Monday, September 25, 2006

Voiceless Velma

I mentioned previously how, back in the days when I was a music director in summer rep (not to be confused with summer stock), I made my "hit by a bus" lists - who would step in to any given role if the original actor fell ill, or fell in front of a moving vehicle. Usually this sort of worrying fell to me, because the directors often left once their shows were open - I knew everyone's vocal range, how quickly they learned music, and so on.

One summer, we had just opened a production of Chicago, which was the fourth show in a season that included The Pajama Game, Fiddler on the Roof, and Oliver.

One could tell quite a few stories about that season - how in Fiddler the only Jewish person involved was the drummer; how the ten year old girl playing Oliver was late for an entrance because she was beating the pants off the other cast members in a card game; how the director of Chicago was giving special, in-depth acting coaching to his leading lady. On the dock. After midnight. Resulting in splinters in unlikely places.

But that's not the time for those stories. No, this started when we were partying like mad after the successful opening of Chicago: seven weeks of hard work behind us, a summer of days free ahead of us. Let's drink till we puke! The actress playing Velma (the Chita Rivera/Catherine Zeta-Jones role) came up to me during the cast party. Her voice was disappearing, even as we spoke. Well, even as I spoke, because, all of a sudden, she couldn't. Speak. Much less sing.

Time to get out the "hit by a bus" list.

This season, this particular actress was playing Velma in Chicago; Fruma Sarah, the jealous dead wife in Tevye's dream in Fiddler; one of the factory gals in The Pajama Game - Boopsie, I think; and the kindly housekeeper in Oliver. (I refuse to put the exclamation point after Oliver! even though that's the title. There's another show I hate. Bleagh. It deserves no additional punctuation.)

Mercifully, we had a few days until Chicago played again. And, by an amazing stroke of luck, one of the other girls in the company had just played Velma in a production a few months ago. Thank god! But more pressing was: who would be Fruma Sarah tomorrow night, with her big freaky running-around-screaming aria?

That would be Stephanie.

Stephanie was the lead in Pajama Game; she was completely unflappable, and perhaps one of the best sight-readers and musicians I know. (She is currently in the Broadway company of Beauty and the Beast-- I think as the wardrobe -- and will be making her debut as Mrs. Potts next month. I think she might be the youngest Mrs. Potts ever - she is far, far from Angela Lansburydom.)

I woke her up the next morning with a surprise: she would be spending the day learning the music and choreography for Fruma Sarah's rant. What a lovely way to wake up from a drunken stupor. I don't remember if she was drunk. Let's say she was, it makes the story better. If she wasn't - oops, my bad.

Her debut as the screaming-meemie ghost went off without a hitch. One show down, three to go.

Pajama Game was next: luckily, Boopsie was not a pivotal role. We just gave her few lines away to other characters ("Yeah!" "You tell 'em!" "Me too!" etc.); our voiceless Velma still went on and did all the dancing and whatnot (I wanted her to remain completely silent until her voice healed.) The only thing that was odd was that the actress was very tall and striking, especially in her Boopsie beehive. And she never spoke. So it was as if the heroine's circle of friends included a tall stork-like mute.

Oliver was a similar situation - I believe we just gave her lines away - she did a lot of nodding. We might have stuffed Stephanie into that role too, as I recall there was a reprise of "Where Is Love?" involved. Or we may have cut it. Anyway, it wasn't a difficult fix.

So there we were, rehearsing NewVelma into Chicago. We were lucky in other ways: NewVelma's previous role in the show was the last cellblock girl. If you know the "Cell Block Tango", the "six merry murderesses" are "Pop" "Squish" "Six" "Uh Uh" "Cicero" and "Lipschitz" - the key words of their little stories of bloodshed and mayhem. Velma doesn't come last in the song as you might guess - she is "Cicero" and comes fifth. But luckily, since NewVelma's previous role was #6, we could just leave it out without much trauma - she just sang Velma's part, and we moved on to the big finish.

We found a costume that fit her, and basically told her, "Don't bump into the furniture." That night was really electrifying - all the other actors were on high alert, and performed brilliantly. NewVelma was a smash hit, and brought the house down.

It took a few more weeks before Voiceless Velma was back to singing health. I think she had problems on and off throughout the summer - she had an amazing belt voice as well as a more legit sound ("legit" = classical soprano). She was naturally gifted but she might not have had the training to sustain the low belting that Chicago requires - the role was written for a woman in her 40s with a deep voice - we adjusted what we could, but the part takes a toll on a young voice. That's the other advantage about playing in rep - if you are taking on a demanding role, you're only doing it at most every other day, so you aren't wearing yourself down.

I heard through the grapevine that Voiceless Velma was recently in a Bissell commercial - a puppy pees on her carpet. I'm not surprised that she's in commercials - she was stunning and had great bone structure.

I wonder if she says anything?


Blogger jwer said...

Oliver! Thank god David lost the tape! That could be really embarrassing! Please sir, make the pain stop!

8:38 PM  

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