10 February, 2010

It's all Greek to me...

In from the Blizzard

I enter the high rise studio room in the middle of a blizzard-- fresh off the plane from the mild, sunny West.

"Alexandra!" many people cheer, and they gather toward me like enthusiastic magnets. I should be a day late more often, I think.

I am instantly greeted by the quiet, charming, disheveled director of genius proportions, who has been talking to Chita in the corner alongside a gigantic window displaying the snow coming down in vast curtains outside.

And when I say Chita? Yes, I mean the one and only Chita Rivera. The living legend.

These people could not be nicer. It feels; not at all like the first day of school, but like the first day of summer camp— or rather, the second day of summer camp and everyone has heard about the camper arriving tomorrow and let’s make sure she feels welcome. Delightful.

* * *

Why Can’t I Speak?

Five of us gather around the piano— the musical director Patrick, Justin the young actor playing Niko, myself and Jim the accompanist. Leveaux looks on, Banderas beside him, stage management organize, shuffle and arrange in the corner.

There are two trios Niko, The Leader, and The Widow sing together— we go about learning them.

Then a Ricola exchange-- Chita is kitted out with anything a performer might need and it is all there on the music stand-- balanced within an inch of its life. "Anything you need my dear!" smiles Chita, a beautiful septuagenarian of Olympic proportion. Still on it, sharp as a whip and kind far beyond necessary for her status.

The left-handed MD Patrick takes us through it slowly, the rhythms are tough— the harmonies complex. One of Kander’s great unknown and literally unsung gems. Chita makes notations (she is left-handed too).

And just then, from the bluster of the February storm, enters a dark-coated John Kander shivering from the wind and cold. He made his way to our gathering around the piano.

“Hello…” his voice was soft, his eyes incredibly kind.

We continued learning. Harmonies. Chords.

He placed his satchel and battered umbrella on a nearby chair, removed his coat, and sat there listening. They are all; these lovely men—Kander, Leveaux (David NineandFiddlerRevivalsVisionaryEnglishDirector), Banderas (yes, of the Antonio variety)— in fact, listening. In exactly the same position: legs crossed, arms folded, head at rest atop the right hand brought up directly to the chin and mouth. A stance well known to the deeply contemplative. Think about the story of the butterfly… I think they are.

Suddenly we reach an impasse: Chita feels her notes “aren’t what they used to be I fear, too high too high. I’m so sorry.” She has such a sense of humor— not only about life but about herself, her self-awareness harsh but remarkable. She is struggling but so are the newbies! we have only been learning music for three-quarters of an hour! (And for what it’s worth, I disagree, I think the woman is a marvel though I don’t quite feel inclined to say so in this moment).

“May I?” Kander asks the accompanist politely.
“Of course,” Jim stands up allowing the composer to sit before the keys.
“Allow me, I’m just going to sort of the keys and modulations…”

We all watch in silence.
“Watch…” Chita whispers to me, “just watch. `When John touches a piano, it explodes with sound…”

And then it did.

He sat there a moment, brow furrowed, working out chord transpositions with the ease, vision, and elegance of a mathematician. I am in awe.

“Told you…” Chita smiled.

Meanwhile, Justin is focused and serious in the corner. I assume from every clue in his demeanor he is experiencing the not wanting to blow it sensation. I can only imagine; Alan Bates on his mind, a classic novel, a beloved film, an A to hit, Banderas to play to, the world to impress. --When I glance over he is buried in the score—for what it’s worth he’s doing just fine on all counts and I’ve known him 30 minutes.

Back at the impasse Chita looks over and smiles at me before announcing to Kander, "Yes I heard her next to me and thought 'I sound great!' but it wasn’t me after all! I’ll get it. I will get it. I just want to do your music justice darling."

Kander stood, clasping his hands together and placing them casually across the top of the upright piano. He is such a quiet man. "I promise you will be fine," he murmurs, eyes smiling.
"Have I ever broken a promise to you...? …after all these years?"

And they smile.

And it was that exchange. It was in that exchange that I could not believe the company I was keeping.

It truly was, above all others, a moment I have worked my whole life to be in the presence of. One that teleported me straight back to the dusty days of a twelve-year-old girl on a bunk-bed at Interlochen listening and learning from to and from these people making theatre history on a crappy Walkman. Banderas was great-- the real deal and a wonderful man, but these were my idols. It was the moment of a lifetime. A moment of arrival.

After the music session we packed up our things and made our way toward the smaller rehearsal space to talk things over, but I am mesmerized by Kander’s warmheartedness, his gentle face. His kind eyes.

"You wanna know why his eyes are so kind?" Chita asks me looking over at her old friend.
"Yes. Why?"
She smiled, not looking at me, “Because he’s kind…"

...she nudged my shoulder and walked slowly away, each step seemingly filled with memories...


  1. What a story. Just remarkable. Keep on shining Al!

  2. So proud of you Al x

  3. your greek to me post blew my mind. so proud of you.

  4. This chronicle is a gem. So happy for you!



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