Audiences always seem delighted when an actor proves to be more than a one-trick pony. They're especially enchanted when a performer can act, sing, dance... and play a musical instrument. Or two. How do these quadruple-threat wunderkinds integrate their musicianship with their acting skills?
The actors I talked to-two pianists, a guitarist, and a violist-were musicians before they were actors, except for concert pianist/composer Hershey Felder, who started both simultaneously. All four have been playing instruments for most of their lives.
First, a word about casting: If you play an instrument, you've got a leg up in the business. Accomplished musician/actors are rare enough that Dennis Jones, director of Pump Boys & Dinettes, which just closed at Sierra Repertory Theatre in Sonora, had to go to New York to find an actor/pianist, John C. Brown. Jones also had to cancel a planned production of Swingtime Canteen when he couldn't find enough women for the all-female band.
JV Mercanti, casting associate at the Roundabout Theatre in New York, where Cabaret originated, said casting replacements is an ongoing challenge. Auditioners are judged as musicians first, but ultimately, said Mercanti, "They've got to be a killer in every category," which includes song and dance. (They also have to look right for Weimar-era Germany.)
Of course, getting a good role is never a shoo-in. In the touring company of Cabaret, Shana Mahoney, who plays both viola (her first instrument) and violin as a member of the Kit Kat Club Band, went through five grueling auditions. "In between callbacks, I'd take lessons, dragging my instruments on the subway," she said. She noted that among the show's cast are a couple of "core musicians," but most are actors who are proficient, having played their whole lives off and on. A few, though, dug out their instruments and dusted them off for the audition. "A stringed instrument," she noted, "is harder to pick up just for a show; it requires more consistent discipline."
TWO FOR ONE
So what exactly is the mental process that actors use to segue organically from dialogue to instrument-playing and back again?
"It's almost like having to learn two shows," said John C. Brown. "The music needs its own separate rehearsal process in my brain until I get comfortable enough to just play it." Before rehearsals commenced, he familiarized himself with the Pump Boys album. Once rehearsals started, he created personal connections for himself in his role as L.M., the "sexy, bookish one." He envisioned his piano as a rolltop desk, with little index cards for his chord symbols (in Pump Boys only the chords are set) and a picture of Dolly Parton on his desk/piano because he sang a song about her.
To make the transition from dialogue to piano-playing, he thought of an intention and he listened and allowed just the way he'd do in a straight role. "If somebody else is singing, I just become the band," he said. "If I'm singing [while playing], it's the same as if I were doing a monologue. I focus on the other actors and let them dictate the piano solo through my hands, just the way you'd deliver a line differently every night depending on how another actor is delivering lines to you."
Brown, who also played piano as Chico Marx in Animal Crackers, said there's a fine line you can find yourself bouncing back and forth across when rehearsing: "John C. Brown thinking about the notes you're playing vs. Chico Marx just doing it." If you're not in character as you start to play, you can suddenly find that "it becomes about the piano"-which, of course, you don't want. "When you're onstage as an actor with an instrument, it's not about technically executing the song correctly," he elaborated. "You do it just like you would as an actor-you look the other actor in the eye and tell the truth." In the case of Pump Boys, Brown conducted wordless dialogues with the other actor/musicians while playing: "We'd listen and look and play off each other as actors would, except our hands are our instruments."
Hershey Felder, who appears in his original solo play with music, George Gershwin Alone (at the Tiffany Theatre through June 25), said that he imagines scenes from Gershwin's life when performing, to identify with how Gershwin (who died in 1937) might have felt as he composed and played. "Suddenly it's like his ghost appears to me. Not that I'm bringing his ghost to life, but I start to feel, My God, there was a real life there. I'm doing exactly what he did, touching the same notes, feeling the same things." He noted, "Playing the piano as an actor, you can't let go of yourself too much, though, or you'll lose it-you have to maintain technique."
Felder of course is playing a real-life character who was in fact a pianist, so the sheer musicianship is important.
WHO PLUCKS THE STRINGS?
For Cabaret's Shana Mahoney, the task was somewhat different. She created a detailed backstory for her character, which she said was quite helpful and tends to evolve as the show continues. "I think of my character as coming from the countryside of Austria," she explained. "She studied violin and viola her whole life and left home for Berlin, lying to her parents and telling them she's working at the Berlin Symphony Orchestra." Her character's objective, she said, is simply to get through the night doing her job. Given circumstances: She's exhausted from having done eight shows already that night but needs the money. "Sometimes there are nights when I feel like that!" she laughed.
When guitarist Scott Waara appeared in The People Vs. Mona at Pasadena Playhouse, he entered an onstage world where everybody played instruments, in fact several. Waara himself played percussion as well as electric, acoustic, and slide guitar. "It was a conceit of the show," he said. "You forget about the fact that you play. It's just another action." It's a little different for him now, in South Coast Rep's The Education of Randy Newman (through July 2). He plays only one guitar piece, at the end of the first act.
I asked him how he went about playing the guitar not as Scott Waara but as his character, whom he describes as "Randy Newman-like." "Any guy that stands up and plays an instrument is expressing an extension of himself," said Waara, who's performed often with bands. "So in the context of this play I'm also expressing an extension of myself as this character. It's no different from any other kind of acting. You just happen to be playing a guitar at the moment."
Mahoney pinpointed a difference in her style when playing her instruments in character in Cabaret. "I put the viola between my legs, wrap my arms around it seductively," she said. "When we play in the entr'acte, I'm stomping my feet, jumping up and down, spinning my instrument. Technically, though, it's how I really play it. Maybe just a little bouncier."
As for Felder, he said his own approach to the piano is traditional and classical. To play as Gershwin, he had to teach himself to be snappier. "The result is I'm not as self-indulgent," he observed. He also noted that he finds it easier to accept applause in character as Gershwin rather than in his own rather shy persona. However, he emphasized that he doesn't try to imitate Gershwin but rather to interpret him, to present Gershwin's passion for music through Hershey Felder's own sensibilities.
TRAIN WITHOUT A CONDUCTOR
What about the technical challenges that can arise when you add instrument-playing into an already demanding theatrical mix? Waara said The People Vs. Mona presented some obstacles. "No one's counting you in, no one's holding you together. In an ordinary band, you can turn around, signal each other, someone is kind of leading, calling tunes, changes, and tempos. Whereas if you're in a play, telling a story, everything's tightly scripted and you can't have any extraneous movement." There was also a learning curve; some of the cast members were musicians only, others were actor/musicians. Some actually learned an instrument for the play (although they all had some musical background). During rehearsal, people would jokingly yell for chord instead of line.
Ultimately, said Waara, you "can't be thinking about your playing. I think a great musician is thinking not about his playing but about what he's trying to communicate. You can't be thinking about where your hands are going. But that's the same as any prop-when you're pouring coffee onstage, you're not thinking about the coffee."
The catch is that you don't have to train and practice to pour coffee. Mahoney shows up every night at 5:45 to rosin her bows, tune both instruments, and warm up her fingers before going on to physical and vocal warm-ups. She also practices at least 15 minutes a day. Waara ran scales every night for Mona. "Playing an instrument adds to the tension," he conceded. "I'd come home and start practicing for another hour and a half during the rehearsal period. Once you get it in your fingers, you can begin to loosen up a little bit."
Does the acting suffer when you're concentrating so hard on your playing? "It might have arced a little later than it would have otherwise," said Waara. "But it was worth it."
Indeed, all agreed that playing an instrument while acting is terrifically fun and challenging. "I look forward to playing my instruments more than to the dancing and singing lately," said Mahoney. She hypothesized that's because she's growing more artistically from playing and practicing so much, "whereas with singing and dancing I'm already at a certain level." She added, "It's so gratifying, artistically, to have so many things to focus on. You never get bored."
Musing on his role as Gershwin, Felder summed it up: "Music is the expression after you've finished making your point in dialogue. It's an explosion of the feeling." How do you make it happen? "You work and work, you get every affectation out of the way, and just tell the truth. The audience doesn't want to see you "performing.'" BSW