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.
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 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.