Picture the first day of rehearsal for a naturalistic kitchen-sink drama populated with complex characters with intertwined histories. You might expect a couple of days of labored "table work" to talk through the relationships. Now picture the company preparing for the new Broadway revival of Ken Ludwig's farce, Lend Me a Tenor, which will open April 4 at the Music Box Theatre after previews from March 12. The rehearsal process is a little different.
"You throw 'em in!" said Tenor director Stanley Tucci. "It's trial by fire. We did one read-through on the first day, and the next day we got on our feet. We had everything here — props, everything — ready to go. You get on your feet, take the book and start moving."
Set in a hotel room in the 1930s, Lend Me a Tenor is a screwball comedy that tells the tale of Tito Merelli, a world-famous Italian tenor (played by Anthony LaPaglia) who arrives in Cleveland to make his debut with the local opera. When Morelli is accidentally incapacitated, the show must go on. Saunders, the opera manager, conspires with his assistant, Max (played by Justin Bartha), to cover up the tenor's absence, placate his bombastic wife and distract his most passionate fans.
For the show, which relies on slamming doors, mistaken identities and just-missed connections, the funny is all in the timing, so nailing the physical aspect is necessarily the first order of business. "It's the only way," said Tucci, "I don't want to talk about it, I don't want to ruminate, let's just go and do it. That's how you learn." Getting a show up on its feet might sound like a perfectly ordinary task, but farce is more timed and structured that perhaps any other theatrical form — there are even urban theatre legends of directors using storyboards or metronomes to maintain the necessary precision. This demands both mental and physical focus from the Tenor cast, which includes farce veterans and first-timers alike. They spoke to Playbill.com in between recent rehearsals leading to the first preview.
"It really is physically demanding," said Mary Catherine Garrison, who plays the show's ingenue, Maggie Saunders, daughter of the manager. "I've fallen probably six times so far, bruised everything already, and we're only two weeks in. It's like a dance, an intensely choreographed dance, and it's been great, but it's hard."
She added, "You know you just have to hit your marks…and then keep repeating it over and over and over until you're dead."
Jan Maxwell, a veteran comic actress who plays Maria, the title tenor's wife, still finds the form challenging. "It's so technical — a lot of it is things just have to match on either side of the stage," she said. "The stage is divided into two parts, there's the bedroom of the hotel room and there's the sitting room of the hotel room, so there's a lot of comedy going on both sides, so there's a lot of technical stuff that we have to do."
Garrison, one in a company of actors that Tenor playwright Ludwig described as "innately hilarious," didn't feel so hilarious at the start of the process.
"You have to let go of the idea that you're going to be funny, at first," Garrison explained. "You have to set it — get the skeleton of it in place, get the bare bones, the structure. We're starting to run things and in context they get funny, but they're just not funny at first."
Despite the emphasis on timing and repetition, the process isn't all about rote learning. Rehearsing a farce can also be a time ripe for experimentation. Jay Klaitz, who plays the show's opera-buff bellhop, said, "Stanley's done such a nice job of making an open vibe in the rehearsal room, so people are often trying really crazy stuff. Everybody's encouraged to give it a shot and see if it works."
He shared a personal secret to succeeding at the form. "I'm not afraid to be a shameless jerk is what it comes down to," he admitted with a laugh. "This is my kind of stuff."
As an actor, how do you know how far to push the envelope? In the end, it's up to the director to maintain a method in the rehearsal madness. Tony Shalhoub, who stars as Saunders, said of director Tucci, "He's kind of a great audience, a good barometer of whether we're going too far or not far enough. Whenever I see him throw his head back or hear him laugh, I feel like I've accomplished something for the day."
"We're just slamming some doors and having some fun and trying to make Stanley laugh, pretty much," Maxwell said in agreement. Once the funniest bits are selected, the marks are hit and the timing is flawless, the actors are faced with their greatest challenge yet: how do you make an audience care about a madcap comedy? For farce novices or well-seasoned screwball veterans, the acting requires the same level of honesty as any other genre.
"One thing Stanley keeps reminding us is that we have to keep everything logical," said Garrison. "If we have a scene that doesn't seem quite right, we always go back to what's happening emotionally, and if you just connect with the other actor, something real will come out of it. That's saved us a few times already, so that's something we'll all be remembering."
"For farce, I think you have to believe it," said Maxwell. "You have to totally be committed to the storyline, no matter what the storyline is. No matter how light or thin…you have to believe everything you're doing."
"What's so funny about this play is that it's so deadly serious for the people on stage," said Garrison. "It is life and death for us up there, and I think that's what's going to make it funny."