez!!!  I offered to pick her up at the airport after the holiday break.  How many millions of people in our world would love a half hour in a car with Priscilla Lopez?  And yes, I told her how much Diana Morales and Chorus Line meant to me and then I shut up and let her talk – about anything she wanted to.  Which turned out to be A Chorus Line,  and other things.  My sense is that she is most proud of breaking ground and being a role model for Latinos in theatre and on Broadway.  She has been thanked by countless actors and dancers and told that her success and the “z” at the end of her name gave them hope to keep going.  John Leguizamo and Lin Manuel Miranda (remember, she was in the original Broadway cast of In the Heights) are two examples of the famous ones, but I got the impression that it’s the gypsies and young actors that she continues to inspire that she finds most satisfying.  What a lovely and generous hearted person she is.  (And lots of fun during rehearsals too!)

FIRST READ-THROUGH –  For the first read-through, four tables were arranged in a square and the cast was joined by the director, the assistant director, the stage manager, assistant stage manager, and the dramaturg and her intern.  (The playwright was working on a television series in L.A. and  unavailable to join the process for a few more days.)  There were four or five of us observers in the room as well, sitting back away from the tables so as not to break the spell.  The director made a few opening remarks (including one to the effect that this particular writer had eventually convinced her earlier in their relationship that there was some value, after all, in stage directions – even extensive ones, and asking the assistant director to read those aloud as they came up in the script) and the reading began.  Although I know the actors hadn’t had the script for more than the weekend, it was obviously not the first read-through for them! It’s hard to describe the feeling that table read evoked in all of us that day.   It was clear that we had something very special here.  Even though there were a lot of changes to come over the next five weeks, many surprises and different choices to be made, at the end of that reading I could already see the glimmer and outline of that glorious Somewhere that I actually saw on Opening Night.

CALL TIMES — Our stage manager, Jamie Mann, sent out a daily email (often time-stamped after midnight) to the cast, crew, artistic and design team, and various others with the call times for costume fittings, dance rehearsals and scene rehearsal schedules.  In the early days of rehearsal I went almost every day, for part of the day, focusing on times when the whole cast would be working together with the director.  (I generally tried not to intrude on what I thought were probably fairly intimate or intense working times like the early choreography rehearsals or one on one scene work.)  Actors Equity has very strict rules about working hours and breaks and TheatreWorks and Jamie (as a union member himself)  are very careful about sticking to those rules.  With some variation and interim coffee breaks, early rehearsal days were usually split into two chunks beginning mid-day —  four hours then a meal break then a three and a half hour session.

EARLY REHEARSALS — The first week of rehearsals went by in a flash.  The actors seemed to work very hard to get off-book as fast as they could without any pressure to do so at all from the director or the other actors.  Once the playwright joined us a few days in, he started almost immediately making fast and furious notes for the rewrites he would do over the holiday break.  This director’s style was to let the actors bring all their first instincts and choices to the performance to start with and watch before she gave much overt direction.  But her hand was firmly on the tiller from the first moment and the mood in the overall space was set by her. (My impression of the mood and collective mission on a typical Somewhere rehearsal hall day:  warm, fun, delighted to be here and let’s get this done well!)

One of the most fascinating parts of this process was that there was, from the very beginning, a lot of continuing dialogue about the backstory of all of these characters and their histories and their motivations and their personalities.  To be clear, these were not questions posed to or answered by the author — these were discussions explored by the whole team. This seemed to me to be a critical part to building the confident, consistent and brilliant performances these actors ultimately achieved every performance on stage.

After the three day holiday break, everyone came back ready to dig in to Matthew’s rewrites.  And he had them — and they kept coming too — a few changed pages a day for at least another week or so.  (When the assistant stage manager gave me my own “box” to receive changed pages I was very happy.)photo

And the changes were all improvements.  They grew directly out of watching something work or not work at rehearsal.  One example of a small organic change happening during rehearsal ended up getting one of the biggest laughs in the second act.  Eddie Gutierrez turned out to be so funny in one scene that Matthew literally drew a star on a yellow post-it note, slapped it on his shirt  during rehearsal break and wrote him an extra funny line that killed every time during performance.

I tried to be as unobtrusive as possible and just absorb everything.  I was usually successful in keeping my self-imposed rule of silence during rehearsal time.  But I do remember one outburst in the second or third week after a table read of part of the second act.  I remember saying into the silence — “How many times can I see that scene before it stops making me cry?”  (The answer, at this point is, I haven’t gotten there yet.)

DANCE — I didn’t research to see if Somewhere is unprecedented in its extensive use of dance in a non-musical drama but it is at the very least an extremely fresh approach to integration of dance in a play.  The dance in Somewhere is so much more than incidental.  In addition to its obvious charm and artistry, the dancing in Somewhere is a plot device, it’s a tool, it’s a theme, it’s a tease – dance is almost a character itself in this play – one with many personalities.  Dance is woven in and out of many scenes, with the actors often speaking lines before, after and even during the dancing.

photo by T. Martin

photo by T. Martin

Dance is absolutely necessary to this work.  As was Greg Graham, the choreographer.  Greg had choreographed the San Diego production so some of his advance work was done. (The soft shoe number in the second act was my favorite part of the San Diego production;  I still love it very, very much but I can no longer have a favorite part.)   But – and this is huge – at Theatreworks Somewhere would be mounted on a wide proscenium stage, unshackling the dance and the dancers from the small in-the-round space they’d had to work with before.  Also, the extensive re-writing Matthew had done required revising and extending a  significant and complex solo for Alejandro to dance toward the end of the second act that needed to serve a major story-telling function as well as showcase the skill and talent of the dancer and be moving and beautiful to watch.  That’s all, Greg.

photos by  Matthew Lopez  and Greg Graham; composite by G. Graham

photos by Matthew Lopez
and Greg Graham;
composite by G. Graham

Watching dance rehearsals was very different from watching work on the scenes.  I saw far less of this since the dancer or dancers often worked in a separate room alone with the choreographer while they were learning the dance.  But seeing the dance put into the scene was a lot of fun and it was interesting how much the choreography would change during that process to accommodate the blocking, various characters’ entrances and exits, and other business.  Greg would physically jump in and out of the scene himself, assuming various roles, to see what worked and what didn’t, then back up as far as the space allowed and watch, then jump back in and dance some more.  (The stage manager, with a rather frantic smile, had to quickly move the waste basket out of his way a few times to avoid collisions.)  Totally  fun.

I particularly enjoyed them trying to dumb down Eddie’s dancing.  Eddie’s character is supposed to be the rather clumsy dancer in the family and yet Eddie the actor toured as “Paul” in A Chorus Line so he knows how to dance.  (And yes, as everyone reminded him, someone else in the cast danced in Chorus Line too!) It seemed like Leo was always dancing around, even on break, and I could watch him all day. I purposefully avoided watching Michael’s big second act dance until it was fairly mature so I could feel the impact and of course now I wish I’d seen every single step along the way.

TECH — I stopped going as often once rehearsals moved from the rehearsal space to the actual theatre for tech rehearsals. This was partly due to my own work schedule and partly because all of a sudden a lot more people were involved in a lot more aspects of the work and it was hard to tell what and when would be particularly interesting and how I could stay out of the way.  The costume designer and wardrobe crew were there, the set designer,  sound designer, lighting designer, all the stage hands and supporting technical people. 45891_10151265193707655_820853599_n It would have been very easy to get in the way.  (I did a little I think but they were very nice about it.)  Once in the actual theatre space, the director had to do some last minute re-blocking to accommodate the very wide house and she and the assistant director were literally running back and forth to test sight lines from the seats in the most extreme sides and corners of the house to protect the interests of those ticket buyers.  That was pretty impressive to me.

The final tech rehearsal day was a Sunday and there would be a full invited audience dress rehearsal the following Tuesday,  followed  by three paid preview nights and then Saturday Opening Night. The afternoon part of the final tech rehearsal I saw was enough to make my head hurt and my stomach ache.     Everyone was very tense and many things went wrong.  Actors called for lines I knew they knew cold.  The curtain got caught up on the couch and was thereupon banned from use forever.  A wall literally crashed down onto another wall during a scene change.  The crew couldn’t figure out how to make the intermission less than 40 minutes long.  All,  I now understand, totally normal, par for the course, nothing to write home about.  Brother.  And poor Michael up there dancing his beautiful heart out.  And Michelle still smiling her thousand watt smile.  I kind of slunk away that Sunday afternoon.  I actually wasn’t really worried.  Not really.  I had seen too much amazing magic already to be fundamentally concerned but I was a tiny bit afraid that maybe we didn’t have enough days in the actual theatre space to work out the kinks in time.  OK maybe I was a tiny bit worried.

WHEW.  Well, of course, I needn’t have worried.  The invited dress went beautifully (except for the 40 minute intermission — which was down to 15 minutes by Opening Night!) and the audience seemed to be universally swept up in its spell.  Previews continued to go well as I heard from an old colleague by email when he saw my name in the Producer credits when he went Friday night and sent me an email saying it was “incredible” and “one of the best  TheatreWorks had ever done” !

SOMEWHERE OPENS  —  Opening Night was probably my favorite night of theatre, ever.  (And that includes the Opening of Memphis on Broadway — which was pretty fun!)

Leo, Michelle, Giovanna, Matthew, Priscilla, Michael, Eddie photo by D. Allen

Leo, Michelle, Giovanna, Matthew, Priscilla, Michael, Eddie
photo by D. Allen

Granted that Opening Night audiences may be heavily salted with friends and family, this audience loved this play!   It’s not the kind of play with a final moment that has audiences primed to leap to their feet.  It ends on a quiet moment and takes a beat or two to recover from,  so the standing ovation was all the more heartfelt and rewarding.  Afterwards, there was the typical champagne reception and photo session but people just stayed and stayed.  People were happy.

I almost never post photos of myself but I couldn’t resist stealing this one from Matthew Lopez’s facebook page and posting it on my own with the comment:  “Here’s a photo of me at Opening Night of Somewhere.  Oh, and the playwright and star are in the photo too”:

photo by D. Allen

photo by D. Allen

I don’t know what’s next for Somewhere.  I do know that I want to see it again and I want everyone who loves great theatre to see it.

I don’t have the experience to know how much was extraordinary about the process I witnessed with Somewhere,  but if even a small part of it is typical, I understand even more than when I started why so many people make such huge sacrifices to live their lives working in theatre.

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The new production of Somewhere plays April 3 – May 4, 2014 at Hartford Stage in Connecticut.  I’ll be there on opening night, April 11 and cannot wait to see the new ending, hear the new music and be engulfed by the old magic of this wonderful play all over again.  Don’t miss this very special theatrical offering.

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