Book by Robert H. Livingston, Herb Schapiro and Stephen M. Joseph
Music by Gary William Friedman
Lyrics by Will Holt
adapted from the collection of children’s poetry by the same name.

INFO:

Opened at the Helen Hayes Theatre    May 18, 1970    378 performances (plus 208 off-Broadway prior)
Original Director: Robert H. Livingston
Original Choreographer: Patricia Birch
Original Producer: N/A
Original Leads: Irene Cara, Beverley Bremers (Donna Summers did a German production!)
Cast Size: Male: 6    Female: 6    Ensemble: 0-whatever    Total Cast Size: 12-whatever
Orchestra: 8 (Can be done with piano, or piano/string bass/drums, perhaps with a guitar and a keyboard, for 5.) The orchestration for 8 is pretty strong, though.
Published Script: Samuel French
Production Rights: Samuel French
Recordings: The original Broadway.
Film: 1980 pay-per-view version.  I liked a lot of what I saw, though the actors sometimes looked too old for the parts.
Awards: Nominated for 5 Tonys, won none. Won the Obie for Best Musical.

WHO SHOULD DO THIS SHOW:

A very good show for High School-aged performers, and even younger kids who are trained. But the material is edgy, direct, and deals with more-or-less contemporary urban life for kids without pulling its punches. Your cast must sing well, move well, act well when called for.

The show can be done by college-aged students, and has been, successfully. Could be a good show to consider as a professional production, in a regional theater that is located in an inner city. Also, a good pro show to export from a regional house to local schools as a part of an outreach program. (For that sort of tour, you might lower the cast size to 4, and limit the material to what they can perform well. Usually touring shows for schools must be limited to about 40 minutes, anyway.)

I’m not sure, but I believe a strong production could still be done Off-Broadway. The show certainly feels contemporary.

Be Warned:

The material is direct, profane, a kids-eyes and honest view of inner city life. Pieces like “The White Horse”, a song about taking drugs, can be difficult for an audience. Another number is about a kid who almost goes to jail. If your audience can’t handle it, stay away from this show.

THE STORY:

ACT ONE: There is no story, no plot. The show was adapted from a collection of writings by inner-city kids. It presents their lives. The cast is all kids, ages anywhere from say 10-17, on a street somewhere in a large inner city. They don’t leave the stage, essentially. They each step forward, alone or in groups, and speak and sing, presenting a picture of their lives in somewhat poetic language, but always direct and honest.

The children are each unique, complex. The show consists of poetry (monologues) and songs, and is essentially a revue. The kids talk about their lives, their neighborhoods, their schools and families. The poems are real, sometimes moving, sometimes funny. (I would find ways to emphasize the funny parts, the show needs them.) Occasionally the language and subjects gets tough, and somewhat profane.

Some pieces require stronger actors, and there are a few longer “monologues”. You can place your stronger actors in these pieces. Others need very strong singers, and that’s where you’d put your best voices. There is endless room for Choreography, as little or as much as your cast can handle. It is a versatile show that passes through moods quickly, and ends up providing a powerful and enlightening experience.

THE SONGS:

“Dream Babies”, “Light Sings”, “This World”, “Numbers”, “What Happens To Life”, “Take Hold The Crutch”, “Flying Milk And Runaway Plates”, “I Love What The Girls Have”, “How I Feel”, “If I Had A Million Dollars”, “Fugue For Four Girls”, “Rejoice”, “Sounds”, “The Tree”, “Robert, Alvin, Wendell & Jo-Jo”, “Jail-Life Walk”, “Something Beautiful”, “Black”, “The White Horse”, “War Babies”, “Let Me Come In”

Hits include “Light Sings”, “This World”

MY OPINIONS:

As always, feel free to skip or ignore my opinions and rating. Just don’t be surprised if’ it’s you nobody knows once the reviews come out.

This show is based on a collection of the writing of some 200 kids, about their lives in the inner city. It has, not surprisingly perhaps, not much dated. The problems of inner city life remain more or less the same today as in the late 1960s. The language is contemporary enough, as are the song forms, to work today with very little adjustment.

This is nearly an ideal show for most High Schools, kids performance groups, and some Jr. Highs. The casting is age-correct. The acting requirements are bearable, and can be spread around, focusing on strengths. Casts can be as large as you need, but not smaller than 12 (unless you’re doing a reduced version of the show, as earlier described). In enlarging the cast, you can focus on the unique talents of your individual cast members. Your stronger actors can do the harder pieces of spoken material. Your developing actors can do easier and shorter pieces, providing them an opportunity to get some acting experience.

In many ways, the score for The Me Nobody Knows compares favorably to another hit show from the period, Hair. Both shows produced hit pop songs. Both shows utilize an impressive range of musical styles. Both scores are high energy. Both deal with “contemporary” life in contemporary ways and with contemporary language. It compares equally favorably with Godspell, and other youth-oriented “rock” Musicals of the time. I would go so far as to say that this score, in fact, has more genuine emotion, more “heart”, than those other fine shows. This is a very good and interesting score, artistically strong and entertaining.

I think with a show like this, there is always the danger of a truly amateur production where kids stand around, make lame gestures as they sing, sing and act in a self-conscious way, and generally present the show in its worst light. (I unfortunately have seen one.) This is far from an “actor proof” evening. But then, no Musical is actor proof. And certainly no Musical is safe from inept direction. So given that a production of The Me Nobody Knows will feature nothing but younger actors, it would seem wise to have experienced hands at the helm, directing, musical directing, and choreographing. That said, it is a terrific showcase for talented young actors, especially vocally. The poetry and monologues sometimes have the power of a piece like For Colored Girls…, which is remarkable.

A strong show for a school with kids this age focused on show-biz, strong High School performing arts and drama departments, and colleges.

MY RATING: * (A better-than-average and interesting show, right for many groups.)

 

PRODUCTION CONCERNS AND IDEAS:

DIFFICULTY OF MUSIC:

The music is basically pop, gospel and folk in its orientation. It’s rich in harmonies. It is surprisingly complex when performed well, and surprisingly contemporary. It will work today. The show should able to be performed by Highschoolers, and even by Jr, High students with better voices. Colleges, absolutely. If you have a few very strong soloists who are comfortable with power ballads and belted gospel-like upbeats, you’re in good shape. The ranges for some of the songs might be a stretch for younger singers, and the music is complex in its construction, at times. Plan on spending a fair amount of time teaching the score, depending on the quality of your singers, and their age. I’d start teaching music as early as possible.

The music is often quasi-pop/rock, even occasionally almost rap before there was any such thing. (“Numbers”) The score is eclectic. I think it’s important to understand this. Each “type” of song has its own groove, its own feel. In piecing the music together., you should be digging into each number toward its Musical core, its stylistic roots. The show is heavily harmonic in its vocals, and will have an overall feel. But each number needs to be unique, and feel like the style it aspires to emulate.

Overall, the score is high-energy, fun, aggressive, and entertaining. There are strong jazz/R&B influences in several numbers such as “The White Horse”. There’s a heavy Gospel feel to numbers like “Take Hold The Crutch”, that works very well and injects the show with vitality. There are beautiful ballads as well, such as “The Tree”, and “Sounds”. There’s even a 50s-type upbeat, “Robert, Alvin, Wendell and Jo-Jo”. It’s a diverse score that works well. This score still feels timely, and is effective.

A note on the orchestrations – the electric piano thing should be avoided, it dates the music badly. Find other sounds to work with. Your keyboard should not be an acoustic piano, though, as that is likely to make the evening feel and sound like amateur night. The original orchestrations, by the composer, are very good overall.

When you cast, do target certain songs that you know are harder to sing (like “How I Feel”), songs that need a powerful voice of a certain kind. Make sure you have what you need to carry those numbers.

DIFFICULTY OF DANCE, CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS:

Normally, I list the numbers which a Choreographer is probably going to need to be involved in. No need here, because except for a few ballads, dance should happen in every number. This show can only benefit from good, tight, well-executed, creative, high-energy choreography. The more well-staged, the better. But it should not feel “slick.” It should feel choreographed, but not “Broadway.” It should feel as close to “street” as possible and still be a Musical.

As mentioned, the score uses many distinct styles, such as R&B, rock, blues, gospel, 50s, and near-rock. Each song has its own style, and the choreographer is going to need to look at each number as its own thing, determining exactly the music style (working with the Musical Director and Director). Then, in staging, the choreography should borrow heavily from the style employed in the music for that song. What’s more, the emotion of each song should largely determine its feel. These factors will provide each number its own identity, and I think that’s going to be very important toward lending the evening a crafted, professional sensibility.

An example – “Light Sings”, the hit of the show, is celebratory pop-rock from the period. (A lot like “Day By Day”, from Godspell.) It will be tempting to go Gospel with it in terms of movement. Don’t, because shortly thereafter comes “Take Hold The Crutch”, which is Gospel. Save your Gospel moves for “Crutch,” no matter the temptation. Light Sings is pop-rock. It is about being surrounded by life, by the world, and celebrating it. If it wee me, I’d destroy the fourth wall, and get the actors into the aisles. I’d use the entire space, and fill it with as much real joy as possible…with a musical and dance vocabulary excluding gospel. The song is also a kind of celebration of everyday life. Kids do have everyday aspects to their lives, even in the inner city. They get up, eat breakfast, catch the buss to school, study, eat lunch, play with friends, go home, do homework, play ball on the street, stuff like that. “Light Sings” could embody these truths, these everyday activities, as worthy of celebration. The song happens early in the show, and can set the tone for the evening. The show can be a dirge or a celebration of life and endurance. It’s a pretty easy call.

“Robert, Alvin, Wendell & Jo-Jo” is a 50s take. So go for it. Have fun with the stereotypical moves from the period, and if you can provide them just a little bit of a modern edge, great.

You will need to know when not to dance, though. There are numbers that should be staged, and movement should be minimal and directed rather than choreographed. Certainly “How I Feel”, “The Tree”, and “Jail-Life Walk” do not need any dance.

Allow the humor to play out front and center, wherever it appears. There are several numbers that should earn some laughs. Spot them with the Director and determine how to shape the movement in order to get those laughs.

A motif sort-of thought. The show is bracketed at beginning and end by “Dream Babies”, and “War Babies”. These songs present opposite views of the kid’s lives, from hopeful and forward-looking, to pragmatic and grim. Perhaps the same movement could be repeated in a varied form, or a move or two that would be easily recognized. This will help the show feel as though it’s moved forward and “developed.” The use of the same movement in a number that is a complete contrast will provide some depth and shape to the meaning of the night. It will help the audience to know that the show is soon to come to an end, as well, when movement from the opening number is repeated in the next-to-last number.

This is absolutely no job for a beginner. The Choreographer will be working with kids, and there will be a lot of movement. As with the music, you should start Choreography early – as soon as they’ve learned the music to a number requiring dance.

Dance should be a key part of your audition process, though it should not be necessary for your entire cast to be expert.

CASTING CONCERNS:

Your cast cannot look older than the roles they play. They cannot be adults cast as kids. They must look no older than High School age. And not “High School Musical” High School age, but really. The audience must feel like they are being spoken and sung to by real kids, up to age 17 or so, who have something to say to us about their lives.

Cast inter-racial, it’s the inner-city, so make a point of it. Cast about an equal number of boys and girls. If you’re doing a pro production, promote your auditions in local schools, including colleges. Make a big deal about getting into your production, it will bring attention to the show.

Try not to cast actors who “feel” like child actors. You know the kind, pretentious and self-involved. You’re going for as close to a street feel as you can get, without casting yourself into a gang war or something like that.

Cast first for types. Get kids, and actors who really look and sound like kids, almost all teens around High School age. Then cast for voices – they have a lot of singing to do. Pitch will be key, belting, the ability to harmonize. Then, cast for dance and finally, for acting. Just know that they will be doing a lot of acting, so really, you need a cast of as close to triple threats as possible.

SETS:

Generally a unit set, as there’s no reason for the action to move anywhere. Often done on a set representing an inner-city street, with stoops, door frames, window sills for the kids to climb and use. The location does not need to feel real, it can be representational. Graffiti (harmless, please, and having to do with the show, including its title) is called for. A sense of bricks, plaster, deteriorated and marked. Not too rough a set to design, perhaps, except for the fact that stairs, doorways, windows need to work if you use them. Dancers will be leaping on them and through them, they must be solid, not flats and false fronts.

So, one well-made set. A job for someone with some experience, but it can be a learning assignment.

COSTUMES:

All modern, the kids will have the clothes. A very easy job. Do remember, they need to dance a lot. And don’t let them dance like dancers, or like “actors.” You can costume this in many stores, and thrift stores, in need be. Your budget can be almost nothing for this.

PROPS:

Not too many, from productions I’ve seen. Each production is likely to be unique in this regard. Work closely with your Director. It should not be too tough a job.

LIGHTING:

This is a real job for this show. The lighting must be able to isolate attention to different parts of the stage, and change the emotion of the piece, as called for and at a moment’s notice. It should feel “real”, like a sunny day in NYC, at times. But for some of the numbers and moodier spoken pieces, the lighting can become surreal, theatrical, far more emotive. There are likely to be a lot of cues. You’ll want a good board for this show.

Get someone to Design with experience.

MAKE-UP:

A very easy job, all contemporary with a touch (unnoticeable) of theatrical make-up to bring out features. They must look like kids, not actors!

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):

Director, Musical Director, Choreographer, Lighting Designer, Set Designer, The Cast.

MY THOUGHTS:
This show is a relatively inexpensive and flexible show with simple tech requirements, perfect for smaller theaters, High Schools and Colleges. I believe that if you listen to the score and read the piece, you will be shocked at how timely and up-to-date the piece is. I was.

The Me Nobody Knows is an uplifting plea by kids to be understood, heard, included in life. It is a testament to the resilience and creativity of our young. This is a show that should receive many production.