The aborning musical, The Rhythm Club, currently in an engagement at the 136-seat Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA, through Oct. 22, is enjoying something that other tryout musicals famously lack — a kind of anonymity.
Director Eric Schaeffer doesn't exactly call the Sept. 5-Oct. 22 run at his nonprofit theatre a "tryout," but rather an extension of his company's mission to nurture and present new works: It is the season-opening world-premiere at the hot, award-winning resident theatre in the fertile Washington DC theatre community.
Popularity has its advantages when new work is being tested: The subscriber-based Signature run is sold out, virtually assuring that outsiders, naysayers, national critics and others won't spoil the delicate process of creating the new musical.
(Think of what you've heard about Rhythm Club in contrast to the rather ugly and public tryout process of Seussical in Boston, for example.)
Key to the process of creating Rhythm Club is being able to present it in front of a crowd every night, Schaeffer told Playbill On-Line Oct. 3. "The audiences have been so supportive of it," Schaeffer said. "We've learned so much putting it on in front of a real audience every night."
Feedback from audiences — and from DC-area critics — has helped in the process, he admits. Changes have been ongoing since the first preview Sept. 5. Schaeffer said composer Matt Sklar and librettist-lyricist Chad Beguelin are currently working on a new second act number that will be added, and there has been constant vigilance about the libretto and "making stuff clearer."
The Washington Post raved about the direction and choreography but questioned plot points and the tone and nature of the story itself — about two Nazi-era German musician pals (Jeremy Kushnier as a bandleader and Tim Martin Gleason as a Jewish pianist) who fall for the same singer (Lauren Kennedy) as they all indulge in decadent swing music in 1938 Hamburg.
Schaeffer said he does indeed read reviews, because he wants to know if the story is coming through clearly. He said he much prefers the term "world premiere" to tryout. Other people might suggest the run is a long "workshop" for the show — a chance to cut and paste and refine in an eight-week bubble fairly free of financial pressures.
The out-of-town "tryout" officially comes in December when commercial producers Allan and Beth Williams present a larger scale version of the tiny Signature production at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts-Oriental Theatre in Chicago, Dec. 9-Jan. 7, 2001. It will move to Broadway beginning with previews Jan. 26, 2001, and open Feb. 15. The Virginia Theatre has been mentioned as a possibility.
Schaeffer said Natasha Katz will be the new lighting designer in Chicago and the cast size will increase, and costumes and sets will have a bigger scale and be augmented, but the creative team remains the same.
Minus the big flashy production trappings, Schaeffer said, "we can focus on words and music and story."
The is the 11th world premiere for Signature, and the second Broadway-bound show for there for Schaeffer: Kander and Ebb's Over and Over, a retelling of The Skin of Our Teeth, had its world premiere there, but did not move to greater glory.
Schaeffer's direction of Sondheim works Sunday in the Park With George and Passion at Signature have been lauded and the director made his Broadway debut helming Sondheim's Putting It Together in 1999. His most recent project, The Witches of Eastwick, a musical based on the popular novel and film, opened over the summer in London (produced by Cameron Mackintosh) and is widely thought to be a Broadway possibility perhaps in 2001 or 2002.
The director said he has been able to return to Witches to make tweaks and changes — not major surgery — in order to clarify the show.
The cast of The Rhythm Club, once called Swing Alley, includes Megan Lawrence, Kirk McDonald, Kevin Kern, Barbara Walsh, Florence Lacey, Larry Cahn, Jonathan Hogan, Buzz Mauro, Marsh Hanson, Joe Kolinski, with Tesh Buss, Gina Carlette, Catherine Chiarelli, Brien Keith Fisher, Michael Goddard, Jamie Harris, Joni Michelle, Rusty Mowery, Jim Osorno, Jennifer Swiderski and Denton Tarver.
At an August press preview in the rehearsal studio, Schaeffer told Playbill On-Line: "Here is a new book musical — and there are not many book musicals out there these days — and a really young songwriting team. One of the things that also attracted me is the storyline. It's great story. And what it does is the story provides two worlds — the youthful kids with all this energy and excitement; and the world of reality with the adults, the whole Hamburg situation in 1938. Both of those two worlds colliding has made for a fantastic story and I've think they've captured that."
Working together now for seven years, Beguelin and Sklar came on the idea for Rhythm Club after writing Wicked City, a 1940's film noir take on the Oedipus story, when both partners were ready to try something different. Sklar was exploring swing and jazz music at the time and wanted to write in that milieu. So Beguelin went looking for a story.
"I was looking through old books on jazz and swing and kept coming across the story of the Hamburg Swings, about these kids who lived in 1938 in Hamburg where you could get arrested and go to jail for listening to a swing record. It's hard to imagine the sort of climate where if you just played a song on the piano you could get taken away. So I came up with an outline and showed it to Matt. At first, he said I don't know if we can pull this off. I said just think about it for awhile and pretty soon he came back and said let's do it," Beguelin said.
Sklar is best known around Broadway as a pit conductor, the youngest to ever take up the baton when he lead Les Miserables at age 21. While he's not sure if he'll ever lead Rhythm Club's orchestra ("Sounds interesting — I don't know if they'll let me!"), he still loves conducting and wouldn't mind going back to it.
But he won't be grabbing the stick out of Kushnier's hand. While the Footloose star plays Jake, the bandleader, Sklar says the pianist Adam is more his style.
"There's way more of myself in Adam, the kind of person who stands in the back and observes. Jeremy and his character are very hands on. I'm the kind of person who stands back and watches everyone else do their thing," Sklar said.
And Adam — not Jake — gets the girl, something Kushnier's not used to. "I don't get the girl in this one — as much as I try, I don't get her," he laughed.
Kushnier, Kennedy et al have been hanging out in New York's swing clubs as of late to learn a little more about the movements and the flavor of the culture. This has aided Jodi Moccia's choreography. She is using various forms of swing to fit the mood of numbers in The Rhythm Club, from line dances and jitterbug to the "dirty dance" swing of a song called "Pretending That I'm Someone Else."
The Rhythm Club is on the web at http://www.therhythmclub.com.
— By Kenneth Jones
and Christine Ehren