I have delayed my monthly story because I’ve been a little preoccupied ruling the world and “snuffing out popular resistance as if it were a naughty baby bunny.” It really is exhausting. There are just so many decisions to make—when your decisions are the only ones that matter, and there are so many people to keep in line—these people insist on having opinions contrary to my own. So yes, I have been busy playing a character that has created his own evil empire in a production of “Urinetown.”
I have played bad guys before, but to give me an idea of the nuances of this particular role, Jason Tucker, the director of Nashville Repertory Theatre’s production of this hysterical musical, summed it up in a one-sentence character description: “Caldwell B. Cladwell is as comfortable on the dance floor as he is in the board room.” Now I can do evil, however, singing-and-dancing evil is a stretch for me. But I’m an actor with a job to do, so I have to make the audience believe the evil while singing and dancing along the way.
I have to confess when a character requires me to sing and dance on stage it puts the fear of God in me. All those who asked what I did for my summer vacation, I have told them that I spent it learning music and lyrics, working on character development, and doing my “slow-drip” process of absorbing the dialogue of the character into my system. Kay was so ready for me to start rehearsals and get me out of the house. If she had to listen to me sing “Don’t Be The Bunny” one more time, she threatened to lock me in the shed.
This brings me to the real reason for writing this brief opinion piece. I have had a career in the theatre since 1970. Well, actually my first time on stage was in 1955 in a production of “Medea” playing one of the sons of Jason and Medea. It was an easy gig; just look cute, and then play dead. I was a natural. So after a fifteen year gap between jobs, I got the role of Paco, the Muleteer in the musical “Man of La Mancha.” My dad played the role of Don Quixote. I never looked back after that. I was hooked. An actor I would be, for better or for worse.
For the last few decades I have had the great good fortune to work with the professional theatres in Nashville in a variety of roles. People have asked me why I never went to New York. When I reflected on what a privilege it has been to work in Nashville, it dawned on me that New York came to me. Kay and I have seen a lot of theatre in our married life, and in some of the finest theatres in the world. And yes, while we can say we have been wowed from time to time by what we’ve experienced; we can also say that we have been equally wowed by the productions we have seen in this city.
I’ve got a few shows under my belt, so I know what it takes to mount a production. It takes a community, all with one mindset in service to the story. Theatre artists are storytellers. When civilizations first gathered around those campfires, there were storytellers and there were those who wanted to be told a good story. During rehearsals of “Urinetown” over these last four weeks I have been astounded at the professionalism of the cast, the designers, the running crew, and the management of this team of artists as we prepared. From the youngest in the cast to the oldest (yes, that would be me), I never saw signs of false choices or laziness or being uncooperative or flagging interest. I have rarely seen that among the theatre artists in Nashville. Those few who might try to skate through the rehearsal and performance process do not remain long. The consistency of the theatre artists’ commitment in the pursuit of a great story is exemplary of the Nashville theatre community. From the people who put on the shows, to the company management who promote the shows, to the media who covers and reviews the shows, there is this bond of fellowship all centered around telling our audiences a wonderful story and telling it well.
Under the leadership of great directors and in partnership with actors and designers, I have been privileged to work on stories that not only entertain, but have illuminated the souls of both artist and audience alike. I personally did not need to go to New York, and I own that choice. It should not be everyone’s choice, but what I have found over all these years is that while New York might get the big production budgets, the big promotional machines, the big names to put the butts in the seats, it does not automatically mean that the productions are of any better quality. The distinction of Nashville productions can compete, and Nashville audiences have been fortunate to have these experiences given them by such dedicated local theatre artists. Sure, go on your tours to New York and London and catch your shows on Broadway and the West End, but when you come home, you will find theatrical gems right under your noses.
I have observed something unique about the theatre artists I have worked with in Nashville over the years…we care. We care about the work, and we care about each other. We want our work to be exquisite, and our professional relationships to function with harmony. Personal egos submit to the unity of making art together, telling a story well to the audience, and bringing light to a dark world. There is nothing I enjoy more than to be in a rehearsal hall or a dressing room or on stage or around a dinner table with a bunch of theatre artists. There is an energy that exudes when two or more theatre artists are gathered together. When there is a room full of us, watch out. Stories fill the atmosphere, for we make the best storytellers.
I will be blunt: you should be so lucky to see “Urinetown.” Don’t let the title fool you. While there is humorous fun made of this bodily function, there is a powerful theme in this story about our human condition and the health of societies. And isn’t that what a good story is supposed to do? Give us insight into who we are and how we treat each other?
Kay attended opening night, and since then she has repeated her critique to anyone willing to listen, “I could not help but smile from the beginning all the way through to the end.” So be glad she didn’t lock me in the shed. You have multiple opportunities to see “Urinetown.” Go to Nashville Repertory Theatre’s website for all the details. I dare you to be entertained, and should you take my dare, I dare you not to smile.
Cover Photo of Urinetown Choir under the direction of Bobby Strong; photo by Michael Scott Evans