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Tales From the Tour -- September 2003

"Tales From the Tour" was a running travelogue describing my experiences on the international tour of the musical Fosse.

Thursday, September 18, 2003
Sixty-three hours after I was enjoying the nighttime views of the Bosphorus from Istanbul's Galata Bridge, I was on a Greyhound bus headed for Buffalo, New York, for the next 11 months of the Fosse tour.

To recap: I did the final seven months of this tour last season, a hectic schedule that took us all over the country, with a plethora of one-night engagements and exhaustingly long bus rides. This season will feature more week-long sit-downs, and we'll spend two weeks in Canada, a couple of months in Great Britain, and several weeks each in Frankfurt and Paris; at various times the show will be headed up by stars Claire Sweeney, Ruthie Henshall, and Ben Vereen. I'm one of the keyboard players in an orchestra pit of eight, all of whom are returning members from last season. About half of the cast of 24 has returned, and a few of the dozen-member crew are back, including one of the wardrobe personnel, Erica, whom I've been dating since March and who has been working 15 hours a day this week.

It was a typical Greyhound ride, with the obligatory whining child and person with music turned up too high in his headphones. The bus stop in Albany, our only chance at lunch, was under an eyesore of highway overpasses and too long a walk from anything of interest, so I spent $3.77 at the well-punctuated Travelers' Grill on a bacon cheeseburger cooked and served by a fast-food employee who really did smile. It took just over ten hours to reach Buffalo from Newton, Massachusetts, where I've left most of my belongings in my parents' house in order to be a wandering minstrel for almost a year.

On arrival I took the subway - Buffalo has a subway! - out to the University at Buffalo (yes, "at") for pickup by our hotel's van. The hotel is in the suburb of Amherst and is at least a 15-minute walk from the nearest useful commercial establishment. After such a walk I found a reasonable spot for dinner, a bar called Rootie's - the kind of place where ten-year-olds dominated the pool table while their parents guzzled pint after pint. I had a tasty blue-cheese-and-spinach pizza and, figuring I ought to try the local specialty, an order of Buffalo wings - and confirmed that I'm not all that fond of them. There may have eventually been live music: Every ten minutes someone would get up and say, "Testing, testing," and play a few notes, and then sit down again.

Since the hotel is in the middle of nowhere, our company has provided vans for the cast, crew, and orchestra. It's only a short drive to Tops, a supermarket with a fantastic international section, including wonderful breads, spreads, spices, and soups, mainly from the Middle East and Asia. The ideal spot for a quick, cheap meal! And unlike the setup in most supermarkets, the pita bread and hummus are next to each other. Perfect. Most of the restaurants nearby are mega-chain franchises, though at least some of the better ones are represented - I've had two satisfying meals at Red Lobster.

Sunday the rehearsals started for the orchestra - the cast has been rehearsing since mid-August, and the crew was brought in a couple of weeks ago, so the band is the final addition. We've got new devices to control what we hear in our headphones (the new ones allow us to preset sound mixes) and the keyboards no longer have volume meters (I think new, improved ones are on the way). We had a five-hour sound check on Monday to ensure that each instrument will sound properly on its own, in the audience's mix, and in our own mixes. The original keyboard programmer was brought in to make sure all our sounds were correct. What a surprise it was to find that about a dozen sounds I used all last year were wrong!

Sunday afternoon was my one chance to check out the surrounding area (the rest of the week has been full of run-throughs, fine-tuning rehearsals, and meetings), so I drove the band van into downtown Buffalo. It was virtually deserted on Sunday, except for a few pubs and restaurants on Chippewa Street, so I made for Niagara Falls. I paused briefly at the American Falls and then walked thirty minutes over to the Canadian side, to the larger Horseshoe Falls. Somehow, with an uninspiring sky, a light drizzle, and throngs of Indian tourists asking me to take their picture, the falls weren't quite as beautiful as I'd remembered from the 15 years or so since I'd last been there. Five minutes into the half-hour walk back to the van, of course, it started pouring.

With rehearsals scattered throughout each day, there hasn't been time to do much else except research places to stay in England. There we have the opportunity to find our own housing, usually in private rooms in people's homes. It's interesting to study the lists we've been given and then ring Miss Tweed with the Chihuahua and ask whether her garden room is still to let.

Our two previews are tonight and tomorrow night at the University at Buffalo's theatre; we open on Tuesday at the Theatre Maisonneuve in Montreal.

Tuesday, September 30, 2003
Our previews in Buffalo were typical of a company just getting the show on its feet: mostly excellent but with a few rough spots. There was a first-show party in our hotel bar, and a barbecue at the home of cast member Casey's parents, who live in Buffalo; beyond that the last few days in Buffalo were pretty mundane. I drove around a bit on our day off in search of something exciting but found nothing of note, except for a huge indoor produce market at the corner of Millersport Highway and Transit Road. Then, after a nine-hour bus ride during which we watched a few too many episodes of "Will and Grace" and the riveting Bowling for Columbine, we arrived for a week-long stay in one of my favorite cities: Montreal.

I'd been to Montreal several times before, so I skipped most of the principal tourist attractions and instead delved more intently into explorations of some of the city's neighborhoods: the cosmopolitan Rue Saint-Laurent and Rue Saint-Denis, with their fine restaurants, nightlife, and shopping; the Greek area on Avenue du Parc; the small Chinatown, consisting largely of one pedestrianized street; and the always delightful cobblestone lanes of Vieux-Montreal. I also enjoyed a lengthy walk up to the residential neighborhood of Mont Royal, the mountain for which the city is named. As I climbed the houses got more and more impressive, and the dogs smaller and smaller. At the top, to my astonishment, was a forest, with trails, and of course abutting the forest was a road with spectacular views of the city.

A visit to the Biodome, an indoor zoo featuring flora and fauna of various habitats, is always a treat, and I didn't mind going for the third time to see what had been added. Of note were the fulsome capybara, the world's largest rodent (think of a cross between a dirty pig and a porcupine); the Jim Henson-esque macaroni penguin, with its stately appearance, clumsy walk, and yellow cilia sticking out of its head like flimsy antlers; and one other penguin specimen, which was beginning its annual molting and looked as if plagued with boils. Near the Biodome were the Botanical Gardens, some of the world's most extensive; they were open until after dark in order to feature a display of Chinese lanterns. They were done by artists from Shanghai and most were exquisitely painted with brush strokes of scenery, though a few, such as a cheddar-shaped illuminated bridge precariously floating in a pond, were simply gaudy. In the gardens was the wonderful Insectarium, a unique museum of little six-legged critters and spiders. Sadly, the snack-of-the-day feature, which I'd looked forward to, wasn't due to resume for a month or so (in 1996 I'd been treated to mealworm pizza).

I did, after years of attempts, finally make it to the Musée Juste pour Rire, a comedy museum - it had been closed during all my previous trips to Montreal. The exhibition started with a short history of comic writers all the way back to Aristophanes, and then came the heart of the museum: video snippets of comic material, primarily from Britain, France, Canada, and the United States, arranged chronologically beginning with 1900. My favorite clips were Fernandel's song "Felicé aussi" and a sampling of the witty cynicism of Canadian stand-up comic Dave Broadfoot, who admonishes us, when we feel frustrated or depressed, to think of those less fortunate than ourselves, such as the seasick passenger with lockjaw.

The dining in Montreal is enough to keep one happy for years. Erica and I had a bunch of noteworthy meals: an outdoor lunch overlooking the main plaza in the old city (our waitress said I was the first person ever to order the calf's brain); fondue featuring wild game such as fallow deer and wild boar; a huge Indian buffet right near our theatre (Brian, the trombonist, dined there four days in a row);and maaffé (vegetables in peanut sauce over rice), bavana (lamb with vegetables and spices over rice), and bissap (hibiscus juice) at La Khaima, which is perhaps the only Mauritanian restaurant outside Mauritania - the name refers to the conical tent used by West African nomads. On our last night we feasted by candlelight on fine foie gras with cranberries and venison in a fig-port sauce at the Maison Pierre du Calvet, a restaurant in a cozy stone mansion dating from 1725. The several rooms contained a library, several old pianos, beautiful paintings, doves, and a talking parrot.

The city's nightlife matches the restaurant options in variety and appeal. I took in two jazz clubs, one of which featured an open-improv night that allowed a few of our band members to show off their skills to the local crowd. Saturday night I began at a live-music venue that called itself a "Brasseur Artisan," which made its own fantastic beer (the bitter was exceptional) and where the band Destroy the Dreamers transfixed a semi-goth crowd with electric-sounding post-rock chords. I then headed 14 subway stops away at Taganka, supposedly a Russian-themed dance club, though when the DJ played "Yo Quiero Bailar" and Indian bhangra music I began to doubt the authenticity of its Russianness. About half the clientele were dark-skinned but didn't look East Asian or Latin American; it transpired that they were from near Rostov in southern Russia, so I guess that's where the authenticity lay.

It was pouring when I left Taganka, so I took refuge in the closest open establishment, where I descended the stairs to find karaoke singing in Tagalog. I wasn't quite in the mood for that, so I moved a few doors down, where I stumbled out of the rain and into La Soleil du Marrakech, where Moroccans were dancing to the music of a trio playing on electrified Moroccan instruments. I only wanted a snack, but you had to order a whole meal - and so, heeding the wisest advice my mother ever gave me ("You don't have to be hungry to eat"), I found myself, at 2:30 in the morning, settling down to a huge feast. It wasn't the best Moroccan food (the seafood-bastilla appetizer was in a firm pastry instead of the usual flaky phyllo dough, and the lamb tajine was a bit tough), but the music was terrific and the dancers welcomed me into their circle. Montreal must be the only place where you can dance at a Russian nightclub, visit a Filipino karaoke bar, and have a Moroccan repast all on the same city block.

We had some rough performances in Montreal, but the show is evolving as the new cast settles in, and it's sounding and looking better. Opening night, however, was lackluster, and it prompted an emergency rehearsal the next day. Moods were tepid at the opening-night party, held at the local branch of the American pool-hall-and-arcade-games chain Jillian's. We've had sound problems almost every performance: The "tracks," which refer to all the prerecorded orchestrations and the ticking metronome (the "click") that we hear in the orchestra pit, have failed several times. Our conductor, Ross, now has a panic button that can usually turn the tracks back on immediately, but even that didn't prevent a near train wreck one night, when static and all sorts of cacophonic sounds marred a loud orchestral passage. Personally, I still love it when the click fails - it puts us under the gun and means we get to play passages that are usually prerecorded.

We flew from Montreal to Los Angeles this morning; we'll play Pasadena and Thousand Oaks during the next couple of weeks. Despite my Angelino friend's encouragement that it is possible to get from any part of L.A. to any other part of L.A. by bus in the very same day, Erica and I decided to rent a cute little convertible for two weeks, which should stylishly heighten our experience in this sprawling metropolis. It's tan - maybe not the color of our dreams, but it does the trick. We began with a suitable indoctrination by sitting in traffic on the freeway for an hour.

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