I’m writing this post only days after the death of Prince and, let me tell you, it’s surreal and very strange. To be working on a show that is so heavily influenced by Prince, mentions him multiple times, and likely would not exist with out him is difficult to deal with but also a place of solace and comfort. Prince created the Minneapolis Sound and defined our local music scene in many ways. His loss only makes me realize how important music is in my life and the life of so many others. And that’s exactly what the show is about – the influence of music on a whole generation.
So, I thought I’d do another behind the scenes look as I’m in rehearsals again, by taking a look at music in a show. And what better show to focus to use for this exploration than Complicated Fun. This show, described by playwright Alan Berks as 55% music, combines a variety of genres with 26 different songs by 16 different artists. It explores not only the punk scene but also R&B, funk, folk, pop, and styles that transcend genres in Minnesota music. It’s unique sort of musical – it doesn’t always follow the typical expectations of music in shows (being sung by characters, replacing dialogue with songs, etc.), it isn’t a juke box musical, but neither is it a tribute concert or play with music. It’s been dubbed a mix-tape musical and, dramaturgically, that’s the perfect way to describe it.
The process for this show started back in January 2015 during the History Theatre’s Raw Stages. I wasn’t a part of this process but I did watch the show as a house manager from the back of the house, in awe of how the ensemble had learned the music in only a week. In the spring, I came on as dramaturg to prepare for the summer workshop on the script, which took place in July. Music director Nic Delcambre played all of the music on guitar and piano and sang the majority of the music. This process was focused on the writing of the script, the story involved and how certain events progressed, what music to include, and how music was integrated into the work. Another workshop was done again in January 2016 (which I wasn’t present for and can’t speak to) and more time was taken outside of these workshops for the our director, playwright, and music director to discuss the music in the show.
The full band rehearsing Tetes Noires’ “American Dream.” (author’s photo)
A unique caveat to a show like this that includes music written by other people is that all rights for the songs performed must be obtained in order to use it. This affected what songs could be used and what artists – when you see the show, you’ll note that Prince is referenced but never performed beyond a few phrases. Rehearsals for the band began shortly before the cast began in April, with our musical director teaching the band the songs and transcribing and adapting them for the ensemble. The full band includes Delcambre on guitar and keyboard, Blake Foster on guitar, Mitchell Benson on bass, and Riley Jacobson on drums/percussion. Added elements to the band are the use a drum machine for synthesized percussion effects and a sound module controlled by the keyboard and produces all the sound from it, in a variety of electronic timbres (and can be especially heard in “Funkytown” and “Let Me Let You Rock Me”).
A primary focus throughout the process was to keep the sound of the arrangements as close to the original songs as possible to stay true to the work and style of the artists. There are certain songs that have been arranged differently than the original for musical theater effects – for instance, Husker Du’s “Don’t Want To Know” is slower and more lyrical to create a certain mood for the scene it appears in. The actors were given access to the original recordings in order to learn the songs and hear the unique qualities of each piece and each artists in the show. On the first day of rehearsal for the cast, a full read-through of the script was done with all the music being performed by the music director on piano and two guitars. As rehearsals progressed, time was taken to teach specific parts to the cast members (such as the Tetes Noires’ piece “American Dream,” which has two cast members singing and one of our ensemble members singing and playing violin). Transitions into pieces – especially the switch from the Replacements’ “I Hate Music” to Greg Brown’s “Downtown,” which requires a change from electric to acoustic guitar and the addition of finger picks – and vamping during scene changes also became an important part to work, as did cueing in the band, especially through character cue (record clerks putting on a tape or record, a physical gesture from a singer, etc). Once the band joined in rehearsals right before tech week, it became especially important that cues were clear so everything could be kept tight and neat.
When we started tech, we began focusing on how sound appears and runs through the the show, such as the timing of when music comes in, making sure that the song fits into the action onstage, and lining up choreography and lines so that everything fits together just right. Another large part of this process was the technical aspects – fitting actors and musicians for mikes, balancing their sound levels against the instrumentals, and balancing spoken dialogue over musical moving parts. The glorious brilliance of going from a loud punk party to being able to hear a conversation in the party is an impressive feat that the band, our sound designer C. Andrew Mayer, and electrician Josh Stallings deserve serious kudos for.
The use of the band in this show is really wonderful and unique – they stay onstage during the entire show and produce what in film would be called diegetic sound, or sounds coming from the particular scene or location, rather than added behind as underscoring or sung by the characters to convey the story. The band itself represents certain bands in the Minneapolis scene at this time, paying homage to the Suicide Commandos with the use of a Les Paul, having band members represent the Replacements and Husker Du, and incorporating certain members itself into characters in the show.
In this story about the often overlooked Generation X, the collaborative importance of theater has never been clearer. With an incredible cast, band, and production team, I am continually in awe of the work that is being produced. This is the largest show I’ve worked on in terms of people involved and it’s been amazing. We’ve got an amazing production group with set designer Michael Hoover, choreographer Cark Flink, prop designer Lisa Conley, costumer Amelia Cheever, and lighting designer Kathy Maxwell. It has been such a joy to be a part of this process and I know it will be an absolutely brilliant production. But don’t take my word for it – come see it yourself!
Complicated Fun is written by Alan Berks and directed by Dominic Taylor. It opens April 30th and runs through May 29th. Tickets can be purchased on the History Theatre’s website.