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Excerpt from Off the Screen

by Brenda W. Clough
©1998 Brenda W. Clough all rights reserved

With the actors on board, the production was now in full swing. Palana made them all take voice lessons in the mornings, to improve their vocal abilities, or in the case of the mere actors, to actually teach them to sing. Afternoons were first devoted to read-throughs and then to blocking scenes out. “Opening night is in eight weeks,” she fretted. “Ed, the score has to be done as soon as possible!”

“I just don’t have the right twist on the opening number yet,” Ed said. “But the cast can learn it in a day, if the rest of the show is cool.”

“It is not cool,” Starin said. “It is very very far from cool indeed. The band sounds like a catfight, and the singers wail like dogs fitted with electrodes. I will never forgive you for dragging me into this, Eddie.”

“It’ll shape up,” Ed soothed him. “Give the singers a chance to work into their material.”

The actors needed every moment they had. Virtual drama was a poor preparation for live performance. “But can’t you fix the glitch?” the actress playing Lizzie complained one morning when she fluffed a line.

“I’m going to engrave it on your foreheads,” Palana threatened. “This is real. This is live.”

Ed had these words printed up on old-fashioned T-shirts, which he distributed to cast and crew at the end of the first two weeks of rehearsal. “Just to get you into the period,” he said.

“Did people actually wear these things?” the Guitar Man asked. “It’s ugly.”

“And the color – why red?”

“Your great-grandparents weren’t as tasteful as you are,” Ed said.

From the back Rima piped up timidly. “What was it really like then?”

Ed smiled. “What year did we decide it’s set in, 1975? I was barely old enough to shave then! But I remember it was an exciting time. Sort of the opposite swing of the pendulum from the modern attitude, where we’re all working for the good of the group as a whole. Everybody back then was reaching out, asserting their individual rights – women, gays, people of color. We had the sense we were going to recast the world in a better mold.”

“Correct injustices,” Solarr said. “Fight evil.”

“Exactly. It’s the only possible era this show could be set in.”

With studied casualness Starin said, “Did you ever meet the great musicians? Dylan, Lennon?”

Ed sat down at his moog. “I visited New York the month after Lennon’s murder,” he remembered. “I was with a bunch of other grad students, and we went to the place he died, near the Dakota building on the Upper West Side. I bought a carnation from a vendor, and stuck it into the railing ...” Apparently of their own volition Ed’s clever hands began to trace out a sad Beatles tune, perhaps ‘Eleanor Rigby’ or ‘It’s Just Another Day.’ “But I did meet Paul McCartney once.”

In delight and fear Marty held his breath, afraid to interrupt the magical flow of reminiscence. A more daring chorus member asked, “McCartney? When?”

Ed didn’t look at his fingers, but stared reflectively at the blank music screen that folded up from the console. “Was it the late ‘90’s, in England? No, I was on a NASA publicity round, so it must’ve been after I got back from Moonbase. It was at a big party. On the receiving line I said, ‘I’ve always wanted to work in music – like you.’ And McCartney said, ‘I wouldn’ta minded being a spaceman, myself.’ And we laughed.” Ed’s smile held nothing but pleasure, the uncomplicated happiness of a single-hearted man. The simplicity of his delight won every hearer over in an instant.

“Why the hell, why the hell didn’t he do that on the i-con,” Marty almost raved the next afternoon in Palana’s office.

Palana leaned back in her chair. “Ed’s the perfect person for this job,” she said irrelevantly. “Being such a ‘live’ person himself. I’m not surprised he doesn’t come over well virtually. It’s an entirely different medium. Please God, that it’ll be better in music! If even half his charm comes through in the score, we’ll be a hit.”

Marty scowled, back to the old worry again. “It doesn’t matter how glorious the score is, if the actors can’t sing it.”

Palana rubbed her temples wearily. “I must admit I’m wondering if virtual actors are a totally different animal from live ones.”

“Suppose they never make the jump. Suppose Jerry never improves, never hits that high note in ‘All I Want.’”

“Then we replace him! Although it can’t come to that – easier to rewrite the music, and leave out the high note.”

Ed stuck his head in the door. “Children dear, come downstairs and hear the ensemble. It’ll do you good. Starin’s got them together at last on ‘Music is Alive’ in a way that’s a balm to the soul.”

“Really?” Palana leaped to her feet with a hoarse squawk of excitement. Marty followed, shaking his head. His worries about Ed’s fate had been instantly replaced by worries about the show, allowing him no net gain in happiness.

Down in the big rehearsal room, the dimensions of the set had been marked out in the center of the wooden floor with colored electrician’s tape. A large battered sofa did duty as the catwalk, until the real item could be built. Against the side walls were stacks of chairs, some floor mats, and a pile of 2 by 4s that nobody claimed responsibility for. The front of the room, the “fourth” wall, was entirely mirrored. The cast stood or sat around, drinking juices, while Starin and Kimi took turns hectoring them.

“ – that hip circle, Franny,” Kimi was saying. “In the second chorus, it should go like this. Tip your pelvis.” She rotated her lean hips with a ball-bearing ease that made Marty blink.

“It’s a C-sharp on ‘MU-sic,’ girls,” Starin said. “’MU-sic!’ Reach for it, don’t go flat. And, boys, chime in on the beat, not a fraction late, if you please.”

Palana beamed on them all. “It’s so nice to see people working hard.” Marty scurried over to sit by the mirror, out of the way, and Ed joined him.

Starin clicked the controls on the music board with a martyred air. “From the top, yes?”

“Go,” Kimi agreed.

Everyone in the cast hurried to their mark. The music system began playing music, guitar chords, from a pre-set point. The Guitar Man pretended to play the chords on his stringless prop guitar, and said his line: “Pompous, man!” And then the piano picked up the chords and turned them into melody, and the Guitar Man chimed in to sing the first verse.

Marty had to admit the blocking was well done. As Vassilio sang, the rest of the ensemble moved closer, apparently fascinated. First one and then more began to dance. Jerry and Lizzie joined in to sing, and then everybody else. Meanwhile the athlete who was playing Solarr slowly backed out of the crowd, excluded and ignored, and climbed up onto the sofa to brood above it all.

Either Ed or Starin had evolved the basic tune into a fully choral piece. The complexity of singing in four-part harmony, and dancing a complicated crowd dance, all the while staying in character, would have been utterly beyond Marty’s powers. He could only watch and admire. Clever directing and inspired choreography had vastly multiplied the power of the number. “This is going to be great,” he muttered to Ed.

“Hush,” Ed said softly. The ensemble whirled merrily off to the right and left, and Solarr was left to sing the title song, his solo coda to the act:

The passion for justice
Can’t be allayed.
Ignore it, suppress it,
It’s only delayed.
Heroes don’t surrender –
We never listen to reason,
Never do the safe thing.
Heroes suffer reverses,
Temporary setbacks,
But they always return
To win!
I can wait, I can plan.
For the moment to act!
The thirst for justice
For right
For good
Isn’t easily slaked.
I am bowed, I am banished,
But I am not dead!

As ever, it gave Marty the shivers. He wondered if it was coincidence that this song, one of the oldest and most seminal numbers of the show, was first to be worked up. A little scenario came to him in a flash, Ed setting it up with Palana and Starin to stage the number closest to his heart first. And why? Because Ed knew he wasn’t going to get to see the completed musical... Marty shook off the silly idea. Ed’s danger lessened every day now.

Something about Ed’s expression gave Marty a sense that still he was pretty close on target. An odd hunger sharpened the lines around Ed’s mouth, and his sensitive hands were folded under his elbows as if they might betray him. Solarr finished the song, and under the whistles and applause Marty asked, “Ed, what are the numbers on the proposal doing?”

“Sinking, I’m afraid.”

“What? How can that be?”

“That’s what I was telling you, Marty. We can force the numbers down. But the issue never goes away. There doesn’t seem to be any way out for me, but through.”

Marty had never heard such a defeatist note in Ed’s voice before. “No, Ed! You have to fight this. Don’t you want to see your work complete on stage?”

Ed’s somber gaze didn’t waver from the actors. “It’s my dearest dream, to sit in the back on opening night. But there are dreams that may not be.”

“’Cannot be,’” Starin corrected him. “That is, if you’re quoting from LES MIZ?” Starin sang the lines in his wispy tenor.

Marty could almost hear the click as Ed shifted mental gears. A mischievous grin spread across Ed’s face, and he said, “Speaking of which, did you catch the Gershwin reference I worked into ‘Music Is Alive’?”

“Of course! And the morsel of ALW, and the gobbet of Chopin. What have I missed, eh?”

“How about the Richard Rogers riff, here in bar 114...”

©1998 Brenda and Larry Clough Last modified 30 October 1998