Brass Ring Lessons
How TexARTS' first two go-rounds in staging classic musicals are helping to make its new "Carousel' ride a winner
Finding a merry-go-round with a brass ring to grab is about as easy nowadays as finding an affordable two-bedroom in South Austin. But time was, those metallic hoops were common enough on carousels that grabbing the brass ring took root in the American lexicon as a way to describe the pursuit of a special reward, typically one involving some effort. See, grabbing the brass ring wasn't that easy. The ring was at the end of a stationary dispenser just beyond arm's length for most youthful merry-go-round riders, and as your painted pony passed by, you really had to stretch to reach it, a move complicated somewhat by the bobbing motion of your horse and the brief amount of time that you circled close enough to the ring to get your hands on it. It sometimes took several passes before you could wrap your fingers around that circular prize.
This week sees an old-fashioned Carousel coming our way specifically, the one concocted by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II for the Broadway stage in 1945 and with it comes a couple of guys grabbing for their own brass ring. Todd Dellinger and Robin Lewis are co-founders of the still-new company TexARTS, and part of this multidisciplinary nonprofit's mission in addition to establishing a center for the performing and visual arts in Central Texas, sponsoring juried visual-arts shows, and running an ongoing musical theatre academy for young people ("But You Can Win Her Yet," June 23, 2006) is to mount new productions of classic American musicals in the true tradition of the Great White Way, i.e., with grand sets, glitzy costumes, large casts, eye-popping dance numbers, and top talent which for TexARTS means not only the best that Austin has to offer but the best anywhere, including Broadway.
That's a lofty prize to go for, but, given the resources that topflight musical theatre demands and the sheer physical effort involved in producing it, it's one that requires a helluva reach. Of course, that's not news to Lewis and Dellinger, who both logged enough time on New York's performing arts scene Lewis as a dancer in Broadway musicals, Dellinger as director of the Martha Graham Dance Center to be intimately familiar with what it takes, artistically and administratively, to put on a Broadway-level show. That's why, when the duo relocated to Austin a couple of years ago and hatched this plan to produce big, beautiful old-school musicals, they chose to do so in stages, starting relatively small and working their way up to fully produced runs. They started a year ago with a one-night-only concert staging of The Music Man, then mounted a full production of the Huck Finn musical Big River in January. This week they're back with Carousel in a concert version, and next Feb. 28-March 1, TexARTS will stage a full-scale production of Damn Yankees the first show by the company to be included in the Paramount Theatre's season. With each production, Lewis and Dellinger have tried to offer a little more in terms of the size or quality of the work, to gradually move themselves toward that vision of Broadway by way of Austin. Each show has been another pass of the carousel, inching them within reach of their personal brass ring.
When they were putting together The Music Man, Dellinger says he and Lewis told their staff, "We know this is not the way to do this. We know it's going to be hard, and we know we're not paying you enough. But the idea is that each time it's going to get a little better." As they make their third pass on this musical merry-go-round, the two TexArts visionaries share a few of the lessons they've learned and how they've applied them to the productions that followed.
'The Music Man'Lesson 1: More space is better.
"The Paramount is a beautiful, old theatre and hell to produce in." That's Dellinger on the venerable Congress Avenue vaudeville house, and he's not the first to make that observation. Through the years, many have bemoaned the old theatre's paucity of wing space and fly space, lack of storage and load-in capabilities. The intimacy of the house makes the Paramount stage a dream to perform on, but once you step into the wings, it's painfully clear that the place just wasn't designed for elaborate theatrics. And the bigger your show is, the harder it is to squeeze into that limited backstage space. And classic musicals are nothing if not big. As TexARTS chose to do its first show as a concert production, the company didn't have to worry about sets and where to put them, but it did have a sizable cast, and finding room for 30 people offstage is something a producer has to make contingencies for.Lesson 2: More shows are better.
Limiting the show to a single performance may have made sense for a first-time producer with concerns about filling more than 1,000 seats, but it also made it more difficult to recoup costs. "We learned the importance of fundraising and the importance of more than one performance to amortize your costs," says Dellinger, adding that this was all stuff he and Lewis already knew, but they were in a new city with a new organization and a new audience, and sometimes that means going through old lessons all over again.Lesson 3: More production folks are better.
As with the showbiz economics, Lewis and Dellinger knew that it would happen if they kept their production team streamlined: They'd wind up shouldering all those additional responsibilities themselves. And that's just what they did. "We went into Music Man with a production manager and a technical director," says Dellinger. "No costumer, no props head ... we just kind of made it happen." But the experience of taking on those extra duties and the extra stress that went with it made it abundantly clear that the two needed more production support in the future.Lesson 4: The Broadway connection is key.
Not all the lessons from TexARTS' debut were about getting things wrong. Some were about what Dellinger and Lewis got right, such as bringing in Broadway professionals to work with the students in their musical theatre academy and perform alongside Austinites in TexARTS productions. By the time they did The Music Man, they'd already flown some two dozen performers and directors and choreographers into town to work with academy students, but with the arrival of Tony nominee Rebecca Luker and Jim Walton both veterans of the Broadway revival of The Music Man in 2000 "the parents and the children and the local professionals and the orchestra and everybody got to see what that really means, to have people of that caliber" working on the shows and setting a standard for musical theatre performance, says Dellinger. "That was a turning point for us. We said, 'This is key to what we're doing.'"
Dellinger admits to having been concerned that Austin audiences would be put off by a bare-bones staging "We were afraid that people would be like, 'Where are the sets? Why isn't anybody flying?'" but he learned that wasn't the case at all. "Just hearing the music and words was enough. People loved it. The telling of the story and the level of the talent is more important to people here than the glitz and glamour of a million-dollar production. The energy in the theatre that night pretty much summed it up: The outpouring of goodwill and good spirit that night of The Music Man was electrifying."
Lewis and Dellinger had six months after The Music Man to get their next production together, and as Dellinger says, "We went into it a little more prepared, with a little more staff, a little bit more money. We were able to do three performances, so we were able to amortize a teeny bit." But while they thought they had given themselves the room to make the jump to a full production, the experience proved otherwise.Lesson 1: Keep growth manageable.
"We were trying to take baby steps," Lewis insists. With Big River, a musical that takes advantage of simple theatricality to tell the story of Huckleberry Finn, the TexARTS leaders thought they were picking a show that wouldn't overwhelm them with big sets and complex production elements. "We thought Big River would be a smaller-feeling show, but dealing with a full set and full costuming any full production is huge." Period costumes had to be raided from the Zilker Summer Musical stock and rented from out of state, and the raft on which Huck and Jim floated down the Mississippi had to be driven by a hidden operator. It was a bigger show than TexARTS needed for its sophomore effort, and as a result, Dellinger and Lewis decided to scale back their planned version of Carousel from a full production to a concert staging.Lesson 2: Austin has a lot of great talent, but ...
From the moment Dellinger and Lewis hatched the idea of a musical theatre company in Austin, they were committed to local artists. And they've been very happy with the quality of Austin talent. It's just that sometimes there's not enough of it. "We learned that it's very hard to find young male dancers," says Dellinger. "Not that the young male dancers here aren't able to pull it off, but when they're [spread out between productions at] Zilker and everywhere, it's like, 'Forget about it.' We have to import from Houston." And while the male dancers are a particular case, Dellinger finds the situation to be true with casting generally. "It's very hard to fully cast a show here. Not that the talent's not here, but when you're talking about a show with a 30-person cast, it's hard to fill it out all the way with a consistent level of talent and experience." As with the male dancers, TexARTS will cast for some roles outside the city (while trying to stay within Texas as much as possible). But the company will also work to develop the talent pool from within, through the academy. As Dellinger says, "That's part of what our mission is."Lesson 3: More time in the theatre.
When a company has its own theatre, it can take as much time as it needs to work through a show's technical requirements: adding sets, costumes, lighting, sound, working scene changes, etc. When a company is renting a space, that can be trickier, with the theatre's schedule and the company's budget conspiring to limit how much tech time the company gets in the theatre before opening. With Big River, that time was extremely limited. "We only had two days in the theatre," says Lewis. That meant the show was being teched until late in the afternoon of the day the show opened. In fact, the opening night performance was the first time the show was run all the way through with costumes, lighting, sound, and all the technical elements. Based on that experience, Dellinger and Lewis built another day and a half into the schedule to be in the Paramount for teching Carousel.
All the lessons that Dellinger and Lewis learn from TexARTS' third production won't be apparent until the show has closed, but one thing is clear: Following through on Lesson 3 from The Music Man is definitely positive. For the first time, Dellinger and Lewis are not "running around doing everything," as Lewis says. He isn't choreographing the show or pulling costumes, and Dellinger isn't helping to stage the show or getting the props together. They have an experienced director (internationally renowned opera director Brad Dalton, known locally for staging A Streetcar Named Desire for Austin Lyric Opera), a Broadway choreographer (Ginger Thatcher, who was dance supervisor for the Carousel revival at Lincoln Center in New York), a star with musical theatre in his blood (Patrick Cassidy, from 42nd Street on Broadway and the son of Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy), and a strong production design and stage management team.
"This week, as the team came together and the process started, we realized, We don't have to be here every minute," says Dellinger. "For Big River, we would be setting up the props, and every night we had to clear everything out of the space. And we were doing all that and the costumes and the advertising and the fundraising and everything. This is different. It's still very stressful, but it's different. We don't spend every night here. We just let them do what they do and drop in occasionally. It's refreshing."
With the breathing space they've gained by acting on what they've learned from their first productions, Lewis and Dellinger are already able to be looking at their next show, eight months down the line. "We've gained time with each project," says Dellinger. "Music Man, we just barreled into it. Big River, we had a little more time. It was a funky time because it was over the holidays and stuff, but we had more advance prep work, and we were a little more knowledgeable of how it was going to work once we got there. With Carousel, we had much more lead-in time, and that was helpful. I was able to get a little more behind the ball with fundraising and marketing and costumes. With Damn Yankees, we're able to plan that now, and we're on a season," which means a level of promotion and advance sales that TexARTS hasn't enjoyed up to this point but which could increase the size of their audience substantially. As far as staffing for the show goes, Dellinger and Lewis expect to be in much better shape for that show than any of these three, and they might even be able to move their base of operations out of their kitchen and into a real studio space.
Will that qualify as grabbing the brass ring? It may be too soon to say, but it certainly goes to show how much closer you can come if you learn a little bit from each pass of the carousel.
TexARTS presents a concert version of Carousel on June 22-23, Friday-Saturday, 7:30pm, at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. For more information, call 866/443-8849 or visit www.tex-arts.org.