You don’t need much help to find the rehearsal space where Pacific Conservatory Theatre (PCPA) actors and students prepare for their productions. I followed a loose list of directions, turning down the small asphalt road behind the Santa Maria Costco’s tire service center, convinced for a brief moment I was lost.
A small group of people was gathered on the lawn in front of the brick building, doing loud vocal warm-ups that a layman might mistake for the baying of madmen. In the parking lot, a woman was doing ballet leaps, her arms whipping high into the air with each stride.
- PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- OUT OF THE CHAIR : Brad Carroll (center) wears many theatrical hats. He co-wrote Lend Me a Tenor the Musical and is now directing the show at PCPA, working closely with fellow resident artists Karin Hendricks (left) and Erik Stein (right).
Yes, this was definitely the right place.
These fledgling actors spend most of their days here, immersed in a series of rigid and demanding classes and workshops. More than 1,000 students vie for 30 spots in the program, which involves 12-hour days, six days a week, all for the slim hope of someday getting work professionally as a performer on stage or screen.
More than anyone, Brad Carroll knows exactly what that’s like.
“It’s grueling,” he said. “But it’s an energy that feeds itself. For me, that’s what’s great about this.”
For 42 years, Carroll has associated in one way or another with PCPA. He grew up in the Santa Ynez Valley and came to PCPA as a student in the conservatory from 1975 to 1977, the early “golden years” of the then Pacific Conservatory for the Performing Arts. After leaving for a stint at the Great American Melodrama, he was offered the opportunity to return in 1985 as the conservatory’s music director, a job he didn’t think would last for more than two years.
“I stayed for 12 years,” Carroll said, with a slight laugh. “It became home. Even after I left that permanent position here, I was back for the next three years doing two shows a year, before I finally left the nest and went freelance.”
In 2013, Carroll once again returned to serve as a resident artist and artistic associate for the theater group.
Inside PCPA’s rehearsal space, in a quiet room where muffled voices can be heard singing or practicing lines, Carroll is in an upbeat mood, talkative and friendly.
He has good reason to be excited. In April, PCPA debuted a musical adaptation of Lend Me a Tenor, based on Ken Ludwig’s award-winning play. Carroll co-wrote the musical with Peter Sham, and in 2011 it made its debut at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End. Carroll is practically giddy describing Lend Me a Tenor the Musical’s debut and reception.
“We got standing ovations,” Carroll said, leaning forward and looking me straight in the eye. “The Brits never do that.”
A bold idea
The original play penned by Ludwig centers on Max, the awkward assistant of Henry Saunders, manager of the struggling Cleveland Grand Opera House. The play was nominated for eight Tony awards following its 1989 Broadway debut and has gone on to earn dozens more through various revivals.
It was through the Utah Shakespeare Festival that Carroll and his writing partner Sham got the chance to take one of the most produced contemporary plays in theater history and turn it into a musical.
The pair was asked to write a musical to be produced by the festival and debuted there.
- PHOTO BY LUIS ESCOBAR REFLECTIONS PHOTOGRAPHY STUDIO
- A COMEDY OF ERRORS: In Lend Me a Tenor, George Walker (left) plays opera star Tito Merelli, who falls unconscious and is replaced by opera house assistant Max, played by Joe Ogren (right), in order to save the failing venue. In the musical number “How ’Bout Me,” Max begs for the opportunity to replace the fallen Merelli.
“That doesn’t happen all the time, that theaters just come forward and say, ‘Write something and we’ll do it,’” Carroll said. “Normally you spend most of your time trying to get it done. And so we started initially looking at just public domain titles, like The Three Musketeers, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.”
But it was a lucky encounter that ultimately led them to Lend Me a Tenor. Sham had previously directed a version of the play in Pennsylvania, a theater near where Ludwig was living at the time. The playwright came to see it and struck up a friendship with the director. That experience prompted Sham to suggest Lend Me a Tenor to Carroll for their adaptation.
“I literally in the parking lot said, ‘You’re crazy,’ because I’m sure he’s had people beating down his doors for 20 years,” Carroll said. “Like real composers.”
Carroll described the moment Sham heard back from Ludwig with particular animation and excitement. Ludwig wrote an email back to the pair, which read simply, “Gee fellows, never thought about it.”
Just like that, Sham and Carroll had one of the biggest opportunities in modern theater. The writing duo, who had about two and a half years to produce the musical or lose the rights, began cranking out songs.
Turning a farce that takes place in one hotel room into a big Broadway-style musical is more involved than blocking out a few dance numbers or adding a dazzling ballad. Sham and Carroll had to introduce modifications, like changing the opera Tito is in town to perform and moving the location out of a hotel room. The writers quickly discovered that by adding musical numbers with lyrics that tell their own story about the characters, it significantly impacted the rest of the play.
“We discovered we’re gonna have to flesh these people out a little more, if they’re really going to sing these songs and have these big emotional moments,” Carroll said. “So we spent a lot of time just exploring what else could there be about this person.”
Within a few months, they had producers from New York tracking them down in Utah, eager to get in on the production just from the name alone. One of those producers eventually convinced Sham and Carroll to open the play in London’s legendary West End theater district. Carroll hadn’t even imagined such a thing would be possible or how it would turn out.
“Peter and I just wanted to make a fun play,” he said.
On a sunny Thursday evening, Carroll invites me to watch some of the musical numbers in rehearsals. Watching him work, he seems laid back and relaxed, like it’s his day off catching up with some friends. Seated at a table with a cup of coffee, Carroll quietly bops his head to the beat, joking with the cast and crew along the way.
“A lot of people come to the theater thinking we rehearse from day one with the costumes, with the orchestra, with the lights,” Carroll said. “That all happens in the final week. A play like this, just crafting timing with six doors opening and closing, it’s like making a Swiss clock.”
- PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- ‘LIKE A SWISS CLOCK’ : Lend Me a Tenor the Musical director Brad Carroll, who co-wrote the musical adaptation of the play along with Peter Sham, said actors bring so many unique perspectives and takes, it’s like creating a brand new play with each new cast.
Joe Ogren is a New York-based actor who originally hails from San Luis Obispo and remembers going to see PCPA productions as a small child. Ogren effortlessly bounds through Carroll and Sham’s musical numbers during rehearsals, perfectly embodying the role of the nerdy but driven Max. Occasionally he stops to listen to Carroll’s critiques—minor notes about breathing or where to hang an emphasis on a note or phrase.
“[Carroll] is one of those directors who is so warm and encouraging but at the same time knows exactly what he wants,” Ogren said. “Especially with a show like this that he wrote, he knows exactly what it can be.”
One of the biggest things he credits Carroll for is his intricate knowledge of 1930s theater history, an important skill to have in recreating the vintage time period.
“He has been able to help me capture the essence of Max,” Ogren said. “I relate to the character, but he helps me relate as a guy in the 1930s instead of 2017.”
Music Director Paul Marszalkowski looks more like a computer scientist manning a robotics lab than a flamboyant theater person. Armed with an iPad and a dizzying array of technical apps and programs to cue up or adjust the music, Marszalkowski seems to have a near photographic memory of the tunes and scales as he conducts the singers.
From time to time, he steals a glance back at Carroll as if to ask for his input. Carroll offers a nod or a smile after each number, and Marszalkowski returns to his task.
“It’s kind of an interesting experience,” Marszalkowski said. “I’m working with the man who wrote the music. It’s more collaborative. He’s written the music so he knows a certain part where the orchestration wasn’t emphasized as much, so we can bring out certain things here and there.”
Marszalkowski, a new addition to PCPA, said Carroll’s background as a composer is a vital asset, as is his ability to keep the many moving parts of a production focused on the plot.
“Everything with him is about story,” Marszalkowski said. “Whether we’re running music or a scene, it’s all about advancing plot.”
As Marszalkowski takes breaks between songs to set up the next number, Carroll is jovial but mostly quiet. He isn’t looking to micro manage his actors.
“I know when somebody sings a wrong note,” he said. “But I don’t sit there scrutinizing every little thing because what makes it work is what each person brings to it.”
Watching Carroll casually mingle with this group of young actors, it’s hard to believe that just six years ago he was debuting a musical at the Gielgud Theatre, in one of the most prestigious theater districts in the world. The Gielgud, where the play Lend Me a Tenor premiered in 1986, is the same theater where Patrick Stewart played Macbeth in 2007 and where Daniel Radcliffe’s infamous full-frontal nude scene in Equus took place.
To ask a director “what’s it like” to put on a production in the West End would be like asking a jet pilot what it’s like to break the sound barrier.
“The opening night was the high point of my career to date,” Carroll said, almost breathlessly. “I was so nervous I was almost sick. … I just couldn’t believe this was happening to us.”
- PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- BROADWAY BOUND: Joe Ogren (right) plays the role of Max in Lend Me a Tenor under the watchful eye of director Brad Carroll (left). “The first time I got to listen to this music and read this script, I really knew it was a special show,” Ogren said.
Producers of the London production threw a huge party for the cast and crew on opening night at a hotel ballroom in the city’s historic Trafalgar Square. Carroll was so besieged by well-wishers and fans that he couldn’t even make it all the way through the room.
Actress Sophie-Louise Dann received an Olivier Award nomination for her role as Diana in the production. Celebrities and dignitaries of the stage showed up to laud the writers for their accomplishment. It was a dizzying time for Carroll and his writing partner Sham.
“We were famous for about a month,” he said.
And then suddenly, almost as quickly as it was declared a hit, the play closed.
Carroll chalks it up to the fall of the economy in England at the time, which also caused other productions to shutter.
He relays the heavy news to me with a smile and a perfunctory them’s the breaks, kid shrug. He names actors and writers in London who came to the show to express their love for the show and offer their sympathies.
“People just stopped going to the theater,” he said. “Which was unfortunate because people kept telling us this was going to be a hit.”
On with the show
But like Irving Berlin’s famous song goes, “show people smile when they are low.” Carroll is nothing but smiles, especially when talking about the prospect of bringing his pet project back to his home at PCPA. He tells me it’s thrilling and he’s eager to see friends and family at the show.
- GET TICKETS: PCPA The Pacific Conservatory Theatre presents Lend Me a Tenor the Musical showing through May 14 at the Marian Theatre, 800 S. College, Santa Maria, and again from July 6 through 23 at the Solvang Festival Theater, 420 2nd St., Solvang. More info: 922-8313 or pcpa.org. Before you go, read Rebecca Rose's review of the show here.
After some prodding, he admits there is a part of him that feels some angst.
“I feel a little on the spot because it’s got my name all over it and I’m directing it,” he said. “But I don’t have any ego about it at all. It’s been so long, I sort of feel removed from it. It’s like somebody else wrote it. … My process is, once it’s one the page, it’s out of my head and it’s there for somebody else to make happen.”
Toward the end of rehearsal, a group of actors half-jokingly ask Carroll what he would do if a pop singer covered one of the numbers from the production.
“If Celine Dion wants to cover this song that would be great!” he says, as the group erupts in laughter. “I’ll buy my island and be set.”
Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose for New Times’ sister paper to the south can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.