Chair Follies & Sondheim's Follies

I picked up my music last week for Newsies, a touring Broadway show that’s coming to Chicago to start a month long run on December 10th. It got me thinking about the first show that I played in town three years ago: Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. It nearly killed me.

I’d been freelancing in Chicago for seven years when I got called to play Follies. The life of a freelance musician can be very feast or famine, so the prospect of solid work for six weeks was exciting. When I say it’s solid work, I actually mean it’s a lot of work: eight to nine shows a week, with only Mondays off. That means double performances on Wednesdays and Saturdays, sometimes Sundays. I knew I was going to be tired, but I was pretty confident that my Alexander training had given me the know-how to get through all the performances intact and healthy.

The first couple of band rehearsals went well. When we joined the cast for the sitzprobe we were on stage for the first time. Follies tells the story of a reunion of old theater performers, and the director Gary Griffin had decided to put the musicians on stage with the actors, so that we seemed like the reunion band. Space was pretty tight: the band was terraced up the back of the stage. I was down on the lowest terrace between Ben on harp and Jill on cello. There wasn’t a lot of space between my music stand and my chair. I had to sit back in the chair in order not to be straddling the music stand with my legs.

It wasn’t a great chair. It was sturdy enough, but the seat sloped backward. That wasn’t ideal—it’s hard to be poised on your sit bones if your chair slopes back. The chair was a little low for me and the cushion, though firm, was thick: my butt sank into it so that my hips were below my knees. The worst part, though, was the back, which was on a spring hinge, and would lean further back if you put your weight on the back of the chair. I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t rest against the back of the chair without going into recliner mode. But I was an Alexander teacher—I knew how to sit in a chair. Didn’t Alexander himself say something like (and I’m paraphrasing), “We educate people, not furniture.” Plus, this was my first show. I didn’t want to be that guy, complaining about his chair.

We had a dress rehearsal on Tuesday afternoon and then our first preview performance Tuesday night. Afterwards, my back was pretty achy. The next day we had two previews and after the second show I was in bad shape. My back did not feel good. I limped back to my car, feeling old.

I knew that I was probably playing a little tight—it was my first show, after all. But I wasn’t particularly nervous or stressed out. Yet by the end of the Thursday show, my back was hurting like it had never hurt before, a dull ache that wouldn’t quit. I had a friend visiting from out of town, and after the show all I could do was lie on the floor on my back and wonder how it could possibly be so bad. I was not being a good host.

It wasn’t just my back that hurt. My ego was taking a bruising, too. I was an Alexander teacher. I’d been studying the Technique for 12 years. I had been a certified teacher for 8 years. As a teacher, I had helped students overcome back pain. And here I was, three performances into my first run of a show and my back hurt so much I couldn’t stand. I was a fraud.

I did everything I knew how to do. When I practiced during the next day, I stood up to stay mobile. I did lots of lie-downs. I was going to keep it together. But three quarters of the way through the next show, my back was hurting so much it felt like it was going to give out. Halfway through Losing My Mind, I was thinking, “I’m going to lose MY mind if my back hurts like this for the next six weeks.”

Like I said the chair was cushioned, but the front lip of the chair had a metal bar running underneath the cushion. In desperation, I sat up on the front of chair, so close to my music stand that I was in danger of knocking it over with each down bow. But as soon as my butt touched the solid support of the chair’s edge, I felt this connection shoot up my spine from my sit bones to my head. The relief to my back was instantaneous.

The Stefan chair: nothing special, but it gets the job done.

I also looked a little ridiculous. For the rest of the show, I played sitting on the lip of the chair, looking like I was about to embrace the music stand. After the show I went to Bruce, the Stage Crew Supervisor, and told him I needed to swap out my chair. There weren’t any other options at the theater, so I brought one of my simple black Stefan chairs from home. As tired as I got as the run went on, my back didn’t hurt again. The run turned out to be an amazing experience. I made some of the closest friendships I’ve made in Chicago. And we had the unexpected excitement of performing for Stephen Sondheim himself at one of our final performances.

As an Alexander teacher, I prided myself on my ability to sit in any chair. But my experience with Follies showed me that there are certain circumstances where I don’t want to have to fight my furniture while doing my job. Playing a show eight times a week is tiring enough without having to compensate for a terrible chair.

I’ve now played three shows at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and have a new way of setting up my station. By stacking two of the theater’s chairs, you get extra-height, the seat becomes level, and the back doesn’t push back as much when you lean against it. Tape the legs together and the chair is secure for the rest of the run. It’s even better than my Stefan chair. I don’t know what chair will greet me when I get to the Oriental Theater for the first rehearsal of Newsies in little over a week. But I’m no longer worried about being that guy. If they don’t have a chair that will work for me, I’m happy to bring my own.