16 October 2015

You'll Get Urinetown

               Today is a pretty weird day, and I mean that in the best possible way. It's weird because today is the opening of the off-Broadway revival of Urinetown, The Musical, which I happen to have been cast in. It's being produced by a new company (Fracture Theatre Co.) with a non-Equity cast in the very theater that Urinetown was first done off-Broadway (the American Theatre of Actors, or ATA for short) under the umbrella of the company that originally produced Urinetown on and off-Broadway (that would be the Araca Group). Even weirder is that the Chernuchin, the specific theater housed in the ATA that we'll be performing in, is being renamed tonight in honor of John Cullum. If you don't know who that is, well, a short answer is he originated the role of Caldwell B. Cladwell in Urinetown. A slightly longer answer is he is a two-time Tony Award winner with a heap of other awards and nominations and a long career in theatre and television. Basically, he's a pretty cool guy.
               However, the weirdest thing about all of this is that Urinetown was the first musical I did in college. Not quite the first show, for that honor belongs to The Mikado, but it was the first American musical I did in my freshman year at MIT. I did it with Next Act, the theatre company housed in my dorm. We'd put on a show every year during Campus Preview Weekend (CPW) for the MIT community and incoming pre-freshman, or pre-frosh as we all called them, transforming our large Tastefully Furnished Lounge space into a small theater with a stage, lights, and a house seating as many as around 183 people. Every Next Act production was a labor of love for everyone involved when we'd stop p-setting to rehearse, prepare, and do a musical. Urinetown was my first show with Next Act.
               Next Act was one of the driving forces in me becoming an actor. It was with Next Act that I learned a sense of community and truly became obsessed with theatre, often determining to work on my role or my choreo or my directing rather than worrying about the problem set due at 10:00 AM the next morning. Fellow members of the cast and crew would repeatedly have to force me to go to bed, otherwise I'd sit there with them and help build the set (despite my lack of skills with a tools, power or otherwise), or sew costumes (despite my lack of sewing knowledge), or whatever else needed to get done until the Sun would rise. Getting sick or losing my voice wouldn't stop me from doing whatever I could because I had never cared about something so much in my life. I remember trying to give choreography notes, but being unable to talk, so I wrote them all down, gave them to one of my friends to read aloud, and then flailed wildly while I tried to physically emulate not just the dance steps but the emotion I was going for (I'm not a dancer, by the way, so it was a pretty hilarious sight). Eventually I learned to balance my insatiable drive with my health in such a way that I was highly productive instead of mildly productive while being half-dead yet enthusiastic, and it was Next Act that was the lab for me to figure this out for myself.
               Finally, Next Act was the first time I was admired by people I didn't know for my acting. I remember the Dean of Students, who coincidentally was our housemaster at Next House, telling me his kids had been stomping around the apartment imitating me after seeing our production of The Scarlet Pimpernel, singing about falcons and scurrilous phantoms and other such things. Of course I didn't know how to respond besides smiling and being thankful, and, to be honest, I still don't know how to respond to that other than being gracious, but it was when I first learned that I could affect other people. That stuff that I, Johari Menelik Frasier, did could do something to other people for more than a passing moment.
               My senior year of college I recall walking back to my dorm with a friend of mine after what I can only guess was a cast party. The night had progressed to early morning, perhaps around 3:00 AM, and before we parted ways we had gotten into one of those deep conversations that twenty-somethings tend to do when the hour gets late. Both of us being involved in the arts at MIT, the subject fell to acting, as it so often does between actors, and he brought up Urinetown. Specifically, he brought up Next Act's production of Urinetown. This friend of mine was one year below me, so Urinetown was the show he saw during his CPW. He talked about how amazing the show was, and how he specifically remembered my performance as Officer Lockstock. He remembered thinking that he wanted the opportunity to work with me and to gain the same skills that I had. I was dumbfounded. This was a person I had considered a far superior actor to myself, yet the idea that he had formed such a high opinion of me before he even knew me shocked me. The idea that somehow I touched some part of his humanity enough for him to have clear memories of things I did, things I wasn't even sure I remembered, was perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of my life. One could argue something about fishes in small ponds since no one outside of MIT seems to be aware it has a theatre program, but that doesn't make the moment any less important to the life of this fish.
               I sit here, knowing that tonight I'm going to make my off-Broadway debut in a fantastic musical in front of the original producers and one of the original cast members, and I can only feel that things have, in some sense, come full circle. I basically started my college acting career and serious consideration of acting with Urinetown, and now I'm literally about to debut off-Broadway in the very same show. So I'm grateful for many things. I'm grateful that the director of the 2010 Next Act production decided to produce one of the greatest musicals in the last twenty years and that she decided to take a chance on a freshman who had no idea what he was doing, and whether she knew it or not, helped start me on the path that I'm following now. And I'm grateful that Fracture was willing to take this kid straight out of conservatory and put him in their first production ever. And I'm grateful to be part of this extremely talented cast who I watch do their work and actively wonder how they do half the things they do with a mixture of envy and pride of being one of them.

               Finally, I'm grateful that I'm living out a dream. If six years ago someone told me that the show I had been listening to obsessively and was going to do in my dorm lounge was going to be the show I made my off-Broadway debut in, I'd tell them they were nuts. And yet it's happening tonight, and all I can do is smile and say I guess I got Urinetown.

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