A Little More Night Music

Life has a funny way of rolling by, faster and faster.Recently, when the offer to do Endgame again presented itself to my husband after 31 years, we were stunned that the time had passed so quickly. It happened again this week as I sat at the edge of the orchestra pit at the Bing Theatre, listening to the first orchestra read of the score for USC School of Dramatic Arts’ production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “A Little Night Music,” (opening March 31, 2016, and running through Sunday, April 10, 2016.)

In April of 1991, a mere (gulp) 25 years ago, I had the privilege of Assistant Stage Managing on the Center Theatre production of “A Little Night Music”, presented at the James A. Doolittle Theatre during the second of four years when The Ahmanson housed “The Phantom of the Opera.” I was the 2nd Assistant Stage Manager to James T. McDermott (SM) and Mark Wright (PSM). The show was directed by Gordon Davidson, with Choreography by Onna White, and Vocal Staging by David Craig.

Lois Nettleton and John McMartin

Lois Nettleton and John McMartin, 1991 Photo by Craig Schwartz

The play’s rehearsals were thrilling – from the first day’s meet and greet in the Taper Annex Rehearsal Room A, where the illustrious cast assembled; Glynis Johns as Madame Armfeldt, Lois Nettleton as her daughter Desiree, John McMartin as the lawyer Frederik Egerman. There were a number of people in the cast with whom I had worked (again, the theatre’s incestuous cross-pollination at work): Michelle Nicastro, a soprano who I’d had the privilege of stage managing for in “Blame It On The Movies” at the Coast Playhouse, Teri Ralston and Robert Yacko, friends from my work on the S.T.A.G.E. Benefits. I had worked with Glynis Johns before, also on the second S.T.A.G.E. benefit exclusively dedicated to the work of Stephen Sondheim.

That particular cross-pollination was not my most shining moment as a neophyte stage manager. Recently having moved to Los Angeles, I met Susan Obrow, a local director and co-producer of the S.T.A.G.E. Benefits, by answering a Backstage West ad for a stage manager for a new comedy called “High Hopes.” From there, Susan had introduced me to director David Galligan, who asked me to ASM for the third annual S.T.A.G.E. Benefit, celebrating the songs of Stephen Sondheim (1987),  at the Variety Arts Center on 9th St. and Figueroa, in downtown L.A.. About a month before the actual performances, the PSM of the benefit withdrew and I was “promoted” to PSM. I was completely unprepared and unqualified for such a promotion, but my youthful folly engendered a conviction that I could easily learn-by-doing how to manage a show with 50 performers, including Glynis Johns and many other theatrical illuminati.

My most ignominious training moment happened the night of the sound checks, where, in my ignorance, I had scheduled everyone’s check in chronological order, rather than in order of theatrical gravitas. In addition, the sound checks started late and ran long, so we ended with Miss Johns’ mic check happening at 11:00PM and her leaving after the mic check at midnight;  on her way to the freeway, she drove the wrong way on 9th St. and ended up beaching her Mercedes on a median divider. This was before cell phones were in use, and well before the gentrification of South Park, so one can only imagine how unpleasant this episode was.

Stage managers earn their stripes of ignominy with blood, sweat and tears, and these are some of my hardest earned. The next day, first came the call from Glynis’ agent (who was also my husband’s agent); this was followed by an irate call from Glynis herself blaming me for poor directions away from the theatre (again, this was pre-GPS, so poor directions from a stage manager could be lethal). The director and I received both calls in the booth in the back of the Variety Arts Theatre;  by the end of the calls, we looked at each other and burst into tears. That’s when I learned the danger as a woman in a position of leadership of crying under duress. Hasn’t happened again, except maybe privately, like Holly Hunter in Broadcast News.  David and I were able to laugh about it years later, but that day it was mortifying. It’s still mortifying, but the distance and time have allowed us to recover.

I have many vivid memories of the 1991 production of A Little Night Music. The first day of rehearsal, Susan Obrow, (then an assistant to Gordon Davidson) and I talked in Rehearsal Room A about how we would greet Glynis. Glynis entered the room (this was 4 years after the infamous sound check night); as she approached us, looking first at me,  brow furrowing, turned toward Susan, we simultaneously made the decision to gaslight her.

Oh, Miss Johns, it is such a pleasure to meet you! I have been such a big fan of yours for years, we both gushed.

She had a befuddled look, caught between her brain’s associating us with some disastrous and pain-soaked midnight Mercedes memory and the visual of our two earnest, smiling faces selling that we were meeting her for the first time and were delighted about it. We never mentioned it again, and continued for the next 13 weeks through rehearsals and performances to maintain our fiction.

Glynis Johns as Madame Armfeldt

Polly Heard (Frederika) and Glynis Johns (Mme Armfeldt) in her Angel encrusted wheelchair. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Other moments rekindle my fondness for the experience – the moment when Glynis stopped a tech rehearsals to present Gordon Davidson, the director, with a gift of an angel (she was mildly and charmingly obsessed with them – the back of her wicker wheelchair was graced with them). She had originated the role of Desiree in 1973 in the original Broadway production to Hermione Gingold’s Mme Armfeldt, and was now playing the role at the Doolittle Theatre. I can’t remember why it was so important to give him the angel then, but I do remember the impact it had on our rehearsal timing that day.

Jimmie McDermott and I ran the deck. I was the Stage left ASM; that was the stage door and dressing room side; my position afforded me many opportunities to see human dynamics and foibles paralleled by those  Wheeler and Sondheim so deftly depict in the musical’s book and lyrics. There was at least one offstage affair; restraint prevents me from sharing the lurid details, but suffice it to say, my regular 15-minute call and collection of valuables should have cued these individuals to better time their assignation. It was heady stuff for a young stage manager, and I was so fortunate to learn from two masters of the stage management profession; Jimmie McDermott and Mark Wright demonstrated how to deal with a variety of situations.

One evening, at places, I stood by my music stand adjacent to the stairwell, awaiting the arrival of the cast for the prologue and waltz. The off-stage area was incredibly crowded with props – the full sized bed, the rolling hedges, and the I.A.T.S.E. stage hands standing by for the carefully choreographed opening and closing of the doors to the salon in Act I.

Robert Israel was the Scenic Designer; the Act I scenic design depicted a formal drawing room with symmetrical double doors and a metaphoric portrait foreshadowing the blue sky of the Act II country hovering over the mantlepiece in the center of the stage. At The end of Act I, the upstage drawing room walls flew out as the side walls pivoted out, revealing the blue sky of the upstage drop, during “A Weekend In The Country.” We affectionately called the painting over the mantle “the blue blob” and someone in made opening night t-shirts sporting the blue blob prominently on the back. (Was it me? I can’t remember). All other props were stashed in the wings, except the two roadsters, which were parked out back behind the Doolittle and brought in during Intermission, causing the house curtain to billow out into the house due to the air pressure from the front doors in the lobby being open.

But I digress. This one night at the places call, I stood at my music stand. Glynis entered the stage from her dressing room, and looking around left and right, she dramatically swooned, her body crumpling cautiously to the stage. I looked across the dark expanse at Les and Harold the crew members DS  and US of the door, stifled a giggle, then quickly alerted Jimmie and Mark  over the headset that Glynis had fallen, hurried to her side, taking her hand in mine. Mark was there in less than a minute, and grasping her hand, patted it rapidly, cooing reassuringly. Out of one side of his mouth –

Glynis, Glynis, are you all right?

while out of the other side,

Els, get Pat ready.

Pat was Glynis’ understudy and she was ready within about 5 minutes, rolling out onto the stage through the double doors in the angel-encrusted wheelchair for the opening scene between Grandmother and the young Fredrika.

These were all of the memories that rushed through my brain yesterday as I listened to the orchestra at USC playing through the charts under the excellent stewardship of Parmer Fuller, our musical director. The actors available to be at the theatre (not in class) were scattered;when their numbers came up in the rehearsal, they gravitated to the stage and sang through their numbers with the orchestra. Kelly Ward, our director and choreographer, jumped to the stage to the sides of the working actors, giving them notes about beats in the songs, and working out his own choreography over the lush charts.

At one point, stepping from the stage, he appeared at my side and said with an impish grin,

This is when it gets fun. The stakes are raised when the orchestra arrives!

Agreed. Now, twenty five years later, I am working as the Production Manager for this production, watching the fierce team of BFA Stage Managers figuring out the logistics of all the scene changes. Philip G. Allen, an up and coming sound engineer in 1991, learning at the elbow of Sound Designer, Jon Gottlieb; this time around, his sound design students are designing. So much history behind us, and so much history in front of them! They will have stories of their own to tell.

It’s an exciting time. Won’t you buy some tickets and come see their work?

9 thoughts on “A Little More Night Music

  1. wow, i could have read this all night. love your stories. such a big history of los angeles theatre, thanks els for keeping it alive.

  2. Els…… Glynis also blamed me for the wrong directions. I’m not sure she didn’t do it on purpose because she actually wanted one of us to drive her. I didn’t cry but told her her bad sense of direction had nothing to do with me! However famous, actors should not be allowed to get away being rude to stage management…… period.

  3. Els,

    Do you remember me?
    I can tell you that the Angel Glynis gave me still lives on the shoulder of my coat and that ALNM was one of the most amazing productions I was ever in.

    I was also the guy who switched out the pre show warm up tape for one with the Looney Tunes theme one night.

    • Hi, Bob! I was looking at your name and knowing I knew you but not having the time to research you again!! How nice to hear from you. It was an amazing production indeed. Lol loony tunes indeed…:) nice to reconnect!

      • Oddly enough, I just posted a bunch of production photos last Saturday in my Facebook page. Sadly, we lost Gordon Davidson a couple of days later. Nice to see you’re busy.

        Cheers,

        Bob Lauder

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