My Sondheim Summer

In 1985, I was studying technical theatre at San Diego State.  A friend passed along a tip that transformed my summer.  La Jolla Playhouse needed students to crew their summer productions.  Young and clueless, I had no idea of La Jolla Playhouse’s history, and I didn’t know who would be involved with their current season.  It turned out to be an amazing experience.

I wish I could boast that my wonderful credentials got me the job, but I have to be honest.  Just the willingness to work long hours for almost no money got me in, since they were short on hands and short on time.  The locals who worked the crew were from colleges nearby, and most of us were studying acting or technical theatre.  I developed a crush on one of the student actors, a big flirt with a conveniently absent girlfriend.  Nothing happened between us, but it did earn me a crew nickname.  He was Landshark, and I was Sharkette.

Crew members relaxing backstage

Crew members relaxing backstage

Once I arrived backstage for my first tech rehearsal, it became apparent that I was surrounded by some of Broadway’s best people.  The show was the musical Merrily We Roll Along by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth.  It wasn’t just that we were doing their show.  They were there in person, doing daily re-writes and revisions.  I peeked out at Stephen Sondheim from behind the curtain in awe, which is where I remained for the rest of the month.  I never once had the courage to speak to him, but I watched him whenever I could.  When the rehearsal began, I recognized the actor playing Franklin Shepard, one of the lead roles.  It was John Rubinstein.  I turned to my fellow crew members and said breathlessly, “It’s Pippin!  That’s Pippin!”  They answered, “Who?”  I dug out my tape of the Pippin cast recording and played it on my drive to the theatre all summer.  The rest of the cast had intimidating Broadway credits as well.  At least with them I wasn’t as awestruck.  It helped that I didn’t get to read a program until much later.

Merrily We Roll Along programMerrily We Roll Along opened on Broadway in 1981 and closed after only 16 performances.  The music was praised but the book had problems.  It’s the story of three friends and the disintegration of their friendship, told in reverse chronological order.  When the musical starts, the characters are angry, bitter, and compromised.  At the end, they are young, optimistic and idealistic.  One of the big problems was how to end at the beginning and still have it be interesting for an audience who knew the beginning at the end.  La Jolla Playhouse’s production was the first of several attempts to rework the musical.  It was a fascinating process to observe, and changes continued throughout the 24 performances.  The local crew’s favorite regular re-write was seeing which gadget would get invented by one of the characters in the second act.  Some nights it was the answering machine, but each night it was likely to be something else, and we never knew what until the scene came up.

Because I’m tall, I often got assigned to grips, meaning I pushed sets around.  Sad really, since I’ve never been strong or athletic.  Being detail-oriented, I preferred running props—taking care of many little items that need to be placed just so.  It’s easy to guess where I was assigned here.  I was shoving around rolling platforms, moving furniture, and shifting stair units.  There were frequent set changes on this show with lots of furniture pieces, so I was always exhausted at the end of the day.

The set was built on two rolling platforms from the back.  We’d shove them out and pull them back using long wooden poles with hooks that caught on rings mounted to the platforms.  We quickly learned how tricky it was to get the hook out of the ring.  More than once, the pole got jerked out of someone’s hand to slam down on the stage floor and get pulled along by the platform.  We were ordered to avoid hooking the rings.  One night during a rehearsal, my hook slipped into a ring by accident, and when the platform was pulled in, the wooden pole hit a brace above my head.  As the platform was pulled in further by all those strong guys, the force snapped my pole in two.  The breaking pieces hit my thigh and knocked me down.  Honestly, I thought my leg had snapped as well, but I was only bruised.  It was a terrific welt that turned all sorts of interesting colors.

The Emergency Room

The Emergency Room (check out the La Jolla Playhouse tee shirts!)

I wasn’t the only person who suffered.  John Rubinstein put his back out during the same rehearsal, and everyone was very careful to help him whenever possible.  Fortunately, the show didn’t require him to dance, but he had to climb up and down those platforms, and sometimes they moved when the actors were standing on them.  Just before the show finished its run, one of the props crew had a fall that injured his neck, requiring a trip to the emergency room.  I had to take over his duties, and my old tasks were divided up between the other grips.  I was flattered that they trusted me with a new position, but I was also hurt that my job on grips was considered dispensable.  I felt that everything I did was hugely important to the show.  My first night doing props, an actor couldn’t get off a platform because nobody bothered to set one of my old stair units.  I felt very smug.

During the Merrily run, which opened on June 16th, there were some dramatic events happening in the real world.  Because I was surrounded by people who read The New York Times and listened to news radio, these events became part of my memories of the show.  On June 23rd, Air India Flight 182 was brought down by a terrorist bomb.  On June 30th, I saw a small brush fire along the side of the freeway on my drive through Mission Valley.  By the time I got to the theatre and we began our performance, the fire went out of control and destroyed 76 homes.  Standing outside the theatre, we could see the smoke and flames.  It was surreal.

Later, we had a fire scare of our own.  During a performance, a fire alarm in the theatre went off.  I wasn’t sure what the procedure would be, but the show definitely does not go on.  The audience, cast and crew moved outside, where we waited until the fire department arrived and found the problem.  Somebody had left a hot soldering gun in a utility room which set off the alarm.  Once we were given the all-clear, the audience went back to their seats, and the actors picked up right where they left off.  I was amazed at how calm everybody was coping with the situation.  A lot of the credit went to Johnna Murray, our fantastic stage manager.

Another significant world event that happened just before the Merrily run was the introduction of New Coke.  Yuck.  For 79 days, classic Coke was not available.  Old-fashioned bottles of Coke were used in one of our scenes, so luckily the Merrily team had purchased enough old Coke to use for the entire run.  We used to go down to the prop storage area and lust over the stash.  Those Coke bottles became the most treasured items in the theatre.  Fortunately, New Coke was a marketing disaster, and classic Coke was brought back on July 11.

John Rubinstein remained my favorite cast member for the run of the show.  During one of longest rehearsals, there was a surprise delivery backstage of pies and cookies for everyone.  He tried to stay anonymous, but word got around that Rubinstein was responsible.  After another long rehearsal, I wrote in my diary: “Today we went from 10:30am to midnight, did two full run-throughs, totalling twenty scene shifts, three Act 1 presets and two Act 2 presets.  The preview went fairly well.  I prayed constantly to get through it.  John Rubinstein gave me a hug at the end.”  One day I left a wind-up toy dragon on his dressing room table, and he searched me out to thank me.  I still have the Merrily tee shirt that I made him autograph after a performance one night.  He was clearly exhausted but still gracious enough to write “I Love You” above his name.  (I’m sure he didn’t love me at that particular moment.)

John Rubinstein's autograph

John Rubinstein's autograph

I didn’t dislike the other cast members, but they were older and so much more experienced.  One guy had a game that I enjoyed but played very badly.  He had the first lines of dozens of books memorized, and he’d quote one and then make us guess the book.  I love to take photographs, but I was still using a 110 camera back then, so my photos from the show are awful.  The first time I took a photo of an actor hanging out backstage, he snapped at me for it. After that, I never tried to photograph the other actors, so all my photos are of the crew.

The fly crew with their toys

The fly crew with airplanes they flew down to the stage below.

We worked hard, but we also played hard.  Most nights we would go to a nearby restaurant in a big group after the performance.  There were fancy catered parties in some of the fabulous La Jolla homes surrounding the theatre, and the crew was usually invited.  My favorite party was hosted by Des McAnuff, the artistic director.  Because it was on a day without a performance, we got to dress up.  I borrowed my roommate’s cabbage rose blouse (a big fashion craze that summer), put on some jewelry and makeup, and felt like Cinderella going to the ball.   John Rubinstein asked me at the party what I thought of the revisions to the show.  I told him that the graduation scene at the end wasn’t working, and that it might be better to end with the song “Our Time,” which happened to be my favorite.  At the next performance, the graduation scene was dropped and “Our Time” became the finale.  I wish I could take credit for this, but I doubt I had anything to do with it.  I’m not even sure it was a good suggestion, because the ending still didn’t feel quite right to me.

The audience seemed to enjoy the show, but we really enjoyed the audience.  Each night, we’d peek out from behind the curtain to see what celebrities were in the house.  It seemed like there was always somebody famous.  I didn’t make a list, but I do remember Gene Hackman came backstage.

After Merrily We Roll Along closed, I didn’t meet any of the cast members again.  John Rubinstein is still hard at work, and I love seeing him in guest roles on television.  He still looks great, too.   I worked again with some of the same crew on The Seagull later that summer, but then I lost touch with everybody.

My photos are terrible and my tee shirt no longer fits, but I have some wonderful memories.

(Click to enlarge and read)

[Note:  When I was composing the paragraph about our fire scare, the smoke alarm went off in my kitchen! ]

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Absolutely delightful remembrance! I have foggy memories of being in theatre with a then-unknown Joe Mantegna … who has become very reliable working actor as we know. David Mamet certainly likes him. Thanks for sharing ~

    Reply

    • I watch Mantegna every week on Criminal Minds…love the cast, hate the “can we make this week’s serial killer more disturbing than last week” approach. I hope Mantegna was a decent guy?

      I know about foggy memories. I wish I remembered 2010 as clearly as I remember 1985.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Katelyn on October 6, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    Great post! I love how you mixed in some cultural references to help set the stage (pardon the pun). I’m jealous of people who have fun summer stories, since most of my summers consisted of babysitting. My favorite part was your paragraph about John Rubinstein. How cute that he wrote “I love you” above his autograph. I look forward to more posts like this one!

    Reply

    • My theatre career was pretty short, and I can’t promise all my stories to be as action-packed as this one. At least you got a break from POTO, though.

      Reply

  3. Thank you so much for sharing! It must’ve been surreal to work on a project with the great Sondheim himself on the set.

    Oddly enough, my favorite part was your account of the other dramatic events: flight 182, the fire, new coke… I don’t know why, but they send a thrill down my spine. I guess they give a certain depth to that summer.

    I’ve never seen or listened to the cast recording of Merrily, but I love the song Not A Day Goes By very much. I first heard it in Bernadette Peters’ famous ‘Sondheim, etc.’ concert. (my favorite Broadway diva~~) Her interpretation sent a tear to my eyes. She didn’t sing, but rather lived the song. The actress in her made the lyrics come alive.

    I envy people who have a connection to the art world, since I have a really boring job in finance, and going to shows and concerts and reading reviews about them is about all the fun I have. So keep up the good work! :)

    Reply

    • Thank you for inspiring me to drag out the old memories, and the old memorabilia. I can’t believe I once fit in that tee shirt.

      I’ve watched/listened to Bernadette Peters singing that song on YouTube. Amazing. There are also versions on YouTube where it’s done as a happy love song, and it actually works. I’m not surprised you haven’t seen the show, because it doesn’t get performed very often.

      I don’t have much of a connection to the art world these days, and my day job has nothing to with the arts. My head is mostly in London these days with my body stuck in San Francisco! I sure love connecting with others who share my passion.

      Reply

  4. Check my blog tomorrow (Nov. 16). In Act II of my piece, I link to this one of yours.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Johnna Murray on February 17, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    LOL. I shared this with John R. I hope you don’t mind. What an awesome company y’all were – the crew as well as the cast and the ‘creative team’ (writers, designers …) Your post made me smile and sing out loud and say Go! and marvel at the power and presence of scenery moved with push-sticks (… and recall Landshark’s diatribes about Pres. Carter ;^0 ). The actors seem to have very fond memories of this production, too. Thanks for the part(s) you played. May all your fire alarms be false ones!
    Best ~ Johnna
    PS + Seagull – wow – what an extraordinary summer that was!

    Reply

    • Hi, Johnna! It’s lovely to hear from you! I was hoping someone from the cast and/or crew would see the story here. I love that you shared it with John. Thank you. You were a wonderful stage manager and leader, and I marveled at how you handled fire alarms, inexperienced college kids, and nightly script changes without getting (visibly) ruffled. I hope life is still rolling along merrily for you!
      Stacey xox

      Reply

  6. Posted by John Rubinstein on February 17, 2014 at 9:11 pm

    Wow. So wonderful and uplifting to read such generous and sweet words about what remains one of my most cherished experiences in what now, 29 years later, has turned into a long career! “Pippin” is even running on Broadway AGAIN!! You’re way too kind about me, but right on about the amazing Johnna and the rest of the cast and crew. It was so exciting to be working alongside Stephen and George and James Lapine trying to reshape that beautiful, inspired, flawed show. I just saw it at USC done by students, and it brought back all those memories.
    My back went out that night because during the overture, while we were all waiting backstage for our first entrance, I suddenly decided to run across the stage to say something to another cast member, who was on the opposite side. I didn’t have much time, so I took off at a good clip. As I neared the center of the stage, I SUDDENLY realized that I was going to run right through the rear projection beam, which was showing photographs on the scrim. My shadow would dart across and interrupt the slide show. So, incapable of stopping my running momentum, I instantly crouched into a Groucho walk in order to go UNDER the projection light. And my back just went SNAP. I sort of stumbled and crawled over to the other side of the stage, and figured I’d have to go straight to the hospital. But, thanks to all the crew’s kindness in helping me limp and struggle through that show, I managed to do the entire performance. I never sat down, though, except when I had to play the piano. It was the most difficult evening on stage I’ve ever spent.
    Anyway, it was so wonderful to remember all the details you put into your essay, the fire scare, the constant script changes. I’m glad it meant a lot to you, as it certainly did to me.
    And if I wrote “I love you”, I MEANT it!!
    Love,
    John

    Reply

    • Hey, old friend!
      Thank you for visiting and sharing some of your memories with me. It was an unforgettable experience, working with such a talented group of people. It truly was Our Time. I was a fan of yours before Merrily and I continue to enjoy your work. A special memory was seeing Someone To Watch Over Me in a tiny cinema in Scotland. It felt like an old friend from home had dropped by for a visit, and it still does. Thanks, John.
      Love,
      Stacey

      Reply

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