On Thursday, the Apollo Theatre will raise the movie screen in its 400-seat theater to make way for a live production unlike any Oberlin has seen before. Nine actors—ranging from first-year to professor—and four musicians will perform a concert reading of The Landing, a new musical composed by musical theater legend John Kander ’51 and written by lyricist and book writer Greg Pierce ’00, without costume and with less than two weeks of rehearsal...and they’ll do it with Kander and Pierce seated front and center.
The Landing is the first collaboration between Kander and Pierce, who first met at Oberlin when Pierce was a student. It is composed of three thematically connected stories: “Andra,” which tells of a lonely boy, fascinated with constellations, introduced to the power of imagination and wonder; “The Brick,” in which a mentally ill woman falls in love with a brick; and “The Landing,” in which a gay couple adopts a child who is more than he seems.
“They’re disparate plays, yet each one has something to do with loneliness and people seeking connection,” says Chris Flaharty, costume designer, associate professor of theater, and director of The Landing reading. “The first one is a very sweet, wistful story. The second is a humorous, sitcom-like farce, and the last one is a drama about dealing with love and loss.”
The Landing premiered off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre on October 3, 2013, after a two-year development period. The production featured Pierce’s uncle David Hyde Pierce of Frasier fame, who won a Tony in 2007 for his performance in the musical Curtains, written by Kander and the late lyricist Fred Ebb.
The Landing is the second Kander musical the theater department has tackled in recent years. In 2011, the theater department and Oberlin Dance Company coproduced Flora, the Red Menace, Kander and Ebb’s first produced collaboration. Flaharty, who designed costumes for the production, remembers the experience fondly.
“John and the book writer for that show, David Thompson, came to Oberlin for three days. They watched rehearsals, coached the actors, and were generally just wonderful,” he says. “It was a great event, and we’ve always wanted to do more with him and his work.”
According to Flaharty, President Krislov, who helped arrange Kander’s visit during the production of Flora, the Red Menace, spoke with Matthew Wright, chair and associate professor of the theater department, more than a year ago about staging The Landing. “Matthew brought the idea to our department, and I jumped at it right away because I know Greg; I directed Triumph of Love, a play he acted as a student. Also because John is a very generous person, as we found out from the Flora, the Red Menace experience. He’s really interested in student work and young people being excited about musical theater.”
According to interviews he’s given the New York Times and the Vineyard Theater, Kander says he always envisioned The Landing an intimate show so small it could be performed in his living room. That is why Flaharty and Wright opted to make this production a concert reading, rather than a main stage production.
“It worked really great for us to slip this in between Wedding Band, our fall theater production, and The Rape of Lucretia, our fall opera. It meant we had a short, intense rehearsal period, but I cast nine phenomenal actors—including Wright—and three wonderful conservatory student musicians. We also involved Ian Axness ’09, who had been working as a musical director in Oberlin for various projects, including the Flora, the Red Menace production, so he was acquainted with John and his music.”
Flaharty says the short rehearsal period—which included a weeklong break due to fall recess—tested the skills of the musicians and especially the actors. “When you’re planning a full production, it’s nice to have rehearsals laid out over time so that actors can polish and refine their characters. For this production, the actors had to do the same work in a more protracted time. They had to learn everything super quickly and really delve into their characters right away.”
And the actors weren’t just learning one character. “In full production, The Landing requires four actors: a man, a younger man, a woman, and a boy,” Flaharty says. “I looked at the script and thought it would be wonderful if we could have more than those four actors and they could play whatever parts we decided in order to tell these three stories. We have women playing men’s parts and various 20-somethings playing 12-year-old boys. They cross over and everyone has a nice juicy part as well as a few smaller parts across the evening.”
During auditions, Flaharty says he cast for character and performing skill. In a way, he had to because he didn’t know the music. “I got the script but did not get the score until just before we went into auditions. I didn’t have a chance to have someone play it for me, so I just looked at the score carefully and saw the vocal requirements for each character. It was fun to see the cast at our first rehearsal with music, how it all came together.”
Of the music, Flaharty says the songs in The Landing are different than those of famous Kander and Ebb collaborations such as Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spiderwoman. “All the music in the show is really integrated. A lot of the dialogue is underscored. Songs come up out of that underscoring then go away into dialogue. It’s a really continuous flow of words and music.”
He continues, “A lot of reviewers have said it’s very Kanderian music but a different sound, more romantic and wistful. But I see similarities. John is famous for little musical motifs that will introduce a song, the most famous being New York, New York. There is one in this, too, and every time I hear it I go ‘Oh, that’s so John Kander.’”
Kander and Pierce will preview the concert reading of The Landing and give feedback for the cast and musicians at their last rehearsal today, Wednesday, October 28, in the conservatory. Thursday evening’s performance will be the cast’s first and only appearance on the Apollo stage. “Because the Apollo shows movies every day, we can only be in there the day of the performance. We have to do all of our move-in on Thursday, and because of people’s schedules, I won’t be able to have a full rehearsal before Thursday evening,” Flaharty says.
As the one-night only event draws closer, one can’t help but wonder what to expect. What will a plainclothes musical performance with limited rehearsal—none of which take place in the actual performance space—where the actors perform multiple roles—actors the director selected without first hearing the score—actually look like?
Flaharty says you’ll just have to come to find out.
“I had a great mentor who said to me you can’t step in front of the curtain before the show starts and say, ‘Audience, we didn’t get enough rehearsal, we didn’t do this thing, and this didn’t work out.’ No. We can only do our best work and hope that the Apollo audience and John and Greg, too, have a great experience,” he says.
A limited number of tickets for The Landing concert reading are available through Central Ticket Service. Tickets are free and distributed on a first come, first served basis. Reserve your ticket online via this webpage or by visiting Central Ticket Service at Hall Auditorium, 67 N. Main St.
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