artists, trumpets, and all that jazz

Side Man, opening in the Loeb Ex tomorrow night, is a play about success and failure in the arts. There was a little bit of both at auditions for the show during Common Casting—when more than 100 aspiring actors vied for just seven roles. Evidently this theme resonates with hopeful Harvard thespians waiting in the wings for stardom. “It addresses that question at the heart of the artist’s worries, which is, ‘Will I make it?’” says Director Alexander N. Kanter ’04.

This moving stage memoir chronicles the life of Gene Glimmer (Christopher R. Starr ’03), a talented jazz trumpeter who never quite made it. He is a “side man,” a journeyman musician in the heyday of the big band who plays backup to the headline stars. His story serves as a eulogy for the jazz era which faded with the onset of rock ‘n’ roll. On a more intimate level, Side Man also explores the way that Gene’s passion for jazz rules and ultimately ruins his personal life. Infused with wry humor, the Tony-award winning show demonstrates that the life of a professional artist is never simple: music is at once Gene’s sole source of spiritual manna and his proverbial Achilles’ heel. As they gather in a draughty and cramped rehearsal room on a freezing Wednesday evening, the link between Side Man’s cast of Harvard theatrical stalwarts and the devotion to artistic practice presented in the play is obvious.

But Kanter has a more specific and pressing challenge in Side Man: it is his directorial debut. A veteran of Tommy, A Winter’s Tale and Hasty Pudding Theatricals, Kanter’s penchant for treading the boards is clearly evident in his managerial style during rehearsal. “One thing I am very aware of as an actor is that anything a director can tell an actor doesn’t matter if the actor can’t do it naturally,” he explains. Despite the narrative’s virtuosic leaps across time periods, the troupe of highly experienced actors are encouraged to perform naturally—or, as Kenneth P. Herrera ’03, who plays one of Gene’s cronies, urges during warm-up, “Act freely and without shame.”

The narrative is bound together by the reveries of Gene’s son Clifford (William J. Musgrove ’06), realized through a plethora of audience addresses, flashback sequences and a fluid minimal set suggestive of a more substantive world. Kanter says he chose the Ex because there is no clear delineation between actors and audience. Through these devices, he hopes “the audience will become active participants in the show.”

In rehearsal, someone voices a concern that the audience may not “get” these stylistic details. Kanter is exasperated. “Does anyone want to write a paper about how art is inherently fictitious?” he asks. “Because I think some people need to be told, ‘It ain’t real.’” Musgrove replies: “Only if you want to write a paper about Nietzsche, Alex,” and then launches into his direct address monologue on the sacrifice of his father’s marriage to his all-consuming musical obsession.

The soundtrack of the play has been lovingly assembled by Kanter and the sound designer, Amanda Rigas ’05, but although music is the conceptual basis of the play, Kanter is quick to explain that “it’s no musical.” In rehearsal he sits with a portable stereo playing excerpts from jazz classics interspersed at key points in the action. It’s the first time the actors have heard the complete soundtrack and the response is resoundingly positive. Someone remarks it is “very moving” to have both a “visual dramatic and audio sensory experience” simultaneously, and yet never have the music threaten to overwhelm the action.

Kanter is loathe, however, to make the audience feel like it is “at a concert,” so there is only one point where the action stops completely and the cast of characters—a motley crew of jazz club musicians—stop and listen to a particularly integral song. This moment at the climax of the play “shows what the music means to the group,” explains Kanter, echoing Clifford’s final musing in the play on the lives of the side men who “played not for fame, and certainly not for money. They played for each other.”

In a pleasing seepage from art to life, the actors enthusiastically plan a group outing to a jazz club one Friday during a break in rehearsal. As the music fades from the tinny portable boom box at the end of a particularly exhilarating run-through, Starr exclaims: “Let’s all go listen to jazz!” It sounds like a perfect plan.

SIDE MAN

Written by Warren Leight

Directed by Alexander N. Kanter ‘04

Produced by Caitlin C. Gillespie ‘04, Carla M. Mastraccio ‘03, and Jennifer Y. Seo ‘03

Nov. 8, 14 and 15 at 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 9 at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 10 at 2:30 p.m.; Nov. 16 at 3:30 and 7:30 p.m.

Loeb Ex Theater

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