As the nation’s founding fathers strut and fret upon the stage of Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, Jason Bassett plays an unseen role, perched on a snug triangular wooden platform about 10 feet above them.
While the cast of the smash-hit hip-hop musical “Hamilton” weaves through fast-paced raps and intricate wordplay, he follows them word for word, calling the show’s 856 lighting cues and 40 set cues with rapid-fire, split-second timing.
But overseeing the spectacle is just part of Mr. Bassett’s job as the musical’s production stage manager. Working six days a week, often 12 hours a day, he is responsible—with the help of two assistants—for managing the show’s behind-the-scenes aspects. That also includes organizing rehearsals, coordinating between creative and technical crews and solving problems, such as how to replace an ensemble member mid-show.
The nearly three-hour show brings particular challenges. In addition to two large turntables built into the set’s floor, which Mr. Bassett said involved “countless hours” of work to make level, the production includes 50 pieces of music and an ensemble that is onstage for most of the show.
Did you study to become a stage manager?
I completely fell into it. I went to a couple of years of acting school, decided I wasn’t interesting in doing that, and then a friend asked if I wanted to stage manage a tiny production he was doing in Los Angeles. It was this little extra thing that I started doing to earn some extra cash.
But I was making it up. Unless you work at a [big] show like this, you’re the only stage manager and so there’s no real way to know unless you work for somebody else who knows how to do it.
This makes me sentimental. Once upon a time, I was a professional stage manager in Los Angeles. It was a long time ago, a brief shining moment in time...
Okay, not all that shining, and very, very brief -- one show, really, in Beverly Hills, for which I was paid an actual pittance, and some assistant stage manager credits while I was a intern whose pay was cut off halfway through the season because my $100/week hadn't been authorized at the highest level of budgetary authority. (That $100 formed a significant part of our own budget at the time.) And then, there was the crab cakes incident, which clarified for me that theater was not going to be my career.
(An aside: I am one of those people who can never remember to whom I've told a story, but an intensive search of the blog archives seems to indicate, to my astonishment, that I've never written about the pivotal moment in my theatrical history. If you've heard this one before, bear with me.)
So, I was stage managing this Christmas show (excuse me; "holiday" show), and it was nearing the end of its run. I'd stepped in as stage manager as an emergency sub, and was the only crew member during the run. Essentially, I called the show to myself, as I ran lights and sound, and the actors set their own props (union rules didn't apply in a venue this small, I guess). One of the fellows involved with the show was getting ready to direct a show in February, and he said he'd call me about stage managing it.
So he called in January. I was five months pregnant, and Darwin and I were just starting to grapple with the financial implications of losing my meager income when baby was born, so I was ready to jump at any job. Stage managing was hard, physically and mentally. The late nights and the demands of the work didn't always square with being pregnant, but we needed the money badly. The director, having dinner at a restaurant, chatted about the show, and his vision of the show, and this and that, and all I wanted to hear about was the money. At last. The show paid some barely acceptable amount per the two weeks of performance. But there were also eight weeks of rehearsal.
"How much does it pay per rehearsal?" I asked.
"Oh, honey, this is 99-seat Equity," the director said. "You have do it for the love of it." He turned away from the phone and spoke to his dinner partner. "Are those crab cakes? Pass me the crab cakes."
It was at that moment that I realized that I didn't have the love for it, the hunger it takes to make it in theater. I wasn't prepared to work like a dog for free, for the love of it, when I already felt like a dog gestating a baby, for the love of it. I declined the position as politely as I could, and haven't worked professionally since.
Darwin, in reading the WSJ article, said, "Well, anyway, I'm glad you don't work twelve hours a day, six days a week."
"Excuse me," said I, stay-at-home mother of six children. "If you want to be all careerist about it."
Added bonus: after some Googling around, we finally were able to bring to light our Money Make-Over article in the L.A. Times, written a few months after the crab cakes conversation. We'd been disgusted week after week by the wealthy people featured in this column, who just didn't know how to manage their finances and still pay for the second house and the stables, while we lived with a $25-a-week food budget, so we wrote in and said, "Manage this." They decided, for whatever reason, to profile us. Shortly before the interview, Darwin had gotten a raise after steering at the wall by quitting, but we still didn't make enough for the LA Times to find us respectable. (For a week after the article ran in the paper, I found myself, at eight months pregnant, suddenly fielding a wave of phone calls from concerned LA Times readers who wanted to tell me personally what a mistake we'd made in marrying young, in getting pregnant, in me not working, in being poor-ish, etc. ) The financial planner clearly thought we were naive kids without a clue, but I think that maybe the years have vindicated the confidence our 23-year-old selves had in our prospects.