Excerpt: Offed Stage Left by Joanne Sydney Lessner
Title: Offed Stage Left
Author: Joanne Sydney Lessner
About the Book:
There’s one role you don’t want a callback for: Prime Suspect.
Aspiring actress Isobel Spice lands her first regional theater job, playing a supporting role and understudying the lead in "Sousacal: The Life and Times of John Philip Sousa." A series of minor backstage accidents culminates in the suspicious death of the leading lady on opening night. When Isobel takes over the role, her mastery of the material makes her more suspect than savior, and she realizes the only way to clear her name is to discover the identity of the murderer—before he or she strikes again.
“Be kind to your web-footed friends, for a duck could be somebody’s mooo-ther,” Sunil Kapany sang under his breath to the tune of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”
“Shhh!” Isobel Spice elbowed him. “There’s a rehearsal going on, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“You have to admit, it’s better than the lame words we’re being forced to sing,” Sunil grumbled. He sank further into his cushioned seat in Livingston Stage Company’s darkened theater, drawing up his knees against the scratched donor nameplate on the seatback in front of him. “Seriously, who thought it was a good idea to write lyrics to Sousa marches?”
“I don’t see how you can have a musical about the March King without using his music,” Isobel said. She shifted the bustle of her pale-blue and white muslin gown, her act one costume for Sousacal: The Life and Times of John Philip Sousa.
“Easy,” Sunil replied. “You hire a composer with a sense of the period to write the book songs, and use Sousa’s marches for the gazintas and gazoutas.”
Isobel frowned. “The what?”
“The underscoring that goes into one scene and goes out of another. Gazintas and gazoutas.” He looked askance at her. “Have you never done a musical before?”
“Plenty.” She bristled. “And I’ve never heard anyone use those words. You are totally making that up.”
“I am not,” Sunil said, affronted. “Hey, Kelly!”
Several rows in front of them, Kelly Jonas, the stage manager, held court behind a large wooden plank balanced across the seats, which served as a makeshift control center for tech rehearsals. She looked up from her prompt book, a three-inch binder stuffed with script pages and scenic renderings, fastidiously divided by brightly colored tabs. Pushing aside a long strand of graying hair, Kelly squinted at Sunil through her wire-rimmed glasses.
“What are gazintas and gazoutas?” Sunil asked.
“The playons and playoffs before or after a scene,” she answered distractedly. A movement onstage caught her attention. “Are we ready to move on?”
Sunil turned triumphantly to Isobel. “See?”
Isobel sighed. “This is going to be a long day.”
“They don’t call it a ten-out-of-twelve for nothing.”
“Is there anything more tedious than spending ten hours waiting around while they set lighting and sound cues?” Isobel whined.
“Um, yes. Doing the actual show.”
As much as Isobel hated to admit it, Sunil was right. From day one, it had been clear that Sousacal was a dog. There had been a buzz of anticipatory excitement in the air when the company assembled for the first read-through in the third-floor rehearsal studio of the sleek, state-of-the-art performing arts complex in downtown Albany. In addition to hosting the century-old Livingston Stage Company, relocated from its charmingly dilapidated (some said haunted) prior home in an old vaudeville house, the building had a black box theater and a café that served light meals before and after performances. Everything about her surroundings made Isobel feel like a working theater professional.
Everything, that is, except the material. Sunil had politely informed her after the read-through that his shin was black and blue from her kicking it under the table. But having taken out her frustration on his tibia, she resolved to relish her first regional theater job rather than let the disappointing quality of the show get her down. Since moving to New York a year and a half ago, when she’d met Sunil at her very first audition, Isobel had learned that most acting work was to be found in summer stock or regional theaters. Isobel had resigned herself to the conundrum of living in New York in order to get work out of town, which was the best way for a young performer who was not yet a member of Actors’ Equity Association to build her resume. Despite Sunil’s increasingly steady stream of snarky comments, she had thrown herself enthusiastically into her small role as John Philip Sousa’s first love, Emma Swallow, while assiduously preparing the larger role she was understudying: Jennie Sousa, the composer’s wife.
Isobel sighed again and flipped open her script to a scene between Jennie and Sousa, running her finger down the neon pink highlights. “I may as well use my downtime to memorize lines.”
Sunil jerked a thumb at the stage. “You really think Arden is going to miss a performance?”
Isobel followed his gaze. Arden Claire was stalking the proscenium like a tiger that hadn’t had its morning coffee. A statuesque, auburn-haired beauty, Arden had once represented New York in the Miss America pageant and was hailed as a minor celebrity, even though she hadn’t made it past the swimsuit competition. So far, her portrayal of Jennie Sousa was not living up to expectations. Throughout the three-week rehearsal period, Ezra Bernard, the director, had pushed Arden to suppress her natural hauteur and find Jennie’s quiet strength and self-deprecating humor. Their struggles swallowed up rehearsal hours, and the more Ezra tried to mold Arden’s characterization, the more fiercely she clung to the glamour that had guaranteed her past successes, which didn’t exactly endear her to the rest of the company.
Chris Marshall, the charismatic, square-jawed actor playing Sousa, found her completely intolerable. All Arden’s scenes were with him, which meant her epic ego flashes impacted him more than anyone else. Initially, Chris had struck Isobel as the sort of galvanizing personality who stepped up to lead the company, but after three weeks of Arden, he had withdrawn into sullen, stormy silence. Lately he had stopped addressing his leading lady directly and had taken to routing all his communication through Ezra, a gently bearish man who was growing increasingly frazzled as opening night approached. Isobel was surprised now to see Chris saunter onstage and whisper something in Arden’s ear, prompting her to glower at him and retreat to the wings.
“Even divas get sick,” Isobel remarked. “Better safe than sorry.”
Sunil gave Isobel an appraising look. “If I didn’t know you as well as I do, I’d warn that girl to watch her back.”
Isobel flicked her eyes toward him. “Are you being purposely obnoxious today?”
“I assure you, it’s completely accidental.”
“Trust me, you’re better off playing Emma.”
“Jennie is the lead. She’s Sousa’s wife. Emma is a passing fancy. I’m only in act one,” Isobel griped.
Sunil raised an eyebrow. “Let me get this straight: you think the show is a piece of crap, but you’re complaining your part isn’t big enough?”
Isobel crossed her arms defiantly. “What if I am?”
He laughed. “You are so predictable! Look, Jennie is your typical ingénue. Emma has, if you’ll pardon the expression, spice.” Isobel glared at him, but he went on. “Plus, you get to come back at the end as the hotel maid who finds him dead.”
“I have two lines and a scream,” she said. “About what you have in act two as the Indian chief who makes Sousa an honorary chieftain.”
“I don’t scream—I chant.” Sunil twirled the walking stick that rested horizontally across his knee. “Isn’t it time someone told Felicity she hired the wrong kind of Indian? I’m pretty sure the Pawnee Nation doesn’t have a Delhi tribe.”
Isobel resisted the urge to look several rows behind her, where Felicity Hamilton, artistic director of Livingston Stage, was sitting. Felicity was in her late fifties, short and stocky with impeccably coiffed black hair, a deceptively warm smile, and a calculating gaze. She had never married, but despite an apparent absence of maternal warmth, she treated her nephew and godchild Jethro like a son. It was Jethro Hamilton, a self-described Sousa fanatic, who had written the book and lyrics to Sousacal. The musical was Jethro’s baby, and, in his way, Jethro was Felicity’s.
“She thinks she’s getting points for non-traditional casting,” Isobel said. “Don’t kill the dream.”
“Where she’s really getting them is casting a brown person to play Philadelphia gentleman and man of the church Benjamin Swallow, your…gulp…stepfather.”
Isobel knew that Sunil, an Indian Jew, was perennially frustrated at the inability of directors to see past his ethnicity and hire him for the glorious tenor voice he had inherited from his cantor father.
She patted his hand. “It’s utility casting. They had to give us small parts because we’re covering the leads.” She eyed him curiously. “You are looking over Sousa’s stuff, right?”
Sunil pulled his hand away. “I’ve glanced at it.”
“Glanced…?” Isobel’s jaw fell open. “It’s huge! Sousa carries the show.”
“Eh, it’s pretty much sunk in by osmosis. Besides, you know actors. They’ll drag themselves onstage coughing and hacking rather than turn their creation over to a scheming understudy. You know, I’m not even the—”
“What if something serious happened to Chris? And what if there was a Broadway producer in the audience and you had to go on?”
Sunil snorted. “As if Broadway cares a hoot about what happens in the boonies.”
“Last I checked, Albany was the state capital.”
“Like I said, the boonies. Theatrically and politically,” Sunil cracked.
“Plenty of Tony winners are launched in regional theaters like Livingston,” she reminded him.
Sunil unbent his long legs and stretched them out under the seat in front of him. “Let’s review all the reasons that’s never going to happen with Sousacal. Number one: the show sucks. Number two: the show sucks. And number three: it’s not very good.”
Isobel turned a page with a dainty finger. “Then you won’t be interested in what I heard from Thomas in the costume shop.”
“Probably not.” Sunil yawned ostentatiously and tipped his straw boater over his face.
“Arden, back onstage, please.” Kelly’s voice echoed over the God mic. “We’ll finish the duet and move on to the wedding without stopping. Ensemble, please be ready for your entrance.”
Isobel set her script on the seat next to her and nudged Sunil. “Come on. Time to make the donuts.”
He righted his hat with a groan and led her down the aisle. They skirted the orchestra pit via a set of narrow utility stairs and took their places offstage left.
“So, what did you hear in the costume shop?” Sunil asked casually.
“I thought you weren’t interested,” Isobel teased.
“I’m not. I’m bored.”
Isobel’s eyes darted around the wings. Three chorus women, locals whom Isobel didn’t know well, were fussing with their costumes, which everyone was wearing for the first time. One of the ensemble men was trying to draw out the shy little boy who played young Sousa, while two others were engaged in a quiet but intense conversation. Satisfied that nobody was listening, she returned her attention to Sunil.
“Someone from the Donnelly Group is coming opening night.”
“The Broadway producers?” Sunil waved her off. “I don’t believe it.”
“Thomas says all they have in the pipeline is revivals, and they’re scouting for something new,” Isobel insisted. “And you know as well as I do, if you want to know what’s going on, ask the costume shop.”
“Still don’t believe it.”
“And…continue,” Kelly called.
Chris and Arden picked up, rather mechanically, in the middle of act one, scene seven. Isobel watched them intently, mouthing Jennie’s lines while Sunil eyed her in amusement.
“You’re really taking this seriously,” he whispered.
She ignored him and continued, but stopped abruptly when Arden veered from the script.
“I can’t sit on the gazebo bench if that spotlight is right in my eyes,” Arden announced.
“We’ll adjust it on the break,” Kelly said. “If you stand on six, you should be in the clear.”
Arden shuffled over a few inches. “Now I’m in the dark.”
“Those are your choices right now. We’ll fix the cue later,” Kelly said.
Chris reached for Arden. “Oh, Jennie, you’ve made me the happiest man on earth. Please? Not just a tiny kiss?”
Arden stepped forward and shaded her eyes from the bright stage lights. “Ezra, I need a fan for this scene. It’s summer and she would have one.”
“Jesus Christ,” Chris muttered.
“We’ll get you a fan,” Ezra boomed from the back of the house. “Go on.”
Chris repeated his line. “Not just a tiny kiss?”
“Not until I have a fan,” Arden said.
“Something I’ll never be,” quipped Chris.
“Ooh, snap,” breathed Sunil.
Arden shot Chris a murderous look.
“I will get you one for tomorrow’s dress,” Ezra shouted. “Finish the goddamn scene!”
Arden turned to Chris and batted her eyelashes unconvincingly. “Not until we’re married,” she said with a tight-lipped smile.
From the orchestra pit, the piano launched into the intro to Sousa’s famous march, “The Washington Post.” Chris dropped to one knee, flung his arms wide, and sang in a lusty bari-tenor:
I’ll probably die if you don’t kiss me,
Yes, that’s what I most want you to do, You simply have got to see it through!
As Chris pulled Arden onto his knee, Sunil continued the verse, singing his own lyrics into Isobel’s ear:
I’ll die if I ever have to sing that! I’ll fall off the stage and land on my head, And then I’ll be just as good as dead!
Isobel let out a squawk of laughter, which was topped by an even louder shriek from the stage, where Arden was jumping up and down, clutching the back of her thigh.
“Stop!” Kelly called out over the mic. “Are you okay?”
“There’s a wire sticking out on this stupid bustle!”
“Thomas? Are you in the house?” Kelly asked.
“Coming!” The lean, blond costume designer loped down the aisle and took the utility stairs by twos. “Okay, princess, let’s see what the problem is.”
He led Arden into the wings next to Isobel and Sunil. Arden spun around, allowing Thomas to hike up her skirts and examine the bustle, which was knotted around her waist under a candy-cane-striped dress.
“Yeah, I see it. Heather, do you have pliers or something?”
The mousy, wide-eyed assistant stage manager hopped down from her stool, rummaged in a box on the floor, and retrieved a slightly rusted pair of pliers. Arden turned around, hands on hips, facing Isobel, while Thomas adjusted the padded wire contraption.
“Those things are a pain in the ass,” Isobel said sympathetically. “Literally.”
Arden’s lip curled. “Oh, look, it’s my stalker. Probably wishing the wire had hit an artery.”
“I’m just doing my job,” Isobel said defensively.
Thomas released Arden’s skirts and let them fall to the floor. “You’re fixed.”
“We’re good,” Heather reported into her headset.
“Back onstage, please,” Kelly called over the mic.
With exaggerated courtesy, Isobel pulled aside the black masking curtain. But as Arden flounced toward the stage, the entire length of material came down from the ceiling, burying Sousacal’s leading lady under its heavy folds.
Joanne Sydney Lessner is the author of PANDORA'S BOTTLE, a novel inspired by the true story of the world’s most expensive bottle of wine (Flint Mine Press). THE TEMPORARY DETECTIVE, BAD PUBLICITY, AND JUSTICE FOR SOME and OFFED STAGE LEFT (Dulcet Press) feature aspiring actress and amateur sleuth Isobel Spice. No stranger to the theatrical world, Joanne enjoys an active performing career in both musical theater and opera. With her husband, composer/conductor Joshua Rosenblum, she has co-authored several musicals including the cult hit FERMAT'S LAST TANGO and EINSTEIN'S DREAMS, based on the celebrated novel by Alan Lightman. Her play, CRITICAL MASS, received its Off Broadway premiere in October 2010 as the winner of the 2009 Heiress Productions Playwriting Competition. Joanne is a regular contributing writer to Opera News and holds a B.A. in music, summa cum laude, from Yale University.