It was a dark and stormy night, but inside the movie theater...ok, it was also dark; but one of my favorite feelings is realizing I've just smiled continually in the dark for the entire length of a movie, play, musical. Just me and my smile. That was me for the entire ninety minutes of "One Night Stand," a documentary film that celebrates the monumental talent on which Broadway is built! This was a one-night-only showing of the film in theaters around the U.S. (it will screen in Canada in February), but there will be a DVD available down the road.
The set up is simple. A generous group of souls in the Broadway community: actors, writers, composers, musicians, directors, set designers, lighting designers, choreographers, have all come together to create four 15-20 minute musicals in one 24 hour period to be presented at a benefit that raises funds for The Exchange, which supports theatre artists.
The volunteer artists are divided into four teams with a composer (or 2), a book writer, 4 actors, a director, choreographer, etc. There's a meet and greet for the entire group before the teams are formed, during which the actors present a single prop they've brought with them with some explanation as to its significance, which may or may not influence what happens later. For example, Richard Kind's old costume from an appearance on "Sesame Street" became the basis for one of the stories, and a re-gifted pop-up book on phobias (!) gave birth to another.
At 10:00pm, the front line of the composers and writers get to work, spending all night creating the story and 2-3 songs that will be passed to the team of actors they've selected at the start. The real chaos begins when the actors, directors, et al. take over. Inexplicably, these incredibly talented people received scripts and scores at 8:00am and at 8:00pm that evening were on stage, in costume, without scripts (mostly :)), singing, dancing and acting in fully realized mini-musicals. If I hadn't seen it....
And to hear the participants talk, it is one part excitement, one part "it's for a good cause altruism," and ten parts insanity to even attempt it...and they all loved it. Alicia Witt compared it to the feeling of taking drugs without the drugs. Even in the dark moments, each one seemed able to see it as the musical theater equivalent of a so-terrifying-it's-thrilling theme park ride. In fact, Cheyenne Jackson described it as being put in the car to ride Space Mountain and laying the track down as you go. Rachel Dratch (Second City; Saturday Night Live) had seemingly the toughest time; in large part due to her insecurity with her singing in the midst of the massive voices surrounding her. She needn't have worried. She was perfect.
I think the most unbelievable part was being the fly on the wall, watching the composers and writers go from zero to plot and music. I will forever be a fan of every single one of these artists. I was familiar with many of them: Ben Pasek and Justin Paul created two of my favorite musicals this past year ("Dogfight" and "A Christmas Story"), Gina Gionfriddo wrote one my favorite plays of this past year ("Rapture Blister Burn"), and I'd seen almost every actor on stage at some point (Alicia Witt, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Tracie Thoms, Roger Bart, Cheyenne Jackson). It was sheer magic when the first seeds of a story, and first notes and lyrics of fledgling songs were tossed out by the writers and composers, and I was immediately hooked. I wanted to be in those rooms, be part of this fabulous creative maelstrom.
The stories ranged from the angst encountered the morning after a bridal shower during which an unfortunate choice of words from one of the bridesmaids caused a rift, to a celebration of phobias (complete with a song called "Purel Desire"), to a disgraced Ponzi schemer who wants to escape to Staten Island to sell his suits to the "natives," to the three brothers, all Dr. Williams, all neurosurgeons who fight over who will do the surgery on the beautiful female patient.
I immediately fell in love with the wonderful songs written by Lance Horne for the bridesmaids musical ("Rachel Said Sorry" was a highlight of the movie); and Gabriel Kahane (a musician I've been hearing a lot about lately in my Twitter feed :)), who was responsible for the criminally clever "Purel Desire" in the "phobia musical."
The filmmakers, Elisabeth Sperling and Trish Dalton, did a great job of cutting between the groups and, during the actual performance, between the scenes of the musicals, so that you got just enough substance to truly appreciate each one as a finished piece, and still feel as if you had somehow played a part in seeing them born. There was also a good balance between watching the process unfold without commentary, and listening to the artists talk about the process before, during and after the event. This was a truly unique opportunity to get the tiniest glimpse into how a musical comes to be; and I am really grateful to (and in awe of) everyone involved for the sheer magic of it all. Seriously, every single one of them has just gained a new fan!