GRAND HOTEL Fred Wharton discusses his recent production of Grand Hotel staged by Durham Musical Society. The Company
Durham Musical Theatre Company (DMTC), (formerly Durham Amateur Operatic Society) was founded in 1908. Currently it has about 100 members and aims to present two large-scale musicals each year. In January 2002 the Company moved into the brand new, state-of-the-art 510 seat GALA Theatre in the centre of Durham City. This was a considerable advance both in terms of seating capacity and facilities compared with the Company’s previous homes at the Garland Theatre, based in a local technical college (with 350 seats) and the old city Assembly Rooms (with 210 seats). Since 2002 the Company has presented large-scale musicals such as: “Me and My Girl”, “My Fair Lady”, “Camelot”, “Guys and Dolls”, “Titanic”, “Company” and “Mack and Mabel”, usually to 100% capacity. The challenge faced by DMTC is to choose a musical which will be attractive to audiences and also challenging to the Company. DMTC has a very sound membership base and rarely has to go outside its own membership to fill principal roles. Each production has attracted new members as chorus and principals. It is a Company in the true sense of the word, with a wide age range and a large number of members under the age of 35. DMTC usually fields large casts with principals from one show often appearing in the chorus of another. A social committee organises a number of events throughout the year for members and Friends of the Company. DMTC pays rent for two buildings in which it stores its own supply of costumes and properties. These are also hired out to other groups at a low charge to help defray the costs.
Background to the ShoW
“Grand Hotel – the Musical” is based on the novel “Menschen im Hotel” written by the German Jewess, Hedwig (Vicki) Baum, which was published in 1929. She spent time working in a Berlin luxury hotel to gain background knowledge for her book. The book was translated into English as “Grand Hotel” and successful plays based on the novel appeared in Germany, Britain and the USA. In 1932, MGM made a film of the novel which made them a profit of over 8 million dollars. Some of the greatest film stars of the period were cast – Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, John and Lionel Barrymore. In 1958, the first musical version of the story appeared called “At the Grand”. It was written by Robert Wright and George Forrest (famous for their work on “Kismet” and “Song of Norway”). After successful runs in Los Angeles and San Francisco the show did not make it to Broadway and it was abandoned. It was not until almost three decades later that Wright and Forrest turned their attention once more to “Grand Hotel”. They wrote a new version, this time sticking closer to the original novel, and Tommy Tune was
engaged to direct the show. He felt that their work was somewhat dated and he called in Maury Yeston and Peter Stone to doctor it. They changed the script substantially and added new songs. The show opened on Broadway in November 1989 and it ran for over two years – longer than the original Broadway runs of “West Side Story”, “Carousel”, “Camelot”, “Gipsy”, “Brigadoon” and “Showboat”! It won 5 Tony Awards. After the show closed in New York it toured Europe and the Far East, appearing at the Dominion Theatre in London for a limited run in 1992. In 2004, a production by Michael Grandage was mounted at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre.
“Grand Hotel” remains very popular in the USA, especially with High Schools and Colleges, but it has never had such a high profile in the UK. It requires a large number of principals and can be played by a large or medium sized chorus. DMTC presented it as a large-scale musical with a cast of nearly 70 performers and an orchestra of 17. The chorus work is very challenging both musically and dramatically. The chorus divides into three distinct groups – the hotel guests, the front-of-house workers (Porters, Bell Boys, Barmen, Waitresses, etc.) and the ‘Dirty’ workers (behind the scenes hotel staff such as gardeners, cleaners, electricians, room maids, etc.) A lot is made in the show of the ‘Dirty’ workers complaining about their lot (they sing “Some have, some have not”). In 1929 the Nazi Party was on the rise, appealing to these people, so they become more agitated and aggressive as the show proceeds. In the DMTC version, the ballet dancer, Elizaveta Grushinskaya, was given a ballet troupe to accompany her, and they formed the basis for the splendid dance numbers in the show.
“Grand Hotel” was presented at the GALA Theatre in Durham City for 6 performances commencing on 9th March 2011. Planning by the Production Team (Director, Musical Director and Choreographer) started in July 2010. This was a new show, few people had seen it, ready-made sets and costumes were not available and a lot of explaining had to be done to win over the company to the venture. In September 2010, a Presentation Evening was held at which the Director outlined the origins of the show, described in detail the historical context in which the show is set, told the story of “Grand Hotel” and played some music from the original Broadway cast recording. He also described the casting requirements and the characterisations of the various roles in the musical. There was a lot of enthusiasm, especially for the score, which was seen by the company as tuneful, emotional, toe-tapping and exciting. However, no one underestimated the challenges of producing such a show.
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One singing rehearsal per week for the full company commenced in September 2010 and the auditions for principal parts took place in October. Singing rehearsals continued into December, with principals singing in their parts alongside the chorus. Production rehearsals with the principals commenced in early November, but rehearsals for the chorus scenes did not begin until January. A detailed rehearsal schedule was published in advance, explaining which scenes and libretto pages were to be rehearsed on a particular evening. Rehearsals were from 7.15pm to 10.00 pm on weekdays and 2.00pm to 5.00 pm on Sundays. The Choreographer rehearsed the dance numbers separately with the dancers and full cast, where necessary. Gradually the scenes were put together and full run-throughs started in the last fortnight of rehearsals.
that the ‘Dirty’ workers look down on the rich below and make envious comments in song. Within this permanent set, individual rooms were indicated by trucks from the wings, by flats which were flown in, and props which were set by the cast and crew. The show is written more like a film script rather than a traditional musical. Some scenes are very short, consisting of only a few lines, and so different areas of the hotel were indicated by the use of lighted areas. The show has a Prologue and an Epilogue, with one character, the Doctor, not only participating in the action, but talking to the audience as well. (The character of the Doctor also provides a make-up challenge. He has been badly injured in the First World War and his face has been badly scarred. We engaged a Prosthetic Make-up Artist to create the desired effect. The challenge was to make it look authentic, and not like something from a Horror Movie. It took one hour to apply for each performance.)
One main reason for choosing “Grand Hotel” was the fact that unlike recent shows the company had presented (“Fiddler on the Roof”, “Hello, Dolly!”, “Scrooge”), it did not rely heavily on one principal part. In fact, in “Grand Hotel” there are 7 leads, all approximately the same size. In total there are 4 main principal parts for the men, with 8 smaller roles and 3 main principal parts for the ladies, with 7 smaller roles. All of the roles are challenging musically and dramatically and give opportunities for both new and more experienced artists to extend their craft. At DMTC, casting is conducted by the full Committee (14 members). Readers are engaged and applicants act out and sing specified scenes. Many applicants bring their own props and costumes to auditions. The Director, Musical Director and Choreographer advise the Committee and then discussion and, if necessary, voting takes place to cast the show. For “Grand Hotel” all parts had applicants and the show was fully cast, except for one part, on the audition day. The part of the ageing ballerina, Elizaveta Grushinskaya, is a very difficult role and it was offered to a very experienced and talented ex-member of the company, who promptly accepted and rejoined DMTC. Principals were then asked for their non-availability dates and a production schedule was arranged around the dates. The availability and suitability of rehearsal venues is a constant headache. DMTC rehearses in many halls, large and small, depending on the rehearsal requirements. The Production Secretary has to book these venues well in advance. A read-through was then organised for all the principals, at which the Director gave further information about the show, the historical context and the characterisations. Costume Plots, Chorus Plots, Props Plots and Stage Plans were also issued at that time.
Just before production rehearsals commenced, a Production Meeting was arranged. The Production Secretary, Stage Manager, Props Team and Wardrobe Department all met with the Director to discuss the show’s requirements.
There was no ready-made set available for “Grand Hotel”, but Scenic Projects of Suffolk agreed to construct a new set based on the Director’s requirements. The main, permanent set is the entrance foyer of the Grand Hotel, Berlin in 1929, which has two vital features. One is a revolving door, which is constantly being referred to in the songs and libretto. The other is a balcony running the entire width of the stage. It is from here
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ONSTAGE Scenic Projects provided an excellent set with a stage floor which created the illusion of a Berlin Hotel in 1929 and was singled out for praise by the critics.
A member of DMTC has a degree in Performance Costume Design and is studying for an M.A. in Costume at Edinburgh University. She agreed to take on the task of preparing designs for the show and Molly Limpet’s Theatrical Emporium of Sheffield agreed to execute them. DMTC has used Molly Limpet’s to provide costumes for their last three shows, and have been very impressed by their cooperation and dedication. Overall, the quality of the costumes provided was very effective in creating the right period atmosphere for the show. DMTC has its own Wardrobe Department, managed by a dedicated Wardrobe Mistress, and it provided some of the costumes required.
DMTC has its own excellent collection of properties built up over many years and lovingly tended by a dedicated Props Team. Most of the props and furniture required for the show were provided from the DMTC Props Store.
The GALA Theatre
DMTC hires the GALA Theatre for a week. As a professional show had been booked into the theatre on the Sunday, the get-in for the scenery and props had to be delayed until the Monday morning. The set was erected through the morning and early afternoon by the GALA stage crew and the company’s stage hands. The lights were also rigged. On the Monday evening there was a Technical Run Through/Piano Dress Rehearsal with the cast in costume but no make-up. Scene changes took place but no lighting changes, except black-outs. Microphones were used to set levels. During the day on Tuesday, work was completed on the set and the lights were focussed and cued. There were 139 LX Qs for “Grand Hotel”. It was the biggest lighting rig that DMTC has used since it came to the GALA Theatre. DMTC greatly benefits from the help, advice and support given by the backstage staff of GALA, under its Technical Director Brian Dunn. Their friendly and cooperative approach makes each visit by the company to the theatre a joy. They are always prepared to go that extra mile to enable DMTC to appear at its best. Brian Dunn arranged the lighting design according to the wishes of the Director. DMTC hired a professional DSM and Sound Engineer (22 personal microphones were used in this production). On Tuesday evening a full dress rehearsal with orchestra took place, with no hold-ups! The show opened on Wednesday evening and played until Saturday evening with matinées on Thursday and Saturday.
The final company consisted of 66 adults on stage, an orchestra of 17 and 45 back-stage personnel. The show was a complete sell-out for every performance, and there was a waiting list for returned tickets. “Grand Hotel” is a challenging musical for a company and for its audience. Although it is very tuneful, none of the songs will be known by the audience, and nor will the plot. Most of the DMTC audiences were enthralled, wanting to know how the story would resolve in the end. Some audience members found it too much of a challenge, especially with the foreign names of the many characters. The show would definitely suit a company which wants to perform something different. A
large cast is needed with a talented line-up of principals. Careful, sensitive and realistic acting is required, with a lot of attention being paid to the sub-text. Strong singers are also essential. The show demands a lot but rich rewards can be reaped. “Grand Hotel” is licensed by Josef Weinberger Ltd. More details of this production, together with the work of DMTC can be found at www.dmtc.co.uk
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