‘Musicals can kill you’

A look at Chico Cabaret’s upcoming Tom Sawyer musical

APPLE SLICE <br>Jeff Dickenson (as Injun Joe) takes a stab at Tom Sawyer (Nick Estep) in new Chico Cabaret production.

Jeff Dickenson (as Injun Joe) takes a stab at Tom Sawyer (Nick Estep) in new Chico Cabaret production.

Photo By Tom Angel

When I crept into the Chico Cabaret theater, five people were engaged in silent brawl, frozen in time. A voice barked “blackout!” and they dispersed in good spirits. The only thing more incongruous than this scene was the gathering of 19th century folks milling about on the edges of the stage and throughout the seating area. I was the sole “true” audience member, and I was taking a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a musical.

Just as the kitchen staff of your favorite restaurant truly understands the depth of preparation invested in the making of a dish; likewise, in the realm of theater, an enormous amount of preparation is required to produce a musical. I spoke with Phil Ruttenburg, the Renaissance man responsible for the Chico Cabaret, to get the lowdown on the production of the musical “Tom Sawyer” set to open June 10th.

Much of the music contrasts the ingenuity and mischievousness of Tom with that of his fellow schoolmates ("Smart Like That"), the schoolmaster ("Hey, Tom Sawyer), and the Reverend ("In the Bible"). In doing so, the phrasing at times is as complex as a fencing match, with parries and spars being dealt and received in the form of clever words, rounds and intricate harmonies. “The music here is pretty complicated, it’s not easy music,” Ruttenburg explained.

According to Ruttenburg, rehearsals for a musical often run three to four times a week for seven to eight weeks. The first two or three weeks are spent solely on learning the compositions. “The music here is pretty complicated, it’s not easy music,” he explained.

Following is another two or three weeks of choreography, the domain of Melinda Buzan. Once integrated, the blocking, or physical placement of each actor during each scene, begins. Only then is the live band ushered in, lending a whole new dimension of wonderfully maddening complexity to which the cast must acclimate.

It is at this stage in the production process that I viewed the developing musical, just two weeks prior to opening weekend. Actors “owned” their speaking parts, and belted their songs with gusto. But further elements demand synthesis—the coordination of microphones, the perfection of sound-levels, and, of course, the assembly of the props.

A doorknob, some quick-release aprons, a map. The map in particular received a lot of attention—should it be made of leather? Where does one get leather? It was finally determined that a scrap piece from a cast member’s foray into reupholstering would do nicely.

Ruttenburg admits that much of directing is this kind of delegation: confident reliance upon cast members to be creative with their roles right down to their props. “That’s what community theatre is all about. Letting them create, and letting them do it.”

Another hot topic that night involved the condition of the songbooks. One was particularly battered, the victim of a rogue sprinkler-and-coffee incident. The importance of this seemingly trivial matter became clear when Ruttenburg broke down the costs customary for a musical.

“The average cost just for music rental is about $900. Just to rent the music. Then, you’ve got to pay on top of that royalties, every night that you do the show. It’s about $110 a night on average. Then you’ve got to pay an up-front fee for a deposit,” and, you guessed it, that deposit included the return of the books in a non-coffee-stained condition.

“You’re $400 or $500 out a night before you even start making expenses. To make a profit, we have to have at least 80 to 90 people a night, to do well with a musical. Doing musicals is a huge, huge challenge.”

I asked him how many musicals they do a year. He admitted that they do a lot, probably too many. He paused. “Musicals can kill you.”

Despite the financial strain, the joviality and affection of the volunteer cast is impossible to ignore. "It’s all about friendship, it’s all about hanging out with each other, it’s all about creating this wonderful show together, and they all have a great time."