About Me

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Toronto, Ontario, Canada
A long-time Toronto-area Actor and Singer, Jeff Madden is now focusing on Teaching acting and singing in the GTA. Jeff starred as "Frankie Valli" in both the Toronto and Australian productions of JERSEY BOYS, winning the DORA award for outstanding performance in a musical by a male actor. Jeff is busy back at school, getting his MEd at U of T's OISE.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My West Side Story - Part 2

I had a good night’s sleep and felt great about what was to come today, Thursday November 8, 2007: in the afternoon, the final dress rehearsal for the understudy ballet dancers, and then Opening Night, baby!

So what did I do in the morning before my big day? I gots ma hairs done, of course! As I’m walking out of the salon feeling all sexy-like, I notice I have a new message on my cell phone. When I realize it’s from our esteemed Conductor David Briskin, I stop dead in my tracks. In his gentle voice, he calmly tells me to get my butt to the theatre ASAP because the Director has decided to have me sing my solo up on-stage!

I kinda freak out -- It’s great news... but it’s Opening Night for God’s Sake! The director wants me ON-STAGE? NOW??? After all the rehearsals, the sound-checks, the headphone-level checks, getting used to the sound in the pit (where I was READING my score, off my MUSIC STAND) now I have to perform it in front of 2000 people, memorized, at the new state-of-the-art Opera House, and make it look like I’ve been rehearsing it like that for weeks! No problem, right? He couldn’t have thought of this idea, oh, I don’t know, YESTERDAY??? Or maybe earlier in the week after one of our run-throughs? The odd thing about it is, the only other time this ballet has been performed in the world - in New York City in 1996 - at the same director’s ballet company, the singer was on-stage! It might have occurred to him, oh, I don’t know ... 10 years ago!!! But apparently not. Oh well, at least my hair would look good... But I digress...

So, I arrive at the the final dress rehearsal just before the beginning of “Glass Pieces”, and quickly warm up in my dressing room. 15-minutes later, during the first intermission, I get hooked up with a body-mic, and we try to squeeze in a sound check before Act 2 starts. I have to say, it did not go well. While I’m singing, I try to figure out what I’m hearing. Unfortunately I find the sound from the stage WAY different than from the pit. My voice was ringing around the hall so much that I lost track of the orchestra now beneath me. I forgot my lyrics, I lost my pitch, and got off the beat. YIKES. We stop. The sound guys, the conductor and I chat about it for a minute, and they make a few adjustments. We begin again, but we are stopped halfway through the song. Time was up. They were on a tight schedule, and Act 2 had to start.

I walk off stage with my head spinning a bit. I started getting really nervous, thinking that maybe the sound would still be such a problem for me that I’d blow the song on Opening Night, which could seriously affect the whole show. Back in my dressing room, I keep running the lyrics over and over until Act 3 is about to start.

When I get down to the stage for the run-through of West Side, the sound guys tell me that they have boosted the orchestra in an off-stage monitor so I won’t get lost. Feeling relieved, my cue comes and I walk out there to sing it for real - my one and only crack at it before the Opening Night audience. My heart pounding, I was like a bunny in the headlights. I notice all the seats in the theatre, I see the production team sitting out there talking to one another, and to top it off the orchestra still sounds too quiet. With all these things racing through my mind, I mess up a few lyrics off the top, but somehow get through the song. Afterwards, I ask for even more orchestra in the monitor, and I was told they would do what they could for the show that night. With my solo now done and the run-through still going on, I head down to the pit to finish the show, only to find the plexi-glass walls gone from around our microphones. Ch-ch-ch-changes...

In my 10 years of theatre experience, usually by Opening Night there are zero last-minute surprises. You spend so much time in rehearsal polishing and tweaking, making things just right. You have a few preview performances to get the feel of how an audience might affect the show. Everyone’s confidence is about as high as it will be. But I could remember nothing in my past that would help me here.

I spend the break from 4:00 - 7:30pm visualizing myself singing on the stage (with the correct lyrics, of course) and convincing myself that everything will be fine. It was mind over matter. And before I knew it, it was SHOW-TIME. I was focused and confident, and ready. I love this music so much, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could overcome these obstacles, and to prove to the brilliant Mr. Briskin that he was right to hire ME, and not some other guy. The audience won’t know that I just got up on-stage that very afternoon. They expect me to knock it out of the park.

I don’t know if I knocked it out, but I certainly smashed a bases-clearing double. I did it! I was nervous all right, but somehow I nailed all the lyrics, hit all the notes, and maintained my composure. The applause carried me off-stage, and into the safety of the wings, while my arms and legs were tingling with the adrenaline of the big moment. My sound guy Greg smiles at me. “So, did you have fun?” he asked. I pause to process it all... “NO!” I said exasperated. “It was frickin' hard!”

The rest of show goes off without a hitch, and the crowd obliges with a standing ovation. Even us singers are given a bow up on-stage, and if you've ever been to the ballet, you know how long the bows can be! It was at that point when it finally sunk in. What a sense of relief and accomplishment I felt. Amazing, this job. All in a days work, I guess.

Since that first show, I have had A LOT OF FUN singing my solo on-stage, and singing the finale from the pit. It’s been a wonderful experience, a learning experience, and one that I won’t forget for a long time. Sometimes, things are NOT what they appear to be. Was it the easiest gig I have ever had? As it turns out, no freakin’ way!

"What, and quit showbiz?"

Not me.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

My West Side Story - Part 1

The day was Wednesday November 7, 2007, the day before Opening Night of "West Side Story Suite" with the National Ballet of Canada. The dancers have been preparing this ballet for months, and were very ready to bring it to an audience. And despite this being only my eighth day of rehearsal, I was ready too, mostly because I sing for a total of about four minutes in the show. Remember when I said this was the easiest gig I've ever had?

I arrived at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (that’ll be the last time I use its full name... jeeesh) at about 11am for the beginning of rehearsal. Since the show is a mixed program made up of three short 1-act ballets, with "West Side" being Act 3, I had the chance to watch the first two ballets. Both were quite enjoyable, and considering they were all choreographed by the late Jerome Robbins, surprisingly different from one another and from West Side Story. “Glass Pieces” is a modern piece set to the minimalist music of Phillip Glass. The dancers wear bright, colourful one piece spandex suits, and move about the stage swiftly in pleasing geometric patterns and formations. It was really cool. The second act is called “In The Night” and is a romantic period piece, set to four Chopin Nocturnes, played on solo piano. In each of the first three scenes, a couple dances a pas-de-deux, and in the fourth scene, the three couples' stories surprisingly all come together. It was very beautiful. And, in an interesting coincidence, the last Nocturne in this ballet is the same nocturne featured in the musical Tristan I just finished doing at Shaw. It was a real treat to hear this beautiful piece of music in its entirety, and it brought back some warm memories of this past summer.

Then, it was our turn to put "West Side" together for the first time in the Opera House. I want to share my thoughts with you all, because it was such a new and fantastic experience. Try to picture me, sitting there in the pit of the brand new state-of-the-art Opera House in Toronto, amongst the 63-piece orchestra (YES, 63 pieces!), with a ballet happening three feet above my head. The pit is enormous, much larger than the pits I’ve ever seen, and it’s surprisingly almost completely open to the auditorium. Only the vey back of the pit is covered, and that's where we five singers were situated, dead centre. From our vantage point, not only could we see the conductor perfectly, who was on a raised platform, but we could also see about 1000 seats in the house. Yikes. I got a bit giddy, knowing that soon those seats would have bums in them, and the people that own those bums will be able to see us, too!

The sound department had set up for us a pseudo-studio (say that five times fast), complete with headphones, music stands, and plexi-glass walls from the floor to the roof (the underside of the stage). Hey, wasn’t that a Phil Collins song from the 80’s? Pss-pss-pss-pseudo-studio-ooooo... but I digress.

Next we did a sound check of the mics and monitors, taking care to make sure we can hear ourselves singing over the orchestra. Then, we started. I could barely contain myself as the orchestra tore into the Prologue. Bernstein's music is so fantastic, and here I was, right in the middle of this driving enormous orchestra, thinking 'They're actually paying me to sit here and listen to this!'. A couple minutes later however, I freak out, remembering, 'oh shit, now I have to sing!'. My solo is called “Something’s Coming” and as I'm singing it, I can hear the footsteps of our 'Tony' dancing above my head. Thankfully it goes well, and there are no sound difficulties. I have a good mix coming through my headphones, and am comfortable.

Then I sit back and relax for nearly 20 minutes and enjoy the music. “The Dance at the Gym” is unbelievable. To my immediate right is the percussion section, where four guys are banging away, laying down that infectious Mambo rhythm. I think about how my Dad would be salivating and jumping up and down right now if he were sitting with me. It is mind-blowing watching them switch between vibraphone to xylophone, from wood blocks to cowbells, from bongos to timbales, from tambourine to timpani with incredible efficiency and precision. David Briskin, the conductor and musical director is great fun to watch, too. He is a real artist, and you can see the passion he has for the music on his face as he leads the musicians through the numerous changes of keys, time signatures and feel. Later, in “Cool”, another smile comes across my face as the lead trumpet player goes crazy, blowing some impressively strong high notes. In “America”, the four female pit singers - Melissa, Loiuse, Robyn, and Gabi - sing the choruses in 3-part harmony, to fill out the singing from the dancers on-stage. Soon after, Melissa sings “Somewhere”, and then the five of us join the full company singing the Finale, a reprise of “Somewhere”. The whole thing goes well, and we all are excited and confident for tomorrow’s Opening Night Performance. I thank my lucky stars as I head home for a good night's sleep. Life is good.

Part 2 of My West Side Story is coming soon, where I'll share with you just how surprising things can get on Opening Night!