In a black-floored practice room in an industrial neighborhood of Menlo Park, cast members from the indie-rock musical "Fly By Night" are working on a scene. The 1965 New York City blackout has just hit. James Judy, playing the sad widower Mr. McClam, stumbles out of his bathtub. Michael McCormick, as the sandwich-shop owner Mr. Crabble, shouts at the tangled traffic.
Soon, Mr. McClam gets lost in a reverie of his late wife. He sings a tender song about how they met. Smiling, he recalls how she invited him to "La Traviata," and when he said he hated opera, she responded: "Who cares what you are listening to? It's who you're listening with."
The song is lovely, and its words even rhyme with the wife's name, Cecily Smith. The script, too, is lyrical. But "Fly By Night" is a new show, set for a world premiere next month. Its creators, who sit behind a long table with the director and stage manager, are not yet finished.
"Can I make some changes?" asks Kim Rosenstock, who conceived the musical and is one of its writers, along with fellow playwright Michael Mitnick and musician Will Connolly. Everyone already has a pencil out.
As the rehearsal proceeds, Rosenstock cuts and adds lines. The actors jot down changes on yellow script pages. One asks for clarification on a line. "Use the word 'ripped'?"
Rosenstock is thoughtful. "No. I like 'pulled.'"
At one point, the team tries to work out the proper farewell from one character to another. Rosenstock wonders aloud: "Should we have him say ... what do we want him to say?"
"How about 'Ciao?'" someone suggests.
Rosenstock likes that. In fact, she decides to put in an extra "Ciao" earlier in the musical. "So he can be saying it three times in the show." Lines and comedy work well in threes.
Local theatergoers may have already seen "Fly By Night," the tale of awkward sandwich maker-songwriter Harold McClam and his relationship with two sisters: aspiring actress Daphne and winsome waitress Miriam. While still in development, the musical was performed in Palo Alto as part of TheatreWorks' New Works Festival last summer. The creators continually made changes, while reading comments handed in by audience members.
Since then, the show was performed in a workshop series at Northwestern University, where "we did a lot of overhauling," Mitnick says. Now it's back for its official premiere.
Three members of the cast are the same as last summer. Ian Leonard — who just played composer Jeff in TheatreWorks' "[title of show]" — is back as the hapless Harold. Kristin Stokes returns as Miriam, and Wade McCollum will again portray the shape-shifting Narrator, who sometimes jumps in to play a role in the story.
Judy and McCormick are new, along with Rachel Spencer Hewitt as Daphne and Keith Pinto as Joey, a theatrical producer with whom Daphne gets entwined.
What remains the same are the musical's themes. In an interview after rehearsal, Connolly notes that all the characters in this show of many storylines are "in between places; they all have shadows of doubt."
Miriam repeatedly sings, "I trust stars." But she's anxious and uncertain over a disturbing prophecy told to her by a fortune-teller (also played by the Narrator). Harold is lost, having no direction after the death of his mother, and his father is consumed by grief. While the show has humor and romance, there is darkness, and there is foreshadowing of the coming New York City blackout.
Miriam's storyline in particular highlights the question of fate versus free will, a conflict that Connolly says is woven throughout the story. "We hope that our audience members will be questioning where they themselves stand," he says.
Playing Miriam for the second time, Stokes says she feels she understands her character more — in part because she's helped to create her.
"Miriam hadn't been developed that much. We got to develop her together," says Stokes, whose previous TheatreWorks credits include "Doubt" and "The Learned Ladies of Park Avenue."
This year, Miriam remains someone who trusts in fate, who "sits back and lets things happen" at first, Stokes says. But the actress is also clearer on her character's background, how devastated Miriam was when her father died, and how introverted she became afterward, she says.
The "Fly By Night" writers are also seeing their vision of the show get clearer. As they edit and refine, they question whether the story is being told in the best way, whether the characters' motivations are clear, whether every song serves the story.
This is something that the trio has experience with. Rosenstock and Mitnick have developed shows with many theater groups, and Connolly is also an actor and musician, who played guitar and bass in the New Works production of "Fly By Night."
Connolly will be watching from the audience this time. But he won't hear all the songs he played last summer. One number that has been cut is a cheeky show-within-a-show tune in which Daphne and Joey portrayed accented tailors talking about a torn pair of pants ("Euripides, you pay for these").
Bits of the song remain elsewhere in the show, but "Euripides" as a whole does not, Connolly says. One reason was that Joey's character wasn't introduced until this Act Two number; now he has his own, earlier song, "It Can't Fail," in which he proposes his show to Daphne.
Also, Mitnick adds, "Euripides" was a funny "charm song," but it didn't reveal more about a character, or move the plot along, which is key in a story with so many characters and storylines. Every moment counts.
"It was a show-stopper in the wrong sense," he says.
Other changes have been made. The closing number is now the opening song. Various music and lines have been cut and added. On this very day, the writing team axed a comic monologue of Mr. Crabble's that had been in since the beginning.
These changes aren't always easy to make, especially when a speech consistently gets laughs. "But you have to be rigorous," Mitnick says, adding that the monologue ultimately felt "extraneous."
"It was very funny," he adds, "but it went."
During the process, Mitnick and Connolly say, TheatreWorks has been very helpful. Being part of the New Works program gave the writers the opportunity to work on the show in residence last year, for starters.
"TheatreWorks gave us the time and the space and the permission. We've thrown out a zillion failures along the way," Connolly says. "They let us make changes on the fly. ... We're dealing with a web of plots. It is a very delicate process.
"The very first line of the show is 'It's hard to know where to begin.' And it is hard to know."
What: "Fly By Night," a new musical by Kim Rosenstock, Michael Mitnick and Will Connolly, presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto
When: The show previews July 13 through 15 at 8 p.m., then runs July 16 through Aug. 13: Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m.
Cost: Tickets are $19-$69.
Info: Go to http://theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.
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