Ode to “Opening Night: The Improvised Musical”
Los Angeles is lousy with talent. Just as the plethora of beautiful men and women on the streets (and in the stores, and everywhere else) start to blend into the palm-lined boulevards, it’s easy to become immune to the charms of so many funny, clever, quick-witted people. When you see theater or hear music or comedy in this city you expect excellence — or at least what passes for it in a society whose cultural norms make folks like Adam Sandler and Chris Rock the emperors of entertainment. LA is home to a thriving live-performance scene; there’s not a day of the week when an intrepid ticket buyer can’t find stellar talent doing their thing on small stages in every precinct of town.
Improv Olympic West, the LA-branch of the Chicago-based institution — Second City also has an emerging presence here in Hollywood — is one of the places where there’s always a surfeit of talented funny smart people making up masterpieces on the spot. Every night some undiscovered genius is waiting to be discovered. But on Fridays at 9PM, the energy changes. The house is always packed, and the experience is almost always exhilarating and memorable. That’s when “Opening Night: The Improvised Musical” turns the small IOWest theater into a Broadway palace. The five-person troupe, around since 1998 in various incarnations, supplies the extravagant scenery and props — helicopter, anyone? — and the choreography, and the songs (music and lyrics) and the book and the entracte and interstitial motifs. And it’s all made-up.
What happens at “Opening Night” seems like a kind of magic. From a single audience-suggested title — last week was “Dinosaur Tyranny” — the improvisers construct a cogent and surprisingly touching 60-minute Broadway musical, only funnier. There’s a controlling logic, though, that transforms potential chaos into narrative and musical organization. The effect on newcomers and veteran show goers is often astonishing, like watching a master jazz vocalist construct a scat solo from familiar chord changes. The signposts mark the way; the artist blazes the path. Whether youÆve been watching the troupe for nearly 10 years, like me, or youÆre a recent convert, the alchemy of writing stories and songs on the spot never fades, because like the jazz musicians they emulate the Opening Nighters don’t repeat themselves. The show happens once and then it’s gone.
There’s something wildly inspiring about the show’s promise of rebirth, of knowing that something will be made of nothing, that characters will “come alive” (and die) and that a whole new cast of protagonists and villains will take their place a week later.
The current troupe is a solid unit of good listeners whose blazing intelligence and wit compensates for their occasional musical bobbles. Watching them spontaneously imagine a new melody, or an apposite rhyme, or a lovely harmony note provides a kind of voyeuristic thrill: you’re observing a stranger think under pressure. Some of them have been doing “Opening Night” for so long — Norm Thoeming has been there from the beginning — that the putative anxiety of being confronted with a blank space in need of filling no longer panics them, it pleases them. This is mastery of the craft. This is talent in action.
Though “Opening Night” is an accomplished ensemble, the Grand Wizard of the Magickal Arts is the group’s co-founder and ongoing director, Shulie Cowen. Thin and small like a sprite, Cowen has a gigantic voice in the Broadway belter tradition. She has fine pitch control and a firm grasp of music’s underlying logic. Often newcomers in the audience have to be convinced that the songs Cowen creates in concert with “Opening Night”‘s superb pianist Andrew Melton are indeed made-up.
What’s most enjoyable about watching Shulie Cowen in “Opening Night” is her ability to synthesize and synchronize disparate bits of information offered by her cast-mates into a seemingly inevitable story, with a narrative arc and a point and funny allusions and relevant metaphors. And functional characters. When the plot is flagging or what might come next is unclear, she can be counted on to instantly discover a nimble solution.
Shulie Cowen may not be a genius, but what she does is consistently ingenious, and if you attend “Opening Night” frequently, or throughout the years, you begin to suspect that what youÆre seeing is an artist at the height of her powers, doing something so beautifully that a new standard has been set for all those who aspire to the craft. Was this how horn players felt when Charlie Parker came along?
“Opening Night” is jazz. “Opening Night” is comedy. It’s jazz comedy. And it’s an institutional reminder that living in a city that’s lousy with talent is a blessing.