Me, London, 2019. (Back when I could go to London.)
The Rodgers Award-winning musical Rosa Parks, which I wrote with my collaborator and friend Scott Ethier, has been presented by non-profit theatres all over the country. Different spaces. Different directors. Different casts. Different everything. It’s taught me some of of my greatest lessons in the theatre. And I think some of them are relevant to what’s currently happening to Matt Nagy and the Chicago Bears.
The Will Harper Experience
Years ago, when the show was first written, we held auditions in NYC.
Will Harper – who has become a star on The Good Place – walked in with his script rolled up in his hand and “sang” Oscar Brown Jr.’s Signifying Monkey into those pages like they were a microphone. He was magnetic. There was no chance we weren’t putting him in this show in some capacity but he really couldn’t sing and Scott’s music is particularly difficult on non-singers.
I turned to the composer, affectionately known as “Half Pint” for his propensity to nurse half pints of Guinness once he feels he’s had too much to drink. “Let’s hear him read. No music.” Scott agreed. I had the casting director grab Will in the hallway and hand him a Martin Luther King Jr. side. (Sides are a brief passage of dialogue from the show used in the audition process.)
The side was a King sermon. But not a real sermon. King’s actual words are heavily protected by the family and they are a litigious bunch. I mapped out one of his sermons syllabically and wrote a knock off so good you could sell it on Canal Street.
He read it. He was brilliant. We had intended to write two songs for King. We scrapped that plan. We had our guy. We played to our strength. To this date, the show is better for those decisions. The songs were never written and they never needed to be.
TheaterWorks Palo Alto
We took the show to Palo Alto the next year and the company generously offered to pay for us to bring five performers. Having a show with 16 African American musical theatre roles is a lot of fun but it’s near-impossible to cast in most markets around the country. If you’re an African American musical theatre actor, you don’t stay in Palo Alto. You move to LA or Chicago or New York.
We didn’t ask Will. King, since it’s basically a non-singing role, felt easier to cast and teaching speeches is far less time-consuming than teaching songs when you have a limited rehearsal schedule. We weren’t there to cast so we didn’t meet our King until we arrived.
Guess what? Fucker couldn’t act. Like…he couldn’t act, at all. He was a straight-up singer. (I’m leaving his name out of this because I don’t want him to Google himself and find this criticism. He doesn’t know this story, and doesn’t need to know it.)
Still, he was crazy excited to take on the role. King was his hero. Nobody had given him a script because we were working on some book material as late as the flight into San Francisco! After meeting the cast and doing a read through of the entire script, Half Pint and I knew what we needed to do. We retired to the Applebee’s directly across the street from the Oakwood in San Jose where they were putting us up and discussed.
The solution? Scott went into his room, closed the door, took every King sermon, and set them to music.
This wasn’t the intention of the piece. And we knew this work was going to be tossed as soon as we left California. But Palo Alto was the game and this cast were our players so we played to our strengths on that day. (And some of that terrific music became a minor chorale arrangement that appears at various points in the show.)
Scott and I could have forced Will to sing. We could have forced the fella in Palo to read challenging material. We would have been well-within our rights to say, “This is what we’ve written. Do it.” But when your offensive line can’t block at the point of attack, you don’t run the ball up the gut on third-and-one. You adjust. You play to your strengths. Our end game was to use the people in the room to present the material in the best way possible. Not the perfect way. The best way. Audiences don’t know what the perfect way is. They know what’s right in front of their faces.
Nagy’s goal needs to be to use the players at his disposal to produce the most points he can. His plan, his scheme, what he wants to do, no longer matter. The play may be the thing, but the players should determine the plays. The Bears don’t have a ton of strengths on offense – Robinson, Mooney, Graham in the red zone – but it’s time to embrace them.