In 2001, Thumbs had its initial performance in Bergen County, New Jersey. At that time, the local newspaper, the Bergen County Record, did a series of five articles about the local community theater's preparation for performance of the play. Following are those articles, a brief glimpse into how a stage production is mounted. The April 29 entry is an interview with Rupert Holmes. The entire series was written by Record staff writer Jim Beckerman and is copyright 2001 North Jersey Media Group Inc., the Record (Bergen County, NJ)
April 8, 2001
WAITING FOR A THUMBS UP;
ACTORS SWEAT OUT AUDITIONS FOR A COMMUNITY THEATER'S GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY
The production of any play is a drama in itself, including the shows produced each year by New Jersey's 60-plus community theaters.
Since 1912, when the first of the so-called "little theaters" set up shop in Chicago, these stages have offered semipro actors, as well as moonlighting stenographers and salesclerks, a chance to act in last year's hits.
The Bergen County Players, founded in 1932, is no exception. The group's first production was Elmer Rice's Counselor-at-Law, and, in the years since, its seasons have been filled with musicals, dramas, and comedies straight from the Samuel French catalog.
But earlier this year, the Oradell-based troupe was given the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to mount a new play by a Tony Award-winning writer and composer.
As Thumbs! by Rupert Holmes makes the journey from auditions to opening night, the Record's Jim Beckerman has been watching the show behind the show.
Jan. 17: Auditions.
The comedy thriller Thumbs! is a nail-biter all right, especially for the 30 actors auditioning today for the play's five roles.
Will I get the part? Did I botch that line? Why did the director cut me off in the middle?
Two theories on that last question. The common one is that the midscene "thank you" is the kiss of death.
"I take it as a good sign when they let you keep reading and reading and reading," says Sharon Podsada of Emerson, auditioning for the part of Sheriff Jane.
But another hopeful, Larry Kadish of New Milford, says he doesn't mind being interrupted. "I normally don't take it as a bad sign," says Kadish, trying out for the roles of Todd and Wilton. "They've seen what they need to see."
Sitting nine rows back and whispering in each other's ears, director Larry Landsman and playwright and composer Rupert Holmes offer no clues to those auditioning.
Holmes, a Tony and Grammy winner, is as fond of twists and red herrings as anyone with the name Holmes ought to be. "I love mysteries, puzzles, surprise endings," he says.
It was Holmes, after all, who allowed the audience to choose the culprit every night in his Tony-winning 1985 Broadway musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
For Thumbs!, a mystery about an obnoxious TV actress, a levelheaded sheriff, and a serial killer, Holmes has slipped the actors a mickey. The audition scenes, or "sides," in theater parlance, are fake. All the dialogue is dummy dialogue.
And that's just for starters. Even after the actors are cast, they won't know who the killer is until months into rehearsal.
"Because this is a community theater, and because many of the people auditioning will be part of the audience, which isn't generally the case, I didn't want to give away too much about who is the murderer, who is the victim, who is not what they seem," Holmes says.
"Once 11 people know about it, word gets around quickly."
So now, Michele Blum of Oakland is reading bogus, but "in character," dialogue for Marta, the strident TV star.
"Look, this script would end my career if I was insane enough to perform it," she grouses into an imaginary phone. "When I asked you to find me something that was 'cutting edge,' it wasn't because I wanted to slash my wrists."
Forty people in the theater, including many who will be auditioning for the same part, applaud when Blum finishes.
"Could you hold all applause, please," says Landsman, a past president of the Bergen County Players.
"No, no, that's OK," Blum says.
It's hard to tell what Holmes thinks. This lover of mysteries makes it a point to be inscrutable. "I try to laugh the same way for everybody," he says.
One thing Holmes makes no mystery about is his involvement with the Bergen County Players. Holmes, who grew up in Nanuet, N.Y., used to pass the quaint Little Firehouse Theater, home of the Bergen County Players since 1949, on the bus to Manhattan. Nine years ago, the former Tenafly resident most famous for "Escape: The Pina Colada Song," took more than a passing interest in the theater when the Bergen County Players performed his play Accomplice at the 210-seat theater.
Working with Holmes on this new production is a coup for the Oradell-based theater company. But before the world premiere on May 5 will come almost four grueling months of work: casting, rehearsals, rewriting, set building, costume designing, staff meetings, and, most dreaded of all, the harrowing last nights of fine-tuning and hair-tearing known among actors as "hell week."
"It's exciting to have a living, breathing playwright at arm's length," Landsman says.
"So you can beat me up," parries Holmes, who now lives in Westchester County.
There's some edgy laughter.
"We're gonna have fun with this for the next few months," says Landsman.
It's one of those lines that can be read as a statement or a question.
Jan. 20: Callbacks.
Destiny can turn on the flap of a butterfly's wing. Or maybe, Robert Kopil hopes, on the flap of a hat.
It's just an ordinary hat, a fur-lined hat with ear flaps. And it just happens to be in the theater because Kopil's Russian friend, Constantine Samoylov, wore it when he tagged along this morning to see how callbacks work.
These are the elimination rounds: Out of 60-plus actors who auditioned over two days, Landsman and Holmes have narrowed their choices to about four actors for each of five roles.
What the remaining 21 actors need now is something that will make them stand out. That's when Kopil notices the hat.
"I had read the part and it said the character was supposed to be a kind of rube in Vermont," Kopil says later. "That hat was perfect."
When Kopil goes onstage to read the part of Wilton a second time, he's sporting the hat, flaps around his ears.
"Would you like some of my sandwich," he says in a New England accent as broad as a Vermont barn door. "Roast beef, it's real good." "Good choice," says Landsman, taking in the hat.
"Good choice," or the less approving "interesting choice," is the catchphrase of the day. Landsman will use it half a dozen times, as different actors come in with a pair of sunglasses here, an unusual accent there. Everybody's looking for the magical something extra, the tipping point that will win them the role.
Of the 21 actors who have made it to callbacks, about 80 percent are people like Kopil, who have acted in previous Bergen County Players productions, and are considered "members." And membership has its privileges. Members are the first ones called onstage to read, and all things being equal, Landsman and other Bergen County Players directors will cast a member sooner than a stranger.
"He or she is a known commodity," Landsman says. "You know what you're getting in terms of what you can get out of a performer."
As auditions drag on upstairs, those who are about to die are getting punchy in the lower level green room, "actually, it's the beige room," Kopil notes. There's giggling, dancing, off-color jokes.
Most of the dozen actors have known one another through many years and countless productions, and there is a camaraderie that almost but not quite, masks the fact that these folks are also competitors, up for the same roles.
"There's probably a friendly competitive aspect to it now," says Julie Steckler-Kopil, Robert's wife and also an actress, though she's not here to audition.
Then she turns to Michael D'Antoni of Closter, also up for the part of Wilton, and says, "If you get the part my husband is after, I'll never speak to you again."
April 18, 2001
WITH CAST IN PLACE, THEATER STRUGGLES TO CREATE A LOOK FOR THUMBS!
Feb. 7: Design Meeting.
In a basement room known as "the dungeon," set designer Gordon Danieli's standard contract is being examined. "I will utilize my own inventory of set pieces and create special items as required to implement my designs," it reads in part.
Danieli has been supplying theaters in the area with sets and set "dressing," furniture and large props, for 54 years, much of it from the collection he's amassed in his Neptune warehouse.
That Thumbs! is a new play presents a minor challenge: Unlike Nunsense! or Grease, it can't be retrofitted with stuff he's used in previous productions. Danieli, however, doesn't foresee a problem.
But director Larry Landsman, producer Michele Roth, and playhouse veteran Marci K. Weinstein are making certain, partly because the blanket $3,900 Danieli will be paid for set and set decoration is more than half of the proposed Thumbs! budget, and partly because Weinstein, in charge of set decor, isn't satisfied that Danieli has in his warehouse the up-to-date kitchen appliances she wants for the play's "pleasant, sensibly laid-out ski chalet."
Feb. 10: Launch Party.
And the winner is Rob Kopil, by a hat.
OK, talent had something to do with it, too. But part of Kopil's talent is resourcefulness, which is why his last-minute choice of a silly prop hat helped the Suffern, N.Y., parochial school teacher win the role of the dimwitted Wilton. "I think the hat got my attention, in that it helped us to visualize the character," Landsman says.
Among the 10 other people in Landsman's Wyckoff living room are the four other actors chosen for the first-ever production of Thumbs! By speakerphone comes the voice of playwright Rupert Holmes, calling from his Westchester home: "I really want to say to you folks, I was so pleasantly surprised by the quality of the people auditioning."
These are the people at the heart of community theater, the nine-to-fivers who do it for love, for applause, or just to get out of the house in the evening. All but one are playhouse regulars.
"You can't always tell how good you are at work," says Linda Behrle-Correll, an industrial property manager from Winfield Park.
"Onstage, you know. That applause, that's instant gratification."
Behrle-Correll, who will play the vixenish TV star Marta, didn't audition originally; she was called in after some 25 contenders didn't prove quite right.
Closter resident Rollin "Bunny" Gardner, who will play Sheriff Jane, is another Bergen County Players veteran, as is Larry Kadish (seamy playboy Todd), a production manager from New Milford.
Frank Martin, a sales executive from Hoboken, is the newcomer to the group. An erstwhile stand-up comic, he beat out 15 Players veterans for the role of the put-upon husband, Freddie.
With this role, he automatically becomes a member of the BCP "club"; he'll get preferred treatment at future auditions, but he'll also be expected to sometimes usher, sell tickets, and do the other grunt work that is as essential to the theater as acting. "I'm more than willing to do that," Martin says. "In community theater, that's how things get done."
Newcomer or veteran, all are eager to get the long-distance approval of Holmes, who is rewriting his play to tailor it to these actors.
"I feel like I'm writing a part for an absolutely top-notch professional cast," Holmes says over the phone.
"And you are, dahling," purrs costume designer Michele Blum.
March 26: Production and Board Meeting.
"Hell Week," the final hair-tearing rehearsal period, is more than a month away, but there's already a touch of Dante in the air.
There's the script, for starters. True to his word, playwright Holmes is keeping his comedy thriller under tight wraps. Only director Landsman and producer Roth have read a complete draft. The actors have only read the first two acts, and only after signing a solemn oath of secrecy that would make the Skull and Bones Society look like the Mickey Mouse Club.
Last year, when the board approved Thumbs! for the 2000-2001 season, sight unseen, the excitement of getting a new play from a famous writer carried the day. But now it's dawning on playhouse board members that most of them know next to nothing about the show they're being asked to green light tonight, the night they officially vote on the Thumbs! budget. And they're not happy about it.
"I would like to go on record, right now, that the board has not read this script," says board President Rob DeScherer. "We've asked and we've asked and we've asked. I think that's wrong."
A misunderstanding, Landsman insists. Meanwhile, there's a bigger problem. The set.
"It was supposed to be a high-end ski lodge, built in the past three years," says set decorator Weinstein. "We're talking a 1999 kitchen."
What set designer Danieli has come up with is old-fashioned cabinets and a white, 1970s refrigerator, Weinstein says. No good.
"Was he told what we needed when he got the job?" DeScherer asks.
"Yes, he was told, verbally," Weinstein says. "Did he agree in writing?" board member Stephen Moldt asks.
They reexamine the contract, focusing on the line that includes "implement my designs."
His design, then, might call for 1970s appliances. The confusion cuts to the heart of theater's collaborative nature: The look of Thumbs! will be a set designer's interpretation of a director's interpretation of a playwright's play.
"But his design is at the discretion of the director," DeScherer opines. "Somehow we've got to make this contract work for us."
This is no mere academic issue. If Danieli won't supply the set dressing that Landsman, Weinstein, and the rest of the Thumbs! staff want, they'll have to supply it themselves. And that will increase the price of a theater piece whose cost is already ballooning. Thumbs! was unofficially budgeted at $6,000. Partly because of set requirements, the official budget, which the board is to vote on tonight, is $6,975.
After several hours and some heated exchanges, the board is finally ready to vote. There is a show of hands.
"It looks like you got your budget," DeScherer says to Landsman. "Do what you can."
March 27: Read-Through.
It's the big night. The five-member cast of Thumbs! is doing a group reading of the thriller's long-embargoed third act. They're about to find out, a month after rehearsals began, who the killer really is.
"This is great," Gardner says.
April 22, 2001
THEY'RE ALL MAKING A SCENE;
Thumbs! GOES OFF THE BOOKS AND PROCEEDS ON SCHEDULE
April 6: Scene Shop.
"See these cabinets?" says set designer Gordon Danieli, pointing to cabinet doors just delivered to his Neptune scene shop.
"Now see these cabinets? You see any difference?" He mentions another pair of cabinet doors (part of an existing set), the ones he proposed and the Bergen County Players design team rejected, declaring them not "upscale" enough for the ski-lodge set of Thumbs! So the Players purchased their own cabinet doors, $30 at a closeout sale, and rushed them to Danieli's shop.
In another part of his 5,000-square-foot warehouse is the refrigerator, a white 1970s Whirlpool, Danieli had proposed for the set. That, too, had been nixed by set dresser Marci K. Weinstein. The Vermont digs of a TV star would have new appliances, she argued.
"All of a sudden, they're making it into the Taj Mahal," Danieli says. "I think they're just mesmerized by Rupert Holmes."
Certainly, Danieli knows his business as well as the Players know theirs. For 54 years, he's been creating sets for off-Broadway shows, high schools, and community theaters. He's proud, not only of his set pieces, but the science behind their assembly and transport: He can load an entire set in one truck and, with assistance, erect it in six hours, he boasts. "I'm very organized," says Danieli, who does roughly 15 sets a year. "I'm like a conductor with a baton."
It's also in Danieli's interest to get the most mileage out of his many existing set pieces. In various nooks he has a hot rod from Grease, the Roman columns from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a harp from Into the Woods, a chaise longue from Romance, Romance, a window unit from Proposals, and, coincidentally, an 18th century pianoforte from The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Rupert Holmes.
More than enough stuff to erect a plausible Thumbs! set. But to whose satisfaction?
April 8: Rehearsal.
"'Just because you-‘, line!" says Linda Behrle-Correll, interrupting herself.
The cry of "line! at this stage of rehearsals is heard about as frequently as "waiter!" in a busy restaurant.
Five weeks into rehearsals and some of the actors are "off book" for the first time, rehearsing without a script, but with plenty of prompts from director's assistant Ginny Davenport Tsenebis.
"'These have all been official questions, but -‘, line!" Rollin "Bunny" Gardner says a few minutes later.
This is the first time the Thumbs! cast has rehearsed the first two acts, beginning to end. Playwright Holmes and director Larry Landsman are starting to fine tune, advising the actors on how to let their voice rise and fall in a line, or how to time a gag. "I may bring a metronome in here to speed it up," Landsman says.
The rehearsal is finished, and Holmes and Landsman seem relieved just to get through it. And the cast seems relieved that they're relieved.
"Listen guys, thanks again, I'm glad we plowed through it," Landsman says. "And plowed is the word," says Behrle-Correll.
April 8: Design Meeting.
The 8-inch set model Danieli has created is a small work of art.
But Danieli built this little dollhouse-size ski chalet for a more practical reason: to allay the concerns of the design team. It seems to be working.
"Now I can envision it," Landsman says.
"That's why I did it, Larry," Danieli responds.
But Landsman, Holmes, and the decor team headed by Weinstein still have questions. What about the color? What about the flagstones on the fireplace? What about that bloody refrigerator?
"It would be nice if you could get a nice new fridge," Danieli says. "But mine will be suitable."
"It can't be white," Weinstein insists.
White, she says, would be an onstage distraction. "Black is incredibly 'in' now," she adds.
"Honestly, what I would do at this point is use his refrigerator, paint it black, and drop the subject," Landsman says.
Despite the tweaking and second-guessing, it's clear that everyone in the room is excited by what Danieli has brought them. Thumbs! started out as a glint in the eye of Holmes, but it's starting to take on flesh. "This is terrific," Landsman says. "We don't have to have this kind of meeting again, right?" It's Weinstein who has the last word. Several days later, she and Landsman announce that they've arranged with a Teaneck appliance store to borrow a new range, a microwave, and a refrigerator. A black refrigerator.
"Now I'm happy," Weinstein says.
April 8: Addendum.
Holmes has come to a decision. Henceforth, he announces, Thumbs! will be Thumbs, minus the exclamation point.
Not that Holmes has anything against punctuation: It's just that the exclamation point has become a bit of a Broadway cliche ("Oliver!" "Oklahoma!").
"You try to avoid an exclamation mark in the title of a play, the same way a TV writer tries to avoid the sentence, 'Hi honey, I'm home,'" he says.
April 29, 2001
IT'S HIS GIFT TO BERGEN COUNTY
April 12: Holmes at Home.
Like a general watching an advancing army, playwright Rupert Holmes has mostly observed the progress of Thumbs from a distance.
"Thumbs is going very well," he says, relaxing in his Westchester study filled with books, videos, and mementoes of his long career.
"Too well," he adds, as if expecting a calamity at any moment.
With less than a month to go until opening night, the Bergen County Players have made excellent progress with the new play. As for rumors of minor friction in the ranks, understandable, says Holmes.
"I understand how they feel, it's their theater, their club, their domain," he says. "They're used to operating a certain way, with plays that are post-Broadway, and where the kinks are worked out in advance. They're not used to working this way."
For the Bergen County Players, show business is a part-time job.
For Holmes, it's full time and then some.
For three decades he's been reinventing himself: first as a composer-arranger whom Barbra Streisand took under her wing (he wrote several of the songs for her 1976 film A Star Is Born), then as a singer-songwriter who shot to the top of the charts in 1979 with "Escape: The Pina Colada Song," then as a multiple Tony-winning playwright-composer (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) and TV writer (Remember WENN).
These days, as usual, he's juggling multiple projects: In addition to Thumbs, he's working on a musical version of Marty with lyricist Lee Adams (Bye Bye Birdie) and composer Charles Strouse (Annie), a musical version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel, a mystery series for A&E, and a new compilation CD.
"I've come to be a person who seems to be able to function on two hours of sleep," Holmes says.
Somewhere in there, he's found time to write a lively bit of curtain music for Thumbs, a "tango macabre," he calls it, playing it now on the antique piano on which he composed The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Atop the instrument are the two Tonys he won for that 1986 Broadway show, one for best book, one for best score.
So why would a writer-composer of Holmes stature write a world-premiere play for a community theater?
In part, it has to do with his strong connection to Bergen County, where he lived for many years, and which he left under tragic circumstances.
In 1986, when he was living in Tenafly, his 10-year-old daughter, Wendy Isobel, died of a brain tumor. "It just became impossible to live there," he says. "All the kids she played with were living on my street. But since then, I've always felt that I'm a Bergen County resident who's on sabbatical."
So Thumbs is, in a sense, his gift to Bergen County, and a bouquet to the memory of his daughter.
But it's also, on a lighter note, his little mystery package for the Bergen County Players.
He knows the theater group is going into uncharted waters with Thumbs and its attendant rigmarole, the oaths of secrecy and endings unrevealed to the actors (he never meant to keep anything from the theater board, he says, referring to one early sticking point).
His only defense is an all-important one: He knows what he's doing.
"There is a line in Ice Station Zebra, one of my favorite terrible movies," Holmes says. "When the submarine is going under, someone says, 'I'm sorry, I'm a little nervous, I've never been in a submarine before.' The captain says, 'Don't worry, I have.' They can trust me that I'm not going to leave them high and dry."
May 2, 2001
ON WITH THE SHOW;
AS THE CLOCK TICKS TOWARD OPENING NIGHT, THUMBS TAKES ITS FINAL NOTES
April 24: Costume Shop.
"Thumbs," explains costume designer Michele Blum, is a "closet show."
That's theater-speak for costumes that come from the actor's own closet, as opposed to the storeroom of the Bergen County Players, an attic brimming with hundreds of costumes, arranged by style and color, accumulated from 50 years of shows by the Oradell community-theater group.
An actress and veteran of many BCP productions, Blum auditioned for Thumbs in January. She wound up doing behind-the-scenes work instead, but she's content. She knows firsthand how important costumes are to a performance.
"When an actor feels uncomfortable in the costume, he can't become the character," she says.
Because Thumbs, a comedy-thriller, has a contemporary setting, Blum will be spared the necessity of "building" elaborate period costumes, as she's done for other Bergen plays. But that doesn't mean she won't have to think long and hard about how to dress her actors.
"Color is important," she says. "If I got the same color dress as the wall, you wouldn't see the actor. She'd blend into the wall."
Blum is one of a small army of unseen, unsung people on whom theater depends. "For every person onstage, there are four people backstage who make it happen," says producer Michele Roth.
Up in the sound booth, board president Rob DeScherer will cue tapes to provide sound effects and music (some of it provided by Holmes). Over the stage, the Fresnels, Lekos, and other lamps strung by light designer Allan Seward will be brightened and dimmed by light operator Timothy Brosnan. There are makeup people and publicity people. There is a pool of BCP volunteers who work as ushers, ticket takers, refreshment sellers.
There's even a special technical consultant: Lt. Bill Macchio of the Cresskill Police Department, who is advising Rollin "Bunny" Gardner in her role of Sheriff Jane. "She's quite a method actor, she wants to be as realistic as possible,"Macchio says.
April 24: Hell Week.
This is the proverbial darkness before the dawn, the agonizing last rehearsals as the clock winds down to opening night, 8:30 p.m. Saturday.
Thumbs, being a brand-new show, actually has a hell fortnight: two weeks in which every conceivable thing can and probably will go wrong.
Today, the devil's workshop is in high gear. Gardner, during the afternoon rehearsal, put her leg through a hole in the floor of the unfinished set and nearly broke her ankle.
Larry Kadish, who plays Todd, has been called away on business, so the actors have to rehearse "around" rather than with him.
Meanwhile, these minor setbacks have been overshadowed by major tragedy: Frank Martin, who plays Freddie, lost his father over the weekend. So Martin isn't here either. What his state of mind will be opening night is anybody's guess.
"That's a tough one," Kopil says."I can't imagine losing a parent and going on and doing this. Then again, this could be good, it might take your mind off it."
Director Larry Landsman, unshaved and disheveled, has no choice but to work with the actors he has left, on the unfinished set. With playwright Holmes at his side, Landsman is working out some last-minute blocking in a scene with two recently added bit characters (Allan Wander, Marissa Mitchell). Suddenly, an impasse: One of the actors has to use a rotary phone, and everyone notices how much stage time is consumed by the laborious dialing. At this point, the addition of a few seconds tedium could be fatal to the suspense.
They all turn to Holmes, the court of last resort. "In this part of Vermont, it's four digits only," the playwright declares, smiling.
Meanwhile, Gardner is having problems, not only with her ankle, but with her dialogue. "Line?" she asks again and again in frustration.
"Stick with me, I'm just having trouble tonight," she apologizes.
She's also being bedeviled by props: At one point, her struggles with Sheriff Jane's plastic "crime scene" box almost turns into a slapstick routine. "Oh God, I can't get this open," she says, yanking at the lid. "I gotta put the evidence away."
By this point in the second day of hell week, the actors have been rehearsing, with breaks, since 1 p.m. "What time is it?" Landsman asks at one point.
"10:40 p.m.," someone replies.
"Oh, it's early," Landsman says.
Somehow, the show will go on. It always does. Whether Thumbs will be the big success that the actors, Holmes, and the theater are hoping for is now up to the public.
But for Landsman, the omens are good. The last time he worked with Rupert Holmes, on the thriller Accomplice in 1992, his actress wife Alyson gave birth to their first child, Jared. Now Alyson, the stage manager for Thumbs, is eight months pregnant with another child. It could come in the middle of a performance.
That's the secret reason for a final Landsman publicity stunt. A doctor, he's announced, will be on hand for every performance, just in case anyone is paralyzed with fright.
"It's really for my peace of mind," Landsman says.
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