We’ve been in rehearsal, Mac and I, for about six weeks now, but that’s nowhere near as hard-working as it sounds; due to our weirdo work schedules (both of our “weekends” fall in the middle of the week, and Mac works overnights through the rest of the week), thus far we’ve only been getting together twice a week (with a week and a half off while I covered the Tribeca Film Festival for DVD Talk). The show runs about 70 minutes, eight songs and the rest of it dialogue, so obviously the first big hurdle is for Mac to re-memorize the lines; we haven’t done the show since that first performance in ’06, so while there’s still some familiarity, he’s basically starting fresh. To that end, the best thing we can do in these early blocking and work-through rehearsals is to just do it, and do it, and do it some more.
We’ve done some other stuff as well, though. First of all, we’re spending more time this go-round working out choreography for the songs—not tight, intricate dance numbers or anything, but we’re spending time looking at old concert footage and coming up with stuff for Mac to do in the instrumental breaks and during the numbers. For example, while watching This Is Elvis, we saw some priceless footage of Elvis doing karate, both on and offstage, and knew right away that we were gonna need to have some of this good stuff in there:
Last Wednesday, May 26th, we did our last blocking/work rehearsal. I realized, having worked the show for the last several weeks , that I’d made a couple of mistakes in the music. We watched the Vegas-era Elvis concert movie Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, and found some great stuff for Mac to do during the songs, but the trouble with the show as it was it that it’s too ballad-heavy; a couple of them are good, and are important for the flow of the show, or he does funny things in them. But too many ballads slows things down, and leaves us with not enough fast numbers for him to strut his stuff. So we decided to lose “Love Me Tender.” It’s a great song, and Mac was actually doing it beautifully, but it was just kind of a dead spot in the show.
Instead, he’s doing “Burning Love”:
And it’s badass.
Now, what we ran into after that was a completely different issue. With “Love Me Tender” gone, we were now to a point where every song in the show was a late 60s/early 70s song, or a Vegas arrangement of that song. And then “Hound Dog” stuck out. The arrangement we have for the backing track is tricky to begin with—it’s very bare, and if Mac misses half a beat, it sticks right out. But more importantly, it was now the only song in the show that sounded like 50s Elvis, instead of 70s Elvis. We decided to boot that one too, and replace it with a song that was, I thought, conspicuous in its absence. His medley of “Mystery Train/Tiger Man” (which opens That's The Way It Is, as you can see below) was a mainstay in those late period concerts, and our show just wasn’t right without it:
So “Hound Dog” is out, “Mystery Train/Tiger Man” is in.
From a non-musical point of view, we’ve had some really interesting discussions about working on “The King” (as he’s called in the script) as a character, as opposed to doing a really good Elvis impersonation. Which is not to say that this is all Mac did last time, but it was certainly much more of our focus in that shorter, more intensive rehearsal period: get the lines, and do them like E does on the tapes. But I had just been reading Greil Marcus’s brilliant book Mystery Train—specifically, his essay “Presliad” on Elvis (here’s a good summary of it). Marcus writes: “Elvis transcends his talent to the point of dispensing with it altogether.” What does this mean to us, and the show that we’re doing? Because it allows us a window to start to understand why our main character is the way he is—why was Elvis, a performer of breathtaking talent and skill, half-assing it in these Vegas shows? Why did he give an audience maybe an hour of his time, and spend half of it rambling about his divorce and introducing band members and celebrities? Well, because that may have been all he had to do. People didn’t come to those shows for musicianship. They came to gawk, to be in his presence. What kind of King is expected to perform for his subjects?
Looking forward to working more of this kind of character analysis, of Mac getting not just into Elvis’s skin, but into his head. Only one rehearsal this week (due to a Karl & Bernie podcast recording session), but it will be our first top-to-bottom run-through, so I’m looking forward to that.