Behind the music 

Blood, sweat and beers: the making of Amadeus

It’s seven-thirty at night on Saturday, Dec. 7, and the University of Montana campus is a virtual ghost town The school’s football team is locked in a battle for its postseason life in Louisiana, and most of the student population, like the die-hard citizenry at large, has settled in front of a television to root on the Griz.

But inside the PAR/TV building’s Montana Theater, a team of dedicated students is riding a different sort of adrenaline rush, as they transform thousands of hours of effort into something, finally and gloriously, tangible. They are the cast and crew of Amadeus, and on this, the evening of the production’s first dress rehearsal, they are rocking the house.

On stage, the mammoth set towers over the actors, gleaming resplendently in the ornate period costumes of Vienna, circa 1781. In the first act’s fifth scene, we hear for the first time—as does Austrian Court Composer Antonio Salieri, the play’s main character—the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. After bearing secret witness to a childish, innuendo-laden game of cat-and-mouse between Mozart and his lover, Salieri describes a concert performance of the Adagio of the Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments:

“It started simply enough: just a pulse in the lowest registers—bassoons and basset horns—like a rusty squeezebox.” The first notes of the composition filter through the speakers at the front of the theater, low and sweet. Salieri continues: “It would have been comic except for the slowness, which gave it instead a sort of serenity. And then suddenly, high above it, sounded a single note on the oboe. It hung there unwavering—piercing me through—till breath could hold it no longer and a clarinet sweetened it into a phrase of such delight it had me trembling. The light flickered in the room. My eyes clouded!” The music, oboe twinned with clarinet, sweeps back through the theater in a neckhair-raising sonic wave.

Salieri dashes to center stage as the lights fade, save for a single bright spot on the quivering composer: “I was suddenly terrified. It seemed to me I had heard the voice of God—and that it issued from a creature whose own voice I had also heard—and it was the voice of an obscene child!”

The power of the moment—and this one is particularly revealing of the play’s major themes—has many sources, not the least of which is the sublime, Tony-winning script from playwright Peter Shaffer. But the live grace and authority of this minute-long segment—itself a mere fraction of the play’s 150-minute run time—stems from the combined efforts of those who reinvent life in the name of art.

They’re drama majors at the University of Montana, and they’ve been piecing together the genetic strands of Shaffer’s electric vision, one gene at a time, for over three months, and all for a production with a five-day life span. In this time and place, they are the hardest working men and women in show business.

“Welcome to drunk German land, ladies and gentlemen!” director Chris Evans bellows to the dozen actors assembled at the U’s bare-bones McGill Gym. It’s a Saturday afternoon in early November, and the production is in its third week of blocking rehearsals.

Although the actors have been studying the script for weeks, this is the first run-through of a scene set in a beer hall, where a financially strapped Mozart conducts an opera written for common folk.

Evans’ chief concern for the scene’s beginning is the entrance of the tavern crowd. He wants to capture the boisterous spirit of beer-swilling Germans and Austrians, and he urges the crowd to play it up: “Let’s see how far we can take this before I hate it!”

The gang enters from stage right, mobbed up and exchanging loud—and altogether modern—greetings. Evans stops the action with a quick shout. “Stop! ‘Hey man. How’s it going?!?’ This is the 1780s, people, not the 1980s. Let’s try to be a little more period-specific!”

“Actors!” He mutters an aside, rolling his eyes. “Turn ’em loose and they go nuts!” He has them do it again, and again, until he’s satisfied. “That was beautiful!” he beams when they nail it. “I wept silently at its beauty!”

Several hours and one scene later, Evans turns his charges loose for the remainder of the dwindling day. “We’re a month away now, and this time is going to fly. Stay on it. Stay alive with this stuff. Now comes the fun part.”

Stage manager Jessica Owen, an undergraduate highly regarded for her command of the role of logistical captain, has some good news for the actors. “We’re in the Montana on Monday!” she says, and the actors give a cheer. They’ve put the indignity of gym floors behind them.

“Amadeus actually wasn’t my first choice,” says Evans, a third-year student in the graduate drama program. Evans is a big, gregarious man, and looks a bit like a cherubic Fozzie Bear. A longtime veteran of the Missoula theater scene who entered the program in 1999 from his job as a radio station program director (“It was kinda like being the King of Butte—great title, not a lot of power”), his eyes spark when he talks shop.

When the faculty board turned down Evans’ bid to direct Merchant of Venice—because, he believes, of the difficulties of Shakespearean verse—he went quickly to his number two, Amadeus. Bingo.

“In hindsight, it couldn’t have turned out better,” he says. “I’ve always loved the story, and the stars aligned for me when it came to casting.”

Right after he got the go-ahead, Evans found himself in class with a fellow third-year director, Matt Greseth. The two had worked together on projects in the past. “I looked over at him, and I just knew it. Salieri was sitting right beside me.”

The role of Salieri is a monster one, as he never leaves the stage and carries well over half of the script’s speaking lines. It’s a load that Greseth handles with stunning aplomb, and a showcase for the Fargo native’s substantial talents. “Matt is a great director, but he really shines on stage,” says Evans. “He could go to New York, Chicago—any of the big theater cities—and find work as an actor, singer, or director.”

Other casting decisions soon fell in line, punctuated by Nathaniel Peterson’s reading for the role of Mozart. The diminutive but explosive Peterson, a sophomore, puts a manic charge into the role, playing the composer’s famed social eccentricities to the hilt.

And it’s not just casting that has Evans feeling blessed with the play selection. Because of its popularity and operatic scale, the show was assigned the grand stage of the Montana Theater instead of the smaller Masquer Theatre. The play was also awarded a grand budget; at a shade over $15,000, it dwarfs that of most student productions. The buzz surrounding the play, in and around the drama department, is considerable.

It’s a Friday night in mid-November, and the entire cast and crew are assembled at the Montana Theater for the first complete run of the play. This is the designer’s run, when all of the show’s designers—light, scene, sound, costume—have the opportunity to make adjustments in the context of a full run. They observe from the seats, scribbling notes and speaking among themselves.

On the mostly barren stage, the going is rough. Most of the actors hold their playbooks, reading from the script when they can’t remember their lines. Several of the actors in smaller roles miss cues, evoking a cringe from Evans as he confirms the mistakes with stage manager Owen.

Greseth bulls through the Salieri role with minimal script reading, asking Owen for help when he needs it—never breaking the flow, barking “Line!” in the intense manner with which Salieri speaks for much of the show. “It’s like a dance,” Evans whispers. “He won’t break the moment. He’ll keep it going, and Jess is there for him every time.”

Evans gathers the cast together for a post-run talk. He addresses the mistakes, saying “Miss a cue? Uh-uh. Never miss a cue. Not at this point. You guys have been working your asses off for so little. You’ve got to make it count. And the rest of you, get the book out of your hands!”

He softens up a bit, consulting with the actors about minor changes. “Matt, let’s consider that ‘threat to my kingdom’ line…ah, how ‘bout we cut it? I am so not in love with that line.”

“Thank you! Thank you!” Greseth responds, smiling. “No love lost here.”

Evans sums up with a pep talk. “The potential for this show, as I think you guys are beginning to feel, is incredible. It is going to be a powerhouse. Not just Matt. Not just Nathaniel. All of you.”

Over a couple of post-run beers at a local watering hole, Evans explains his philosophy of handling actors. “It’s a delicate balance,” he says, “You’ve got to scare the shit out of them at times, but not so much that they’re too intimidated to function.”

That’s especially true, he feels, of the younger actors. Of Peterson, he says, “I gave the role of Mozart to a sophomore. You saw what kind of talent this kid has. He’s going to be amazing. But you saw his youth come through tonight. He’s going to look at Matt, who has a much larger role, going off-book, and he’s going to try and match him. And who wins? The show does.”

The costume shop in the PAR/TV building is a brightly-lit underground enclave. On this afternoon three weeks before the show opens, the room is an ant farm of activity. Large tubs of fabric line the walls, and a half-dozen students work on sections of cloth spread over large tables, sewing machines whirring and stopping.

Sara Birk, who plays Mozart’s wife, is in for the second of her three fittings. “She’s the clothes horse of the show,” laughs costume designer Chris Milodragovich, as she takes a measurement of Birk’s wrist. “She’s got four different looks.”

Milodragovich has been at the university for 30 years—the last fifteen as professor of costuming in the drama department—but Amadeus is her first show of this period. The ornateness of the rococo style, with its lush colors and florid designs, has her aesthetic wheels spinning.

Though they’ve rented a number of costumes from the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, every costume for the major characters is being built at the shop by one of two crews. On a private trip to San Francisco last summer, Milodragovich bought much of the fabric she needed. “They’re very elegant, expensive fabrics,” she says, showing off a striking golden suit of Salieri’s. “We’re in the world of butterscotch!”

A costume designer’s role goes far beyond simply making the characters look good. “After reading the play and several biographies of Mozart, I met with Chris at the beginning to talk about how he sees the characters coming to life,” Milodragovich says. “And part of what I do is reflect on the characters and how they progress during the show.” She indicates the half-finished dress on Sara, a bustled shock of red color hanging over the panniers, hoop-like structures that sweep to the side, underneath the petticoat. “At this point with the red dress, she’s at her most exuberant. She’s almost out of control.”

It’s one week after the designer’s run, and the cast is pumped up about the second full run-through. The set is slowly coming together, with a raised platform at the back of the stage and the skeletons of arched porticos lining the sides. Evans tells his actors to move around the stage, to get accustomed to the new feel of the place.

Peterson comes ripping out of the backstage area at full speed, leaps off the platform and hits center stage with a bang, grinning wildly. It’s a mad Mozart dash, a quick rehearsal of Amadeus’ grand entrance.

A cast member wiggles a portico, peering worriedly up into the darkness above the stage. “Is this stuff secured?” he asks. “Don’t worry, the most unstable thing on that stage right now is you guys,” says Evans.

Peterson and Bill Wade, who plays Mozart supporter Baron von Swieten, are warming up center stage like baseball players in long toss, riffing lines and goofing. “This is going to be a good night!”

Wade says, “I feel it!” Peterson is hopping up and down in affirmation. “Yeah! Yeah!”

It is a good night. Everybody’s off-book, and line errors are minimal. The play flows now, and its power is becoming ever more evident. During the week’s rehearsal, Evans has reworked Mozart’s death scene in a manner that pares down what had been a superfluous series of actions into one smooth sequence. The thunderous strains of Mozart’s Requiem Mass—majestic even from the speakers of the small boombox on Owen’s table—burst into a final, extended “A-men!” Birk—no, it’s really Constanze now, Mozart’s wife—cradles her dead husband in her arms and looks skyward in anguish. Evans pumps his fist and mouths a mute “YES! YES!”

After the run, Evans gathers his crew together. “You’ve got a good show here. Keep working it. We’re right where we need to be, but we’re losing four days over Thanksgiving. Keep it with you. Protect this show!”

At the post-run beer session, Evans is jubilant. “I strongly believe in actor-ownership,” he says. “They’ve got to have a stake in the show. I’ve been waiting for them to take the show away from me, and they are starting to do that.”

The scene shop behind the Montana Theater is immense. There’s a thick fog of sawdust and paint in the air, and the buzz of sanders, nail guns, paint guns, and power saws is omnipresent. It’s a week before opening night, and scenic designer Mike Monsos is scrambling to complete Amadeus’ massive set pieces.

Monsos, in his second year as assistant professor of design and technology, has an enthusiasm for this show on par with Milodragovich’s. He read the script over the summer, and presented Evans with a series of thumbnail sketches at the beginning of the semester. Final plans and designs were approved over the next month and, after a week of drafting on an architectural software program, he assembled his crew and began construction a month before opening.

Like the costume designer, the scenic designer provides the production with far more than a simple historical recreation. In their early meetings, Evans told Monsos the dynamics he wanted the set to project.

“Chris told me that he wanted Salieri to appear like a little bug in the opening and closing scenes,” he says. “Once we got that sense of scale set, we went from there.”

It turns out that Monsos has a gift for understatement. The porticos that line the side of the stage stand 18 feet tall, and they’re capped by two-foot headers. The back walls, topped by a huge, curved header suspended from above, measure 26 feet all told.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of these stage frames is not their size, however. They are stunningly ornate, with long columns running up the sides and topped off with Corinthian capitals. The headers themselves are decorated with swags and pendants.

In reading the play, Monsos keyed on some big themes and sought to enhance them through the set. “This play is so much about perception and self-awareness,” he says. “Salieri is consumed with fame, and how others perceive him. Yet at the same time, he is the one that recognizes Mozart’s incredible gift.”

To further those themes, Monsos and Evans decide to cover the window-like openings in the porticos and walls with a reflective cloth that is mirror-like on the outside, but becomes translucent when light hits it from behind. Evans uses the revealing and concealing aspect of the cloth to great effect, placing silhouetted actors behind the windows at strategic moments.

The term “tech run” sounds innocuous enough, but over the course of rehearsals any mention of it elicits groans of dread from the actors and Evans alike. “The tech runs—that’s when you’ll see why Chris is balding,” Greseth had said earlier.

During a tech run, the actors become serfs to the sound and light designer’s lords. Beginning with the very first cue, the actors perform their lines and movements on stage while the designers twist knobs, punch buttons, and spin dials on their control boards, bringing the aural and visual elements of the play into tune with the live action below.

On this, the evening of the first tech run and less than a week before opening, the source of the actors’ anguish becomes crystal clear. With the play’s 170 sound and light cues, four hours of work nets roughly a third of the play. It’s a twisted version of the child’s game “Red Light-Green Light,” where the actors move and speak, only to be told to stop when the cue isn’t right. They go back, do it again, stop again. Over and over, again and again.

But at the tech tables and in the sound booth, the designers are in their element. Sound designer Mike Legate, an undergraduate student, has gone above and beyond the call of duty and built a number of the sound cues in Dolby Digital Surround Sound, and the effect is tremendous. When Salieri first hears Mozart’s music—the aforementioned adagio—the sound begins in the theater’s front speakers and moves towards the rear as the oboe and flute kick in.

“I wanted the music to project outwards towards the audience as Salieri internalizes it,” explains Legate. “That way, it’s as if the audience is inside Salieri’s head.”

At the end of Act I, when Salieri is literally struck down by the sheer power of Mozart’s C Minor Mass, the music moves up the theater from the stage and then back down again, where its thunderous rumble strikes Salieri down as if he had been physically beaten.

Lighting designer Mark Dean, the head of the drama department’s Design/Tech division, is a virtuoso in his own right. He, like Legate, is wired to Owen through a headset, and they confer incessantly as the actors move about at Owen’s command. His fingers never leave the light board’s keys as he manipulates one or more of the 260 lights custom-installed for the show, saving them to the computer’s memory when the cues prove satisfactory.

The logistical requirements of a series of lights following an actor in even a simple movement across the stage are astounding. But again, lighting is not simply about physical illumination.

“In class, I tell my students that lighting is what pushes actors emotionally,” says Dean. “At the end of Act I, for example, Salieri’s collapse is a moment that really grabs your cojones. So the single, intense spotlight there not only draws the audience into Salieri’s mind, it pushes Matt, as an actor, further in there as well.”

Now, at the dress rehearsal, the nightmare of the tech runs is already a fleeting memory. The actors are decked in full garb for the first time, the stage shines like a brand new world, and, aside from a few glitches, the show moves in a consummate display of grace and power. The moments of this life have been built, piece by piece, gene by gene, and they flow together seamlessly.

This is Shaffer’s powerhouse Amadeus in all its glory. And the minor god responsible for this incarnation looks down at his creation, and he is happy. “I’ve been living with this thing since March,” Evans says, an exuberant smile stretching across his face. “And it’s going to hit like a thunderbolt.”

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