Three weeks ago I wrote that the just concluded “My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend” at Merrimack Repertory Theatre was not only the best thing that I had seen there, but in terms of an emotional resonance one of the most memorable pieces of theatre that I have seen in some 50 years. After seeing the show six times my respect and love for it, and for the originator and performer Charissa Bertels only deepened. It did get me thinking about the other pieces that fit into the most memorable category. This is long, and I do not really expect many to read it all to the end, but the recalling and writing has been interesting…
Under Charles Towers two productions, with completely opposing styles, stand out. I am not at all sure that David Mamet’s vicious and vulgar “Glengarry Glen Ross” went down well with Lowell audiences, but it did with me. At the other end of the scale was the touching and pretty musical “Daddy Long Legs”. In Sean Daniels-era “Home of the Brave” was a very funny and madcap farce but chiefly memorable to me as an introduction to the innovative cohort club. Here I not only had the wonderful opportunity to see the development of a new play as it flows from Lila Rose Kaplan‘s pen to opening night realization, but also to meet and become friends with Lila Rose, Joel, Veronika and Sean. I could also chat to my longtime ART hero Karen MacDonald. This seasons cohort experience repeated and deepened the process, most especially with Boyfriend where I hope that I can stay in contact with Ed Bell and Charissa even at long distance. I will never forget the final technical rehearsal just hours before the opening preview as Ed added the ‘money to make women obey’ lines to the Yale club scene. It made an already powerful moment even more so. Being a cohort on this production has been a profound experience, but even had I not had this opportunity and had only seen the show once on our regular subscriber night then I am sure that “My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend” and Charissa would have made it to this most memorable list.
Three weeks ago I wrote that I was mesmerized by the first read/sing through of “My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend” at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell. After seeing several rehearsals and a preview it came to a glorious peak at the opening last night. The energy from the incredibly talented Charissa Bertels was boundless as she sang songs from beautiful ballads to big belt them out via classical Schubert. This is while dancing tap, playing the piano, channeling Milton’s gravelly voice and even a cartwheel. You can listen to a couple of the songs on the MRT website, but don’t read the synopsis until after you have seen the show.
We have been attending MRT for some 30 years and this is easily one of the very best that I can recall. Not only that, in terms of emotional resonance it stands out among the top in my fairly regular 50 years of attending the theatre. Congratulations to Charissa, Sean, Ed, Christian and all involved in bringing it here. I know that it will be huge success locally and it certainly deserves to continue on nationally.
Being a cohort is a true privilege and I am so grateful to Sean for allowing me in. We get to drop in throughout the time when people come together for the 2-3 weeks before the show goes on to the stage. We get to chat with the folks and get to learn so much. Scary thing is, today they told me they read what we write. Um, they are the pros at that….
I chose to take advantage of seeing an extra preview last night. Our tickets are for Friday preview. And yes, they really do change things right up to the end. Seeing the two shows back to back, I got to see how that works. Aside from a different energy of the audience, they made some changes – subtle and not.
On the subtle side, is changing the emphasis of a few notes of music. Kevin who plays the piano in the show gets it, scribbles on the music and done.
On the not so subtle side is changing a major moment in the play. Trying not to go for spoilers, but there is a building to a major point where Charissa enters Milton’s (the 80 year old boyfriend) apartment. Earlier they tried to give a sense of moving through the space of the apartment by working on the lighting and that was how it was last night.
This afternoon, that’s gone and Charissa goes a short distance and faces the audience. Sounds minor, but it impacts on Charissa facing the audience with all the emotion of the moment. But it does take away a little time from my brain catching up with what is going on. And it changes who she is speaking to.There is such a willingness to change such a key moment.
That said, this is it. No more rehearsals to make changes. Tomorrow is opening night and it’s “locked in”.
I continue to be interested in the dynamics between the creative people of who’s in control. Who’s show is it? This being Charissa’s own story she told me she gets more say in the development – normally as the actress she does what is asked. But there are writers. It is their words and music and lyrics. There is Sean as artistic director and director of the play. It’s not his story, but he adds meaning and interpretation.
The answer here is that it shifts. Charissa, Christian, and Edward have worked on this for three years. Charissa has a story that they are writing. And I expect this to be the writer’s who have the say. And Sean joined in long ago in the workshops and has worked with them. And Sean comes in and makes this a team.
But in these previews it moves into the hands of Charissa and Kevin. In the show, Charissa explains how these shows are her kids. And now she is taking on the show and it is hers. And she does a great job.
I was happy/relieved when Christian told me that this is the point where he is happy to let go. Now that tonight is here, it is indeed time to let go.
Now it won’t be asking Charissa to do a scene several times so the lighting can be adjusted, or the sound, or whatever.
Now it is both her story and her show.
Congratulations all. You’ve done a great job and I hope the show has a great life. Thanks for letting me watch.
With rehearsals, technical work, and two review productions over, opening night will be a reflection of the success of this production.
The review production mesmerized the near-full audience – no one moved except to laugh, wipe a tear or applaud – with a standing ovation the moment the last note was sung!!
Charissa Bertels performs a one-woman production like no other, taking command of the songs and script in an unbelievable bravado. Her exhilarating voice fills the theatre, even as she dances. She takes on all the character roles such that you “know” Milton because he is within Charissa. When she takes a small article of clothing from her bag on stage, she transforms into that place and moment in her life on the glorious set.
So for the full production her exquisite talent oozes off the stage bringing forth the talent of the original music by Christian Duhamel and Edward Bell. As you listen to the music sung by Charissa, you will recall your own moments of innocence in Fifth Grade, and shed a tear recalling Love Left Behind, and be energized by the exuberance and energy of this creative music and performance.
MRT is fortunate to have Sean Daniels as Artistic Director for the past two years. With foresight and creativity he has taken on unknown and original plays and achieved outstanding success. And as this year ends with this outstanding productions, there are exciting new 2017-2018 productions planned.
It is imperative that you purchase tickets soon, this will be another sold-out MRT production. And while at the play, take the opportunity to keep creative theatre at MRT by sharing in matching the $35,000 donation by a generous patron by contributing a few dinero into the basket near the bar – keep this level of theatre creativity in our beautiful city of Lowell.
I finally caught a tech rehearsal of My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Even though previews to paying audiences started last night, rehearsals – and changes, continue until opening night. Arriving a couple of hours after they start, the auditorium is dark, with big desks up straddling the chairs for Sean, stage manager, sound and lighting with cables running everywhere. Hard to believe that in a few hours all will be clear again for the second preview tonight. As I arrive Charissa is practicing the tap number. Christian, who besides writing the play is also the choreographer makes some suggestions. It all looks perfect to me, but as Charissa incorporates the changes – yes it is better.
Tech is darting around to work on different – and new, spots. Ed comes up with five new lines in one of the songs which Assistant Stage Manager Nicky scribbles down on the score for Charissa to sing through a couple of times – and it will be in the performance tonight.
After a couple of hours I leave with the song “Break Down New York by the Numbers” running through my head. Fortunately to all around I only sing it to myself. Tomorrow I will be back for the third preview and then opening night on Saturday. Once it opens and the reviews and word of mouth start to spread I am sure that it will end way up in the top ten of attendances for MRT.
It’s time to catch up on cohort thoughts for My 80-Year-Old-Boyfriend…
This is my first season as a cohort, so I have very little experience seeing behind the scenes of a professional show. But I am starting to pick up a few things, particularly about a show that is coming together for the first time – a world premiere.
We cohorts are sent the script for a show and I wish I could have read them all for context. For My 80-Year-Old Boyfriend I did have that chance while lying on a beach in Puerto Rico. It made for great reading – entertaining and interesting – in my beach chair. I did know that the script was already changed from the one given out on the first day of rehearsals, but I know the story.
A script for a musical is a little different, because obviously there is music, and that’s not in the script. The songs however are all in CAPS, so you know that part is being sung. It does keep you focused on the story. To be honest, when I first learned the story was Charissa’s own story, I was worried. When being honest, most people’s life stories don’t make for great reading. And well, there are too many TV shows set in LA as if there are no other cities. I was delighted to find that Charissa’s story is quite interesting. During a break in rehearsal, I asked her how true it is to real life, and she replied that it is pretty close. Some things are re-arranged a little in time, or a little different, but it’s true to her life. In developing the show at workshops there was one important character who needed to be dealt with – her husband.
As you can imagine from the show’s title, you might think him relevant. As it turns out, his role needed to be extended or his character killed off. Well, he wasn’t killed, but he was removed which really works fine.
Script changes. The group has worked together a lot to develop things, but coming into rehearsals it is still being developed. And as to script, I use the term loosely – there is music and lyrics and choreography. I was at the theater this afternoon and was surprised to see things still truly in progress of coming together – after all the first show is tonight. There are still tables over the seats with laptops and all that for teching the show. They are working the smallest of details. They ask Charissa to do a short piece several times to get the timing of the lights just right to convey that Charissa is moving through different rooms of an apartment, within a few feet on stage.
They took a break and Christian takes to dancing on the stage. Christian writes lyrics and music, plays the piano, and it turns out also is a choreographer. That’s quite a lot of creativity. He isn’t dancing for fun though. He is working out steps for Charissa to be able to make her way, tap dancing, across the stage in what turns out to be a tight space – tap won’t work on the carpet. Oh and did I mention that the performance is in a couple of hours and it’s just about time for dinner break? Crazy.
I had a moment to chat with Sean and he tells me this is normal. Working out the details right up to show time. They will do this each day of the previews until opening night when the show is to be “locked down”.
Personally, I don’t know how they do it. On the weekend they do tech – lights, props, sound, etc. from morning to late night. Monday off. Tuesday more hard work. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday they put in what should be a full day working out everything, accounting for what did or didn’t work with the audience and then, yes, then they do the show. I would think this must be exhausting for the performers. Hours of repeating the minutia. Change a step – Charissa needs to take it in and make it permanent. How can they keep the energy? And how can they keep the focus?
Another thing that is different with this show… There is an extra person at the table contributing to the creative work. We cohorts are just supposed to be observers sitting in the background. Turns out this is Pelin Chou. Curious I looked her up online and found that she is the creative director for Oriental Dreamworks Animation – yes that is Dreamworks. She has very impressive credentials. She turns out to be an investor in the show and is there for a very substantial amount of time. Sean explains that her investment allows them to do much more for the show to bring it from an idea to a show. MRT is really moving up with the involvement of someone like Pelin. Kudos to Sean for bringing all this talent together.
I also got a chance to chat with Christian about how he and Edward met and how they managed to write things together – given that Christian lives in New York and Edward over in England. There have been the workshops and there has been Skype. Charissa in one place, Christian another, and Edward across the pond. They sing and create together. Pretty cool. They must however have a better connection than my wife and I have had using Facetime with the grandkids across the country.
Charissa Bertels is a Broadway actress and champion of new musicals. She recently toured the country in the first national tour of If/Then starring Idina Menzel, La Chanze, and Anthony Rapp. She made her Broadway debut in the original Broadway cast of Pasek & Paul’s Tony-nominated musical A Christmas Story, and later reprised her role at Madison Square Garden.
Is there an emotional idea at the core of this story?
The events of this story pushed me to realize that you can’t wait. You never know how much time you have with your friends–even the ones who aren’t 80-something years old. It pushed me to live in the moment, to take opportunities when they’re presented, and to not wait on anything.
In that way, Milton is not just the topic, but also the impetus for me making the show happen. He made me think, “What am I waiting for?” I almost missed my chance and I don’t want anyone else to miss theirs, to wait on the things they want to do or the things they want to express to the people they care about.
Was it hard to find common ground in your friendship with Milton, given the difference in generations?
We definitely have different viewpoints on certain things. He has views on women that I don’t agree with. Sometimes those things come up—but I always feel comfortable speaking my mind in the moment when I disagree. We end up having these great debates: gun control, presidents, gay marriage. There have been times where I’ve changed his mind. And he also has a deeper appreciation for some things that I feel our culture has lost as of late – for art, poetry, and things that people don’t give as much heed to nowadays.
When did you get the idea to make this into a musical?
It kicked around in my head for a long time – I met Milton in 2010, and we didn’t start writing the show until 2014.
I’d always wanted to do a one-woman show, but I didn’t want to do it about the thing most people do, which is a similar story lots of actors have: we moved to New York, and we wanted to be on Broadway. The paths are all pretty similar.
Then, a couple years after meeting Milton and telling people the stories, it hit me: an intergenerational friendship with someone who’s not your grandparent might be enough of a thing to turn into a show.
How did you find Ed and Christian, the writers?
Christian and I have been best friends for over ten years – he’s one of my favorite people on the planet. And he met Ed in New York at the BMI musical theatre writer’s workshop.
I consider myself a creator, but not a writer. I needed a partner to help me put this story into the world. I said to Christian, “I’ve had this idea kicking around in my head for years and I need you to help make it happen.” And Christian said “okay, I’m on board,” and brought Ed on too.
Do you find the songs capture the emotions you experienced?
Absolutely. The song we all keep coming back to is “The Love Left Behind.” Ed came up with this gorgeous song that captures Milton’s longing and regret so perfectly and poignantly. Which is amazing, because he never met him.
How much do you communicate with the writers?
We’ve met almost weekly. In the beginning, it was just me telling my stories, narrating things we’d done together, and basically orating all of my memories.
Then we started figuring out the “song moments.” What’s the narrative? What moments need to be musicalized and heightened? We storyboarded, breaking things down with little post-it notes and then trying to string them together into a structure to create this musical idea.
Is it weird to play yourself?
It’s only weird when you’re in rehearsal and you’re talking about yourself in the third person, as a character.
It’s fun to play yourself. Not that it’s easy—it’s not—but it’s more knowable. You know what your motivations are, why you did the things you did, and said the things you said, and felt the way you felt. You don’t have to make all of them up. But it’s also challenging because you have to be vulnerable, and really put yourself out there to show the world your flaws and insecurities.
What do you love about the stage?
I first got hooked in the 5th grade; I had this really awesome teacher Mr. Gibson, and he was super creative in the way he taught. Our class would put on plays and musicals, and I was the Hobbit in The Hobbit.
I fell in love with storytelling, and I fell in love with community–and that’s what theatre creates: a community that tells stories together. It’s the best thing. Eventually I went to college for it and made it my career, but it really is thanks to Mr. Gibson and his creative teaching. Otherwise I don’t know what I would have ended up doing.
What does it mean for you to be working at MRT?
New work is my greatest passion, and the fact that MRT focuses so much on new work is a dream come true to me. I’m super grateful that MRT audiences dig the same thing that I dig, and I’m most excited about sharing this with MRT audiences first – they deserve it, because they’ve shown that they’re interested in hearing new voices and new work.