Every year, It's a Grand Night for Singing starts as a blank slate that a small group of creative artists must fill in with song and dance.
”It's an interesting monster,“ says retired University of Kentucky theater professor James W. Rodgers, who has worked with the show since its inception in 1993. ”But it's a pleasant monster.“
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The original idea — and an underpinning of the show, which kicks off Friday night — was to provide a chance for UK voice students who spend most of their year singing opera to try out musical theater, which could be a potential avenue of employment later in their lives. It also was intended to bring in people from the community with musical theater talent to share the stage.
But specifically what they do is a wide-open question answered by these directors.
Everett McCorvey is the producer. Rodgers has been the director and is now a co-director, with Peggy Stamps, a choreographer who started working with the production in its second year.
Now, the Grand Night brain trust includes those three, plus musical arranger Johnie Dean, pianists and arrangers Tedrin Blair Lindsay and Nan McSwain, and conductor Rob Baldwin. Until the last week of production, they are choosing songs, pairing them with singers or ensembles, and putting them in order to make an entertaining night for audiences that now fill the 1,500-seat Singletary Center for the Arts Concert Hall for six performances over two weekends.
To newcomers, ”it would look like organized chaos,“ McCorvey says. ”It's like the performers in the show: They don't know what's going on until the last few rehearsals, when we put it all up on stage.“
Truth be told, the brain trust doesn't really know, either, because the concert is constantly in flux: numbers are dropped in, pulled out and rearranged until the show is just right.
It all starts in early spring.
”If you asked us in March what songs we're doing in Grand Night, we couldn't tell you,“ McCorvey says.
In search of a theme
First, they choose a theme.
”We concentrated on composers the first five years,“ Rodgers says, noting that early editions of the event focused on Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein III, George and Ira Gershwin, and others. ”But the number of composers that you can base a whole evening on is sort of limited.“
So they then worked with themes, including early 20th-century Broadway, modern Broadway, Tony and Oscar winners, and songs from movies.
”In some ways, the theme is there for us to give us something to focus on,“ Stamps says.
As a group, the creative team will get together and listen to hundreds of songs to start pulling together the right mix.
”The first thing we look for are our "bookends,'“ Stamps says. ”Those are the numbers that will open and close each act. Then we also try to find a big production number to go in the center of each act. From there, we start thinking about smaller ensembles and soloists.“
That's where auditions and casting come in.
Who's got a song?
Stamps says people often start asking her and the other Grand Night directors what the theme will be several months out so they can begin working on an audition piece, maybe even one they hope might make the show.
”We really depend on people bringing us songs,“ Stamps says, ”and usually we use two or three of them in the show.“
Says McCorvey, ”It's all about matching the right song with the right singer.“
It's one of the major ways that Grand Night differs from a regular book musical, in which you cast to find the right actor for each role.
”When Everett and I started this, we said, "Let's find the people we want and then match the songs to them,“ Rodgers says.
That's one of the main reasons why once they have a loose collection of songs and a cast, the work is less than half done, because the directors enter the phase of seeing how the numbers look and sound and how they fit together.
A lot is left behind
There is most definitely a cutting-room floor.
This year's theme, ”From Billboard to Broadway,“ has been particularly broad, leading to numerous ideas that did not come to fruition.
For example, Stamps says, they were working on a rendition of The Beatles' Let It Be that ”just didn't have the right ending, so we decided to put that in the vault for another year.“
I Sing the Body Electric, a show-stopper from Fame, has been in the running for several years, but the dance-heaviness of the number has made the directors hold off.
”We'll do it one year,“ Stamps promises.
With limited rehearsal time, Stamps says, she usually won't rehearse choreography for a number ”unless we're pretty certain we're going to do it.“
Arranger Dean, on the other hand, has put a few things into the vault.
Dean's skill at creating orchestral arrangements on the fly has become one of Grand Night's most valued assets.
”I can't imagine doing this show without Johnie,“ Stamps says.
Dean creates custom arrangements for the cast and orchestra, frequently going home from rehearsal at night and sending out e-mails with the new arrangements the next day.
”That way, they make the songs their own,“ Dean says.
And in that way and some others, the directors feel their show is very much like a Broadway show, in its infancy.
”When they're in rehearsals and previews, they're trying out things, taking them out and putting them in to get it right,“ Rodgers says.
That's not at all unusual in Manhattan, but it's kind of a unique practice in the Bluegrass.
Dean says, ”It's a lot of fun to celebrate the creative process and get together as artists and explore the possibilities.“