This week’s #TBT comes from Robbie Cowan, who music directed and orchestrated our 2012 production of Sweeney Todd, transforming the original thirty-piece orchestration into a five-piece chamber version. His work on the show was called “luminous” and “in the same class as the best of Ligeti, Part, and Adams,” and earned him a Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award nomination. Robbie also music directed our Triassic Parq this summer, and is currently the conductor and music director on the second national tour ofAnything Goes.
When I saw ROLT’s Tommy, I was impressed with the production values. A small, regional theatre with practically no outside funding put on a show whose spectacle rivaled that of most touring productions I was seeing come through town? I just couldn’t fathom how they managed.
A short time later, I found out first-hand. When I was asked to music direct Sweeney Todd, I was tasked with creating an orchestration that sounded as rich and full as audiences would expect but was made of only five players. How do you make five guys and a cast of sixteen sound like a thirty-piece orchestra with full chorus?
This scrappy theater company taught me the value in embracing your limitations. Instead of lamenting a lack of resources, you instead use those boundaries as creative inspiration. The director Ben Randle and I created an orchestral design that was intimate and kept people on the edge of their seats, where fewer players made for a more transparent interpretation of the score. At the end of the experience it wasn’t the reviews and accolades that I appreciated–it was the understanding that with the right people and the right attitude, almost anything is possible.
And just because we can’t resist, here’s Robbie “auditioning” for our production of Into the Woods last year:
When Jason Hoover asked me to contribute a “Throwback Thursday” for Ray of Light Theatre, I was happy to oblige. We met on their production of The Rocky Horror Show in 2008 and it remains among my favorite theatrical experiences. The only thing I knew about the company prior to that was the buzz from their production of “Bat Boy”, which was apparently incredible. Frank N. Furter is sort of the Hamlet of musical theatre roles for any actor with a hedonistic streak and a penchant for high heels, so I strapped mine on and auditioned at a Filipino community center at 10am in a full face of warpaint. Aside from Leanne Borghesi, who made her drag king debut as Eddie, I didn’t know a single person involved with the show, but many enduring friendships were about to be formed. ROLT had always wanted to produce RHS and the excitement was running high. Artistic director Shane Ray oversaw the show with vision, enthusiasm and impressive tact. Musical director Ben Prince and his kick-ass band brought the music to life. The cast was packed with extraordinary singers and after Cate Caplin had choreographed the show within an inch of its life, it ran like a scantily clad machine (gloriously underdressed by Mark Koss). The contribution of Dustin Snyder’s rock star lighting cannot be overstated. A former vaudeville house and intimate movie palace, the Victoria Theatre was the perfect venue. The crazy talented cast dove in and quickly made these iconic characters their own. I made my entrance five numbers in, but I was always in the wings in time for the opening number. The pyrotechnic vocals of our usherette trio never failed to produce goosebumps and listening to what the audience shouted out during “Science Fiction, Double Feature” would tell me who we were dealing with that night. Was the audience here to experience the play? Did they have fresh wisecracks to yell or had they learned their part from the participation album? Were they drunk? We got some of each. The call-outs were sometimes hilarious, often annoying. I had a bitchslap for the chatty ones early in the evening. Beyond that, the story took over and the train was just moving too fast. As Brad Majors, Jason must have had the worst of it. How many times can you be called asshole while you’re just trying to play your part? (Who knew this would be his last stage appearance with ROLT and he would soon be artistic director of the company?)
Though a longtime fan of the film and Richard O’Brien’s fantastic score, I gained a new appreciation for just how clever and economical the script is. The show dispenses with the obligatory applause that divides most musicals into predictable chunks, keeping the action moving at a fierce pace. Except for a moment in the middle of “Sweet Transvestite”, Frank is too busy dashing off to his next destination to wait for signs of approval. His second song is interrupted by the entrance of a motorcycle. He terminates the following song with a chainsaw. His floorshow is cut short by a ray gun. The message? Keep up people, this ride ain’t stopping until he’s “Going Home”! I compare being in The Rocky Horror Show to participating in a Nativity scene at Christmas. The archetypes are in place for a religious experience and most attendees arrive full of the spirit, ready for a catharsis. I have to admit I’ve learned more relevant life lessons from these characters than most found in the bible. Though the cross-dressing has largely lost its shock value since Tim Curry’s highly original and genuinely transgressive performance, quaintness does not diminish the message. Don’t dream it, BE it. The character is now about as easy to reinvent as Santa Claus or Stanley Kowalski, but it demands to be revisited. I’ve seen many productions of the play and the best ones honor the traditions, while making the interpretation feel personal. Looking into the faces of these sexy, hilarious people I was sharing the stage with, the “classic” line readings went out the window as we talked to each other. The spell was cast and it felt like it was happening for the first time. I didn’t go out of my way to be shocking. I just meant to relish every operatic gesture, chasing every shiny object in sight and expecting constant gratification. Gloria Swanson when it suited me, a lumbering dude in underwear when it didn’t. Here is a self-absorbed Dionysus whose passion is so contagious that those burned by coming too close don’t seem to regret the experience. Of course, Eddie isn’t available for comment and those insubordinate servants have gone to a distant planet.
Since our production, I’ve become friends with original cast member Patricia Quinn, who has indulged my every nerdy question about the show’s genesis and phenomenon. I agree with her that the spirit of the delivery should always be earnest, never vulgar. Despite the elaborate sexual subtext, the show is a surprisingly kid-friendly romp with B-movie inspirations and high-stakes. Garter belts or not; the gun is still THE GUN! For me, the show is ruined when Brad and Janet are played like idiots. This is a comedy of manners. How does one behave correctly in the laboratory of a transvestite scientist? And how can you not love a play that answers existential angst with “don’t get hot and flustered, use a bit of mustard”? This followed by a dose of mystery substance, which incapacitates its target with pleasure. In our show, Kit Farrell as Columbia managed a two-minute orgiastic exit under its influence, which never failed to get a hearty round of applause. Waste not/want not, I ran a finger across the end of the “mustard” dispenser and rubbed it on my gums, which got a laugh. Then one night my nostril got close enough to the barrel of the futuristic looking device that our sound designer Sharon Boggs shot the gun off, sending it up my nose and me off on a trip of my own. I have never laughed that hard onstage before or since. We kept that bit.
Other cherished moments include sitting up in bed after the seduction scene with Janet and seeing a perfect imprint of my eyebrows left on Rebecca Pingree’s inner thighs. I guess we went there. I can’t forget Jessica Coker’s dry and exquisitely timed “How sentimental”. There was the night the “transit beam” in Riff Raff’s mutinous hands failed to go off at the appointed moment during the final scene. The silence was deafening. Manuel Caneri and I locked eyes, tried not to crack up and weighed the options. The play can’t end ‘til I’m dead! Just as I was about to remove a shoe and stick the stiletto through my heart so the curtain could come down, the zap came and down I went. The sound reminded him to point the gun at me. Now, I could die for hours and some nights I sort of did. I took my time crawling into the better light and arranging myself before my last gasp. Shameless. But wait, milkman’s on his way. Scott Gessford as Rocky then rolled UP a flight of stairs to die by my side. Son of a bitch.
There was a Goldstar review during our run from a patron who expressed their disappointment that the producers had cast an actual transvestite as Frank N. Furter. What the hell? Had I failed because I was believable? I knew going in that some people would never be happy with anyone in this part but it’s creator. And yet, it’s the role that most people want to play. I’m still thinking of things I wish I’d tried, but a great role is like that and art is never finished, it just stops in interesting places. And this company brought the experience to many interesting places. It was a dream come true and I’ll always be glad that Ray of Light trusted me with the part.
#TBT! Founding Artistic Director Shane Ray reminisces about ROLT’s 2005 production of Bat Boy, the show that redefined the company.
It was almost ten years ago. Ray of Light had just completed its fourth season with a critically acclaimed production of Grease (I think one critic saw it..and he liked it…very much!). The show had sold out. It wasn’t much of a surprise–we only ran for four performances and the cast included nearly 50 actors! That, and the fact that we were doing Grease, was a solid recipe for a sell-out performance!
To date, we had only produced “family theatre.” We had done You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, The Wizard of Oz, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat–your standard community theatre shows. We had a core group of performers and staff and it was expanding each year. The company’s name was beginning to be recognized. We were happy to be producing musical theatre in a city where that alone had been proven difficult to sustain. Still, we weren’t feeling fulfilled artistically. We had begun to build up enough of a base to make us feel confident about taking a risk with our next season: producing our next show at the Victoria Theatre in the Mission. The company started its first two seasons in an elementary school auditorium, and had moved to the theater at USF for the last two, so this was a much larger space than we had performed in previously. It was also about 20 times the rent we had previously paid (literally!).
We felt we needed to do a show that had a bit more edge than the shows we had previously done. Somehow, it didn’t seem that Oklahoma would play well at a theater in the heart of SF’s Mission District! We decided on Little Shop of Horrors. It wasn’t a big step away from the classic fare we had been producing but we thought that it had enough darkness that it would make for a good transition show. We set about casting the show and had even secured James Monroe Iglehart (now the Tony Award-winning Genie is Broadway’s Aladdin!) to play the plant. Then, we were hit with a bomb. The national tour was adding San Francisco to its run and our rights were immediately pulled. We were only a month away from starting rehearsals and we already had starting assembling a cast. We had to make a change quickly.
We started brainstorming options to replace Little Shop. James had previously appeared in Bat Boy in TheatreWorks, and the show had done well and there had been a lot of talk about bringing the show to San Francisco. It never came to fruition, even though it seemed like a perfect fit for San Francisco audiences. The content was similar and, conveniently, so was the cast breakdown. In what seemed like a matter of days, things began to take shape. We got the rights to Bat Boy, James moved from playing the plant in Little Shop to directing, and Eli Newsom moved from directing to starring as Bat Boy. Christy Newsom went from playing Audrey to playing Shelley Parker. Everything was falling in to place so perfectly that we barely had time to stress about the fact that we were about to do a largely unknown show in the largest theater that we had ever performed in. And it wasn’t a family show! Where was our audience going to come from? But, we felt really excited. It all just felt right.
The show was a huge success. Artistically, we started to form a true identity. It was also the beginning of our residency at the Victoria. And, most importantly, it was the beginning of Ray of Light being recognized as a leader in producing edgier musical theatre in San Francisco. The rest, as they say, is history.