So, I Orchestrated a Musical… (Part IV)

When last we left off, Toronto Fringe had just announced a return to an in-person theatre festival in the summer of 2022. Almost a year and a half had passed since the four-song demo version of Back and Forth: The Musical streamed as part of the Toronto Fringe Collective, the festival’s response to the shuttering of live stages as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Ten songs out of twelve had been arranged, I had ideas for the overture and curtain call, and Dayjan was revising the ending of the show. We were in early negotiations with a venue about staging a live, in-concert reading of the music from the show, which we would later parlay into our rehearsal site for the entire process.

Only one thing was missing: our cast.

2022 or Bust!

In the spring of 2022, we officially extended an offer to all members of our 2020 company to return to the fold for our upcoming production. As Toronto Fringe indicated that there would be no further deferrals or extensions — on top of which a direct scheduling conflict arose with Winnipeg Fringe — this would be the sole opportunity to perform, at least for now. Declining this opportunity after all this time was untenable for us, but for our cast, two years’ worth of life had happened; some were no longer residing in the Toronto area, whereas for others, ongoing concerns about the pandemic loomed too large for performing live to be a viable activity.

Unfortunately, we could neither project what the state of COVID would be in Toronto that coming summer, nor could we fully promise what protective guidelines might be in place at any of the venues, especially with regard to audience members. We respected that people’s comfort levels would be tested throughout this process, and made assurances over what we as a company could control. In the end, however, we had to replace all but one cast member.

With rehearsals set to begin in April, a fresh set of casting calls went out in March — essentially picking up where we left off two years prior. We shared a wry chuckle at how self-tapes had become de rigueur, wheras they had been the exception for a couple of callback candidates back in February of 2020. Considerations were different now: prior concerns about sacrificing a month for our show in both Toronto and Winnipeg were replaced with ones of COVID safety. Response from candidates felt sparse compared to the legions of applicants we auditioned in the Before Times; we were effectively shaking a dormant industry awake, and the festival in July would place us among an early wave of live theatre returning to Toronto.

In the meantime, I rebuilt the arranging template for the last remaining numbers on my new scoring computer! While my old, pre-Retina MacBook Pro — the last of its kind, purchased in 2013 shortly before I began this blog in the first place! — was still technically functional, the proverbial “money light” was coming on most fiercely during my slate of work in the fall of 2020. With the workhorse of a laptop showing its age (and a lucky bout of work coming in at just the right time), conditions were finally right to upgrade both hardware and software. I took the new system, a 2019-model iMac, on a shakedown cruise with a video game score, which spanned from the late summer of 2021 to the early spring of 2022, conveniently wrapping up in time to turn my attention back (…and forth?) to Back and Forth.

I tested the new template on the overture, translating what I had vocalized to Dayjan a few months prior, note for note, into a proper, usable format. The “Procrastinatory Overture” was energetic and animated, influenced by cartoonish ragtime and frenetic conga, and introduced the melodies to a number of songs, primarily “Back and Forth,” the Swordsman theme, and “Time for Me.” While fewer musicals in contemporary theatre maintain a traditional overture (a custom that dates back to the 17th century) and instead launch directly into the action, this was conceived as a choreographed prologue, serving as a prelude to the show and to introduce the alternately playful and antagonistic relationship between Cass and the Procrastination Fairy.

With my new virtual ensemble tuned up, we were ready to welcome a stellar collection of cast members to fill every role… except for one.

Cass-ting Decisions

As in 2020, finding the right person to play Cass was of paramount importance, and similar to our prior experience, we came very close to landing the perfect candidate. By this time, Dayjan had reluctantly resigned himself to portraying a role in his own show, and was ready to don the wings of the Procrastination Fairy, in addition to sharing directorial responsibilities with Alanna. He remained adamant that someone else should play the lead.

While we had a viable alternative for the Fairy in our cast already, we had no one who fit the bill to play Cass — and with our rehearsals scheduled to commence in less than two weeks, we were quickly running out of time. After much soul-searching and, ahem, back-and-forthing, Dayjan concluded that, given the circumstances, he would step into the role. While he would retain creative control over the show, he would call upon me and Alanna to more directly oversee the music and the stage, respectively.

With our cast now effectively filled, we set the date for our table read… and realized that we had two songs left to finish.

I spent early April working overtime to complete the eleventh and twelfth songs: an expanded version of the theme from The Swordsman to represent the full pitch for the animated series, and the grand finale (and longest song in the entire show), “All This Time.” However, since these two songs had been revised since Dayjan’s round of vocal demos in 2020, we had to adjust our workflow. In a departure from our previous practice, we had the opportunity to collaborate directly (albeit remotely) on crafting the vocal scores for these songs together, in order for me to have a roadmap for my arrangements. With our table read fast approaching, there wasn’t enough time for Dayjan to record new vocal demos; I would have to imagine them.

After having been away from the project for more than a year — arranging “The Mission” at the end of 2020 was one of the last things I did on my old system — returning to it felt strange, like I was coming home to someone else’s house. I tried so hard to recapture the momentum that we had two years earlier, and if I’m honest, I never truly felt like I got there. Despite my faster, more efficient computer, I felt that I had become slow, my writing stodgy and clumsy. Yet, in spite of feeling rusty and out of practice, I managed to go from completing the vocal score of “All This Time” with Dayjan to having the arrangement fully realized all in one final three-day push.

About 15 hours later, after I put the finishing touches on the updated piano/vocal score, the cast of Back and Forth: The Musical finally met in person.

Members of the cast and creative team gather for Back and Forth: The Table Read.

Rehearsals

On April 10, two years to the day since our virtual read-through with our original 2020 cast, we officially began the rehearsal process for our 2022 Toronto Fringe production with a live table read. This was a major milestone for the company, and while the real work still lay ahead, the preliminary sing-through gave me a tremendous sense of relief. Admittedly, I had become so accustomed to listening to the music from the show as an album over the course of those two years that I had almost forgotten that there were, in fact, scenes in between those songs!

However, to Dayjan’s credit as a writer, so much plot and character development occurs within those songs that one could listen to just the musical numbers alone and still have a strong grasp of the narrative. My role as music director, in addition to teaching the songs to the cast and helping them interpret the music in accordance with Dayjan’s vision, was to instill in them an understanding of the intention and subtext contained within each musical number, laying the foundation for characterization that Alanna could later work with, build upon, and refine.

With less than three months between our table read and our premiere at Fringe, and out of respect for the schedules (and lives) of our cast and crew, we operated on an incredibly compressed rehearsal timeline. Our initial six(!) rehearsals were dedicated purely to vocals as we hurtled headlong towards our first checkpoint, our long-awaited public showcase.

Perhaps the greatest challenge that we faced during our vocal rehearsals was that, in accordance with our company’s COVID safety protocols, we were singing while wearing protective masks. While primarily designed to inhibit the spread of droplets and particles, we found that our personal protective equipment also expertly filtered sound, which forced us to work harder to overcome the diminished projection and muffled diction. With Fringe’s assurances that masking would be mandatory for audiences, we had planned from the beginning to perform unmasked, with our cast’s voices enhanced with a set of radio microphones, mixed live against my backing tracks by our sound designer, Adam Borohov.

Rehearsing masked, in addition to being for safety reasons, was effectively the vocal equivalent of training with added weights, with an end goal of enabling our singers to relax and perform comfortably once on stage. However, in early June, during our technical walkthrough of the venue, we were informed that having a second technician to mix our sound live, even if we provided our own, would be prohibitively expensive. With this sudden change in our technical plan, we could see that all of those weeks spent training our performers to access that extra ounce of vocal strength and clarity of diction would pay off.

I (at right) direct (L-R, on stage) Ben Skipper, Dante Toccacelli, and Dayjan Lesmond in rehearsal. Photo: Madeleine Monteleone.

Back and Forth: The Musical: In Concert: For Real

A mere five weeks after our first read-through — because there’s nothing like a hard deadline to give you that extra motivation! — the cast of Back and Forth took the stage in front of a live audience to sing through the show in a concert setting, accompanied by the full show’s worth of backing tracks. Presented as a work-in-progress and a promotional stop on the road to Fringe, the audience was introduced to our concert cast, featuring Dayjan Lesmond (Cass), Dante Toccacelli (Procrastination Fairy), Nikki Haggart (Ace), Georgia Grant (Dr. Grace), Ben Skipper (Ben), and Maria Kapoglis (Ensemble). For my part, I was thrilled at the dedication and professionalism shown by the cast in learning the material — over 20 minutes of music for a 45-minute show — so well in such a short period of time.

With the notes under their belt, we could confidently proceed with our next slate of rehearsals dedicated to scene work, blocking, and choreography, headed by Alanna. I remained on-hand to maintain the quality of the cast’s vocals, and to supervise the placement of the cue-in points of each song, working with the team to ensure that we transitioned into each number at the appropriate dramatic moment. Week by week, scene by scene, the show took shape.

Alanna O’Reilly (standing, at left) directs (L-R, on stage) Dayjan Lesmond, Nikki Haggart, and Dante Toccacelli through a scene while Madeleine Monteleone (seated, at left) looks on.

Meanwhile, I wrote two underscore cues, based on Dayjan’s melodies from the show, to facilitate certain scene transitions. As with my arrangements for the songs themselves, I held myself to a strict rule for these cues not to foreshadow or quote any themes or motifs that had not yet appeared in the score, to ensure that we preserved the dramatic impact of hearing those themes in their proper context. These cues effectively functioned as playoffs, as they were based on the melody of the preceding song, but I took the opportunity to reimagine them in the dramatic context of the moment. As we neared our final rehearsals, I arranged the music for the curtain call, finally giving a proper voice to an idea I’d had two years earlier (which we heard in a hilarious rendition by Camille Holland at the end of Back and Forth: In Quarantine).

We welcomed three new cast members through the latter half of the rehearsal process: Josh Alcantara (Ensemble) joined us immediately after Back and Forth: In Concert, and Mercedes Ranjit (Ensemble, replacing Maria Kapoglis) and Mateo Chavez Lewis (Ben, replacing Ben Skipper), joined us in June. We held one more edition of Back and Forth: In Concert as part of an outdoor performance about two weeks before we were scheduled to open at Fringe. By the time of our technical rehearsal and final run-throughs, we were ready and eager to take the stage.

…but before we get to Fringe, let me tell you more about the show itself!

Plot Synopsis

Cass is an artist who has been given the opportunity to pitch their animated series, The Swordsman, to a room full of network executives at the highest level, courtesy of their agent, Ace. On the morning of the presentation, however, Cass scrambles to finish (“PROCRASTINATORY OVERTURE”). Even though Cass pulls off a good performance (“THE SWORDSMAN PITCH”), Ace calls them out for having recycled their previous pitch from four months prior, and demands to know what they have been doing instead of working (“BACK AND FORTH”). Ace gives Cass an ultimatum: deliver a new pitch in three days, or she walks. Cass tries to get to work, but finds themself increasingly subject to distractions, culminating in an all-night video gaming session with their best friend, Ben (“BOSS FIGHT!”). At sunrise, as Cass finally logs off to go to bed, the Procrastination Fairy reminds them that, even while asleep, they always make “TIME FOR ME.”

The Procrastination Fairy (Dante Toccacelli) strikes a pose with their minions (Mercedes Ranjit and Josh Alcantara) as Cass (Dayjan Lesmond) tries to sleep. Photo: Brandon Goncalves.

The next day, Cass confides their insecurities in their therapist, Dr. Grace (“YOU’RE ENOUGH”). Feeling better about their trajectory, Cass tries to get back to work, but is again distracted by Ben, who wants to play for the second night in a row. Cass declines, and they have a falling out (“FINAL BOSS FIGHT”). Just as Cass settles down to work, the Procrastination Fairy reappears as a distraction, conjuring visions of Cass’ friends and associates to taunt them (“NOT GOOD ENOUGH”).

Cass (Dayjan Lesmond) is taunted by the voices in his head (clockwise, from lower left: Nikki Haggart, Georgia Grant, Mateo Chavez Lewis, Josh Alcantara, Mercedes Ranjit, Dante Toccacelli). Photo: Brandon Goncalves.

Day Three. Cass has almost started working on the pitch when Ace checks in. Thoroughly unimpressed by their lack of performance, she fires Cass as a client (“WE’RE DONE”). Both Ace and Cass, frustrated and in despair, respectively seek therapy for these recent developments (“I’M A MESS”). Dr. Grace suggests that Ace would benefit from a vacation, and gives Cass guidance on how to better focus. Cass, filled with purpose, spends the following week buried in their work, and writes a new pitch for The Swordsman, despite the Procrastination Fairy’s repeated attempts at distraction and sabotage (“THE MISSION”).

With the pitch now complete, Cass and Ace reconcile. Cass delivers their new, fully fleshed-out pitch for their show (“THE SWORDSMAN COMPLETE”). The pilot for the series is greenlit, and Cass resolves to move forward with a healthier, more balanced relationship between their work and their friends (“ALL THIS TIME”).

The cast assembles for the grand finale (L-R: Nikki Haggart, Dayjan Lesmond, Mateo Chavez Lewis, Theodore Dragon, Dante Toccacelli, Josh Alcantara, Georgia Grant, Mercedes Ranjit). Photo: Brandon Goncalves.

FRINGE!

Almost three years (and one pandemic) since Dayjan first put pen to paper, we were about to see Back and Forth take form, live on stage at the Factory Theatre in downtown Toronto. Our first performance was scheduled for a matinee on July 8, the third day of the festival. Giddy with nervous anticipation, Dayjan and Dante took the stage in their respective roles as Cass and the Procrastination Fairy, with the rest of the cast waiting in the wings. The frisson in the air was palpable. The opening notes of the overture rumbled through the theatre, and…

…the lighting system failed.

The beauty of live theatre, as in life itself, is that one never knows just what will happen. The lighting board at the venue froze, and half of the lights in the rig, meticulously designed and programmed by our lighting designer, Brandon Goncalves, failed to respond. Conditions on stage suddenly became less safe as whole scenes were played in darkness. Halfway through the show, the in-house technical team in the booth raised the house lights as they scrambled to engineer a hotfix without pausing the performance. Shortly before the number with the most demanding lighting cues, “I’m a Mess,” the house lights were lowered again. We held our breath, waiting for the moment of truth, and the stage positively glowed with Brandon’s design.

It is absolutely a testament to the training and professionalism of the cast that they were able to keep performing through the technical malfunctions. The house technicians assured us that these problems would not recur, and we looked forward to mounting our second performance, with the lighting as intended, two days later.

In the meantime, I had been planning three more underscore cues to facilitate additional scene transitions. I hurried to finish them after our opening performance, rationalizing that much larger shows undergo more substantial changes during their runs (especially during previews). I handed off the files to our stage manager, Madeleine Monteleone, to quickly import into our show session (on top of guaranteeing the integrity of the lighting program with the house technicians) during our scant minutes before the house opened for our next show. With all of the lights and sounds in their proper place, I am happy to report that the strength of our second performance more than made up for our opening.

Once all of the technical issues were sorted out over the next couple of performances, the rest of the run went by in a blur. Equal parts exhausted and relieved, we bowed after our seventh performance, as scheduled, on the closing day of the festival. For what was effectively a first workshop of Dayjan’s first musical, especially considering how ambitious it was, I would say that our run went fairly well overall. There was much that we all learned from the experience that we hope to apply to future projects going forward, both for new musicals and an anticipated expansion of Back and Forth into a full-length production.

Team Back and Forth takes its final bow. L-R: David Federman (arranger/orchestrator/music director), Alanna O’Reilly (choreographer/associate director), Mercedes Ranjit (Ensemble), Georgia Grant (Dr. Grace), Dante Toccacelli (Procrastination Fairy), Dayjan Lesmond (music/book/lyrics/director/Cass), Nikki Haggart (Ace), Adam Borohov (sound designer), Mateo Chavez Lewis (Ben), Josh Alcantara (Ensemble).

So, Is This What You Do Now?

Along with a host of other things that I do in the realm of media and concert music, I suppose that the staging of Back and Forth means that arranging/orchestration for musical theatre can now be added to my list of composer-adjacent skills. However, composing remains my first love, and even though I have been on a hiatus from writing for much of this year, I am already returning to the composer’s chair with a slate of upcoming scoring projects.

…and who knows? Maybe I’ll end up writing a stage musical of my own someday. Dayjan made it look like so much fun. 😉

Acknowledgements

I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to the members of the Back and Forth family whose efforts have made these iterations of our show possible: Kimberly Ramón, Camille Holland, Rosie Callaghan, Elizabeth Rose Morriss, Taryn Wichenko, Chihiro Nagamatsu, Rev. Brian Stevens at Hope United Church, Olivia Esther, Dante Toccacelli, Nikki Haggart, Georgia Grant, Ben Skipper, Maria Kapoglis, Mercedes Ranjit, Mateo Chavez Lewis, Alanna O’Reilly, Madeleine “Monty” Monteleone, Brandon Goncalves, Adam Borohov, Ross Hammond, our venue technicians, the supportive team at The Toronto Fringe…

…and, of course, to Dayjan Lesmond, whose dream of dragons finally took flight. Thank you for trusting me with your vision, for letting me help you find your sound and tell your story, and for allowing me to be the Hamilton to your Washington.

Back and Forth: The Musical © 2022 Nightjan Productions. All Rights Reserved.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s