BWW Special Feature: Jeff Madden is UnCovered
Fri, 11/15/2013 by Jeff Madden
(photo by Pierre Gautreau)
Acting Up Stage, one of Toronto's top musical theatre companies, is kicking off their 10th anniversary season with its annual smash tribute concert in which the songbook of a legendary singer/songwriter or group is re-examined through a storytelling lens. On November 18, in UnCovered: Sting and The Police, ten of Canada's top Musical Theatre vocalists will perform 19 of Sting's hit songs, featuring new arrangements by Music Director Reza Jacobs, backed by a cracking onstage four-piece band and three-backing vocalists.
I'm thrilled to be a featured vocalists at this concert. And, to give you an inside look into how a show like this gets brought to life through the eyes of a performer, BWW has asked me to share some of my own experiences.
This story has a familiar beginning. A long time ago, in a land far, far away...
May 21, 2013. I'm in Australia, where I'm starring as Frankie Valli in the Australian production of JERSEY BOYS. Mitchell Marcus, Artistic and Managing Director of Acting Up Stage emails to ask if I'd be interested in singing at this year's concert.
In typical Mitchell Marcus fashion, his email is warm and full of detailed planning about the concert:
"We'd love to have you back if you are willing."
The first thing I feel is excitement, immediately followed by hesitation. I ask myself, "Can I go there?" The song choices are in their hands. Sting sings really frickin' high. His music is an tricky mix of progressive pop with elements of edgy pop, rock, reggae and worldbeat. I sit on it for a few days. But, the more I think about it, the more I realize I am a good fit for this. My voice is flexible, I can do it. I've known some of these songs since I was a kid - my eldest brother Chris had a bunch of their records. I think I can bring something cool to this. And, most of all, I think it'll be fun.
May 24. I write Mitchell back:
"If you're down, then I'm down."
"Amazing! Welcome aboard!"
Then, I take a deeeeeeeeeep breath. Agreeing to do a concert like this is a leap of faith. Concerts of this sort are very different than the typical theatre job. Usually when you're cast in a show, you have a long rehearsal period to feel comfortable with the material, and lock in enough repetitions so that you're not nervous about, oh, I don't know, remembering your lyrics. But in a concert like this, you get ONE rehearsal, and ONE run-through on the day of the concert. That's it. You have to be positive that this scenario will not make you jump off a cliff. Or provoke you into another drunken stupor. 'Cause those don't end too well, am I right?
So, it's kinda scary. But, for me, the fear makes me work harder. I like challenges - they make life exciting. So, when I'm not screeching like Frankie Valli, I start listening to a lot of Sting and The Police. And then after a week or so, I let it go.
August 1. I'm back home in Canada. I still have no clue which songs I'll be singing at the concert. I resist the temptation to call Mitchell and Reza and ask for specific songs. Two reasons - one, that would put extra pressure on Mitchell and Reza, as they have to line up great song choices for the eight other singers, too. And two, not knowing makes it more fun... and scarier. Humph. I let it go.
September 9. I get an email asking me to confirm a date and time for my rehearsal with Reza. It's only a three-hour slot. And, still no song choices. Humph. I take another deeeeeeeep breath. I let it go...ish.
September 30. Finally. Mitchell emails:
"I hope we aren't being too presumptuous, but we are hoping you might consider doing 2.5 songs... Reza and I would love it if you would perform:
1. Message in a Bottle (solo)
2. Every Little Thing She Does (solo)
3. Don't Stand So Close To Me (as a duet with Sara Farb)
Have a listen. If you have any concerns or discomfort, please send Reza a note."
I'm frickin' thrilled with the songs. I already know each one fairly well, but not so well that it wouldn't be a challenge. And singing with Sara Farb - ooh, that sounds good. I bet our voices would sound really good together. I'm happy.
I write Mitchell back right away:
"This is all fantastic. Love the songs, love the ideas, love the Farb. :-))"
October 1. When I first decide to sing a song, I do my research. I listen to the original, obviously, and check out any cover versions on YouTube. I ask myself what the music is saying to me, what images or emotions are evoked from the sounds. I ask myself what the singer's voice is telling me, and also what it's hiding. Then I examine the lyrics themselves. I get them down on paper, and rearrange the structure to make it more like a monologue. Sometimes I'm surprised by what's in there. In advance of my rehearsal, I do this research for my three songs.
The cool thing about the type of concerts that Acting Up Stage do is that Reza Jacobs will create a brand-new arrangement for the band based on our discussions at rehearsal. It's all about supporting the story that we want to tell in the song. It's such a brave and creative move on their part, and I totally embrace them for it. Doing this research ahead of time will only help the process along.
"Message In A Bottle", if taken literally, is the story of a lonely man trapped on a desert island. He sends out his S.O.S. and hopes someone rescues him. But it seems it's all a metaphor for a lonely person searching for love. One lyric stands out in the second verse: "Love can mend your life, but Love can break your heart." There's lots of interesting elements to discuss in there. Exciting.
"Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" seems to be saying two very different things. The chorus is a celebration of this amazing love the singer has. But, the verses tell a story of being frighteningly unable to communicate that love to the other person. This song could go in many different directions. I'm excited to see where it goes.
"Don't Stand So Close To Me" is perhaps the most theatrical of the three songs. It tells the story of a teacher and his much younger student and an affair that may or may not have happened between them. I'm excited about their idea to do this song as a duet, and I wonder just what Reza has up his sleeve. How will we break up the lyrics? The point of view of each character is ambiguous, which leaves many options. There is potential for lots of singing in harmony, singing in unison; really the options are endless. The amount of unknowns here is very scary. And very exciting.
October 21. Finally. My rehearsal with Reza. The goals of this rehearsal are many: to make sure the song is a good fit for me, to come up with a dramatic arc that will frame the song, to settle on the key, and to discuss the overall arrangement for the band. Mitchell drops by, too, to help out. Three songs, three hours. GO!
We start with "Message In A Bottle". We sing it through. Then we discuss the story arc; the elements of despair, loneliness, longing, and then action. Why so much repetition in the choruses - is it a mantra, is it frustration, is it anger or desperation? There's time passage in "A year has passed since I wrote my note" - how does that colour things? Then, after all this time, all this loneliness and frustration, the third verse begins with this discovery "I don't believe what I saw - a 100 billion bottles washed up on the shore." Would that bring in joy or celebration? The man realizes he's not alone - there could be some comfort there. I feel like I know where we're heading. This is good. And then, just when I think we're moving on, Reza asks me a question:
"Have you ever heard a Muslim Call to Prayer?"
Maybe I heard him wrong. I mutter back:
And then the song goes off in a whole new territory. We discuss what that might sound like, and how this idea might colour some of the lyrics. I silently accept the challenge. This reminds me of a favorite lyric of mine from "Man", a song from THE FULL MONTY. "I don't know where I'm going, but I know I'm gonna get there soon..." We move on.
"Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" is next. We sing it through. We discuss what type of person might say these words. We like the idea of a young guy, a bit shy or nerdy, maybe an IT computer guy. Maybe the girl he's in love with works at the office with him. Maybe they've dated, but what if she doesn't even know he exists? What if he's actually never spoken to her at all. This opens up the notion of all this being in his head, the imagined relationship of a mentally unstable young man. Reza's mind spins off in many interesting musical directions, and my ears start to smile. It's inspiring to watch him create on the spot and exciting to think where we'll end up with this one.
Sara arrives and we run through "Don't Stand So Close To Me". I knew it. It sounds amazing. We spend the bulk of the time trying to decide who sings what lyrics. It's shifty. The same line sounds one way coming from me, and sounds differently from Sara's point of view. But which way is better? All the options are interesting, but time is short and we need to settle on a road-map. Why? Because of our conflicting schedules, Sara and I won't see each other again until the day of the concert. Holy crap. I try not to think about that.
We explore some more. "Wet bus-stop. She's waiting. His car is warm and dry." Wait - is the teacher a predator and she the innocent victim? Or is the student a Lolita-type character? This song is like a full three-act play. Reza and Mitchell are super engaged, trying to look at the big picture of story arc, and help us decide which version of the truth we want to tell. Or is there a truth? Maybe, we should leave it a bit ambiguous, for each audience-member to figure out for himself. One thing is certain, this one has the potential to blow the roof off Koerner Hall.
And then it was over. But I couldn't let it go.
In the week that follows I listen to my recordings of the rehearsal and digest the ideas. But I'm left with so many questions. This is the really tricky thing about a concert like this - there are so many options, so many different ways to do things. And virtually no time. Suddenly, Reza's voice pops into my mind, uttering some wise words from our rehearsal:
"One mustn't become overwhelmed by the amount of blank canvas, one must welcome it."
This guy's like Yoda. He's right. I tell myself, "Create. Decide. Move on. Don't look back." I do, then I let it go.
October 31. Over the past ten days, Reza has rehearsed with all the featured singers and backing vocalists to start creating the charts for these songs. Think about that for a minute. 10 singers. 19 Songs. Then, think about this: Reza still must create 19 orchestrations the four band members, and 19 vocal arrangements for the singers. And there's two-and-a-half weeks to go. He may go grey by November 18th.
November 2. Uh-oh. Both my kids come home from school sick. The annual post-Halloween cold. Hooray. I immediately make a list of vitamins and supplements to buy. Colds and crazy singing don't go together too well.
November 8. 10 days until the concert. I'm keeping the cold at bay. I need to interview Reza for another article I'm writing about this concert, so we catch up on Skype. But, we also take the opportunity to share a few thoughts about my three songs.
Most thoughts just confirm the work we did before and ease the mind. But some thoughts inspire us to make some fairly large changes to the arrangements. Key changes are added to one song. Rubato sections are added to another. Melody notes are changed in all three. The artistic process is so fascinating. This kind of discussion happens on a second pass through the material, after enough time has passed for things to drop in. Hopefully, the result will be that much better.
November 11. One week until the concert. The 'keeping the cold at bay' thing is not going so well anymore. I try not to freak out. Instead, I get Sara on the phone so we can clarify the vocal arrangement and the harmonies for "Don't Stand...". Getting back on the same page makes me feel better. Sara is also singing lots of other material at the concert, and is trying to get ready to nail that stuff, too. This process is happening in 20 different living rooms spread across Southern Ontario, as everyone is on their own, focusing in on the final product. At this point in the process, the pressure is high. The creation phase is almost over, and the performing muscles need to be turned on.
November 12. Six days until the concert. The other article I wrote for BWW goes up online this morning. It looks good. I'm happy to help spread the word. Here it is: http://www.broadwayworld.com/toronto/article/Torontos-Stars-UnCovered-Sting-and-The-Police-20131112
November 13. Five days away. I'm drinking throat tea and sucking on zinc lozenges. Reza sends six text messages in a flurry. He's been tweaking the charts a bit:
- "Transition to your verse in don't stand do close will now have three bars not four"
- "That means you will hear the three note pattern four times"
- "Like this."
And then he sends a video of him singing it. I pee myself a little bit.
Later that night, I text him of an idea of my own:
- "I'm thinking of incorporating the middle-eastern thing into the ad lib section over the ending 16 sending out an sos's. (What have you done to me?!?!?)"
- "It's the New Terrorism. We're coming at ya via music theatre"
November 14. Cold, go screw yourself.
We're almost there. In a few short days, it will be show time. The 18th is going to be crazy for me. I'm actually teaching three musical theatre performance classes at Sheridan College in Oakville from 1:30-6pm, which I'm going to squeeze in between my sound check in the morning and the concert itself at night. So that should be, um, busy. Hopefully I'll make it in one piece. The pressure is on, but I'm laying low. Thinking positive thoughts.
When you look at the big picture, I'm amazed. What an incredible amount of work by a large number of artists and administrators - and all for a concert that will last but two short hours. About 1000 people will witness its passion, its exuberance, its angst and its joy. Fans of musical theatre will love it. Fans of pop music will love it. People from all walks of life will be brought together in the collective celebration of music, of story-telling, of creation, of daring, of letting go, of accepting challenges, and of the power of the Performing Arts to enrich our lives. It's going to be epic. And then it will be gone forever.
And I'm so proud to be a part of it.