“A Jewel-Box of a Show”

 “Good heavens, this is like the inner sanctum,” says cabaret singer Susannah Mars as OBT Artistic Director Christopher Stowell’s assistant Rebecca Roberts shows her into Christopher’s private office, the former vault from when OBT’s studios on Belmont used to be a bank.  “They keep you in a safe, for God’s sake?  That must be why you don’t age.”  And it just gets more delightful from there, as these three friends and colleagues – Susannah, Christopher, and pianist Richard Bower – swap stories, memories and laughs about A Holiday Revue, the show they jointly co-created last year.  From Christopher praising the dancers’ willingness to be silly, to a poignant tribute to Susannah’s late father, to raves all around for costume guru Mark Zappone, OBT blogger (and resident holiday geek) Claire Willett gives you the inside scoop on three delightful, funny artists and the fabulous show they hope you’ll all come see.

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On Showing Off the Dancers’ Personalities

Christopher Stowell: [Initially] we wanted to examine it having some throughlines based on the actual people in the show.  Of course, as these things always turn out, the show ends up different than the way you originally got going, but it’s the point of departure that’s necessary to launch.  So I picked a bunch of dancers and staff people and asked them to come to my house for dinner.  And it was in September, I think, but I said, “It’s going to be a Christmas party,” and everyone brought a dish, something that their family enjoys over the holidays, and to have some family stories and traditions around the holidays in mind.  So everybody shared . . . Then we boiled them down to some things that we felt would fit in.  Like [“I Want a Television Christmas”] is actually Ansa’s real story.  Understanding Christmas in the West through watching our traditional Christmas television shows in Japan –

Claire Willett: With no cultural context –

CS But it looks fun!  Crazy Westerners!  (Laughter)

Richard Bower: I think after the party we had everyone write things that they remembered about other people’s stories at the party . . . to lock in on things that kept coming up. “That must be important if five people remembered that guy’s story.”

CS [This year] what we determined was to not try to recreate anybody, not [choose based on], “Okay, so they’re this size and this type,” but someone who brings something unique to the table.  I’d like to think that these roles have some flexibility in them.  There needs to be a personality, but it doesn’t need to be the same one.  I think [new Company Artist Michael] Linsmeier in Steven’s part is going to be crazy in a totally different way than Steven was.

Susannah Mars: I’m looking forward to hearing Brett [Bauer, OBT Principal] sing verse three.

CS Oh, yeah!  We’re doing all three verses of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

RB We had rehearsal this morning [with Brett and] your second cast guy [new Company Artist Michael Breeden].  So adorable.  He’s great.  He came in and said, “I can’t really do anything, I have a cold,” and then he was like [Sinatra voice] “Baby, it’s cold outside!” and I was like, “Well, okay then!”  (Laughter)
SM “You’re hired!”

CS I’m excited to hear them.

That was one of the moments I remember from last year where the response was just crazy, like watching the audience, people were just going bonkers.

SM And after he sang, it was like the crowd just went, “WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

CS I think the one common denominator that’s effective throughout the thing is the idea of surprise.  The dancers can sing, the dancers can be goofy, you know, that they step outside of classical vocabulary, and not into “contemporary dance” but social dance and popular dance and all of these things.  And they don’t mind making asses of themselves.  That’s always actually really a surprise, that someone can make an ass of themselves.

SM And that they’re cool with it and it’s fun.

Well, and if you’re dancing Odette or whatever, the personality of the character determines the personality you’re putting on. But this is so based on them as real people –

CS Exactly.  So you can’t be wrong.

What’s Changing This Year

RB We wanted it a little longer in three or four places, and we figured another couple songs and extending existing songs would be what we would need.

CS So it’s one up-tempo addition and then one ballad.  The character that Leta [Biasucci, former Company Artist] danced last year becomes important for one minute in that she’s the one that Javier [Ubell, Soloist] ends up with.  That character gets her own introduction now, so that when they meet each other later we actually know them separately [before] we see them together.  It’s called “Remember.”

RB And the other new song is called “Holiday Lament.”

SM Which I am really beginning to enjoy.

RB And the other added musical attraction this year is that we’re going back to our original idea of scoring the show, so instead of having two pianos, or a piano and a keyboard, and Susannah, we’re dropping that second keyboard and having cello – our principal cellist Hamilton Cheifetz, who’s the finest in town – and Gordon Rencher, our percussionist principal, who’s going to be banging on things – xylophones and orchestra bells, drums, real sleigh bells . . .

CS I think it’s going to elevate the whole thing even more than we can imagine exactly.

“It Should Be Weird, And Yet It Works”

RB The opening [of the show] is really hard, because of the counts.  When the show was first put together last year, we just made scratch tapes of things for fun . . . with lots of mistakes in them, and adding measures  . . . and then that became the gospel for setting the choreography.

Oh, that’s what they were using to rehearse?

RB Yes!  So then when it got all written out it was like, “What is this?”

SM Like, “Okay, so this is seven,” and you’re like, “Seven?”

RB Like, “Okay, here’s a thirteen-and-a-half count measure . . .” (laughter) Maybe that’s another reason why the quirkiness is kind of [built in], because Christopher just dealt with that and made it work for the dancers.

From last year’s Holiday Revue, were there moments in the show that you found people particularly responded to?

CS Well, maybe not you guys as much as I was, but I was completely panicked about “The Eight Days of Hanukkah.”  That it was too silly, or possibly disrespectful.  And then opening night it nearly stopped the show.  People were backstage saying, “We have to do it again, they won’t stop [applauding]!”  So that was a nice surprise.  And it still is silly, and potentially disrespectful.

But it was also a huge hit, so there’s that.  (Laughter)

SM I was just delighted how appreciative the audiences seemed to be.  And it ran the gamut, the age range, you know?  Because it’s just a jewel-box of a show, in my mind, it’s musically concise and choreographically concise –

CS Action-packed –

RB And tying things together that shouldn’t really go together – like Karen Carpenter, one of my idols, and Barry Manilow, all on the same medley.  It should be weird –

And yet it works.

SM And you know what, too, because when you have the depth of the choreography with it . . . and the arrangements you made are so beautiful, it really just deepens it.

Geeking Out About Holiday Music

Now, I’m something of a Christmas music aficionado –

RB Yes, I’ve heard this about you.

And I was astonished, given my breadth of holiday music knowledge, that I did not know either of those new songs [“Holiday Lament” and “Remember”].  They were not anywhere in the 72 hours of Christmas music that lives on my iTunes. 

SM Claire Willett, now, when you’ve done music like Richard and I have – I’m known for sitting in the basement of a music store in L.A. and just going through music.  I sat for hours and hours to find some songs that aren’t –

RB But she’s showbiz trash so she knows all this stuff!

SM I’m just saying, when you sit in a basement and just open up the filing cabinet of old music stores on Hollywood Boulevard and you just find songs . . . I was always looking for any song that had, you know, “snow,” “Christmas,” “Hanukkah” . . . any keyword like that to go on.

RB Which reinforces . . . that we had an idea and then came some music, but it didn’t come all from me.  There’s incredible things that she brought, like “Snowfall” and “Something of Yourself” and “Hanukkah Blessings” –

SM And that was actually Grant Byington [director of her holiday cabaret at Artists Rep] who brought that to me for the holiday show.   It’s sort of like an American musical theater tradition, you know what I mean?   Singers talk to each other . . . Songs come down through the ranks.

It feels to me like holiday music has sort of become your niche.

SM I feel like it’s become a part of what I can do as a cabaret artist, which is fun because I can plug that into my universe of work, and I do enjoy it, and people enjoy it.  And that’s really fun.

CS It’s also nice to hear holiday music performed really, really well.  I mean it’s great, you know, we sit at home and sing carols, but [to hear it] actually enhanced, performed, really thought about, rather than just from memory –

Yeah, like you either go hear the middle school kids’ choir or you sit at home and listen to Frank Sinatra, but actually hearing it live to a high degree of quality –

CS It’s satisfying in a totally new way.

On Costume Designer Mark Zappone

CS You guys have done a great job of putting together all these different, disparate songs – with some connection, but not musical connections sometimes – and the two things that make the whole thing link are that you’re seeing the same group of dancers, and you’re seeing this one beautiful theatrical aesthetic that ties the whole thing together.

SM Oh, [Mark is] crazily like out-of-the-box, like, “Oh, let’s see.  Here’s this nice table.  I’ll make a dress out of it.” (laughter) He’s great to work with.  And it’s interesting as an actress, too, when someone’s fitting you for a costume, it’s not always that someone really cares how you think you look.  And he does.  He’s like, “Wow, what do you think, do you like how you look in this?” and I’m like, “Yeah, this is good,” and he’s like “Okay, now, I think this is going to move back because you’ve got good shoulders and this and that.” He’s not all about his design, he’s like, “I want you to look good.”

CS I think his big thing is, if he wants somebody to look glamorous, if they don’t feel glamorous, there ain’t no way they’re gonna look glamorous, you know what I mean?

RB But that even goes with the musicians, which is always, always never cared about.  (laughter)

SM Oh, you’re so right. It’s worse than singers.

RB Yeah, like, “Now go buy a shirt at Penney’s.”  (laughter)  No.  Mark came in with me with, “Okay, I have three shirts, now let’s all decide what works best.”  I mean, [as a musician] you don’t get that.

On Family and Nostalgia

SM You know, the holidays, people come and see stuff – and I found this with my show at Artists Rep, and I’m sure you found this last year from us doing it – people experience these shows at a very heightened emotional time.  And when you sit next to your mom . . . I used to sing a song called “My Firstborn,” and “I’m Becoming My Mother,” I did a set about being a mom – and people talked to me about that.  It’s just that special time when sitting next to someone is a little bit different than it is throughout the rest of the year.

I think people are emotionally open in a different way. Like, you expect to feel things really strongly.  So you sort of seek those things out.

SM And people are seeing shows with people from out of town, they don’t see them often, their mom, their grandma, their aunts and uncles and cousins –

CS And wanting to have an experience that they’re going to remember.  They’re open to that.

SM Oh golly, especially during the photographs of the dancers as babies.  That just really – because I’ve found that, when I’ve done it in my show before, that really evokes a sense of historical – I don’t know how to put this – how we all have traveled the same road.  Even though we’re completely different.  You see a picture of a baby, and everyone thinks of their baby.  And it’s like our community connection as human beings, and that fondness for celebrating all those familial milestones.

RB [“Remember” is] the song that makes me cry.

SM Hoo boy.

RB You should see us –

SM Every time we do it –

CS Blubbering?  (laughter)

SM I don’t know what I’m going to do, I’m going to have to bite my tongue or something to get through it . . . It’s just sweet, and I lost my dad this year, and it was one of my dad’s favorite songs, so it’s kinda like, “Oh boy, this is gonna be hard . . .” Maybe it’s the fact that that song is so [emotionally charged].  You know, just the lyrics are so amazing.  “Remember is a place from long ago . . .”

RB You will notice during all the six performances probably that she and I will not engage each other.

SM There will be no eye contact.  In all honesty, I don’t know what I’m going to do.  I’m not sure.  We’ll find out.

I think it’s so cool, though, to give people a place to enter into that and have that moment . . . because even separate from all the baggage of losing someone you love around the holidays, there’s still that sadness that’s such a necessary part of what makes nostalgia, nostalgia.  Like, there’s something sad about remembering your magical childhood Christmases, because it’s the past, and it’s gone, and you can’t get that back.

SM I’m with you on that, and I think that was another bonus about when I did the show at Artists Rep is that when you’re in close proximity and you’re singing tender songs, you do give people that space.  And at the Keller, same thing. And the dance is so beautiful too, it almost doubles it.

RB It doubles it, yeah.  There’s the beautiful music, and then there’s this visual.  It just is so evocative.

And it gives people this thing that we don’t necessarily give ourselves.  To say, “Just be here and be present and take that moment.”  I feel like it’s a cool opportunity, because people don’t consciously give themselves that time.  Like, we’re all doing seventy things, it feels selfish to take five minutes and just sort of sit there and reflect.

SM Listen to a song.

Listen to a song.

SM Really listen to it.  Not do the dishes while you’re listening to it, or make the kids’ lunches, which is what I’m always doing.

What They Hope Audiences Get From the Show

CS [I hope they leave] feeling a new sense of comfort and understanding of who these people are, and how multifaceted . . . and unintimidating performing artists can be.  Some theatre is designed . . . to create distance, and awe, and all of that, and this is the kind that’s designed to do the opposite.  And I hope they walk away with that feeling of “I know them a little bit better,” “I’m not intimidated by the whole idea of them,” you know what I mean?

SM My hope is that they leave the theatre holding hands, arms around each other, you know, like, “Wasn’t that funny when so-and-so did that, did you see that, and then he sang, I didn’t know he could sing, wow!”  You know?  Just that vibe, that wonderful “we had a great night out and we can talk about something on the way home.” . . . Like they just unwrapped a really good gift.

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