Al Blackstone stages “An American in Paris” in 11 days (or, The Making of The Modern Day Musical)

Have you ever wondered how long it takes to put up a musical? Dance history books attest that Bob Fosse would spend entire days of rehearsal working on just one finger movement until the cast got it ‘right.’ Shows used to warrant at least a month or more of pre-production in the studio before formal rehearsals even began. Nowadays, you’re lucky if you get two weeks (including tech) before you hit the stage for opening night. Because of this ‘new normal’ of truncated rehearsal time, audition notices for shows like A Chorus Line, White Christmas, and 42nd Street frequently ask for dancers who have already done the show and are familiar with the original choreography. Leads are required to be “off book” before meeting their castmates and doing a table read. Choreographers must have the show entirely staged prior to receiving their first paycheck. You’re expected to ‘put in the work’ before the ‘work’ really even starts.

We could have been mad at this system three years ago—pre-pandemic strain on our industry. Is this fair to all parties involved – performers, creatives, producers, donors, and audiences? What is gained from an abbreviated rehearsal process? What is compromised? Does the financial savings truly outweigh the potential for setting a problematic precedent? What might be explored in simply allowing more time and flexibility?

Alas, here we are over two years into one of the most catastrophic periods in performing arts (let alone ‘world’) history. Theater doors have closed, work (though picking up somewhat) has declined drastically, and funding is still hard to come by. And at the same time, the need for art—for connection, catharsis, escape, joy, and hope—is greater than ever.

Al Blackstone is one such creative who hadn’t been working nearly as much as he (nor any of us) would have liked since COVID hit. Blackstone’s euphoric packed classes and conventions, Emmy-winning choreography on So You Think You Can Dance, and innovative dance plays like Freddie Falls in Love are things we may all have taken a little for granted. While we enjoyed them a lot, we didn’t realize how much we missed them until they weren’t there. 

So, a few months ago when Blackstone was given the opportunity to work on An American in Paris, he almost immediately said ‘Yes.’

Blackstone’s gratitude for work—and on such a legendary piece of musical theater—outweighed some not-so-insignificant challenges that came along with the project… First of all, this was one of the largest shows The Cape Playhouse (located in Dennis, Massachusetts) had ever put on—a nineteen person beast of a Broadway production. Second, Blackstone was to direct and choreograph—a title he was honored and ready to finally take on. Pre-pandemic, AAIP was set to premiere at The Playhouse with a different creative team featuring a separate director and choreographer. For regional theaters with quick rehearsal periods, a separate director and choreographer (or, at least, an associate of some kind) is beneficial so two rehearsal rooms can be running at the same time. Were The Playhouse’s change simply based on scheduling, financial concerns, or artistic desires, Blackstone’s responsibility to double-fist a show of this magnitude—without the allowance for an associate—would be no small feat. And what’s more, Blackstone had just 11 days in the studio to direct and perfect the show for the stage. No pressure…

“An 11-day rehearsal process is not necessarily something I condone,” admits Blackstone with a chuckle. “But this sort of system is unfortunately possible because of people like me—people who say ‘Yes.’ If it can be done—and done well, especially—it can be justified.”

And really, how was he to say no? AAIP was a dream show with a dream title for Blackstone. “I’m coming from a perspective of not being offered a lot of job opportunities in theater over the last few years,” he acknowledges. “Despite the challenges that were ahead, I had an instinctual feeling to do the project.”

AAIP is a relatively new-er show to make the rounds to American regional theaters, having closed on Broadway in late 2016. The Tony-winning musical is based on the iconic 1951 Gene Kelly/Leslie Caron film by the same name. “The story is so gorgeous,” reflects Blackstone. “All of these people are coming out of devastation, and they’re heartbroken. It’s a dark world that’s not particularly elegant or beautiful. But the dance numbers lift us out of that darkness.” Kind of like the world we are in right now…

“Dance is the language,” explains Blackstone. “It’s built so that the whole show dances. And it’s a memory play which gives you so much freedom in making your own rules.” AAIP features story ballets—12+ minute numbers of pure music (no singing and no overt direction…just music and endless possibilities). While this uncertain framework might scare off some choreographers, Blackstone couldn’t wait to dive in. “Story ballets give you so much freedom as opposed to some of the more fixed traditional musicals,” he explains. “I had a field day exploring and playing and figuring out just what and how I wanted everything to happen.”

Though he was excited, Blackstone took seriously the responsibility that lay ahead. He and his associate, Melissa Hunt (who was not commissioned by the theater but Blackstone paid out of his own earnings) spent 87 hours of pre-production in the studio. “That didn’t include any of the outside research, reading, watching, or prep outside of the studio,” adds Blackstone. “I’d say in total it was easily over 100 hours.” Luckily Blackstone was able to utilize free studio space at a school where he teaches (as that pre-rehearsal expense was also not covered by the theater).

Blackstone and Hunt (who also held a role in the ensemble) prepped the entire show from beginning to end—including the scene-work. They called in a few friends to serve as a skeleton crew here and there, but Blackstone was conscious to respect the volunteer dancers’ time. He describes, “People are always eager to ask ‘If you ever need a body…’ But to me, you’re never just a body. I value your time and energy and, if I can’t pay you, I’m not going to ask you for hours and hours of work. That may be commonplace. But it’s not fair.”

Because of all his prepwork, Blackstone admits the short rehearsal process wasn’t actually that stressful. “Melissa and I were so prepared. I hired a majority of people that I knew and I knew could handle something like this,” he adds. It also helped that Blackstone scored a few extra days with the leads, who had done the show before—and together. They already had the lines, the characters, and the chemistry, so rehearsals could be dedicated to working on exploring Blackstone’s new take on the show.

Most of the challenges that Blackstone faced going into the project were no one’s fault – per se. The pandemic has hit our industry hard, and scarce resources (whether that’s time, money, or teamwork) are just part of the current playing field. Right now, if any of us want to make art, we’ve got to acknowledge there may be a few more compromises and sacrifices involved than before. But if we’re all on board with that, we can start taking steps to getting back to the way things were…maybe even somewhere better. “Everyone [in AAIP and at The Playhouse] was extremely professional and worked like a team,” explains Blackstone. “I felt so supported by the theater and I couldn’t have been more proud of the final product.”

But after the show hit the stage for opening night, disaster struck. A lead tested positive for COVID. An emergency replacement (who had done AAIP before) came in to learn the show in just one day. But then, four additional people tested positive. “When there are five positive cases, the show gets shut down and everyone goes home. We had only performed five shows,” sighs Blackstone. “The theater team discussed postponing the show until the cast’s quarantine ended, but along with the financial expense, many actors had other jobs that would have conflicted with an extended production.” With no warning and no formal goodbye, An American in Paris was suddenly over.

“It was so hard for it to end that way—without any closure,” says Blackstone. “I don’t know if I’ve really dealt with it yet. It was so hard and we were so proud of it—not just the cast, but the costume team, the set designers, the ushers and box office attendants…My family didn’t even get a chance to see it.” Sadly, this unfortunate situation is not uncommon. Regional theaters and even big commercial productions like The Radio City Christmas Spectacular have had to abruptly shut the show down due to the number of positive COVID cases. While it’s kind of the nature of live performance—that the art is ephemeral, the experience disappears as quickly as it comes—situations like this never feel good.

“I haven’t been that happy working on something in a long time,” says Blackstone. “Those 11 days were bliss—for everyone, I think. I wouldn’t endorse that way of working, but there’s a part of me that wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.”

Right now, we—the performing arts—are in a give and take. We have to compromise in order to make the work happen at all. It doesn’t really matter how impressive your resume is, how long you’ve been in the business, or what connections you have…It’s still going to be challenging. “There’s talk about bringing it back next summer,” says Blackstone. “That would be nice, but it wouldn’t be all the same people [simply due to scheduling conflicts, other opportunities, etc.]. I’d love to revisit this, but I also know this musical will be a part of my life in my future.”

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