Daniel F. Levin is a playwright, composer and lyricist living in Brooklyn. His newest play, “Hee-Haw: It’s a Wonderful Li_e,” was called a “delightful surprise” by the New York Times; his musical, “To Paint the Earth,” about resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto, won the Richard Rogers Development Award. This is the second in a series of four posts about his summer directing “Fiddler on the Roof,” crossposted from Frontier Psychiatrist. Read the first post here.
The truth is, when I learned I’d be directing “Fiddler on the Roof,” I wasn’t that upset. Wasn’t I going to camp to relax? To reconnect with the stars, have food prepared for me, swim, joke and find my peaceful mojo, away from the clatter of New York City? I didn’t need to reinvent Jewish summer camp theater with a production of “Godspell.” This didn’t have to be my Wagnerian Ring Cycle! I could phone it in. Yes, they were honored to have me back at camp, but I could live up to that by directing a decent “Fiddler,” right? I even promised myself not to care too much about the show. Caring leads to anxiety and disappointment. In Spielbergian terms, this was going to be my “Raiders,” not my “Schindler’s List.” Huzzah for an easy show!
Six people showed up for the first day of auditions, with only two boys. Considering “Fiddler” has 21 principal roles plus villagers, this was going to be a challenge. Yes, there’s the very of-the-moment-New York-scene trend of actors playing multiple roles, but you can’t marry yourself on stage. I had tried to hype up the production to the campers, but perhaps they too sniffed a dusty classic. At the table in the lunchroom after dinner, I met with Bonnie and some disappointed administrators. I felt the legend of “Drama Dan” around my neck.
“Last year we had so many kids come out to audition,” sighed someone.
“Joey made a giant sign for “Aladdin” that lit up and hung it in the dining hall,” recalled the program director, shaking his head. “He got a LOT of kids to try out.”
“Well then why isn’t Joey Sparkles back again!” I wanted to shout. Instead I just sat there and burned. It was later that night that the idea came to me. I wasn’t the first to come up with it, nor would I be the last, but I dare say I went on to use it as effectively as any drama educator ever has. Free candy.
Candy was a precious commodity at camp. Banned in the bunks and never served in the dining hall, candy was even searched for in all incoming packages by the office staff. I once watched this operation. Like Berlin must have been in the ’60s, the office ladies tore through packages with scissors, even opening up books to check for hidden candy compartments. But Drama Dan, like Batman or Spiderman, worked outside of the traditional justice system. I was a vigilante, a strange breed of counselor (older, creepier, more desperate) that could impose my own rules to complete my mission: get this show up.
Free candy at auditions worked, but it came with a price. Yes we now had 14 kids doing the show. But only six of them had really wanted to do it; the other eight had come primarily for the candy. It was my job to transition them from sugar high to performance high. It would be a long road.
We had three weeks to produce the show minus half of the first week we lost to auditions avec Kit-Kat. Aged eight to 15, only about five of our cast members could sing on key, all of them were obsessed with snack, and no one’s bladder could handle more than 15 straight minutes of rehearsal. I had the distinct feeling that some were timing their bathroom trips to the second they were needed on stage. And that was only when they were at rehearsals. Some days we lost half the cast to sports games, jazz-dance rehearsals, or bunk trips. But I was expecting this. This was why I wasn’t investing. It was summer camp for God’s sake.
While our brave eleven-year-old Tevye memorized his enormous part in mere days (thanks to his photographic memory), actors with smaller roles didn’t know their lines during the final week of rehearsal. At one point during this week, I gave a much-needed Vince Lombardi speech.
“I don’t have to be out there on stage!” I barked. “You’re the ones that are going to be out there, and you will be embarrassed if you don’t know your lines. I don’t know how else to say it. Get a friend to help you. Wake up early if you need to. It is absolutely unacceptable not to have your lines memorized three days before the show!”
A hand shoots up from Jennifer Goldstein*, our struggling Fiddler.
“Yes, Jennifer!” I say hopefully.
“We had plums for snack. And I don’t like plums. So can I have something else? Pleeease? I’m really hungry.”
Meanwhile, my two lead boys were performing their hearts out. The one who was slightly heavier and more Papaish, I made Tevye, the milkman patriarch. Sometimes it’s nice to have limited choices. The other one, a talented singer/actor who had played Aladdin the year before, I made Motel the tailor, the nebbish who at last stands up to Tevye and asks to marry his daughter, Tseidel.
Tevye struggled at first. He was shy and awkward, not boisterous and domineering, and it took everything I had to pull him out of that shell. I also had to remember he was only 11. In my New York life, giving line readings to actors is considered a terrible no-no. At summer camp, I would spend many a rehearsal dancing around the hall, thrusting the broom out and, stomping my feet on the ground, shouting “If I were a rich man!!! Yeidel deedl digguh…!” I circled the stage, my young Tevye behind me, matching my steps, trying to match my volume. I watched him get more and more comfortable with making a fool out of himself, just like I was. I taught him to approach the “God Light,” our one piece of special lighting — a spot that lit his monologues, and stand there, without fidgeting.
Michael, playing Motel, was different. He was a triple threat — singer/actor/dancer — only he was having trouble with “Miracle of Miracles.” A few nights before opening, he started blanking on his lines.
“I think maybe I’ll try not doing the blocking,” he suggested. “I’ll just sit and sing.”
We had worked on this blocking all week. He would jump up on a bench and balance-walk while singing about Daniel in the Lion’s Den, then spin off the bench and do a great final round-off for “God has made a maaaaan toooo-dayyy!” Land and pow, musical bump! My Broadway choreography was vanishing. Before responding, however, I tried to remember the thing I think all teachers, at some point in their career, try to remember. “It’s not about me.” The next run through, Michael sat on the bench for the whole song. After the first verse, he blanked.
He was getting more and more upset. I sympathized. I myself have terrible fears of blanking on stage, which actually pushed me towards writing and directing. Now I wondered something else that all teachers, at some point, must wonder: how do I prevent this kid from becoming as screwed up as I did?
“Maybe, Drama Dan, I should go back to some of the blocking.”
“I think that’s a good idea. Blocking actually helps me remember my lines. Something else I’ve been thinking. It doesn’t really matter if you forget the lines. You are so good at showing the excitement in your body, that you got a ‘Yes.’ You could just sing ‘La la la.’ In fact, I think you should! Just sing ‘la’s,” but act it the way you’ve been doing, and let your body run around that stage, and end with that round-off. If you do that, no one’s gonna even care what you say. Because they’re going to go with you! You got me?”
The next time he went on, he remembered the lines. And he killed in that number. If only the whole show were “Miracle of Miracles.”
*Names have been changed to protect the partly innocent
Part three continues next Tuesday.