Fynsworth Alley: Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.

Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging QueensI’m sure that many of the people involved in last night’s benefit performance of Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens looked on the event as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Not me. I hope this is but the first of many future projects that I’ll be able to take part in that bring together so many talents for the purpose of making a statement about the values of our community, and to benefit those in need of some extra help. Clearly, this was not your run-of-the-mill benefit performance. I’m willing to bet that almost everyone involved in the show has been touched in some way by the AIDS epidemic, but the real point of coalescence for me was that our performance not only raised money for AIDS-related care, but the content of the performance itself paid tribute to those who have gone, those who survive, and those who support. Powerful stuff. During the dress rehearsal, when I heard most of the monologues for the first time, I was brought to tears countless times… the elderly lady who contracted HIV through a transfusion and learns to overcome her own prejudice to die with grace alongside a drag queen… the couple whose families are incredibly supportive until the first partner dies… the street punk drug user who finds an unlikely friend in a gay social worker… and on and on. The songs have never sounded better, surely, but I hope the final album product will be able to convey at least a taste of the scope of this work – gay, straight, bisexual, nonsexual, black, white, Latino, old, young, and unborn AIDS deaths. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I suppose I should tell the entire story of my involvement in this project. I had never really heard of Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens before this year. Oh, I’m sure I had seen the London cast album in record stores on occasion, but I didn’t know the songs, the story, the writers… so I never picked it up. Last fall, Emily Skinner decided to record a song from the show, “My Brother Lived in San Francisco,” for her solo album. I was incredibly touched by this moving ballad of a woman who’s lost her brother and her best friend, first to the city and then to AIDS. At the time, I was under the impression the song was a cabaret staple from the pen of Side Show scribe Bill Russell. It wasn’t until the album’s release on the internet that I discovered the song was not only from a show, but the music was written by an incredibly talented woman named Janet Hood. (Luckily, we were able to correct the error on the album’s packaging for the wide-release version of the album, although I think it may still lack the name of the show.)

About a month later, I met Bill Russell at a performance of Everything’s Ducky, the show he’s currently working on with his Side Show co-creator, Henry Krieger. From that meeting, we strengthened the bond between Fynsworth Alley and Bill, both by interviewing him for the website as well as by asking for a song from the new show for the Guy Haines solo project. Around the time I met Bill, I had started to hear of a benefit performance of Elegies being organized for the spring. Good, I thought – maybe it will inspire some extra interest in Emily’s album. Before long, I received an e-mail from a mysterious “D L” (not me) asking if Fynsworth Alley would be interested in capturing the performance on disc. The performers already included Emily recreating her “My Brother…” performance, plus Alice Ripley, Norm Lewis, and other names familiar from our previous albums. It sounded like a win-win situation to me, so I passed the idea by Bruce Kimmel, who approved, and off I went.

“D L” turned out to be Douglas Leland, who I knew from the kind reviews of our albums he had been writing for the “Showbuzz” column of Equity News. He was also the Associate Producer of the event, and he put me in contact with Bruce Robert Harris, the mastermind behind this project. Bruce and I got along better than I could have possibly hoped. He explained to me that the first obstacle would be getting permission from the administration of the theatre where the event was taking place. Well, by a happy coincidence, the theatre happened to be the Morris Haft Auditorium of the Fashion Institute of Technology, where one year ago to the week I was in charge of coordinating two performances of Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Theatricals. I had a good working relationship with Betty Levine, the facility administrator, and thank goodness she remembered me when I called and had no problem. Before I knew it, I was on the phone with the Sendroff office preparing a contract for the recording!

The negotiations were blissfully easy – we were all in this for the benefit of Momentum, so most of the niggling over royalty structures and budgets (that never seem to change no matter how many hours of discussion go into them) was put aside. I got a crash course on dealing with the unions – in this case, with AFTRA and AFofM Local 802, the former granting a waiver for the actors and singers, the latter for the instrumentalists. I also discovered that perhaps I knew more than I was giving myself credit for – for example, it was fairly late in the process when I discovered that Bruce Harris had not yet spoken to 802 about his three musicians; he had simply assumed that since the musicians themselves offered to play for free, that was that. I thought it would have been self-evident to anyone in the business – especially to someone who’s a union member himself (Bruce is an actor when he’s not being a mastermind) – that you need to make nice with every possible union every step of the way. Thankfully, all the unions were not only compliant, but actually helpful in making this recording go smoothly.

About a month ago, Bruce Harris started putting the idea of my attending the concert in my head. Since I was his only contact at Fynsworth Alley, he just assumed that I’d be there to see what we had all been working so hard on. Since I don’t really have a particular role at a recording session, I don’t generally go to them if there’s travel involved, but I felt a great deal of paternity for this project, so I thought maybe I’d make a vacation out of it. As the day grew closer, and I realized too that there were a lot of last minute details that were potential pratfalls, I decided I not only wanted to attend, but needed to go. So, on the advice of my friend Adam Hocke, I hopped on hotwire.com and found myself a $230 plane ticket into the city. Since I can stay for free with friends, and dine on Fynsworth Alley at our official restaurant, Joe Allen, the entire trip ended up costing me not very much at all. (I think the largest expense was theatre tickets. It’s like a drug for me – I can’t be in New York while shows are running and not be in a theatre, which explains my three-show Saturday.)

Friday morning was spent double-fisting telephones, ironing out last minute details with Bruce Harris, Bruce Kimmel, Bill Meade (our music contractor and union guru), the Sendroff office, Bill Russell, and a host of supporting characters. I mostly played the game of traffic cop, helping to direct Bruce and Bill to each other and making sure the few last details didn’t get forgotten.

Saturday night, after that three show day, I finally met Bruce Harris and Douglas Leland at Joe Allen’s. My friend Marnie and I had somehow forgotten to eat all day due to the intense theatre-going. Our third show of the day was Ron Poole’s Poole Party at Don’t Tell Mama’s, where there’s a two-drink minimum. Having forgotten that we hadn’t eaten, and not realizing that we wouldn’t be able to acquire so much as beer nuts at DTM’s, we were suitably shit-faced by the time we ended up at Joe’s. This worked to our advantage. Marnie spent the evening flirting with Bruce Kimmel, putting him in a fine mood, and I was just so happy that I either made a huge ass of myself of really entertained Bruce and Douglas. Perhaps both. (We were also joined by Christiane Noll, who will be our next featured solo artist. Christiane and I have been speaking on the phone for months now, so it was lovely to finally meet her as well.)

The following day, I planned on meeting up with Bruce and Douglas at the final rehearsal for the show. I couldn’t make it to Chelsea Studios where the cast had assembled due to tickets to Seussical (dear Lord, what a dreadful mistake!), but Bill Meade and Vinnie were there making sure that everyone had filled out paperwork and getting used to the show from a sound perspective. I headed over to FIT, where there was really nothing for me to do, but I was happy to meet some of the other key players of the production, including Wayne and Joelle, who were Douglas and Bruce’s assistants and therefore put in charge of collecting all the paperwork from the 50+ performers. Thank God for them, if only because it meant I didn’t have to do it. I helped out a teeny bit, cleaning out dressing rooms and moving equipment, and I sat with Douglas for his opinions on which of the monologues might enhance the album, but I went home relatively early in order to not be a zombie on the day of.

I arrived at the theatre around 10 AM the next day, and spent two hours basically chatting with Bruce Kimmel and Christopher Monroe. Christopher was filling in for his boyfriend, Jonathan, who usually assists Bruce at recordings. I had met Christopher briefly on my trip to NY in September, and we got along great. He knew exactly what he needed to do as well – he showed up with a six-pack of Diet Coke in hand, offering one to Bruce before he even introduced himself. When the Diet Coke is flowing from the get-go, Bruce is almost always happier for the remainder of the day. Janet Hood, the composer and musical director, worried that the house piano would not sound at all acceptable for the concert or the recording. Someone managed to have a new piano delivered, but I was concerned that it would come after the dress rehearsal, rendering our afternoon recording more or less useless – it’s hard to edit together two performances if there are different instruments in use; you’ll be able to tell the difference. By noon, the singers started arriving, and a little Fynsworth Alley clique developed around us, with Emily Skinner, Alice Ripley, and Brian d’Arcy James all sitting and shmoozing. Soon Marnie arrived, per Bruce’s invitation, to keep him company in the truck. Later, Christopher and Jonathan both told me how much of a help she was, not only in taking notes for Bruce, but also for keeping him occupied. When Bruce gets bored during a recording, he can get rather… grating. At the office, we can tell this long distance when the phone rings every ten minutes with a question about whether this, that, or the other thing has been done. Mara has confirmed to me that Bruce didn’t call her once on Monday.

Before long, the entire cast had assembled, and Bill Russell was running numbers, staging the finale, and otherwise tweaking. The dress rehearsal ended up starting almost an hour late, but this turned out to be a good thing – the new piano arrived! It turns out that didn’t matter so much; due to problems with one of the wireless microphones, much of the afternoon recording will be useless to us. But I was certainly happy at the time.

Julia Evins, our designer, came up from Baltimore to be at the event – she felt she could better represent the feel of the show if she actually saw it. I was happy not to have to sit by myself during the concert. We sat front row center for the dress rehearsal, and we were both blown away. The intimacy of being so close to the actors combined with the immediacy of never having heard these speeches before devastated me. I cried at many, many points. After the dress rehearsal, we ordered pizza for the Fynsworth people, not realizing there was a fully catered dinner for everyone back stage. Personally, even though the pizza was terrible, I was glad to have it – no one seemed particularly thrilled with the catered meal either, and a few actors even snuck over to our side for some pizza. I then booked it uptown to change into my tux, making it back just as the house was being opened to the audience.

Julia and I sat right behind Forrest Mallard, the guy behind “Production Notes,” an occasional e-mail and web-based column alerting those who care to the best in cabaret and musical theatre. I recognized him from the picture that graces his column on Theatre.com, so we chatted briefly before the show. I meant to continue the conversation at the after-party, but he was busy with his main task – interviewing the celebs for his column. Bruce Kimmel was anxious to leave the party for the more comfortable atmosphere of Joe Allen’s. Bruce is not really a mingler, and he had the chance to see everyone he wanted to see before the show. Jonathan, Christopher and I managed to stay an additional ten minutes, but we all seemed to lack the necessary ease or self-assurance that one needs to really work a crowd like that. Ah, well. Next time I’ll be braver… or drunker… either way, I wasn’t too sad to leave (although after the fact I realized I did miss out on chatting with a couple of people I meant to see, including internet acquaintance “BruceB” and Norm Lewis, who I somehow managed to never see except when he was on stage).

When I eventually made it home (well after 2:00 AM), I hopped online to see what had been said about the concert. So far, only raves, with most people picking out the same chilling moments that made me cry as their own personal favorites. I added my brief notes about what a thrilling night it was, and finally collapsed into bed, falling asleep to the tunes of the London cast recording, which both refreshed my happy memories of the day as well as fortifying my excitement at the prospect of how our album will sound. Even today, the next day, I am thrilling at the performances of Alice, Emily, Brian, Norm, plus some talents less familiar to me, including Orfeh (wow!), Alton Fitzgerald White (Ragtime offered him no chance to show how he could wail!), Sharon Wilkins, and Clent Bowers & Doug Eskew, who turned “I Don’t Do That Anymore” into a bona fide show stopper.

Now we just need to get the artwork, write the liner notes (which will hopefully include all the lyrics), edit, mix, and master the recording, and get the thing off to the plant. If we could do it in two weeks, we’ll have it for the start of May, although more likely we’ll aim for a mid-May or early June premiere on the web, with the album hitting stores in September.

Towards the end of the day, I heard Bill Russell approach Bruce… “So, you know my show Pageant has never been recorded, and there’s a great, open-ended production in Chicago right now…”

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