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A Wonderful Noise: A Musical By Michael Hollinger and Vance Lehmkuhl

June 16, 2016

I had the privilege of Music Directing a delightful new musical by Michael Hollinger and Vance Lehmkuhl this past Spring at Villanova. Normally when I music direct a production, I do a long and exhaustive guide explaining the ins and outs of putting up the piece. Because this work is newer, and because I was heavily involved on the creative end of the production, I’m going to write this post a little differently. This lovely work deserves a wider audience and I’ll make a case for which kinds of companies could put it on. I also imagine some of you may be interested in the backstage process of putting on a new work like this, so I’m going to share what it was like to prepare to program the work, to rehearse it, and some of the process of orchestrating the music for the pit.

Michael Hollinger is a nationally known Philadelphia playwright with a reputation for writing very smart, carefully constructed plays full of humor and insight. He is a careful listener, an insightful teacher, and a witty and thoughtful conversationalist. His plays share these qualities. If you don’t know his work, you’re really missing out. I should also mention that he is a fine violist and a wonderful speaker about the process of writing a play.

Vance Lehmkuhl writes for the Philadelphia Daily News and is an expert on all things vegan. He is an exceptional and award winning cartoonist, sometime pop-band frontman, music enthusiast, and remarkable outside-the-box thinker. Kind, clever, and hilarious, Vance is the sort of fellow you want to be standing next to at a Vegan party.

These two really extraordinary men met and began collaborating at Oberlin College and have worked on a number of projects together. They wrote A Wonderful Noise as a collaborative effort. Michael wrote the book alone, but the story, score, and lyrics were a team project. The musical has won the Frederick Loewe award for Musical Theatre and the In The Spirit of America Award from the Barbara Barondess MacLean foundation, and it was produced very successfully at Creede Repertory Theatre in 2009.

I profile the authors here because the piece shares many of the qualities and interests of these two delightful and unusual men. A Wonderful Noise is a rarity for new musical theatre. The writers set out to write an un-ironic book show set in the 1940s, built around 9 young Americans “becoming the Greatest Generation”, as Hollinger put it once in a conversation with the cast. The musical is a love letter to classic musical theatre and barbershop harmony, but it also manages to tackle feminist issues, pacifism, and religious differences with warmth and humanity. The lyrics are fun, zany, and often very witty.

The plot revolves around two singing groups entering a barbershop competition in 1941: The Harmelodians, a traditional mens group, and Sweet Adeline, a girls harmony group trying to crash the competition dressed as men. The members of these two groups are locked in a musical and romantic rivalry which comes to a head at the competition itself. Meanwhile, the threat of war begins to cast a shadow that threatens them all.

The book scenes demonstrate Hollinger’s trademark deft storytelling touches, smart characterization, and perfectly seamless exposition, and the musical storytelling is ambitious and smart. It’s difficult to tell a story using period musical ideas without descending quickly into characterless pastiche, but Hollinger and Lehmkuhl find ways to be authentic to the tone of the period that are infused with a personal and zany voice that feels really original. I’d like to single out nine numbers for special mention:

All photos here are from the Villanova production directed by Harriet Power, and were taken by Paola Nogueras.

1. End of the Line

The opening number of the show takes place as both quartets arrive in Saint Louis. It’s a rousing kickoff that makes great use of the entire cast, both contrapuntally and as a full group. The accompaniment sets the mood of the period, the number quotes Chattanooga Choo Choo and briefly introduces a melody which will later be the major love theme of the show.

2. All for One

The men’s group is introduced in this lively march, which deftly quotes several classic songs to introduce the importance of Barbershop in the characters’ conception of comradeship, especially as it relates to World War I. This is also the first time we begin to hear snippets of real barbershop harmony, all of which is executed very authentically over the course of the piece.

3. Give A Girl A Chance

The ladies opening number is a rousing ensemble calling for greater opportunities for women. There are some deft Motown touches and comic moments that seemed very apt as we presented the musical during the Primary season in 2016. It’s a showstopper.

4. Turn The Clock/Corner of Your Heart

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A Wonderful Noise does some really smart and special storytelling in this arena: In a flashback it is revealed that Chip and Mae had been dating some time earlier. Chip had written a poem, which Mae had set to music as a surprise. When their relationship failed, each of them took the song back to their groups and arranged it for quartet, unbeknownst to the other. The audience gets to hear the material as originally presented, and also in two totally different arrangements, each of which shrewdly reveals the characters differing outlooks. (both musically, and in terms of what happened in the relationship) This use of music to reveal character is the mark of a well-made show.

We hear the men’s version of Turn The Clock in rehearsal, and it’s really fun to watch them fine tune their performance. It’s a straight up traditional barbershop ballad, with all the charm and detail we would hope for from the genre. The ladies version is a very subtle piece of writing for women, with some exquisite harmony and some word changes to show Mae’s thoughts on their breakup.

5. I Can Sing That

Agnes has a wonderful traditional showtune here, where she tells Pettigrew she can sing anything, and then does, including a Mongolian Yak Milking song. It brought down the house.

6. Act I Closer (Give and Take)

This sequence is really special. Snippets of barbershop are peppered through the final scene of the Act, which is a complicated game of one-upmanship. That scene rolls seamlessly into a really complex closing number, with touches of Music Man style speak-singing, fast close harmony, a catchy tune, scatting, a canon, and a wild 8 part counterpoint that barrels us to the act’s conclusion. It is quite difficult to learn; we needed to spend a lot of rehearsal time to get it into shape. But while the material is difficult, and there’s a lot going on, the storytelling is very strong and easy to follow, and it leaves us breathlessly right where we should be at an act break.

7. Ma Roney’s Daughter

This number is meant to be a little too off-color for the audience at the competition, but it’s very tame by today’s standards. (which is part of the joke) This is easily the funniest barbershop number I’ve ever heard. Barbershop groups should really be doing this outside the context of the show. I won’t spoil the jokes for you, except to say that the song is about the charms of dating and marrying a woman with a wooden leg. The barbershop writing is really exceptional, and it’s beautifully paced. Another show-stopper.

8. Chit Chat

A really fun number with wonderful wordplay and a great swing dance break for two guys.

9. Chin Up

This was a difficult number to learn, but it’s a wonderful toe-tapping audience pleaser with some hilarious lyrics, and a really fun all-sing for 6 characters. Picture a rousing Dixie style romp full of references to historical figures who failed and got back up again. (except some of them didn’t)

Those are just 9 of the numbers in this little jewel of a show. Many smaller companies often have difficulty tackling Golden Age musicals, with their large cast and orchestra sizes and budget breaking scenic needs. This musical taps into the same kind of nostalgia and good-clean fun you would expect from pre-1960s musicals, with a knowing nod to some relevant social issues and some modern touches. It also has the potential to resonate strongly with older audiences. But unlike shows like Oklahoma or Brigadoon, A Wonderful Noise would work best in a small house with a strong ensemble cast of good musicians (more on that later). If that describes your theatre, I would encourage you to look into this show. Audiences adore the barbershop quartet in The Music Man; this musical plays out the same joyous thrill over the course of an entire evening.

Behind the Scenes of the Villanova Production

Barbershop Workshop

In 2006, director Harriet Power headed a two week workshop at New Dramatists with the authors to develop and revise the piece, so in a sense, our production was a reunion of a creative team that had originally done a lot of the work of perfecting the show. I was the new kid on the block with this piece, but they brought me up to speed in a hurry.

We began talking about the production a year in advance. Because of the complicated a cappella writing throughout, we wanted to make sure we had the kind of singers to pull off the score well. We held a workshop on Barbershop/Sweet Adelines singing on campus to explore the interest and abilities of our student body. Michael, Vance, and Harriet joined me as I gave a brief talk about Barbershop Singing, its history and practice. Then we did a warmup and I quickly separated the singers into 4 parts based on range. Then I took the ladies, Michael, Vance, and Harriet took the men, and we quickly taught them a passage of traditional barbershop. If you’ve ever done any barbershop style singing, you know that the highest part and the bass part are not generally very difficult to hear, that the melody is in the second voice from the top, (called the lead) and that the second to lowest voice (or baritone) is often punishingly difficult, because it threads in and out over the melody note to fill in whatever note in the chord isn’t covered by the other three voices. It’s best to teach this kind of music a part at a time, combining voices in different pairings until everyone knows what’s happening relative to the other parts. If you’re paying close attention as you teach the parts, you can easily discover who has a good enough ear to carry the part, who has potential, and who really can’t do it. There are many fine singers who can’t negotiate these kinds of interior parts. When we had taught a passage, we split up into solo quartets and tried it without the piano to help. Then, at the end of an hour or so, we all came back together and sang our selections as a group to each other. Like most colleges these days, Villanova has a very strong a cappella scene, so many of these singers had experience with a cappella music, but not much familiarity with barbershop, and as with most people, they were surprised at how fun and challenging it was! The creative team decided it would indeed be possible to mount the show, but we’d need to spend a lot of time making sure we cast the right people, and we confirmed the suspicion that we’d plenty of rehearsal time to get a collegiate cast where they needed to be. Villanova acquitted itself well.

The semester before auditions, I designed and taught an undergraduate course about a cappella singing; how to arrange for vocal ensembles, basic vocal and rehearsal techniques, auditioning and organizational ideas, etc. It was built to support the student a cappella community at Villanova, which is very strong, but it also gave me a chance to get my own head around the issues involved. The class was such fun, we’re repeating it this coming year.

Preparations

The show had two public readings and a full production with piano before we got to it, but this was going to be the first time it would be performed with a pit orchestra. I was charged with the task of writing the orchestrations. The summer before the production, I met with Michael and Vance over vegan snacks and coffee, and we carefully went over how I was going to build the band parts. It was important to me that we have a small pit, in the same scale as the cast, firstly because Villanova’s performance space isn’t enormous, and secondly because I wanted future productions to be able to hire the entire instrumentation without having to cut anything for budgetary reasons. The show needed a swing feeling, so we opted for Piano, Bass, Drums, two reeds, (doubling between them flute, piccolo, clarinets, alto, tenor, and bari saxes) a trumpet and a trombone.

As I began orchestrating, I listened to a lot of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, and of course Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Count Basie. I discovered the challenge was to recreate the sound of the swing era without a full compliment of reeds to play against a full compliment of brass. In a big band arrangement, the trumpets usually play together, the saxes play something else, and the trombones yet a third thing, mostly as sections, antiphonally. You can’t really do that with only one trumpet, one trombone, and 2 reeds. That instrumentation is better suited to a dixieland style. However, I found that you can get some of the same feel even with a reduced orchestra if you’re clever. When the alto sax is on top of a chord voicing and the tenor is on the bottom, with the trombone in the middle, you can get a decent sax section clone. (although it gives the trombone a workout) When the trumpet is on top, the trombone on the bottom, and the alto in the middle, you get a kind of brassy trumpety sort of sound, and when you put the tenor sax in unison with the trombone, you can fake that kind of trombone section all-play sound fairly well. There’s a charming duet in the second act between the Jewish member of the mens group where he attempts to court a girl in the other group who is pretending to be Jewish and failing. Writing the quirky klezmer clarinet was a lot of fun, and I found other places in the score to write Gene Krupa style toms, soulful bluesy sax, marching band piccolo obbligato, dixieland trombone, and motown bari sax. It was really a blast to put together the pit.

As I finished first drafts of each of the numbers, I’d send them to the authors, and they’d return notes to me that were really helpful, clarifying what they intended dramatically, and I worked to clarify my work to reflect their intentions. It was delightful to have such an inside look at how the authors wanted their material performed, and I felt much better prepared to start the production.

Auditions

Our audition process was very specialized and comprehensive. We heard the normal song selection of classic musical theatre and a monologue, and I did a range check. Then I did two ear-training exercises; the traditional one, where I played a three note chord and  asked the actor to sing the middle pitch of the three. Again, an inability to hear that pitch doesn’t make a person a bad singer, but for a show like this, you need really fine ears. If we got a good result there, I put the actors through a really unreasonable test: I played My Country Tis Of Thee with them, then asked them to sing it in the same key they just sang it in, while I accompanied them in another key entirely. By the time we got through that gauntlet, the audition committee and I had a fairly good idea  of who was going to be a possibility for the two quartets. Of that group, we separated the voice types, particularly looking for the highest and lowest parts. This style of singing requires a very strong, clear bass, and a light, floaty high tenor. The singers best at putting over a song should go to the Lead, and the best ear should go to the Baritone. (second from the bottom) This distribution is also true of the ladies group. Of course, the authors and directors also had strong ideas about who would suit the roles best, which figured into our callback plans as well.

For the callbacks, I had isolated brief sections of the more difficult moments in the solo and duet numbers to be sure our actors were capable of the harder non-group moments. We also taught 4-8 measures of the a cappella music for the men and another set for the women. The big moment in the evening was the counterpoint section of Give and Take. We taught the large group of actors the parts based on their ranges, then split them into groups of eight (4 men, 4 women) and heard them carry their parts on their own. After this process, we had a short list of who was able to do the heavy lifting in terms of the a cappella music. I relayed my thoughts to the rest of the team, they contributed their own observations, and we continued with scene work to get enough information to cast the show.

Rehearsals

Once we had decided on a cast, we scheduled a number of early rehearsals, where we began with the most difficult ensemble music. These rehearsals were spaced a week or two apart, so that there was time for people to leisurely run things on their own between our rehearsals.  We recorded MP3 files which we uploaded to a dropbox for the use of cast members. Our goal was to hit the ground running when our rehearsals began. I had a wonderful Assistant Music director in Lexi Schreiber, who was able to share some of the duties of rehearsing the two groups, take notes, and bring another set of great ears to the table. A true Barbershop group directs itself and feels its own pulse. Our goal was to get the groups to be able to rehearse on their own as soon as possible. I’m happy to say that by the end of the rehearsal period, we did get there, and the Music Directors were eventually not needed in the room for these groups to get fine work done on their own. In the show, the a cappella numbers are led by the groups themselves, not by the conductor.

The creative team met early to plan our rehearsals over a plate of vegan brownies. After we had plotted our rehearsal time, we went carefully through the script to find where the scene changes would go. We had a great time trying to locate the right mood for these scene changes, and deciding whether each scene change would button up the scene that had just ended or instead lead us into the next number. We then planned on a mood and chose which songs from the show would be quoted in each scene change. I would ultimately write these scene changes during rehearsal breaks. Since the orchestra needs to be generally subdued when singers are involved, and since the musical has numbers without orchestra at all, these scene changes proved a great place to let the band really shine. The creative team gave me free rein to do as I chose with the bows, so I elaborated a full big band style medley of the numbers we only hear for a few measures.

Our regular rehearsals began about 6 weeks ahead of our opening night and we started with a very strong push to learn all the music. We were fortunate to have the authors in the rehearsal room many times, and we clarified passages based on what we heard. The materials had been in various forms, from the original readings and from the earlier production, so we agreed on a standardized format, and I edited the parts to match one another and for clarity. We also expanded several of the dance breaks and rewrote some harmony passages for easier execution. I time stamped each revision on every page, so that we could easily see whether we were using the most up-to-date versions of the music. I found when I was in rehearsal, I was in a much better position to finish the orchestrations intelligently, knowing more where the difficulties in the score were, and what the cast would need to hear to do their best work. My AMD and I had a great time working subtle musical references into the orchestra. I was pretty far behind, but a snow day allowed me to catch up and finish that part of the work. The parts were extracted and sent as pdfs to the musicians, and I began to build a new piano vocal score that cued the orchestra in to use during performances.

Tech and Preshow

Our sitzprobe was the first time anyone had heard the orchestrations. For the most part, they went off without a hitch, although there were some revisions needed. Harriet Power is well known for really tight transitions, so we needed to trim a lot of the scene changes down to just a few measures, and one wound up needing to be rewritten completely the day before we opened. I found I really enjoyed knowing exactly how long each scene change needed to be! The scene changes as I wrote them are still in the score, so future productions can take the time they may need to transition without vamping endlessly. I tried to hire musicians I knew would play well at sight, but who would also share their honest opinions about the writing. Several of the players I hired are also professional composers and arrangers. Their feedback was extremely helpful. One of my players was using an Ipad, which worked well, except when revisions made it necessary to re-assemble a full PDF of the part, and I realized I need to find a way of doing that more efficiently than I had been.

Many shows have a ‘fight call’ for various physical actions on stage that may be dangerous. Lexi, my assistant MD and I developed a ‘musical fight call’ that we used before the show to keep the difficult parts running smoothly. There is a part right before the first act finale where two brief numbers need to begin without a pitch being played. they begin with one character singing, but we took to starting those numbers randomly out of the blue just to be sure we could do it. The complicated counterpoint passages also got special nightly attention. But we found once we had really internalized them, they became some of the easier moments in the show.

Closing Thoughts

It was a true joy and a fine challenge to work with such gifted collaborators on new material, and I do hope that my readership will give some thought to including A Wonderful Noise in future seasons. Your audience will thank you. I also hope that smaller companies (even school companies) will consider the possibility of commissioning or putting on new work. The licensing fees one normally pays for a musical everyone has seen dozens of times could go a long way toward bringing something new and original into the world.

For More information about A Wonderful Noise please contact: michael.hollinger@villanova.edu

 

 

 

 

 

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