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The making of a musical

The making of a musical

Hard work. Long hours. Low, really low, pay and sometimes none at all.

That is generally the life of most who make theater an essential part of what they do.

Especially those who work for companies such as Arizona Onstage Productions.

The 14-year-old AOP, founded by Kevin Johnson, doesn’t have a home, usually produces just two or three shows — mostly musicals — a year, and begs and borrows for the money, costumes, props and sets it needs to put on a production.

Yet it aspires to — and often succeeds at — staging professional-level productions. Johnson has a knack for finding and developing some astounding talent, from performers to sound designers. Most everyone who works on AOP plays are paid. It may be a token, but Johnson (who does not get paid) is insistent that his cast and crew are compensated with more than pats on the back.

The result has been rich for Tucsonans. It’s hard to forget some of AOP’s productions, such as the moving musical “Elegies” in 2006 and the riveting “Assassins,” from 2004, or the astounding “‘Les Misérables” in 2014.

Next up is Mel Brooks’ musical “The Producers,” opening Saturday, Aug. 19.

This is not a breeze to do — there are more than 50 cast and crew members, over 500 costume pieces, close to 150 props. In short, it’s a massive musical.

And it takes more, much, much more, than a village to mount it. Cast and crew alike scour for props, costumes and wigs. They help sell tickets, move set pieces and transport costumes. Meet some of those who happily embrace the challenges, frustrations and joy of staging a big musical.

Kevin Johnson, producer

What he does: As producer, Johnson raises the money to stage the show, starting with the $10,000 needed upfront to secure the rights to the Brooks’ musical. But, unlike most producers, he has other duties. A sample: He helps make costumes and props, hunts down rehearsal spaces and rents the theater, and develops the marketing. “The most challenging aspect is the marketing,” he says. “We have television, radio, flyers, periodical inserts and print ads out there. A very small ad in a major paper is easily over $800.”

How he raises money: Johnson, who teaches theater full time to elementary students at Basis North, sells advertising for the programs, searches out sponsors for the production, and fundraises. But the budget for “The Producers” has topped $50,000. He’ll also be pulling money out of his own pocket for that, while he continues to hunt for a major sponsor for the show to offset the costs.

Why he does it: “Theater — especially smart musical theater — can bring people to new understandings of topics that might be hard to approach otherwise. ... Music and story does what nothing else can.”

Annette Hillman, director

What she does: The director is responsible for bringing the production’s elements together, shaping the story, guiding the performances. But, when you do shows on tight budgets — such as AOP’s “The Producers” — there are extra duties: Hillman picks up props, hauls costumes to rehearsals, and steps in during rehearsal for a missing actor.

Why this musical: “I’m a sucker for a musical. I’m a total musical geek, and I don’t get the chance to direct something like this that often — musicals are really fun to work on. It never feels like a burden at rehearsal; I never feel ‘ah, I’m so tired.’”

Ashley Hendrickson, stage manager

What she does: This is a heavy-duty organizational job, and an essential one to a smooth-running production, from rehearsals until the final performance. “I coordinate all facets of production, from the design team to the cast, and make sure everyone is on the same page,” says Hendrickson. And, since this is theater on a shoestring, she also has other duties. Recently, set pieces had to be moved from the builder to the painter.” I loaded it up, while it was raining,” she says without a bit of annoyance in her voice. She has done four shows with AOP, and knows the drill: They are all in it together. “We have a lot of people — 50 to 60 people. We aren’t all in the same state — the scenic and lighting person is in another state. There will be hiccups and bumps, but when push comes to shove, people always do the right thing. … It’s everybody pulling together to pull off the production.”

Her biggest challenge: “Communicating with everybody,” she says quickly. “Everybody has different backgrounds, upbringings, educational levels, and different generations. I have to make sure to get everyone on the same page.”

Why she does it: “Because I love it,” Hendrickson says without hesitation. “It’s fun. It’s a weird adrenaline rush. Everything leading up to Aug. 19 (when the play opens) is not the fun part. But when it opens and you see every single part come together … it makes me cry every single time. I know come Aug. 27, when the curtain comes down, I’ll be crying my eyes out again.”

Carrie Silverman, choreographer, cast member

What she does: Silverman choreographs the tap, jazz and comedic portions of the play. She co-choreographed with Karrie France, who is responsible for the “Springtime for Hitler” number, an elaborate Vegas showgirl piece. France was long a performer with the Palm Springs Follies — she is a pro at teaching performers how to walk gracefully down stairs with elaborate costumes and even more elaborate headdresses. Silverman has been a dance instructor and she has found herself working with former students in this show. “It’s been a great time,” she says. “I love watching them. They are beautiful kids. They are fresh in this business and they are taking it all in.”

The challenges: “Everyone has to pull together. We are all so overloaded, and we don’t have a big crew. The cast is putting costumes together. We have shackles (for a scene in prison) falling apart, and we are all going to fix them. It’s important that we make this the best it can be. I think it’s going to be amazing. I feel proud of what we are producing.”

Why she does it: “It doesn’t feel like a choice,” Silverman says. “It feels like I have to do this. I have nine different jobs; I work for a lot of different organizations as an actor. I barely pay my rent, food’s a little tight. But it’s not a choice. I’m compelled, I’m obsessed. The arts feed me and keep me strong. I’m really driven.”

Justen Zhao Zhang, propmaster

What he does: Zhang hunts down everything from flyers and playbills used in the play to furniture needed. “My list is 140-some props right now,” he says a few weeks before the opening.

The challenges: “As a smaller theater company, we have to find props to borrow to keep costs down,” says Zhan, a University of Arizona senior studying scenic design. “And there’s no storage area where we can pull pieces we’ve used in past productions. I’ve been working with the UA and Gaslight to see what we can borrow.”

Why he does it: “I really enjoy working and finding creative ways to problem-solve. And theater, film and television have the ability to tell powerful stories that can’t be told any other way.”

Shana Nunez, costume designer

What she does: “I’m primarily a costume designer, though I have to be a bit of everything,” says Nunez. Costumes for this play are a behemoth, and Nunez is assisted by Debra Safely, who has been haunting thrift shops in town; Ted Tarbox, who is making a dress that looks like the New York City Chrysler building and the Nazi-saluting pigeons; Stephanie Frankenfield, who is designing the outrageous costumes for the “Springtime for Hitler” scene, and Jair Mora Linares, who has taken on the job of making the headpieces for that scene — they must not only be over the top, they have to be lightweight.

The challenges: “Right now, we have over 500 pieces,” says Nunez. “Many of the actors have three to five costume changes. … It’s been an amazing collaborative experience. We have been working diligently — Debra is an amazing person who goes into a thrift shop and finds exactly what we need. And Stephanie just looks at a script and knows what we want. … And there are pieces we can’t just purchase so we are reaching out to other theater companies. We all have balls in the air. It’s almost like a scavenger hunt.”

Why she does it: “We all love to do it so much that we never quantify the time. If I’m exhausted and walk into rehearsal, and people are laughing, there’s music, tap dancing — it’s not work anymore and you are reminded of how lucky you are.”

Dennis Tamblyn, actor playing Max Bialystock

Why musical theater: Tamblyn started out as an opera singer. “I’ve been doing that forever,” he says. “I’m a tenor, and all operatic tenor roles are romantic leads, and that’s not me. Musical theater roles fit me; Max is right up my alley.”

About that character: Max Bialystock is one of the two producers in the play — the other is Leo Bloom, played by Matthew Holter. “ I actually found Max to be more complicated than I first thought. I thought it (the character) would come a lot more naturally. … The discoveries I made about him actually make him worse. I was thinking deep down he has a big heart — nah, not really. He’s just greedy.”

Working with AOP: This is Tamblyn’s fourth show with the company, and he hopes for more. “I always know that Kevin (Johnson) will produce a good product. The process to get there is different (than in a strictly professional role). This has more of a family feel. With opera, you go in, rehearse, perform and then leave. There’s ‘No, oh I really miss the show.’ With AOP, I mourn the loss of the show.”

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@tucson.com or 573-4128. On Twitter: @kallenStar


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Kathleen has covered the arts for the Star for 20 years. Previously, she covered business, news and features for the Tucson Citizen. A near-native of Tucson, she is continually amazed about the Old Pueblo's arts scene and feels lucky to be covering it.

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