One of my many favorite rock songs is Bob Seger’s, Turn The Page, about being on the road a lot. Long tours, especially on the road, in massive buses, are the major part of a musician’s life. While their stage shows seem glamorous, the reality not so much. Being away from family or friends, a familiar place, a comfortable bed etc. is only the basics of what you miss. Travelling in a bus, however comfortable day after day for months with that constant motion and sound of traffic is not most people’s idea of fun. It makes you feel disconnected from the real world and you need stable, dependable and supportive people around you at all times.
But that’s the story of the main singer, the band, the group. What about the rest?
Lately I’ve been watching recent stage tours by Madonna, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé’, Nicki Ménage, Mariah Carrie etc. Stage shows that are undertaken to sell their latest albums… and I am in awe. That is, in awe of all the people who imagine these shows and the technicians and crew who put them up. In other words: everyone else but the main artist.
We performed recently at Artscape Baltimore, the largest free art festival in the U.S. some of the technicians there, (yeah, for unionized workers!), were talking about the next show they had to prepare for which was Bob Dylan’s outdoor concert.
We performed four shows for Artscape. Our last one was also the last of the whole festival. After we had packed up, (which takes us 45 minutes to an hour, even though we have it down to a T), and headed down in the freight elevator we watched the tech. crew checking each light and dismantling the whole Light Grid as we left. They were going to be there at least a couple of hours more, stripping down the whole setup, lights, sound etc. even though this was the simplest of set ups with no stage set or “specials”. Outside, the whole outdoor festival was being packed, from the stage arenas to individual artists tent: a massive operation that the public never sees.
It got me thinking again on a track I’ve been on for a while: all the people that it takes to put up these multi-million dollar minting shows and where the big artists would be, or rather not be, if the busy bees weren’t there. Especially for those artist whose music does not have a lot of variety in the poetry, is repetitive, and meant more for clubs.
For small companies like ours, we have a lot of preparation that goes into a show and we have to do most of it ourselves. The immediate preparation before takes at least three hours for ironing, makeup, dressing, hair etc. and then stretching and warming up. While the practices and rehearsals throughout the year are the main part, there are the music compositions, the rehearsals, the recordings, the editing, the costume designing, light cues for each dance. Year round we have to maintain the costumes and store them, which is no small feat, and then we are one of the few companies that actually change hairstyles and jewelry with each costume change so there is all of that detail to pay attention to. Our dry-cleaning bill after every show itself can be enormous. All the things that those who are not part of the business do not even think about.
For shows like Bob Dylan’s, which will be outdoors and does not have a lot of fancy extras to it, (not to mention no costumes, makeup, hair change), the load-in may be just one day. That means that crew may start around 6:20am or 7:00am to start preparing the stage with lights, sound checks for each instrument and vocal. When the show is done, they have to take it all down and put away and store everything within a few hours and the next morning, or sometimes even the same night, the band is back on the road on their way to the next concert.
However, when you have a show like Madonna’s or Justin Timberlake, the shows can take some days to put up, withbleary-eyed crew pulling all-nighters, subsisting on coffee, Red Bull and sometimes even unhealthier medicinals, eating junk food, with no time to take showers or put on fresh clothes; but that is such a small part of it. The work on the presentation will have begun months before and will be fine tuned to the last minute, even though it should have started more than a year in advance. Imagine what flights of fantasy it takes to dream up all the technical screen images that one sees running throughout the show, and then actually creating those on the computers. They have to be closely synched with the choreographers, costume designers, light designers, stage makers, props managers and general managers and that is only the first tier of people involved in the production. Then come the actual artists and technicians who make and do all these things. While the main artist is treated like a diva, or God, everyone else sweats in anonymity. Sure their names get known in the industry. You would know who to go to if that team had done the work, say, on Beyoncé’s last show, but the general public will never know their names or faces nor will they have made the big money.
I watch the dancers in these shows closely. They are in excellent condition, but they are not just dancers. They are gymnasts and able to do a lot of pyrotechnics that dance alone would not call for, while they may or may not have what our dance requires. In concert dance we want more emotional input, more of what makes you stand out on stage saying deep things without words. Here you must perform large and loud; subtlety is not asked for. To get into a group like this is killing. There are thousands out there turning up for the auditions. You have to stand out but you also need a hell of a lot of luck on your side and without that you can be really good and never be found.
While in ballet and modern dance and, oh, even more so in techniques like ours, there are far far too few men, in Broadway and for films there are plenty trying to make their mark. So those up there, they are the lucky ones and though we will never know who they are one thing is for sure, the main artist would not be able to stage that show without them. Whether in Bollywood, or Hollywood, without the chorus of expert dancers, the star cannot shine.
Yes, I am envious of the mega million making artists who have all these people and facilities at their back and call. Our shows have more meaning, more to say, more class. Can you just imagine where we could be if we had at our beck and call the same expertize to back us up with all the technical support they have?
Yeah, I can imagine it all right. We would beat them all. We would be the greatest hit.
I’ll keep imagining.
Bob, Seger’s, Turn the Page.