Professional Writer and Editor
|Arts writing specialty: Promoting performances|
Not even a single ticket will be sold for the most spectacular show in the world unless the public knows about the performance. And the more the public knows, the more tickets will be sold. This is why promotional articles about performances are so critical to the success of many productions.
My goal when promoting a show is to envelope the reader in the magic of each production. Maybe readers will be led to feel as if they are there in the audience witnessing the live show, or they will be encouraged to see the performance through their own experiences, or they will learn about the amazing reactions others have had. In every case, readers know that something remarkable is going to happen on the stage when the curtain rises.
A range of examples appears below. The first article was written for the Bloomington Playwrights Project's newsletter. The other seven articles were published in a section of the local newspaper that highlights the shows that come to the Indiana University Auditorium.
Bloomington Playwrights Project Presents Portofino
Once you’ve gotten the setting fixed clearly in your head, add this to it: you’re falling in love for the first time in your life. What more could anyone ask for in life?
Ah, but there’s the rub. This is life and not Paradise. So we need to add some important elements that are missing. Let’s make you a 15-year-old boy, trying to come to grips with puberty and with a mother who wants to have extended, highly detailed talks with you and your sisters together about “God’s precious gift of passion.” Your mother uses this phrase when referring to sex because she and your father are American Calvinist missionaries sent to save the lost youth of Switzerland, but your family is in Italy because you vacation there every summer, and your parents try to save the lost souls there as well, your British girlfriend and her parents being prime targets. Plus, you are supposed to be doing the same—using your rarified state of piety to help these wayward people find Jesus. Furthermore, having been indoctrinated since birth, your parents’ fundamentalist, born-again theology is simply the air you breathe, but at 15, you’re beginning to see some cracks in the foundations. Your parents constantly point out how others use the sins of the flesh to fill the spiritual holes inside themselves, but here in this sensuous setting where everything calls out to be tasted and touched, you guiltily revel in the forbidden pleasures of your first glass of champagne and—your first kiss!
Take all of this, set it to music, and you have Portofino, a musical comedy that wrestles with theology, puberty, cultural clashes, family dysfunctions, and of course, “God’s precious gift of passion,” and leaves you laughing and humming and thinking in its wake. Adapted from the novel of the same title by Frank Schaeffer, the play follows Calvin Becker through one summer’s vacation at Portofino, Italy in the 1960’s with his parents and two sisters. Ralph Becker —Calvin’s dad—is a bible-thumping minister with the ever-so-slight failing of somewhat frequently falling into maniacal rages. Calvin’s mom, Elsa, can pray at you so hard you feel like hunted prey, and his older sister, Janet, a devout follower of the faith, is a force to be reckoned with as she makes every effort to keep Calvin on the straight and narrow path which he so dangerously strays from. Add to this mix a British family, whose daughter, Jennifer has stolen Calvin’s heart, a German family, and the Italians native to the town, and you have a wonderful assortment of colorful characters that produce endless potential for hilarity.
But don’t be misled by the medium, some serious themes run under the songs and comedy. Mr. Schaeffer, who collaborated on the play’s book with Frank Gruber and composer Mark Wilder, says “Calvin is actually questioning a lot. He is serious about some big issues, the sovereignty of God for one thing. As he ponders this question the musical really gets into some serious theological terrain.” Mark Wilder agrees, pointing out that there “are a number of introspective moments in the musical.” Calvin Becker may sing about champagne bubbles, wondering if God knows where they all go, but this is part of his efforts at various points in the play to come to grips with seemingly contradictory elements of Calvinist theology: If God has predestined all that happens (as in the timing of each champagne bubble’s movement), then what meaning is there in the idea of our making choices? What is the point of trying to do anything? For Calvin, what is the point of making any attempt to follow his parents’ strict guidelines, if he is simply predestined to fall prey to the wonderful pleasures before him just waiting for his embrace?
Nevertheless, the operative word here is FUN! The play is a romp, and according to Mr. Schaeffer and Mr. Wilder, it was also just as much fun to create. Upon reading the novel, Mr. Wilder was struck by how visual and theatrical it was, and that it already had all of the required elements of a good musical: “humor, love stories, adventure, danger, a well-known title, a unique world-view, and most importantly, larger themes.” Though he has worked on numerous adaptations, this was his first time to work directly with the novelist who wrote the work being adapted. With Mr. Schaeffer, Mr. Wilder, and Mr. Gruber spread out over the country, much of the work was done over the phone and through e-mail. Mr. Wilder notes that “without e-mail, we might never have arrived at our process. Each of us took passes at the script and then e-mailed the file to the others for their pass. No one is even sure who wrote what anymore.” Mr. Schaeffer loved the collaboration process, and says, “I never have had so much pure FUN!”
Up to now, the play
has been through some private readings and industry showcases in New York,
but has never been fully performed. This means that people attending
the Bloomington Playwrights Project production will be seeing the world
premiere! Being a film director as well as a novelist allows Mr.
Schaeffer to put the film and theatrical worlds in bold relief: “To be
honest I liked the musical crowd a lot better than the Hollywood set.
Musical folks do it for love and they are real pros. In Hollywood
people want fame and money FAST! That's fine but it was a lot more
fun working with singers and actors and composers who did not have the
star mentality. Musicals are all about sweat and work and low pay.
You have to love it.” Take note Bloomington, you have a special opportunity
to witness the opening of an excellent play that’s destined (predestined?)
for bigger stages later on—and you get to laugh and be wonderfully entertained
in the process. Don’t miss it!
"Thanks so much for the lovely piece you wrote."
— Frank Schaeffer, novelist and film director, author of Portofino
"This is great! … Thank you so much! Beautifully done."
— Candace Decker, Company Manager, Bloomington Playwrights Project
"Thanks for a great article. It was terrific."
— Mark Wilder, composer
Celebrate the Holiday Season with the Chimes of Christmas
It's December 10th and you’re arriving for a performance at the Auditorium. The days are shorter now, so it’s already dark as you walk up the Auditorium steps at about ten minutes past seven o’clock. The smiles and cheerful greetings from the staff have warmed you up on this chilly evening and when you enter the Grand Foyer, you stop in your tracks to soak in the visual feast of decorations, especially the wonderfully large Christmas tree that is all aglow with lights inside and out.
Even though the concert does not actually start for another fifteen minutes or so, you’re already enveloped in a live performance of Christmas music, because the Trombone Choir has set up at one end of the inner lobby and is playing an assortment of Christmas songs that range from the traditional to jazzier arrangements. The combination of the sights, the sounds, and your anticipation of the show itself lifts your spirits and, as the usher guides you to your seat, you think, “Yes. This is why I keep coming back to see Chimes of Christmas year after year.”
Once you’re in your seat, you may want to take a moment to contemplate the breadth and depth of talent that will soon be before you. Chimes is a presentation of the Jacobs School of Music, which is widely recognized as one of the most prestigious music schools in the world. The concert will feature performers from the music school, as well as students with a variety of other majors and a sprinkling of graduate students. Each student about to take the stage tonight has worked hard to earn a spot in his or her group, and the conductors are some of the most highly accomplished people in their fields. Before the night is over, you will be treated to the Wind Ensemble, conducted by Stephen W. Pratt; the Singing Hoosiers, conducted by Michael Schwartzkopf; the Varsity Singers, a dance ensemble made up of Singing Hoosiers; and the Vocal Jazz Ensemble, conducted by Chris Ludwa; not forgetting that you’ve already had the pleasure of hearing the Trombone Choir, conducted by Carl Lenthe.
If you’re wondering how the performers feel about the show, comments made by the conductors may be revealing. Schwartzkopf reports that when he announced rehearsal plans for Chimes to the Singing Hoosiers, “they all got excited.” Pratt points out that the great majority of students are performance majors and want to make concert music their career, so they really enjoy playing before a full house. “For any musician, that’s a wonderful thing,” he says, “being able to share your musical talent and skills with lots of people who paid admission to come and hear you.” The sentiments are echoed by Lenthe, who explains that the Trombone Choir “always enjoys the Chimes performance—and the audience enjoys it—that’s why we enjoy it.”
Remember that the chance to see all of these groups together does not happen frequently. Ludwa points out that the various ensembles routinely have such busy schedules that there are not many opportunities for joint performances. “Chimes is an exciting opportunity to collaborate,” he says.
As you relax in your seat amidst the beautiful surroundings, you can appreciate the next point Ludwa makes. “You’re in a beautiful venue—the IU Auditorium can’t be beat—and you’ve got not just great music that has a lot of nostalgic draw, but you’ve got it being performed by incredible young musicians, who are very skilled musicians, but who still have the enthusiasm and energy of youth that is just palpable in a performance.”
Since this is not your first Chimes, you already know that the show is a wonderful mix of favorites and unexpected twists, so that while traditions are kept, every performance is unique. Anne Litchfield, who is a senior in the Singing Hoosiers and student manager of the group this year, has been part of the concert for the past three years. “It’s quite possibly my favorite concert that we do,” she says. “If I could put it in one word, I’d say ‘magical.’”
Chimes brings Christmas magic to all who attend every year and…oh, shhh…Stephen Pratt has stepped to the podium before the Wind Ensemble in the orchestra pit. The concert is about to begin!
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
John Doyle’s reinvention of the Sondheim musical thriller comes to the Auditorium
I’ve never thought of Sweeney Todd as anything but a sort of horror tale. It’s just a great story. It’s a wonderful story, and that’s why it’s been in existence for 150 years.
— Stephen Sondheim, lyricist and composer of Sweeney Todd
The original Broadway “Sweeney,” directed by Harold Prince, was a big-picture masterpiece that played on the show’s luridness in a distancing Dickensian social framework. John Doyle’s version, by contrast, draws you claustrophobically close. As they say at the entrance to spook houses, enter if you dare.
— Ben Brantley, chief theater critic for The New York Times
What draws us to horror, to the macabre, to the gruesome and the gory? There may be no simple answer to this question, but one thing is certain, when it comes to horror stories, Sweeney Todd is a splendid one. This 19th century British folktale tells of a madly vengeful man who uses his razor to cut more than the whiskers on the men sitting in his barber’s chair. It is a violent narrative that flies like a dart right to the bull’s eye of our fascination with grisly murders.
Leave it to Stephen Sondheim, one of the most innovative and influential composer-lyricists in musical theater over the last fifty years, to take this unsettling tale and create a musical thriller masterpiece. Working in collaboration with the legendary theatrical producer and director Harold Prince, Sondheim brought Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to Broadway in 1979. Their production, which was an epic-sized spectacle with a 27-piece symphonic orchestra and a 30-member cast, swept the Tony Awards, and the score is regarded by many to be Sondheim’s most complex, inventive, and expressive.
Twenty-five years later, British director John Doyle directed a revival of Sweeney Todd, but his production was an ingenious twist on the original. The set was reduced to bare essentials, the cast was trimmed down to ten actors, and the orchestra was eliminated. Maybe a better way to put it is that the orchestra was merged with the cast. In Doyle’s amazing creation, actor-musicians act the parts, sing the songs, and play the instruments. And it is this critically acclaimed, Tony Award winning production that is coming to the Auditorium.
Proving once again that necessity is the mother of invention, Doyle’s approach of having the cast double as musicians grew out of budgetary constraints. The idea came to him when he was working at a regional theater in the early 1990s where he couldn’t afford an orchestra. At first, performers sat with their music stands, stood up to perform a scene, and then sat back down again. As initially imagined, the music and the scenes were not integrated, but his method evolved. By the time he turned his attention to Sweeney Todd, he had refined his technique so that the action flowed seamlessly.
People who know the drama and emotion conveyed by Sondheim’s original score may tend to think that something will be missing in Doyle’s production with its ten-member cast of actor-musicians. Ben Brantley assures us that this is not the case. Noting that Doyle “grasps the wondrous multifacetedness of Mr. Sondheim’s most ravishing score—its narrative momentum, its sharply honed wit, and its harsh psychological insight,” Brantley stresses that this production “never stints on the music’s drama, intricacy, or sheer beauty.”
The power of the score is not lost, and in fact, something quite astonishing is created. “Every note and sound, whether from a plucked violin string or a twinkling triangle, seems to count fully,” says Brantley. “You become newly aware of the harmony of Mr. Sondheim’s calculated dissonances.”
It may seem inconceivable that a musical could work with the actors carrying their instruments around with them as they perform, but somehow through the innovative staging and the talent of the performers, it all comes together to form an astoundingly effective presentation. The cast “owns the story they tell,” explains Brantley, “and their instruments become narrative tools. It is to Mr. Doyle’s infinite credit that while he ingeniously incorporates the physical presence of, say, a bass fiddle into his mise-en-scène, 10 minutes into the show you’re no longer aware of this doubling as a self-conscious conceit.”
For Doyle, each change made as he reinvented the musical had to support the idea of telling the story. “It’s a positive way of looking at smallness and intimacy,” he says. “What we’re all searching for, ultimately, is the honesty of the storytelling.” Everything turns on the relationship between the actor and the audience. This production succeeds, he says, because it forces “the audience to do some of the work—we ask them to use some of their imagination.”
The genius of Sweeney Todd is its ability to mix intense drama with dark humor. It is sophisticated and macabre, and presents a visceral and uncompromising portrayal of events. Yet, at the same time, there is a sense of fun. One moment you are gasping in horror, and the next you are laughing hysterically.
Brantley calls Sweeney Todd “the angriest major musical ever written,” but asserts that this fact becomes a “galvanizing asset.” “Unreleased anger has been known to turn simply being mad into madness,” he points out. “Mr. Doyle’s production is perfect for vicarious venting. Instead of going postal, let Sweeney do the slashing for you.”
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street awaits your attendance. The barber’s chair is vacant, and Sweeney, standing beside it with a wild look in his eye, beckons you to come and sit down for the closest shave of your life. How can you pass up such an intriguing invitation?
Interview with the personal manager of Clifford, the Big Red Dog
Editor’s note: We sought to interview Clifford, but we forgot that while he may talk to other dogs, humans can’t understand what his barks are saying. However, our intrepid reporter found another source to interview, Barks Louder, Clifford’s personal manager for the tour.
Mr.Louder, I think that–
Hey, not so formal. Just call me Barks, we all go by first names around here.
Very good. Barks it is, then. I was about to say that I’ll start with questions that have been submitted by some of Clifford’s fans. Looking over these questions, you get the impression that what they really want to know is: What is Clifford really like?
Really like? Pal, let me tell ya’, this ain’t complicated. With Clifford, what you see is what you get. I mean, don’t forget—Clifford’s a dog. Sure, he’s big, he’s red, he’s in books, on TV and the stage, but that don’t mean he ain’t still a dog.
So he really is like the dog you see in the books and on TV?
One hundred percent. He don’t have to act on stage, because he can just be himself.
What’s it like to work with Clifford? I know he’s well-intentioned, but he does cause some problems at times in the stories about him.
Yeah, well, you’re right. My job ain’t always so simple. For instance, we was doing a show in Columbus, Ohio and it was snowing up a blizzard outside. The show was gonna start in maybe half an hour, so Clifford’s in his dressing room hanging out, eating some dog food, when T-Bone and Cleo come bounding in barking like wild. The next thing I know, all three of them’s outside romping in the snow like it don’t matter that they got a show to put on.
Wow! What did you do?
What else? I went outside and whistled ‘em back in. But they was all soaking wet from the snow. T-Bone and Cleo, they ain’t so big, so that was no problem, but it took ten of us and more than twenty towels to get Clifford all dry and ready to go on stage.
Did you know Clifford before he started performing live?
Oh yeah, me and Clifford, we go way back. I used to work on the ferry to Birdwell Island, so I was there when Clifford and Emily Elizabeth and her family all moved over. And let me tell ya’ one thing about Emily Elizabeth: Ain’t nobody never loved a dog more than that girl loves Clifford.
Yes, you can tell that that’s true, but what I wanted to ask was how Clifford has adjusted to the demands of performing live and being on tour. Does he get stressed out?
Clifford? Stressed out? Are you crazy? He don’t know what stress is. He loves getting on stage before all of the kids. There ain’t nothin’ stressful about it for him. It’s just fun.
What about lodging arrangements on the road. The rest of you can stay in hotels, but Clifford’s too big. Where does he sleep at night?
Nah, you got it all wrong. Nobody stays at hotels. We got campers, and we haul Clifford’s dog house around with us. We just find a good camping ground and set up there. That way Clifford and his pals always can have some rompin’ room, and believe me, that’s pretty darn important.
Does Clifford have a bedtime? And is it hard to get him to go to bed when he should?
Oh, don’t get me started on getting Clifford to bed at night. You see these gray hairs on my head?
Uh, yes, I do.
How many do you think there are?
Um, it’s hard to say.
Well, I’ll tell you, there’s hundreds, but I didn’t have any before I started having to be the one who makes sure Clifford gets to bed on time every night. Plain and simple, the only time he ever wants to go to bed when he should is when he’s played so hard that he’s plum tuckered out. But, don’t get me wrong, he don’t mean no harm, but we learned our lesson about this way back.
Oh? What lesson was that?
There was a few times in the beginning when I didn’t push so hard, and Clifford stayed up late, but when we tried to get him up the next morning, it was like impossible. I’d be yelling and jabbing him and everything I could think. He’d open one eye halfway, look at you like you’re part of some dream he’s having, pick up his head up a bit, then roll over to his other side and before you can get a cuss word out, he’s snoring again.
I’m shocked. Are you saying that you actually cuss at Clifford?
Nah, I never say the words, but I think ‘em sometimes. But don’t listen to me. I like to make a stink about Clifford causing me problems, but I love that big guy.
Does Clifford like to watch TV?
You know, he never did until he met Blue—you know Blue’s Clues—that Blue, and he’s a big fan. They met, Blue and Clifford did, and you never saw a dog wiggle and wag its tail the way Clifford did when he met Blue. Turns out, Blue was just as excited to meet Clifford.
Any romance possibilities here?
You been reading too many tabloids, pal. None of that stuff they print about Blue and Clifford is true. They’s friends, and that’s all.
It’s interesting that you mention Blue, because Blues Clues Live! came to the Auditorium last year. Is Clifford excited about coming here?
Everybody’s excited about coming to Indiana. That’s where the guy who imagined Clifford into existence was born.
Yes, of course, Norman Bridwell. He was born in Kokomo, and after graduating from high school, he attended the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis. He’s famous for creating Clifford, and Indiana University awarded him an honorary doctorate of human letters in 1994. Did you know that more than 44 million copies of his books have been published?
Yeah, I knew it was something like that. I talked to him once and he told me something I’ll never forget. He said in school his teachers never took to his writing or drawing. Didn’t stop him, though, did it? He knew that’s what he loved doing, so he kept doing it, and look at him now. Makes you think, don’t it?
Indeed. One last thing. I understand that there’s a coloring contest that children can enter. A winner will be drawn from the entries, and that child will get to meet Clifford backstage on the day of the show.
Yeah, Clifford loves meeting kids. You tell all of those kids out there to enter that contest, and come see Clifford on stage, ‘cause he’s wants to see you. I know Clifford, and he loves seeing all of the kids in the audience.
Thank you, Barks. It’s been wonderful to have the chance to speak with you.
Aw, it’s nothing. But I better get going. It’s getting on to meal time, so you can bet that Clifford’s getting hungry.
A Grand Tradition
The Auditorium presents the Pipes, Drums and Highland Dancers of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards along with the Band of the Coldstream Guards
Try to create the following picture in your mind. The setting is a barren, sandy field in Iraq with a couple of military trucks in the background. In the immediate foreground is a military commander in camouflaged battle fatigues and a grey beret, standing rigid, arms straight at the sides, and barking out an order to the group of soldiers standing in formation just past him. The soldiers, also in camouflaged battle fatigues, stand at attention, each pair of booted feet carefully placed at a 45-degree angle, each right arm straight at the side while each left arm…clutches a set of bagpipes!
These extraordinary young men are both soldiers and musicians. They are in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, a cavalry regiment of the British Army, and they are members of the regiment’s Pipes and Drums band. Being in the band does not confer special privileges; soldiering comes first. The regiment traded its horses for tanks many years ago, and that means today each piper and drummer is a fully trained tank crew member.
The Pipes and Drums gained international fame in 1972 when their recording of “Amazing Grace” became a hit around the world. They have just released a new album, Spirit of the Glen, which includes a new version of “Amazing Grace” and traditional Scottish ballads along with versions of Paul McCartney’s “Mull of Kintyre,” Rod Stewart’s “Sailing,” and film themes, such as The Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves, and Watership Down. The work of recording the CD was squeezed in between tours of duty in Iraq. Pipe Major Derek Potter says “the pipes are an integral part of our regiment, and we take huge pride in our music. We’ve even had to impose a curfew on pipes practice, as the rehearsals disturb the non-pipers among us! We’re very excited to be able to share our music with the world.”
The Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards will share the stage with the Band of the Coldstream Guards, which has active lineage dating back over two hundred years, making it one of the oldest military bands in the world. Both of these British Army regiments have a rich and long history. The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, Scotland’s only Regiment of Cavalry and the oldest surviving Cavalry of the Line in the British Army, is the current incarnation of regiments that can be traced back to 1678. In addition to tours of duty in Bosnia, Kosovo, and both Gulf Wars, the regiment fought against the Japanese at Nunshigum Ridge in Burma in WW II, against the Russians in the Battle of Balaklava in the Crimean War in 1854, and helped to defeat Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815!
The history of the Coldstream Guards is no less impressive. They were formed in 1650, and their name comes from the small Scottish town of Coldstream on the River Tweed, which forms a border between England and Scotland. On the 1st of January in 1660, the regiment began a five-week march from Coldstream to London where they played a central role in the restoration of the monarchy during the English Civil War. Over the roughly 350 years since then, they have repeatedly earned battle honors in military deployments across the globe.
When you watch these soldier-musicians take the stage at the Auditorium, wearing kilts and bearskin caps, prepare yourself for a moving performance, and recognize that the pageantry and music will put you in direct contact with traditions that stretch back centuries.
A Warm and Hilarious Look Back at Middle School
No One Can Resist the Charms of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Ah, middle school, those were the days. Our bodies were changing too fast or not fast enough. We may have strived to fit in with the popular styles of the day, or imagined that we were blazing bold new trails with our creative outfits and hairstyles. In the end it doesn’t matter, because most of us still wince every time we’re confronted with an old photo that shows how dorky we really looked. We were gawky and awkward at a time when we desperately needed a little grace and balance as we stumbled through the emotional minefield of adolescence.
The delicious irony of it is that a look back at those days can be hilarious, and this is exactly what The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee offers us. Spelling Bee is a Tony-Award winning one-act Broadway musical that is guaranteed to have you in stitches while warming your heart. It tells the tale of six unforgettably colorful and comic adolescent boys and girls who are competing in a middle-school spelling bee.
Meet Logianne, the politically aware speller who is a bit of a neat freak and speaks with a lisp; Olive, a newcomer to competitive spelling whose mother is in an ashram in India and whose father always works late; William, a finalist last year who has an innovative technique of spelling the words out on the floor with his foot; Marcy, a recent transfer student who speaks six languages, participates in multiple sports, can play Chopin and Mozart on a variety of musical instruments, and gets only three hours of sleep each night; Leaf, who comes from a large family of former hippies, makes his own clothes, and spells his words while in a trance; and Chip, last year’s champion who is finding it difficult to manage a recent upsurge in hormonal activity.
The hilarity quotient is pushed even higher by the three adults running the contest: the Moderator, who is the #1 realtor in Putnam county and a former Spelling Bee Champ; the Judge, who is just now returning to the Bee after using a high-fiber diet and Jungian analysis to recover from “an incident” that occurred at the Bee five years ago; and the official Comfort Counselor, an ex-con whose participation is a way of fulfilling his community service.
This cast of characters is impressive enough, but it gets even better, because Spelling Bee brings another element to the stage—you! At least, it could be you. About thirty minutes before the show begins, an interview process is conducted in the lobby and three or four members of the audience are chosen to join the spelling bee that takes place during the show.
Simply put, The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee will charm your socks off. The New York Times calls the show “irresistible,” says that it “feels refreshingly handcrafted rather than manufactured by committee and market-tested,” and gives it “Gold stars all around.”
One Hundred Years of New Orleans Jazz
The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra Comes to the Auditorium
How much do you know about the music of Jelly Roll Morton? Or Satchmo? And how about Professor Longhair? Lovers of New Orleans jazz know these names well, because these three are true masters whose legacy has affected American music immensely.
Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton was a pianist, bandleader, and composer whom some regard as the originator of jazz in the early 1900s. Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong was a jazz trumpeter and singer who was one of the most famous jazz musicians of the 20th century. His style of improvised soloing pushed the music into entirely new realms. Henry “Professor Longhair” Byrd was a New Orleans pianist whose distinctive style could never be contained within any label. For many, he embodied the heart and soul of New Orleans music.
If none of this is news to you, then you need to make sure all your friends know that you’ll be busy on the evening Saturday, April 26, because that’s when the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra will bring their celebrated program, New Orleans: Then and Now to the Auditorium. On the other hand, if you are not so well acquainted with the history of jazz in New Orleans, you should not miss this remarkable opportunity to hear the music and gain a deeper understanding of why jazz is one of America’s most precious cultural gems. Led by trumpeter and composer Irvin Mayfield, this group of musicians will take you on a musical journey that you will never forget.
You will hear a wide range of pieces and musical styles, showing all of the influences that form the mix of jazz in New Orleans over the last one hundred years. There are the Cuban, Haitian, and African sounds; the fast-paced marches and slow ballads; the funeral dirges and the lighthearted romps; the music of Mardi Gras; and the authentic New Orleans versions of blues, swing, spirituals, and funk. The program includes works by Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Professor Longhair, and Mayfield.
The vision of Irvin Mayfield
Mayfield is the founder and artistic director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (which is a non-profit organization that was incorporated in December of 2002), and at the young age of 30 he has already made his mark on the jazz world. He co-founded the New Orleans-flavored Latin jazz band Los Hombres Calientes with percussionist Bill Summers and leads his own band, the Irvin Mayfield Quintet. He has served as artist-in-residence at Dillard University, the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, and Tulane University, and founded the Institute of Jazz Culture at Dillard University.
The motivation for establishing the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra came in part from time Mayfield spent in New York from 1997 to 2000. There he had the opportunity to be mentored by Wynton Marsalis, and through this connection, he met many other prominent members of the jazz world. Mayfield studied what Marsalis was doing with the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, and he saw the need for something similar in New Orleans.
The mission of the program is to create a world-class performing jazz organization capable of supporting, sustaining, promoting, and celebrating jazz’s integral value to New Orleans and American culture. From Mayfield’s perspective, no place in the world merits this sort of institutionalized infrastructure more than New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. His efforts have won him praise at the local, state, and national levels of government, and he has been given the honor of being appointed to the post of Cultural Ambassador for the City of New Orleans.
Mayfield’s commitment to New Orleans, to jazz, and to the people who make the music is unrelenting. He stresses that one of the ways to help New Orleans recover from the disaster of Hurricane Katrina is to come to a concert, because by doing so you are participating in the rebuilding process. “It’s like putting a hammer and a nail to a roof,” he says. “The federal government doesn’t really have a system to help the culture. It doesn’t really have a system to help individual musicians.” The best way to help musicians, Mayfield says, is “to put them to work. They can figure everything else out from there.”
But can they blow?
Of course, when you go to hear the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra perform live, the administrative talents of the band’s leader are not the issue. All that matters is the quality of the music being generated on the stage. Jack McCray, of The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina can give you some idea of what to expect, based on a performance he witnessed in Charleston. Look for “screamin’ trumpets, growlin’ trombones, a rock solid rhythm section, and honey-drippin’ saxophones.” McCray calls Mayfield “virtuosic,” noting that his “stage presence was masterful.” These players know how to catch fire, and at one point, McCray says, “it seemed as though the band was about to leave the hall and march out to parade up and down the street.”
There is nothing quite like hearing jazz in New Orleans. Thanks to the Auditorium, for one night in April you can have that experience right here in Bloomington.
How to describe Blast!? Imagine if the most amazing marching band programs you’ve ever seen at football game halftimes were folded into one unit of 35 brass, percussion, and visual performers, and put on a stage…but that’s not quite it. Imagine if the most dazzling musical you’ve ever seen was being performed onstage by the orchestra, because in addition to being the best musicians in the world, they also can act and perform amazing feats of acrobatic skill while playing their instruments…but that’s still not quite right. The simple fact of it is, if you really want to know about the magic experienced by audiences who have seen the Blast! phenomenon in person, you have to go to the show yourself. There’s really no other solution.
Blast! has been called a novel art form that has evolved from the showmanship of outdoor pageantry, but rather try to describe what it is, it may be better to listen to what people say about it. Critics search for new superlatives to describe the show, the performers and the experience, using such terms as: sheer virtuosity, nothing short of a revolution, astounding, dazzling, stunning, picture perfect, wildly creative, explosive, electrifying, mesmerizing, flawless, rhythmically intoxicating, and a soaring takeoff to new frontiers of sight and sound. One critic described how the cast held the audience “rapt in a near-constant state of delirium,” and declared that he was “helpless in the path of this visual and aural juggernaut.”
In October, for three performances, this “visual and aural juggernaut” comes home to the Auditorium. Bloomington can be seen as home for Blast! because it originated from the Star of Indiana Drum and Bugle Corps, which was formed in 1984 by local businessman Bill Cook, who hired Jim Mason as the director. In the six years since Blast! was created under the artistic direction of Mason in 1999, it has toured the United States, Canada, and Japan, been on Broadway, where it won the 2001 Tony award for Best Special Theatrical Event, and on television, where it won a 2001 Emmy for Best Choreography.
Mason emphasizes the remarkable abilities of the cast members, and explains that he and the other directors make a point of identifying and drawing out the individual talents of various performers. Donnie VanDoren, who joined Mason as a teacher of the drum and bugle corps in
1986 and now has oversight on day-to-day activities and is casting director, agrees, saying, “This is all about the individual performer. You draw out each personality so that that performer communicates with the audience.”
Both Mason and VanDoren point out that there’s more than one way to see Blast!. “If you see Blast! up close,” says Mason, “you feel the power of the music and you sense the intensity of the performers and you see their faces.” In contrast, if you sit in the balcony, you can experience the effects of the formations and the lighting in ways that someone in the front row cannot.
IU theater professor George Pinney, who works with the cast on their acting and choreography, has nothing but praise for the people he’s directing. “The cast is an absolute joy,” Pinney says. “Their talent is enormous. Their dedication is overpowering, and what’s really wonderful for this particular cast, is it’s about seventy percent new people. This is their first tour. So, they bring a wonderful freshness to the project.”
One performer who will be on the IU stage during the October Blast! performances is Ben Handel, who is the manager of the percussion section. Part of his job is to be able to step in and take on any of the five different percussion roles, if a regular cast member cannot perform. Although Handel will not routinely take the stage on the upcoming tour, he plans to do so in Bloomington. Handel performed with Blast! when it first came to the Auditorium in 2000 and was part of the Broadway cast that won the Tony.
This means that Handel has direct experience of receiving the response from the audience. He points out that the cast faces a huge challenge, because the show is so physically and technically demanding. The result of meeting this challenge is a fountain of energy “pouring off the stage into the crowd. The crowd can feel it. The crowd knows that the cast is giving up everything that they can.” Standing ovations are the norm at the end of the show, and Handels says “It sends shivers down your spine to have people appreciate what you do so much.”
Handel is an IU graduate and was part of the Bloomington rock scene as a member of a band called Run Of The Mill, and he’s particularly happy to be coming back. “I really love the city of Bloomington,” says Handel. “I’m really excited about this particular performance, because I’ve been to so many great shows at the IU Auditorium, and I’ve played there for IU Sing, and I’ve done so much there, it’s like my home theater.” It turns out that Blast! is a family affair because Ben’s older brother, Jeff, holds the same position as manager of the percussion session for the Blast! cast that is touring Japan right now.
This brings up one warning that should be issued to parents: If you bring your children to this show, be prepared for them to suddenly insist upon learning to play brass or percussion. VanDoren says that the show has a tremendous impact on young people, and he hears about this over and over again in e-mails that come in through the web site. Blast! has the power to make high school band miraculously transform into a hip activity. “You’re not the band geek anymore,” he says.
In an effort to support children who want to learn to play instruments, Mason has created the Star of Indiana Elementary Band Program, which gives fifth and sixth graders the opportunity to start learning about music and participating in a band. He explains that most school systems don’t begin offering band until middle school, and by that time many children have already developed commitments to other activities. In the broadest sense, the program’s goal is “to instill a lifelong appreciation of music.”
By creating Blast!, Mason has certainly helped many people appreciate this “novel art form.”
VanDoren stresses that the show has a universal appeal, saying, “No matter who you are, no matter what age you are, no matter where you come from, there’s something there that’s going to turn you on.” If you do go, be prepared to have an experience like nothing ever before, and expect to be up out of your seat, wildly cheering and clapping when it’s over. As Handel says, “There’s no other valid response. You don’t really have a choice at the end of the show. You can’t help but have a good time at Blast!”