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This week's question comes from Jennifer Orr of New York, NY.
Usually, training a new performer for a lead role takes about three weeks. It can take longer — at Phantom it takes three weeks to train a new Phantom or Raoul, but four weeks for Christine, mainly because of the singing. New Stomp cast members take six weeks to learn everything before they go into a show.
Chorus members take less time — at Spamalot they take two to three weeks, but at Phantom they take only a week to ten days. Performers returning to lead roles in Phantom after an absence take only a few days to brush up.
Peter von Mayrhauser, the production supervisor for The Phantom of the Opera, says that during the first couple weeks of rehearsals for a new lead, the dance captains and the stage managers work with the actor on blocking and choreography and the musical director works on the singing, all for a total of about five hours of rehearsal per day. At some point during those two weeks, the understudies for the opposite lead roles might join in.
During the final week, tech elements such as costumes are added, and the actor begins working with his or her fellow principal actors. The day before — or sometimes even the day of — the new actor's first performance is a final "put-in" rehearsal, in which the actor goes through the entire role, in order, in costume, with all the cast members and all of the tech elements that affect the role. (The Phantom process described above is very similar to the process in Chicago and Spamalot.)
At nights during rehearsals, new actors will often watch the show from the audience, or from the wings, where he or she will follow around the actor currently in the role to learn where to enter and exit and to get a sense of how long costume changes take.
The show's original directors aren't usually present during these rehearsals, even for lead roles. Chicago dance captain Gabriela Garcia says of the director Walter Bobbie, "Sometimes if the person requires it, he'll come in during rehearsal time, but other times he lets them get a couple of shows under their belt and [then] he'll come in and work with them." Von Mayrhauser says Hal Prince, Phantom's director, works in a similar way: "He prefers to have them go into the show and then he goes and sees them, and then usually he'll ask for a rehearsal." Peter Lawrence, associate director of Spamalot, says the show's director Mike Nichols comes in for a full-cast table read to begin the process and then typically comes back for the last two days, including the final put-in rehearsal. (If they're in town, the original directors will often participate in the final stages of the casting process, especially for lead roles. Throughout the show's run, they will occasionally hold rehearsals for the entire cast, just to have them brush up.)
Roles will often change slightly when a new performer comes in. "When we get new people in, we do not tell anybody to imitate somebody's performance," von Mayrhauser says of Phantom. "Each actor, within the framework of the show and within the framework of the staging, has great freedom to develop their own characterization. That's really important to keep the show fresh, as opposed to a museum piece."
Lawrence says Nichols encourages reinterpretation of the Spamalot roles. For instance, Lawrence says that the original cast member Tim Curry "played a very plummy, self-satisfied king," while "Simon Russell Beale played the role as if he was a brand-new king — things delighted him" that wouldn't have delighted Tim Curry's king. In Chicago, Garcia says, in the song "Razzle Dazzle," extra singing was added for Usher, and George Hamilton chose to wear a top hat.
Certain aspects of the show are harder to learn than others. In Phantom, the actor playing the title character learns how to walk around with a huge cape and how to take it on and off gracefully. He also has to master some pyrotechnic effects. In Spamalot, the dancing in the song "Camelot" is particularly tricky, and "our principals are typically not dancers," Lawrence says. Lancelot has to learn to fly and to walk on stilts.
As you can imagine, long-running musicals with big casts, such as Phantom, are always rehearsing new performers. "It's absolutely constant," von Mayrhauser says. "It never stops."
Specialized shows such as Stomp can work differently from traditional musicals. According to Fiona Wilkes, an original cast member and currently the rehearsal director for North American company, new Stomp cast members take the first three of their six rehearsal weeks to learn the various rudimentary rhythms and the specialized Stomp language to name those rhythms. For instance, Wilkes says, they learn that a "Pearl and Dean" is a certain rhythm that gets repeated at different times throughout the show, and is so named because that particular rhythm could be heard in British movie theatres during pre-movie advertisements presented by the British advertising company Pearl & Dean. For the second three weeks, the new cast member learns his or her particular track through the show. Though Stomp seems like a free-for-all and cast members seem interchangeable, each cast member is actually on a particular track — they're even called "characters," and each one has a character name. As a result, any cast member who performs a character in one Stomp company can then do the same character in another company in another part of the world, without missing a beat.