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No other choice, no other way

June 7, 2010

Yesterday was the final performance of Rent, the last day of four weekends and fifteen performances, and it felt good. The tempos were where I wanted them (mostly), the sound balance was solid, and the energy level was amazing, everybody giving their performance that little something extra. Yes, there were a few silly ad libs that hadn’t been there before. But there was a sense of rightness that I hadn’t felt, at least not consistently. I was relaxed, but also tuned in to everything around me — I felt sharp, aware, alive. This is a feeling I only get from two things, theater and hiking, and in theater, I only get it when I really feel like I’m at the top of my game. Which has not always been the case for me with this show, because there’s been so much to think about. Rent is not a difficult show to play, but it’s hard to conduct, a lot harder than I expected. Thankfully I had four excellent musicians to work with, who stuck with me through all the little wrinkles that happen in theater — missed entrances, skipped lines, battery-powered stand lights that die mid-performance (thankfully, the tech staff figured out how to wire the offending lights before the second weekend).

Early in the second act, thunder began to rumble overhead, and it was raining hard. I actually thought this had a nice atmospheric effect, reaching its peak in the scene before “Without You,” which takes place in spring and has to do with longing. And then the power went out.

It took me a couple of seconds to notice. My stand light batteries were still running strong, so that stayed on even as all the lights around me disappeared. And it was well before the keyboard part enters, so I wasn’t trying to play, just keeping time for everyone else. But suddenly there was no bass, just an unamplified acoustic guitar. The guitarist kept playing in the dark, the sound engineer switched on his flashlight and pointed it down to the stage to replace the missing spotlight, and the actress playing Mimi began to sing again. In another couple of seconds I had formed a plan: I was already reaching to hand the guitarist my stand light, and I would grab my own flashlight to hold for the drummer when his part began. Since this song is built around the acoustic guitar, it would be missing some important components, but it would work.

And then, after only ten seconds or so, the power came back, the audience applauded warmly, and the show went on. It took another few seconds for my keyboard to reboot so I could find the correct sound patch, and a few more for the stage manager’s computer to load the lighting program (I’m told the conversation on the headset was a little bit X-rated for a while). But soon all these elements came back together, and the thunder quieted. By the end of the show the sun was bright, there were tears and laughter and hugs and pictures and silly dances, toasts and awards and a giant pan of lasagna that was demolished with astonishing speed. I may or may not have been forced to wear a piece of the set on my head. I don’t know if there are pictures to prove it.

When I finally left the theater nearly four hours later, the convenience store across the street was still dark, and the stoplight at the corner wasn’t working either. So it’s a little bit extra magical that our power was restored so quickly.

Thank to you to all of the fabulously talented cast, crew, and band for being part of that magic.

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