MONDAY is the dark night for the Roundabout Theater at Studio 54, but not this week, when it will host a star-studded fund-raiser the company is billing as both a concert reading and a gala performance of Stephen Sondheim’s operetta “A Little Night Music.”
The gala label is amply justified: the cast features Natasha Richardson as the fading leading lady Desirée Armfeldt; her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, as Desirée’s ex-courtesan mother; Victor Garber as Fredrik Egerman, the respectable lawyer and Desirée’s ex-lover; Laura Benanti as Fredrik’s virginal second wife; and Marc Kudisch and Christine Baranski as a sexually tormented count and countess. Tickets for the show and party go for up to $2,500; for the show only, the top price is $500. But it’s still a reading, and the director, Scott Ellis, hopes that the audience knows what it is in for.
“To me a concert reading means that the orchestra is onstage, that each actor has a music stand and a chair, and that they sit and they sing,” Mr. Ellis said before beginning a hurried few days of catch-as-catch-can rehearsals. “No costumes. No exits and entrances. You’re really there to listen to the music, to hear the score.” A major draw on this occasion is the 27-piece orchestra under the Sondheim specialist Paul Gemignani.
The popular Encores! series at City Center is likewise predicated on an orchestra on the stage and actors with scripts in hand. Jack Viertel, artistic director of the series, commented last week on the appeal of a musical without the expense of a fully staged production.
“An audience will accept the vocabulary you give them,” he said. “They enjoy spectacle if that’s the vocabulary you choose, but they don’t need it. The fact that concerts and readings work is not a testament to us. It’s a testament to live theater.”
That transformational magic is what creators hope for when they put on another kind of reading: a run-through of a new musical still in an embryonic stage, sometimes with the players outnumbering the spectators and just a piano as accompaniment. The purpose then may simply be to give the creative team a sense of the way the piece sounds and plays in real time. A backers’ audition is more or less the same thing in the presence of an invited audience of prospective investors.
In December the composer John Kander, the writer David Thompson and the director Susan Stroman put together a strictly private first reading of “The Scottsboro Boys.” The piece was left unfinished at the death of Mr. Kander’s career-long lyricist, Fred Ebb, in 2004, but work on it has continued, and completion seems to be drawing closer.
Mr. Kander remembers the team’s early days, when actors would read the dialogue while he played the piano and Mr. Ebb sang the songs. “I’m not crazy about that,” he said, “because you’re so concentrated on what you’re doing that you don’t get the benefit.”
This time, after two or three days of teaching the cast the music, Mr. Kander and his colleagues stepped back just to look and listen. “It’s always better than doing it yourself. It’s very illuminating. You don’t need a full workshop or production to learn that you’ve made a terrible mistake. A reading gives you the information you need to go back and rewrite.”
Another thing Mr. Kander likes about readings is the quality of the performers who make themselves available. Bernadette Peters and James Naughton, for instance, did a reading of the Kander and Ebb adaptation of “The Skin of Our Teeth,” which was headed for a regional theater that could never have afforded to cast them. “People in the theater are just very generous,” Mr. Kander said. “They do readings all the time, usually just as favors. Then they get their $300, and they go home.”
Generosity aside, actors are naturally curious to get a sneak peek at what writers are up to. While starring as Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,” Sierra Boggess has read the lead part of Cinderella in “The Plexiglass Slipper,” an acerbic fairy tale from the pens of Jim Luigs and Scott Warrender (creators of “Das Barbecü,” a country-and-western spoof on Wagner’s “Ring des Nibelungen”), and the romantic lead Therese in “Casanova’s Return,” lyrics by Sarah Schlesinger, music by Mike Reid.
“It always seems like a good idea,” Ms. Boggess said on a two-show day between Christmas and New Year’s. “ ‘The Little Mermaid’ is a taxing show, but doing an eight-show week can get a little monotonous. It’s really fun to do something outside, to do other composers’ and writers’ work, especially when the material is so good.”
Commonly the entire process, from first rehearsal to the end of the final reading, takes place within one week under an Actors Equity contract allowing for 29 hours of work in all. That is not much time. Having a photographic memory and perfect pitch, Ms. Boggess comes to these instant wonders with a distinct advantage. But though she seldom seems to depend on the book, she keeps it at the ready, carefully highlighted in many colors, the pages artfully folded to guide her eye just in case.
Brent Barrett, who took the title role in the “Casanova” reading, looked equally at home in what was a mammoth assignment. “I was just so fascinated by the character, I had to take a shot,” he said, acknowledging a certain stress. “Just ‘reading’ isn’t enough. You have to let the writers see how the script plays. For that you have to get out of the book as much as possible. And when Hal Prince and other high-powered people in the business come in to take a look — all knowing it’s a reading — they expect a performance, even if they say they don’t.”