The scene behind the scenes in “The Countess of Storyville”

Editor’s Note: “The Countess of Storyville” will premiere this week at the
University of Alabama as part of its development process on the road to
Broadway. In addition to professional actors, local talent will be used in
this week’s performances. Staff writer Mark Hughes Cobb landed a role and
today and Tuesday, he’ll show what it’s really like behind the scenes of a
Broadway-bound play.

The first time I wrote an inside-the-scenes tale of putting on a show with the kids, I had
zero stage experience, aside from rock ‘n’ roll bands and long, long ago school things, in
which being loud and not shaking uncontrollably meant Star. In winter and spring of
2002, I played Pilate in the University of Alabama Department of Theatre and Dance’s
production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” For the weeks from beginning to show, I kept a
journal, not just for me and my silly thoughts, but to share with our readers the
tremendous detail work, the numbers of people and hours and sweat and screw-ups and
fixes and laughs and stresses, the insurmountable obstacles, and the mystery of an actual
performance.

Since then I’ve had a few dozen stage experiences, but it’s been 14 years since I kept a
journal. I kept up with “The Countess of Storyville,” opening Tuesday in the same Marian
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Gallaway Theatre where we played “JCS.” It’s a professional work, in development,
brought in from workshops in New York and New England, for a fully staged run to
prepare for Broadway.

Sure, every show wants the Great White Way. But there’s, as the saying goes, legit folks
behind this one.

Take a breath, we’re diving in to credit land:
Margot Astrachan has produced four previous Broadway plays, including the most recent
and successful “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” which ran from 2013 until
early this year. It won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Down from New York, and out from Los Angeles, are seven actors with Broadway,
London and tour credits in titles such as “The Producers,” “The Lion King,” “Fela,”
“Urinetown,” “All Shook Up,” “Mary Poppins,” “Man of La Mancha,” “The Scarlet
Pimpernel,” “The Fantasticks,” “Dreamgirls,” “The Full Monty,” “Damn Yankees,”
“Ragtime,” “Aida,” “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” “Chicago,” “The Sound of Music” and … so many
more I’d eat up the paper just listing. That’s not counting TV and film, or countless off-
Broadway and regional theater jobs.

Our musical director, Jason Yarcho, conducted and served as musical director of the first
national tour of “Wicked,” among 60 other shows. Choreographer Denis Jones has set
Broadway stages for “Chicago,” “Legally Blonde,” “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,”
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” and “The Full Monty,” among others, on the heels of his career
as a performer. Director Mark Waldrop won an Outer Critics Circle Award for
Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical, and has been nominated for a couple of Drama Desk
awards, through a rich acting, writing and directing career.

Composer Marty Silvestri, in addition to “Countess,” has with his writing partner Joel
Higgins (yes, also the actor who played Ricky Schroeder’s childlike dad on “Silver
Spoons”) written “The Fields of Ambrosia,” which ran in London’s West End in 1996, and
the hit off-Broadway musical, “Johnny Guitar The Musical,” based on the cult-Western
movie. It won the 2004 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, and earned four
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Drama Desk nominations. It’s been re-created in more than 50 productions across the
country. The writing duo has also created a new musical, “Casanova,” based on the
famous libertine.

Now it’s here, because, even though Silvestri plants its origins roughly 18 years back, the
show really began to gain steam in the past few years, with a much-revised book tying the
various storylines together. It came to UA through Astrachan’s connection with Robert
Olin, dean of UA’s College of Arts & Sciences. They met because the producer, as chair of
the advisory board of the American Friends of the London Philharmonic, hoped to bring a
quartet to UA. That didn’t work out, but they stayed in touch; Olin touted our theater
program, which has ramped up its professional development in the past decade, and
Astrachan brought Broadway (potential) to Tuscaloosa.
“For you, you’ll be helping us, hopefully, on the road to Broadway,” Astrachan said.
In 2002, I wrote my journal at nights on my clunky gray desktop. For 2016, I sketched out
words on the screen of my Android phone. Other than that, surprising similarities: Shows
must be shows.

I didn’t start the journal at last spring’s auditions, partly because I hadn’t thought to even
try for the piece. My impression was all the major roles were to be filled by full-time pros,
and that they’d fill out the cast with the lovely young men and women from UA who can
sing, dance and act with the effortlessness mortals show in breathing. But Raphael
Crystal, head of the UA musical theater program, who I’ve worked with on numerous
projects over the years, including a musical we’re co-writing, asked me to try.
No actor likes auditions. Maybe a seriously demented few. But others dislike the idea of
having to sell oneself in a span of 90 seconds to two minutes.

I liked this audition.

Differences: The creative team sat on the stage with us, maybe 10 feet away, offering vocal
encouragement and feedback. In some auditions, an actor strides out across a darkened
space into a larger less-darkened space, and pitches his or her act into another darkness,
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where, far as you can guess, the director and casting director are sitting, hopefully not
nodding off or making funny noises and rude hand gestures.

This immediacy was energizing. Charles Prosser and I, old friends and sometime coperformers,
worked together, as we were both being looked at for a couple of roles,
including the Alderman and Judge Hamilton. We read from sides — select pages from a
still-in-flux script — then swapped up and read the other roles. This was after we’d each
sung — separately — tunes roughly corresponding to the feel and era of the show, early
20th century New Orleans. I chose “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which was, at the moment, more
or less true.

The feedback was quick and positive: “Great!” Waldrop said. “Now try it another way.”
“Um, anything specific?” I asked. “Just give me something else,” he said. Which, oddly
enough, was just the right thing. Actors want, crave, need direction, but also like to bring
forward their own whatever. So we read, were thanked warmly, and headed out. A day or
so later, Prosser texted me. I hadn’t heard, either. We virtually shrugged; I thought, well,
at least I experienced what a New York-style professional audition can be like.
But then we did hear, a little later than we’d thought: We’re in, if we want it. He got the
coveted Alderman role, chief toady to Storyville strongman Tom Anderson. I landed the
semi-corrupt Judge. With our agreement came contracts and paperwork, because
technically — I’m not going to swim through murky legalese, in part because here there be
dragons — the local grownups are under Actors’ Equity Association contract, with rules
for university and regional theaters. Yes, we get paid. Yes, it’s nice, for someone who’s
only gotten a handful of professional jobs. Yes, it’s actually too much, speaking for myself,
for what I’m putting in. But I’m thinking vacation fund, because I’m going to need a
vacation, probably soon.

The work is fastidious, exacting. Waldrop, Jones and Yarcho know exactly what they
want, where they want it, when they want it. Or sometimes they think they do, then see a
better way once the ensemble is up and moving. Adjustments come down to feet and
inches, gestures and beats. On one patter song (fast, rhythmic, largely spoken-sung), I
have an odd pause to wait between the cutoff of one note and the start of the next, with a
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spoken line by another actor, one of our leads, George Dvorsky as Anderson, in between. I
read music, but like a second language: haltingly, and often in error. The rests in that
space are three and … a bit. It’s called a quaver, and represents an eighth of a full rest.
Practically speaking, this means I cut off one note, then start tapping my finger — with
luck, unnoticed — against my thigh, 1, 2, 3 and … a bit … times, jumping on the next
syllable just before my finger hits the leg.

You can guess I didn’t get this right in the beginning. But Yarcho, like the other staff,
while demanding, is there for us. He’ll go over it as many times as needed, though, of
course, we’d all prefer repeats are not needed often. I’m not sure how the others feel, but
in early days, I’m sensing pressure to step up to full-pro pace. I’m not there, partly
because I haven’t done a big musical since “Ragtime” in 2004; partly because this isn’t
what I do, all day, every day; partly because the companies I’ve worked with have, even at
professional level, not moved this fast; and partly because, honestly, I’m just not that
good. Not on a level with either the Equity actors, with my local folks — Jake Whipple, at
13, is killing it — or the finely honed UA ensemble. It’s a refreshing revelation, really, and
in a weird way frees me to push harder, enunciate more crisply, make my entrances and
exits sharp.

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