Funny man and die-hard Sondheim fan (Yes, we like him already) Scott Brennan walks us though the concept of Spontaneous Broadway.
So how did the Spontaneous Broadway Concept come about?
Spontaneous Broadway actually originated in America. About ten years ago John Thorn (the Musical Director of Spontaneous Broadway) thought it would be a good idea to bring the format to Australia. He spoke to Russel Fletcher, and the two of them obtained the rights to perform it in this country. Over those ten years the format has changed and been adapted slightly – we’ve made it our own. For example, the “audience vote” (on which musical they would like to see) was quite a drawn out affair in the American version. We just go with the good old 'clap-o-meter.' Also, we tend to be a bit sillier. There are still serious moments in our musicals, but they tend to be a bit more of a romp than our American counterparts. What I guess I’m trying to say is, we’re hysterical!
You must be a pretty die-hard musicals fan. How did you get involved in performing?
We’re all into musicals to greater and lesser extents. Personally, there was a time in my life where I was the biggest music theatre queen in the world! If it didn’t have songs in it, I wouldn’t watch it! (And let’s face it – why would you?) I got into performing at quite a young age. My friends and I would put on little plays for the class in primary school. Then I had a friend who was in an amateur theatre company, so of course I had to join too. It was great. As a teenager I would do musical after musical. Oklahoma!, The Pirates of Penzance, The Wizard of Oz – they were great days. I actually learnt a lot from doing all of them. I learnt all the basics of performing, as well as a hell of a lot of show tunes. That really set up my love of music theatre, which many of my friends now wish would go away. If you know enough show tunes, there really is a song for every occasion. Apparently it can get quite annoying.
What's the most bizarre musical you've staged, based on an audience suggestion?
All of our musicals end up being a little bizarre. There have been times when the audience has really liked two suggested musicals, so we end up combining them. They’re usually pretty entertaining! One of my favourites was a zombie love story. Then of course there was the musical about sex addicts trying to overcome their addiction. As you can imagine, that one became simultaneously quite adult, and quite juvenile. We once did a musical called Adverbs Gone Wild! That came from the song title “Frenetic Lamppost.” It was only when we got to the end of the musical that we realised we’d done the whole thing about adjectives, and not adverbs! Another suggested song title was “Better Than Sex on Toast”, and from that came a musical called Mutants Ahoy! which was about mutants living in the sewers of Paris in the 1800s. That’s one of the great things about this show. You can never tell where a song title will end up.
How do audiences react to the show?
They love it! I think the main attraction is that the audience know that it is the first, and last, time that particular musical will ever be performed. There’s something special about the show being 'one of a kind' – just for them. Having said that, we have a lot of trouble convincing the audience that we are actually improvising the whole thing. We make sure that the bucket of audience suggestions never leaves the stage, so they know that we haven’t looked at them before the show. We also often don’t have an interval, so that the audience knows that we won’t have time to prepare anything. But people still think we’re cheating in some way! We’ve heard people say that we must have rehearsed the musical before, and then just changed a few words, or that we have a few structures that we always use, or that we’ve written the songs. They don’t seem to realise that all of these things are MUCH more complicated and time consuming than just making the whole thing up!
Performing impro. scares the hell out of most performers, why do you put yourself through it?
I guess the main reason is – IT’S FUN! It’s an awesome feeling stepping out on stage having no idea what is going to happen. Improvising is like having a muscle – you’ve got to exercise it and train it. It can be daunting when you start, but once you’ve built up that muscle, it’s a joy. When you improvise, you basically get rid of that voice in your head that tells you “No, don’t do that”. Often you open your mouth to speak and have no idea how the sentence will end. I really enjoy that. I love being on stage and surprising myself. Also, I know that I’m stepping out on stage with a group of incredible improvisers. We all support and encourage each other. It’s a real team effort, so that makes it less stressful. But because your mind works at such a fast pace I will usually get off stage and have no real memory of what we’ve just done. There’s no time to retain anything. You’re constantly thinking of what’s coming next. Previous audience members will approach me and say that they were at the show where 'X' happened, and I’ll often have no memory of it! It’s interesting that improvisation is such a fear for a lot of people. I believe we can all improvise. Let’s face it, we all DO improvise all of the time! None of the conversations we have in our daily life are scripted. We make all of them up as we go along. Improvising on stage is just an extension of that.
Have there ever been any moments where the impro. just didn't flow? Did the show come to a halt?
Absolutely! In some ways, that’s part of the joy. You never know what is going to happen. But we’re all big believers in 'If you’re going to die on stage, go down in a blaze of glory.' If something has lost it’s way, then we fully commit to it and try to make it the most entertaining disaster we can. Russel Fletcher narrates the show and acts as director, and sometimes the performers end up arguing with him about what’s happening. I’m dreadful at remembering characters’ names, so he is always interjecting and making fun of me for that. Also, if a scene seems to be going nowhere, sometimes we’ll decide that that scene was cut in the “out of town tryouts,” and just go on to another scene. Whatever happens though, it's always entertaining. It can get quite chaotic at times.
How does the 'musical' element work? Is there a band? A piano?
John Thorn accompanies the show on piano. He is a bona fide musical genius! Each musical starts with John improvising an entire overture (which is no mean feat, I can tell you!). He then improvises all of the music throughout the show. But he’s also improvising with us. He follows and leads as we sing songs, matching the music with whatever is happening on stage. His knowledge of musical styles in unsurpassed. We can ask for any musical style and he’ll play it. We just have to ask for a tango, or a country and western song, or jazz, or a march. Anything we throw at him, he just throws right back at us with amazing skill. It’s quite something to behold! Occasionally there will be other instruments as well, sometimes drums or a guitar. John always chooses top-notch musicians who are up to the challenge.
Is the show fully staged with improvised costumes as well?
Yes indeed. We have racks of costumes and tables of props at the side of the stage that we are constantly sorting through. But because we have no idea what the musical will be about, we have to have a rather odd assortment of things on standby. The clothes racks have everything from monks habits, to fur coats, to work-mans' vests. And the props table is usually crammed with things like swords, glasses, umbrellas, eye patches, and inflatable toys. The fun part is watching the cast handle all of this. We all usually play multiple characters in the shows, so we are always running back to slip on a costume, or find a wig that we were wearing in a previous scene. The really fun part is if there is a scene where two characters who are being played by the same actor, meet. That gets really interesting!
What's your favourite 'real' musical?
I have to admit, I am a bit of a Sondheim fan. I’m obsessed! I really like musicals that are a little dark, and I really love the cleverness of his lyrics. But please don’t ask me to choose one! I’m a huge fan of Sweeney Todd. And if I’m feeling a little down and uninspired, Sunday in the Park with George always lifts me up a bit. Then of course there’s A Little Night Music! Oh, I love that one! Apart from that, The Rocky Horror Show is definitely up there. As is Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Oh, and Cabaret! Now see what you’ve done! I can’t stop! Little Shop of Horrors! Assassins! (See previous answer where I referred to myself as “the biggest music theatre queen in the world.”)
Spontaneous Broadway is playing at Gasworks from the 19th – 21st Jan. as part of the Midsumma Festival