Tuesday, May 13, 2014

42nd Street on Liberty Street: 'Young and Healthy'?

Dancers rehearsing, intrepid choreographer Alex Miller front and center.

This is the second installment of a week-long piece following a newbie's (my) initiation into musical theater, specifically community musical theater with Ann Arbor in Concert. Day One, "Audition," can be found here. Our show is at 8 p.m. this Saturday, May 17, at the Michigan Theater. Tickets are available here.

On the first Sunday of dance rehearsals, as if by script, our leading lady appeared about twenty minutes late with her arm in a sling.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry” she said, though everyone was chattering in alarm over her. “Don’t worry! The doctor said it will be fine for the show!”

I had met Grace, who plays the female lead Peggy, the Monday before at the informational meeting for the production. I recognized her last name, and it turns out she lives a few blocks from my parents’ house in Grosse Pointe, where Grace attends the same high school I did. (I didn’t know this at the time, but Grace would also go on to reliably steal my carrots during rehearsals and tell me I looked like Lady Edith from Downton Abbey, a comparison that she insists but that I cannot believe to be a compliment, especially after Grace herself showed up to one practice wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “I’m a Mary.” All this to demonstrate that Grace is sufficiently adorable and lovely and talented and charming to exhibit borderline sociopathic behavior--what? I said “borderline”--and still be generally loved by everyone.) Like a real pro, Grace/Peggy picked up the choreography--though perhaps not all of the “armography” (dreadful word)--and sang us through the first part of the finale, the eponymous "42nd Street," all while holding her forearm precariously against her body.

They’re not kidding about the show going on.

The first dance rehearsal was a relief after a very music-oriented business meeting. The singers and musicians all had books and music to pick up, though their first practice wouldn’t be until the end of April. The dancers, on the other hand, had our first rehearsal the following weekend; it was just that no one knew when or where. Or what shoes we needed. Or which numbers we were in. For all the emphasis on getting dancers into this concert production, it was beginning to seem like we would be an afterthought. Again: what had I signed up for?

The tone changed completely at the dance rehearsal: it was go time. Alex, himself in the middle of a Les Mis production, was bearded but inspired, and Eric accompanied the entire three-hour practice on the piano at Dance Theatre Studio on North University. Quinn and I rushed in from a rehearsal with our other tap group, where we had been teaching earlier that afternoon. It was one of those old-fashioned dance days when I can spend six hours in the studio and not realize I'm dead tired until I'm gingerly walking back to my car at 7:30 in the evening, heels somehow boring directly through shoes and into concrete.

As a group, we dancers fell into the easy camaraderie that graces people with shared language and backgrounds of similar, intense experiences. The same unassuming but overwhelming connection manifests whenever metro Detroiters talk about the summer of 1997, after the Wings won the Cup for the first time in 42 years: oh my gosh, yes, what a game that was, what a night, what a summer, we threw snappers in the street and listened to fireworks around the neighborhood, the whole city felt so alive. Who would have thought, Darren McCarty and blind squirrels and nuts--remember when he beat the crap out of Claude Lemieux? Yeah, we almost passed out at the parade too.

And so the dancers were with their mirroring stories of cranky ballet teachers, summers at Blue Lake, dancing at Steps in New York. What was new for me was that this talk was peppered with other tales, less familiar tales: "when I  did Ragtime," they would begin, or they pranced around singing "Blue Hair," or, worst of all, "the first time I was in 42nd Street..." What's all this, then? I thought to myself.

The situation didn't hit me in full until about two weeks before the show, walking to the choir room at Tappan Middle School to "rehearse"--read: "learn when to move my mouth"--with the chorus. I was with two of the other dancers, Jen and Madison, who whipped out binders filled with sheet music. "Oh, you guys are singers?"

Yes, reader, they were singers. They were all singers. They sounded like a choir of damn angels. They had vocal exercises and they knew their ranges and they practiced the ins and outs of Musical Theater Face (MTF; trademark pending) as if they were born over-enunciating the T's on the ends of words. Mouths wide, eyes crazed, spittle on your music sheets.

I was about as ready for this show as the bright blue cast on Grace's arm.

But time has played tricks this past month. We have seven-hour rehearsals that go on for weeks, entire dances that we learn in 45 minutes, and I strain to remember what my life was before. (Did I used to eat dinner?) After a very short or very long time, Grace's cast was replaced by a splint, which was replaced by an arm ready for "armography." (Ick.)

And I have learned Musical Theater Face. Someday I'll regale other dancers with the story: "Well," I'll begin, "it was the first time I was in 42nd Street..."

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