On September 18, I received an email from my friend and long-time musical collaborator Tony Rogers. The subject was “distant early warning,” probably in reference to an obscure Rush song because that’s how we roll, and it said, in part:
On December 7, I’m directing the Leo Burnett Breakfast for the second year in a row. It’s a huge deal for the company, a live show in front of about 2000 people, this year at the Chicago Theater. They’re a pretty loose crowd, the show starts at 10am (runs for about 60-75 minutes) and a fair amount of people start drinking hours before the show.
It’s usually lots of executive speeches and awards with funny videos interspersed, but last year I blew the format up and this year I’m blowing it up again by making the whole thing a rock opera. Not a musical, an opera. So I’ll need a great band (a paid gig of course) and I’d love you to be my lynchpin. It will require advance work of course; I’m writing the music now, arranging, casting, choreography, etc. etc. will be in October, and then some rehearsals in November.
Interested? I really hope so. It’s going to be insane.
My nearly immediate reply: “Totally! I’m in for whatever you need.”
I truly had no idea what I had just signed up for.
I was still gainfully employed at the time, though I had just given my notice so I figured I’d have some free time for this. I mean, all I really had planned for October and November was to try to build a clubhouse for the kids, and I thought arranging some music would be a nice diversion for a few evenings or days when the weather was no good for construction.
My last day of work was September 28. And for about a week after that, everything went as I’d expected. I started designing the clubhouse, slept, lazed around, ran some errands, took care of some medical appointments, and lived a leisurely existence while slowly beginning to decompress from twelve incomprehensibly stressful years managing high-speed trading systems and the developers who build them. Tony and I traded emails and talked in person a bit during that time, as we were also preparing for our yearlyish reunion show for The Good. It was beginning to become clear to me during this period that I’d maybe signed up for a bit more work than I thought.
I’d originally believed I’d be arranging a few songs between executive speeches and Powerpoint presentations, but it was becoming apparent that when he’d said a 60-75 minute rock opera, that’s exactly what he meant. On October 14, the morning after our Good gig, he emailed me the full demo and the script. The demo was a ~45 minute MP3 file of over 20 concatenated songs, each ranging from 40 seconds to 4 minutes long. Many still needed to be fleshed out, as the executive speeches that were to be delivered over the music were still being written and approved. The script was a 35-page Word doc, single spaced. My mission was to turn these two files into full orchestral arrangements for piano, guitar, bass, drums, 2 trumpets, trombone, 2 violins, and cello. The vocal arrangements would be done by someone else, and I’d also be responsible for incorporating his work into the master score, and then ultimately generating all the parts for all the musicians and singers.
That was the exact moment I realized I’d signed my entire life away for the next month and a half. The clubhouse was going to have to wait until the spring thaw.
The first order of business would be to acquire and learn how to use some kind of professional notation software. There are two of note (heh): Finale and Sibelius. After about 3 minutes of googling and a quick conversation with an old friend who is a high school band director, I chose Finale. I soon came to loathe this software while at the same time holding immense respect for its power. I’ve learned you can draw an analogy with personal computing or phone operating systems: Finale is like Windows or Android, and Sibelius is like OS/X or iOS. You can do pretty much anything and everything in Finale, though sometimes awkwardly and in unwieldy ways, and you may be sorry you did it one way over another. Sibelius “just works” but sometimes you run into a wall where something you need isn’t really possible. For the work I did, it seems unlikely I’d have hit that wall, but by the time I realized this, it was already way too late to second-guess myself.
That’d be a theme which emerged again and again throughout the project: don’t think too much. Decide, move on, come back later and fix if needed and if time permits.
So I bought Finale—ouch, but it’s deductible since I’m a professional arranger now—and spent a day playing with it to get the basics, and then sat, agape and distraught, at the supermassive black hole of work before me, sucking me in, compressing me into the inescapable nothingness of its event horizon. How to break this down? You’ve seen the spreadsheet. I started by creating skeleton Finale files for the 23 songs I had at the time. The 24th, the overture, would be composed by me after the other 23 were done. After the skeletons, I’d do the actual arranging of horns and strings, then add the vocals. The last step would be generating the individual parts. Apps like Finale are made for this, exactly the right tool for the job.
But just creating these skeleton files and putting in the basic chords, rehearsal marks, tempo changes, etc. took nearly a week, and I hadn’t even really started the hard part yet. My work days would start at 8:00am when the kids left for school, and I’d work more-or-less straight through until I went to bed. Some days I wouldn’t shower. I ate terribly—one day I found I’d eaten most of a box of Cheez-Its and four Diet Cokes before lunch. The gym was a long forgotten rumor. I slept badly, thinking only of the massive amount of work before me. When I did sleep, my dreams were typeset in Broadway Copyist Text Extended. Deadlines were out there, and even though the dates were still weeks away, they loomed like valley fog, everywhere, obscuring everything else. I had to deliver the vocal arrangements by November 21 and the instrumental parts a week after that. There could be no slippage. Actors were being cast and musicians were contracted. The venue was booked, production meetings had started, huge checks were already written, and the whole thing would fall apart if I didn’t deliver these books on time. They would have no time to find someone else to fix it if I should fail. This was the most stressful thing I had ever signed up for.
A few words on those vocal arrangements. Tony had asked another guy, the incredibly brilliant and talented Stephen Alltop, to create them. They’d worked together before. Unfortunately, it took a while for Stephen, Tony, and me to find a method to communicate that worked well. We wasted time we couldn’t afford. I’d finished the skeletons and rhythm parts, and had started on the horn and string arrangements while waiting for the vocals. At one point, I had no more to do, and waiting like that, I could almost hear the clock ticking. Part of the fun here, too, was that Stephen didn’t use Finale…he and his wife wrote out the vocal parts longhand and emailed scans to me. I had to transcribe it all into the application, a grueling, error-prone, time-burning process.
Other pressures started to creep in. The executive producers were looking to reduce the budget and Tony texted me to ask if we could do without the horns. This was after I’d already spent maybe 30 hours creating horn arrangements. I remember being at the Art Institute for a class that day and having to leave because this news made me physically ill. This was when I pulled the first of a couple of prima donna moves which, in retrospect, I’m not super proud of, but I was under a lot of stress and wasn’t myself. I told him they had to find that fucking money somewhere else. I already wrote these horn parts and god dammit there were going to be horns. I offered my own pay to be redirected to them if needed. Tony understood and pushed back against the money guys, and yes, there were going to be horns. And I’d still get paid, too, though at this point my hourly wage was probably not much more than I could have scored at McDonald’s.
Real life pressure was there, too. It was during this period that I missed Sharon’s birthday party, among other important family events. My Husband and Father of the Year trophies will have to be given to the runners up for 2012. Jake had another health incident, and I will confess that my first thought was “I don’t have time for you to die right now, dog.” Fortunately (in all ways) he didn’t. He’s over there burping up his breakfast right now.
Miraculously, somehow, it all came together. I got the last vocal piece from Stephen the night before the book was due. I delivered the vocal score and the master score including the instrumental parts on time. There was a horrible moment when, basking in my doneness, the Universe reminded me who’s boss, and Tony and Linda Madonia (the amazingly talented music director) sent me a bunch of changes. They were ultimately minor edits, but I was so sick of Finale and, frankly, the project as a whole, that I was bitchier about it than was appropriate. But I should know, that’s life in musical theater: songs need to be stretched or cut to adjust to stage cues, keys need to be changed for vocalists, etc. Even after I delivered all these final “final” versions, plenty more changes were made in rehearsals, right on the stage. The instrumentalists’ books are filled with their graffiti.
Overall, I am mostly satisfied with that part of the effort. I did make a key mistake: Finale has several high quality sampled instruments that you can use to play back your compositions while you’re working on them. And for the string parts I wrote, I chose the playback samples to be entire string sections, rich and thick, instead of the individual players that I’d have in the production. So I ended up writing parts that sounded great with several dozen sampled players, but pretty thin when it was only 3 actual humans, even though they were virtuoso players. I’d do that differently. I’d also spend more time cleaning up the rhythm parts before handing them out, but that was more a function of the calendar than anything else.
Once I put my Arranger pen down for good, I transitioned back into the role of Musician where I’m a lot more comfortable. Linda had been working with the vocalists for a week when the rhythm section met for the first time, rehearsing upstairs at the Porchlight Music Theatre. The theater company was acting as a subcontractor to the production, and it was they who found the acting, musical, technical, and directing talent. The four of us went through the book that night, and that was the first time I’d heard live players working on the music that up until that point had only been realized on Tony’s rough demo or by the mechanical playback of Finale. That was a huge confidence booster: the parts I’d generated, while imperfect, were usable. I didn’t specify much for the rhythm section, mostly just giving slash notation and showing accents where needed. They got it immediately. After that first rehearsal I was feeling really good about the book, and I’d not yet heard vocalists or the horns and strings.
The schedule was extremely tight from here. That first rhythm section rehearsal was only ten days before the show. The rest of that week was more vocalist work and production stuff at the theater (props, sets, costumes, lights, etc.). There wasn’t a lot for me to do in this period except to field occasional questions about the score and make some small changes. I couldn’t handle a lot more than that, deep in the throes of PTSD as I was.
On Monday last week, we had our first full rehearsal of the whole orchestra. I barely slept the night before. I had heard that the vocal arrangements were sounding good, and that rhythm section rehearsal was great, but how would it all work together? And were the instrumental parts OK? Tony had approved the Finale-generated demos of everything I’d done, but this was really going to be the test of my success or failure on this project. After sitting in front of that computer for maybe 200 hours, the next five would reveal whether it had been worth it or not.
We met at a recording studio in the city. Tony wanted to try to get an archival recording since there would only be one performance (!) and he understandably wanted to have something tangible. But union rules and the contracts stipulate very different rates for recording vs rehearsing, so the session amounted to a live rehearsal with open mics. It had to. As soon as someone says, “let’s take that again to fix those string pitches,” it’s no longer a Rehearsal, it’s now a Recording, and that’s a Totally Different Deal. I found that day to be especially frustrating. We had so little rehearsal time, I wanted to focus on just that—rehearsing. I wanted to hear the parts I’d arranged, not be stressing out about mic placements and tempos. Somehow we made it through that rehearsal without me really knowing how the strings sounded. The horns were hard to miss since they were a foot from my head…sounded good, actually. The rest of it, who knows. I was starting to wonder then if maybe my mistake in previewing a whole section vs. individual parts was killing me. I did see Linda smile a few times when some of the string features played, so that was good. I think. I dunno.
That was four days before the production. Two days before the production, we had the first full rehearsal with the cast. Rehearsal was on stage at the venue, the historic Chicago Theater. I got completely swept up in the energy of the place. After walking through the stage door, you see that every square inch of the the backstage walls are covered with stagebills of all the shows that have run there, and signatures of the casts and crews. All the way up the stairs to the dressing rooms and downstairs to the work spaces and orchestra room, every square inch, covered in history. I’m an idiot for not getting pictures of that.
The monitor engineer handed me a wireless pack and in-ear buds, partly for monitoring the music, but mostly for the stage direction cues. Wild stuff, hearing the stage manager, director, prop master, and all the technical banter that goes on. They were still choreographing and blocking the show at that point while we did our runthroughs. Efficient, where by “efficient” I really mean “insane.”
The cast had two male leads. “Paul” is a first year employee who was overwhelmed by the idea of walking into a rock opera instead of the usual company breakfast, and “Leo,” the man himself, who it turns out has been cryogenically frozen. They bring him out from time to time to provide guidance. But, through the course of the show, it becomes clear that they don’t really need him in that way any longer since the company is doing so well. The last big production number is “Leave My Name On The Door,” where Leo sends them off, telling them what a great job they’re doing living up to his name, etc. You know how company meetings are. There’s rah-rah stuff. But this felt genuine. I felt myself thinking I’d like to work at a place where this sort of thing was the norm. One of the execs was saying something similar at the after party, about how this is an indicator of company culture. A little different than the trading industry.
Besides the two leads, there was a chorus of ten Equity professionals, men and women, incredible singers and dancers and actors. We were lucky to find such talent available during the busy holiday season when most of the actors in town are booked. There were also a dozen or so hand-picked employees in supporting roles, a kind of auxiliary chorus. They were the ones who’d sing the names of all the winners of the various awards that the company was handing out. They were all surprisingly good for amateurs. And the four executives whom Tony had somehow convinced to perform were really game. I had to hand it to a group like that, big shooters, but not taking themselves so seriously. One of them actually sang a lead in a big rock number, fairly credibly, I might add. Hard to imagine a C-level officer doing that anywhere I’ve ever worked.
So there we were on stage, cast and orchestra together for the first time, less than 48 hours before curtain. The first song after the overture, “Brain Surgery,” is a huge production number with the full chorus, dancing, props, awards, a lot of stagecraft. Start with a bang, right? At the top of the song, the whole chorus is singing in full harmony. They were facing us, and the sound of their voices parted what is left of my hair. I’ve been around some pretty powerful rock singers, but there is nothing like that belting Broadway style. Good lord, the power. They seemed to enjoy performing with/for the orchestra….it felt very vital, alive, breathing. We were feeding off each each other’s energy.
We got through most of the show, though with lots of stops and starts to fix things and work on transitions. Various union mandated breaks didn’t help, either. After the run-through was complete, they started working on tech and blocking. Tedious, takes forever. I hung around a little while to watch, but there was nothing really for me to do. The day ended and I still hadn’t heard the string parts clearly. I could have asked for more of them in my monitor mix, but that seemed gratuitous and it was more important for me to get the vocal cues and hear the drums and bass. Besides, even if the parts sucked, it was way, way too late to change them.
Dress rehearsal was Thursday, the day before. Turns out they’d stayed until 6:00 the night before teching and blocking but didn’t finish. We’d do a straight run of the show as dress, only stopping for major trainwrecks. After that, they’d have to finish tech and block, and if that sounds weird to do after the “dress rehearsal” then congratulations, you could have a future in theater, because yeah. No choice, though. Theater people call this kind of production an industrial…not public, custom for a company. Not uncommon. But it was during this that I pondered the other meaning of the word and how it applied to what I was seeing. This was industrial-grade stuff.
Good news—only one trainwreck, when a piece of scenery was lowered onto Leo’s cryogenic chamber when it should have been in front of it. Fortunately Leo was safe inside. The show was looking and sounding great, considering how quickly it was coming together, though of course there were still plenty of rough edges. I don’t think anyone was super confident it’d be flawless the next day. As I did the day before, I hung around after we were done to gawk. I mean, Hot Nurse costumes. But there was nothing for me to do. I tried to get a few pix of the theater, but I didn’t want to disrupt everyone with a flash so I didn’t get much that was great.
Finally, December 7th, a day whose infamy was already well established. I couldn’t sleep, finally getting out of bed at 5:30 to wander around in the dark and quietly freak. I don’t get nervous about performing, and I wasn’t really in this case, either. We were expecting around 2,000 in the house, and I’ve played bigger crowds. The real question for me was the arrangements. I still hadn’t heard the string parts in full. I’d heard some good things from some of the cast members and Leo people, and I know that in the crowd there might be a few dozen people, max, who’d even appreciate what an arrangement is. It wasn’t like the show was going to succeed or fail on my account, but it felt that way, because welcome to my head and the absurd pressure I am capable of putting on myself.
When I got there, they were still working on some staging issues. We were going to have a couple thousand people in the house in 30 minutes, many of them had been drinking since early that morning, and we were sorting out who’s going to stand where? OK, then. I put my monitor phones in and started listening to the tech chatter. It was like back in the day when you could listen to the pilot’s radio chatter on airplanes. It soothed me.
They worked out whatever could be worked out with a sort of understanding that the rest of it would have to be winged. The stage was cleared, the curtains closed, the house lights and music set. I could hear the crowd coming in on the other side of the curtain, and a voice over the PA exhorting them to sit down toward the front. I can’t imagine what they were thinking. Remember, the whole thing was top secret within the firm beyond those involved in the production. They would have had no earthly idea that a rock opera featuring singing feminine products was about to begin.
The countdown sounded in my ears. 10 minutes to curtain. Standby for curtain. A whole slew of technical directives about the house lights and music. “Standby for orchestra. Orchestra, go.” Linda raised her hands and brought us into the overture, which starts with a guitar solo. Hey, my arrangement, my prerogative, and dammit I was going to start by wailing. I think I earned it. As I was playing, the curtains open to reveal the house pretty much packed on the lower level. Too dark to see their faces, and I was concentrating anyway, but I have to believe the predominant attitude out there was “WTF?”
The show went off without any major hitches. No. It went much better than that; I think it was fucking spectacular. There’s a huge difference when you’re working with professionals like this, and when problems crop up, they improvise and solve so fluidly that only experts would even notice. The crowd laughed when they were supposed to, and there was big, raucous applause at the right spots. I haven’t heard any feedback yet, though I imagine it will be pretty positive. I think Tony’s year at work is pretty much made.
As soon as we finished the curtain call and the music ended, I got all emotional. So much work. So, so much work.
Afterward, their company party continued at the House of Blues, and they invited the cast and crew. There were some awkward moments there while I wandered around looking for someone I knew. Going to someone else’s company party is a strange experience. But I found the band and the older half of the cast and crew; the kids (and they are kids) were down dancing. The party was as extravagant as the rest, and I was delighted to find the DJ gave way to a Led Zeppelin tribute band. The only bummer was when I got an emergency text from Linda, who’d gone back to the theater to discover that her gear and mine had been moved into the alley and basically left there by the crew, who had to clear for whatever was going on there last night. We thought we had until 5 to get our stuff. It’s fortunate she got there when she did.
So, here I am, now, with this thing really and truly over, and other than writing a rambling, shambling 10K word thing about it on tumblr, I have no freaking idea what to do or feel. The following, at least, is true:
- I’m glad I did it. It was extremely satisfying to see it come together.
- But I don’t think I’d do this again, at least not without changes.
- But everything I’ve ever done with Tony has turned out amazing and I can’t imagine saying no next time.
- I’d love to work in musical theater but there’s just no way. I used to make that much in a week. Kids gotta eat.
- Being around driven, talented people is one of the best parts of my life.
- That part of my brain really needed a workout and I’m glad it got it.
- I desperately wish I could have heard those string parts at some point.
- I need to relax now.
I’d always thought I’d quit my job and chill until the first of the year before getting started on What Happens Next, but that was under the assumption that I wouldn’t spend 2/3 of that “down” time on a high stress project that actually wound me up tighter than I was when I left. It’s too soon to process that right now. Given the timing of it all, in many ways, today feels like my first day with no work, even though it’s been over two months since I walked out of that office.
I’m not deciding anything today, that’s for sure. I need to get back to work on the clubhouse before the weather really breaks, fix that stupid snowman, do some other stuff around here. I need to remember how to breathe.
Addendum: we got the word late today (8-Dec) that one of the execs liked it so much, he agreed to fund the completion of the recording. I will get to hear those strings after all.
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- janetisserlis said: yes. yes, yes, yes
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- steelopus said: ayfkmwts? you expect me to read this on my iPhone while on vacation? I hate you, dude. Instapapered for the flight home.
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- felistella said: You are a hero.
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- lafix said: I read this from bottom to top. WOW!
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