FESTIVAL COUNTDOWN: Casting for the Festival

As their show “graduates” from Southern California to New York City, Mary Marie bookwriter and lyricist Chana Wise sweetly reflects on how it felt to be greeted by a fresh new group of

actors and singers who will breathe new life into their musical.

So, we’ve made it into the NAMT Festival. We’ve got an amazing director and musical director, we’ve sweated over cutting our piece to the required 45-minutes, and now—casting!
Truth be told, almost from the first moment I put fingertips to keyboard in the creation of Mary Marie I was able to hear the voices of the characters coming from the mouths of specific actors; friends who had agreed to help us develop the show. They got us through the teething, crawling, first steps, dare I say potty training, and eventually the adolescent stage of the show, and we have been so fortunate that these actors stayed with us through the whole development process, which included five or six staged readings. Not only had they become entrenched in the work, but we all
grew to become a sort of Mary Marie family.
Now we couldn’t be more thrilled that Mary Marie would be growing up and taking a trip from Southern California to New York, but it also meant that it would be time for a new set of amazing actors to bring their own unique talents to these roles. To carry the metaphor a little further, it’s a bit as if Mary Marie would be taking a cross-country trip to the prom—to a new cast of five blind dates. Since neither Carl Johnson (composer) nor I have spent much time in New York, we depended a lot on Branden Huldeen (NAMT Festival Producing Director), Michael Cassara, (Casting Director) and Daniella Topol (Director) for their expert advice, input, and contacts to cast the show. We had access to an initial list of actors who have worked for the Festival in previous years, which was helpful, but not knowing or having ever seen them, it was still difficult to tell, from our end, who might be right for the specific characters in our show. Thank goodness for YouTube!
Our first role cast was that of the Male Swing. In the full show (the uncut version) this character plays six different characters and contributes much of the comic element. We were delighted and relieved that Colin Hanlon was available. Our first character was cast! After that, our other cast members Kevin Earley, Mamie Parris, and Ruth Gottschall eventually and fortunately for us, fell into place. We were especially concerned that we find a Mary Marie who was not only close to the right age of the character (13-years-old), but who could learn the music and grasp the complexity of the character in such a short rehearsal period. Fortunately Emerson Steele was free and happy to join us.
We are so excited about starting the next phase of work on this show and to meet the men and women who will help us to grow these characters even more. And hopefully, someday soon, Mary Marie will be ready to take off on its own—and we’ll be empty nesters.

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As we get closer to the Festival, Mary Marie composer Carl Johnson reflects on the daunting task of preparing musical arrangements for his Festival presentation, as

well as the challenges and great rewards of live performance.

I’ve been working on orchestrating the music for our show Mary Marie for the Festival, and have been pondering the differences between writing for live theater and writing for film and television. It seems almost as if it’s the difference between planning for a worst-case or a best-case scenario!

In studio recording you plan for a best-case scenario in terms of the performance you get out of the musicians. The recording studio is temperature-controlled, the lighting is optimized for reading, there are a variety of microphones set up around the instruments so that every nuance of their playing can be captured without the musician having to overplay or hold back. Even the catering and bathroom-break schedule is designed to put the players in the best frame of mind to play perfectly.

In a live situation, you never know what the players are going to encounter! Even the best-
planned productions have to account for Murphy’s Law.

In a studio recording the music is carefully planned, and usually recorded with the musicians listening to a pre-recorded click track. Every tempo is set ahead of time, and the musicians wear headphones so that they can play exactly together, whatever the conductor is doing. In live performance, the tempo of the music can change drastically from performance to performance depending on how the performer or conductor feels. It is much more spur-of-the-moment, which gives the music a much more emotional, organic feel. This requires that the musicians be much more aware of what everyone else is doing and that they pay attention to the conductor or music director.

In terms of difficulty, you can write anything for a recording musician and consider that they only have to play it perfectly once, when the red “recording” light is on. For live performance, there are additional concerns, like: “Can they play that consistently? Will it be too physically taxing? Will it come across if the sound system is down?”

There’s also the unknown. In a studio situation, you’ve pretty much taken out all possibility for surprises, but in a live situation, you never know if a singer is going to skip a verse, or the audience is going to laugh, or the trumpet player is going to start playing too early. I’ve found that in my arrangements I’ve been trying to account for as many “what ifs” as I can imagine, but I’m sure there are many more that will be complete surprises.

So, while the process of studio recording is designed to be predictable and perfect, the experience of live performance is inherently unpredictable. Studio recordings are meticulously preplanned but live performances live and breathe in the moment. While studio recordings can be scrubbed and polished to reveal the orchestration, live performance requires more pragmatism. Where studio performance eliminates variables, live performance allows for spontaneity and surprises and emotion.

Now that I think about it, I’m not sure which is the best-case scenario after all!

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