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November 6, 2009

From: Lawrence Ryan
To: Douglas Monroe
Subject: Re: Ronald Gordon’s plays

Dear Mr. Monroe,

I hope you can forgive the slight prevarication in my earlier missive. I am, in fact, still here in Lexington, but I was expecting to leave the next day when I received your e-mail, and did not believe I had the time to fit in a visit with you before my departure. As it turns out, I have had to postpone the return flight that was originally scheduled to leave this morning. If you happen to be available any time this afternoon or evening, I would be pleased if you could join me for a drink here at the Hotel Lexington. Do let me know.

Regards,

Larry Ryan

P.S. Our mutual friend speaks very highly of you.

* * *

* Larry *

Doug Monroe’s website sports a suitably moody black-and-white portrait, but I am more interested in getting the sound files of his work to play than I am in contemplating what some creative photographer’s lens has made the man himself appear to be. Having been in this business forty-some years, I know all too well how skillfully deceptive an artful headshot can be.

According to his online bio, Monroe launched his career fairly young with a well-regarded orchestral piece that still appears on concert programs from time to time. However, the bulk of his work since seems to have been chamber music: The website lists an array of testimonials from string quartets, wind ensembles, and less traditional groups of instruments that have performed his compositions to general acclaim over the last two decades. The most common word critics seem to use to describe his work is “neoromantic,” whatever that means. All of which sounds promising, but gives me little to go on in judging his potential in writing dramatically for the voice.

Monroe is already there and waiting when I stroll into the Lexington’s handsomely appointed bar Friday evening, which at least earns him points for punctuality. He turns out to be tall, with the slightly hunched posture that often comes from years of unconsciously attempting to minimize the difference in height from others. Dark, tousled hair with a few fetching streaks of gray, receding at the temples but still thick on the crown and sides. Pale complexion, possibly genetic, but I imagine more likely due to spending long hours locked in a studio with his muse. Intense silvery gray eyes, a little spooky in that pale face. A charmingly crooked smile, poorly disguising the fact that he is nervous. Long, elegant fingers on expressive hands—well, naturally, he’s a pianist.

It’s those hands that give him away. They fidget constantly with the stem of his wine glass as he talks—that is, whenever they are not waving around trying to illustrate some point. Fortunately for Mr. Monroe, I find the habit endearing. Ron fidgeted that way too.

The usual round of small talk that opens our conversation reveals little that is earth-shattering, apart from the rather unwelcome revelation that we both saw Sunday in the Park with George on Broadway—when Doug was a freshman in college. I would have been thirty-five at the time. Now I feel positively decrepit.

He is also somewhat cagey about his relationship with Scott, though he speaks warmly enough of him. Upon a little prodding, however, he reveals they met years ago when Doug was hired to write the incidental music for a play Scott was directing. They have stayed in touch since and, Doug acknowledges (with a slight blush, God only knows why) they make a point of getting together whenever Scott is in town.

Still, Sondheim’s esoteric musical about art and the creative process provides opportunity enough to launch us into a conversation about Doug’s creative process and vision. After he has expounded on the way the painting scenes in the play mirror his own experience of losing track of time while engrossed in composition, I finally sense my opening and go for the jugular.

“Let me ask you something that probably sounds insulting but I promise you is not intended that way: What do you think your music can bring to this story that Ron’s words cannot?”

That rocks him, and he visibly retreats inward for a moment or two, pondering the question. That’s good, he thinks before he speaks. When he does, it is in a softer, lower tone of voice, as though he is weighing each word carefully.

“I don’t think any musical setting is a question of trying to improve on its source material. If that were the case, only the most arrogant of composers would ever attempt it—or would only write settings of inferior works. Music is a different art form, and the challenge of setting an existing text—and the fun of it—is in exploring the same material from a different perspective. Many operas pare their sources down to just the most crucial, dramatic scenes. They eliminate or consolidate secondary characters, gloss over time-consuming exposition, sometimes even eliminate entire acts. What’s left is intensified, concentrated to its essence. canlı bahis şirketleri That’s what I would hope to do with Ron’s work—not attempt to embroider on it, but to present a… a… distillation of it at its most dramatic and poetic.” He pauses a beat, eyes searching my face. “Did that make any sense?”

Not bad. Not bad at all. But I am not about to give him the satisfaction of knowing his answer has pleased me. “And what scenes stand out to you as being worthy of setting in this proposed ‘distillation’?”

Now Doug has warmed to his subject, he’s more willing to push back. “I don’t like the word ‘worthy’—again, that’s implying that I know better than the playwright, which obviously is not the case. What I can tell you is which scenes ‘sing’ to me, if that makes any sense: Thomas’s farewell speech, of course, which first inspired me; his fiancée’s internal struggle in Likeness of a Sigh; uh, the scene when the lovers first kiss at the end of Lamps by Day; the doctor’s meditation on the limitations of medicine in A Grave Man…”

“You’ve done your homework, I see,” I interrupt drily.

“I’ve done nothing but read those plays and think about them lately. I have to admit, I’m obsessed,” he confesses.

“It’s an occupational hazard, I believe,” I assure him.

I have my own confession to make: I’m beginning to like this man, who speaks so passionately and articulately about his art, and who appears to respond to Ron’s work with both intelligence and sincerity. He’s let his guard down under my probing, and revealed his artist’s soul. But I can’t trust a job like this to passion alone.

“You know, I went through every work sample you have on your website,” I tell him, “But I couldn’t find any examples of your writing for voice.”

Doug’s face turns wry. “Do you know how much demand there is for art song these days?” he archly inquires, then silently answers his own question, holding up one hand with the fingers curved into the shape of a big fat zero. “I write vocal music for my own pleasure, but hardly any of it has ever been performed. I do have a few recordings in my files, though. I’d be happy to send them to you.”

“Please do. Am I to assume you’ve already begun working on your setting of A Grave Man—for your own pleasure, of course?”

He nods, avoiding my eyes. I can read you like a book, Mr. Monroe. Do you realize that? Fortunately for you, I’m rather intrigued by what this book is telling me.

“Then why don’t you send me whatever you have just as soon as you think it’s in suitable shape and we’ll talk some more once I’ve had a chance to hear it?”

His face lights up with surprised gratitude. He obviously thought he had blown his chances.

Funny how those gray eyes don’t seem creepy to me at all now.

We part with hearty handshakes and a promise that he will keep me posted on his progress over the next few months. We will reconvene at some mutually convenient date to discuss whether we think the project is worth pursuing further. I head back upstairs to my room to pack for the flight I so abruptly postponed early this morning.

I realize, to my exasperation, that I’m humming Sondheim to myself.

—————

* Doug *

I get to the hotel early and plant myself at the bar to wait for Dr. Ryan. When he shows up, it’s a bit of a surprise. He’s tall—not as tall as I am, but definitely above average height—with a head of thick graying hair that once must have been a striking auburn. He has what appears to be a trim, solid body beneath his well-fitted dress shirt. None of which matches the mental picture I had formed from the little I knew about him. I had half imagined a paunchy fellow in a tweed jacket with elbow patches, possibly complete with bow tie, pipe, and horn-rimmed glasses. (In point of fact, he’s wearing a stylish, unobtrusive set of wire-frames.) Instead, I find myself exchanging a firm handshake with someone who was once, clearly, a formidable leading man in his own right.

“Mr. Monroe,” he says. “I’m so pleased you could meet me on such short notice.”

The sexy, articulate baritone voice throws me off, too. But it instantly helps make clear why Jeffrey Williams had been ideally cast to play a character modeled after Ryan’s younger self.

“Thank you for taking the time,” I answer. “I’m grateful for the opportunity.”

I’m less grateful, however, once Ryan begins grilling me. He’s not an asshole, not really, but it’s clear I’m stepping on his turf, and he’s not going to tolerate these plays being fucked around with. It’s an audition, I remind myself, gritting my teeth and attempting to project the right combination of confidence, respect, and enthusiasm.

That voice is quite distracting, though. Every time he speaks, it seems to set the hair on the back of my neck standing on end.

I fumble and stammer and bluster my way through, convinced I’ve sunk my case but determined to soldier through and make the best case I can.

And he agrees! Well, at least he canlı kaçak iddaa doesn’t say no right away. I’ve bought myself the right to at least experiment with the plays, see where they take me, and whether that direction is one he would be willing to support. Not a full-hearted endorsement, but I’ll take what I can get.

My hand tingles from Ryan’s firm, manly handshake all the way home. He projects an authority that’s hard to shake, yet without seeming unapproachable. I envy him his apparent ease and self-confidence. But then, he’s an actor. Putting on a persona like that must be second nature to him. If I want to completely win him over to this project, I’ll need to find out what the real man is like behind the mask.

* * *

Alex is waiting outside my building when I get home. It isn’t our usual Sunday rendezvous, but I knew after this interview I would need help either celebrating my success or distracting myself from my disappointment. He obligingly made time for me, though I’m sure he’d rather have been spending his Friday evening with friends closer to his own age. Albeit most likely through an electronic forum.

“Thanks for coming,” I tell him, deliberately pressing close to his body as I unlock the front door. His little shudder and the way he involuntarily leans into me tells me he’s already hot and ready for play time. Which, to be honest, I don’t recall him ever not being, but it’s still an ego-boosting response, particularly after having been set so firmly in my place this evening by Dr. Ryan.

“Hey, thank you, you saved me spending all night in the library avoiding a frat party in my building,” Alex answers.

I swing the door open and usher him in with my right hand suggestively planted in the small of his back.

“I’d have thought you’d be in your element at a frat party; taking advantage of horny drunk studs and adding notches to your headboard,” I joke.

He makes a face. “Yeah, right—’cause lame music, puke, and homophobia are such a turn on. You, on the other hand…” He turns to kiss me, and my hand slides down his back and worms beneath the waistband of his pants to cup his butt. Cheeky bastard, he’s going commando. “…You are a total turn on,” he concludes.

With language like that, we might not even make it to the bedroom. I pull him down onto the living room couch, my hand inside his pants exploring until it finds that tight, smooth hole. Alex pushes back eagerly against my probing finger, whuffing in approval and opening before my touch to let me continue my exploration inside his hot depths. His hands find my shirt buttons and begin methodically undoing them.

I’m still not quite ready to let the subject go, though. Maybe it’s the voyeuristic image of Alex making conquests out of a whole string of randy college boys. Or maybe I’m hurt by the thought of him holed up alone all night in the library stacks.

“Don’t you have any friends you enjoy hanging out with? You must know more people besides the frat crowd.”

“Sure, sometimes, I guess,” he shrugs, more interested in making me groan at what he can do to my sensitive nipples with his fingers, teeth, and tongue. I withdraw my hand from his pants just long enough to lube up with a little spit before introducing a second finger to his welcoming bud.

“Well, don’t be afraid to blow me off if you have plans with any of them. I won’t be offended.”

“Yeah, okay. If I ever think it’s worth my while to hang out with them instead of bangin’ you, I’ll let you know.”

The words “as if” hang unspoken in the air.

Alex has gotten my belt and slacks open by now. My cock is standing up straight, proud, and sticky out of the fly of my boxers. He puts an end to any further conversation by taking it right to the back of his throat, rendering me speechless.

Well, I assure myself, listening to his moans crescendo as I tongue that perfectly rounded ass deep as a prelude to delivering a victory fuck we’ll both remember for months, I may not be a drunken frat boy, but at least I do know how to make it worth his while.

* * *

Erica Bowen isn’t happy. This is the third draft of her latest composition I’ve criticized, and she’s reaching the end of her patience.

“Look, I did everything you told me the first two times,” she argues. “Even shortening the coda, which was fucking painful, by the way. If you didn’t like my other choices, why didn’t you tell me before?”

“Because I didn’t notice them until you’d fixed the more obvious faults in the piece,” I explain, with more patience than I feel. “Fine-tuning a composition is like restoring a painting sometimes—you have to strip away layer after layer of crap to get to the masterpiece underneath. Part of the craft is in recognizing whether it’s time to stop or whether there’s still another layer of grime—or six—between you and the art.”

Back to the painting metaphors again. I haven’t been able to shake them since that conversation about -Sunday in the Park with George.

Erica canlı kaçak bahis shoots me a “you’re so full of shit” look. It’s okay, students usually do. I’m used to it.

The honest truth is, I’m in a bad mood myself. That first spark of inspiration on A Grave Man did what they usually do, fizzle out after the first giant blaze and leave you relying on hard work and technique to keep the momentum going. I’m more or less satisfied with the progress I’ve made so far, but it’s been both slow and painful.

I’m also wondering about the wisdom of starting my work at the end of the story. The further I get into the earlier parts of the trilogy, the more doubts I have about Thomas Reeves’ final big aria, even though it was the starting point for this whole project. Every time I go back and reexamine it, it looks solid, but something still seems to be missing, and it’s starting to undermine my confidence that I can’t spot the flaw. I’m too close to it, just like my student is to her own work. But I’m not going to share it with anyone, not yet. It’s not ready to withstand another’s scrutiny.

Erica, on the other hand, has thought her work was ready for prime time viewing for three weeks, and it still isn’t, though it’s getting a lot closer.

“Let’s go through this together,” I tell her. “I don’t have any other students this afternoon. No extra charge. We’ll talk through each of those problem spots I identified and discuss strategies for improving them, okay?”

She’s still grumbling when she leaves an hour later, but just when she’s finally on her way out the door, she turns and says, “You know, if you weren’t such a good teacher I’d really hate you.”

Believe it or not, I’m flattered and caught off guard by the backhanded compliment. So she surprises something out of me I hadn’t planned on telling her.

“If you weren’t such a good composer, I wouldn’t be so hard on you.”

Her jaw drops in turn. Oh, what the hell, might as well give her the full spiel.

“Seriously, Erica, you’re my best student. That’s why I push you this way. This business is tough enough, and as a woman, you’ll have to work twice as hard as your colleagues to get your work noticed. Sad but true. So you need to be as ruthless as possible with your own compositions. Because if you aren’t, there’s a whole world of people out there who’ll be more than happy to do it for you. The good news is, you’re more than capable of being ruthless with yourself… with a little encouragement now and then.”

Her mouth forms an “O” of surprise and comprehension. Then compresses into a tight, predatory smile. I may have handled that better than I could have planned, all things considered. Erica enjoys nothing so much as a challenge. That’s why I took her on as a student, after all.

“So I’ll see you next week?”

“If it kills me.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

She laughs. I close the door and turn my attention back to my own challenge. Which, in its own way, has begun to seem likely to kill me instead.

—————

* Larry *

Scott is uncharacteristically nervous when we gather in a performance studio on campus shortly before Christmas: Jeff, Daniel, Angela, and myself. We have all been searching as best we can, given our chaotic schedules, for an actor to replace Jeff in the trilogy’s Texas premiere, so far to no avail.

Scott doesn’t seem to realize that he is wringing his hands, or that he can’t seem to meet any of our gazes.

“Look, guys,” he begins, “I know this is kind of a long shot, and if it crashes and burns we can just say we gave it a try and it didn’t work out, but I’ve had someone contact me about the part, and he’s really interested, but I wouldn’t have said yes to having him read unless I thought there was at least some potential there…”

“Scott,” Angela interrupts. “You’re rambling. Just tell us who it is and why you’re so freaked out about having him audition for us.”

Scott stares at the floor for a long moment before mumbling, “It’s, um, well, it’s… it’s Shawn Fletcher.”

Angela’s eyes widen and she sits up straighter. Daniel sits back in his seat, exhaling in surprise. But Jeff leaps out of his seat as if he’s been burned, shouting, “What?”

It takes a moment longer for the name to connect in my mind. Shawn Fletcher is the actor who played the lead role in Timothy Spencer’s film Fortinbras last year—a role for which Spencer had campaigned unsuccessfully and, I gathered, somewhat underhandedly, to cast Jeff. The film had received respectful but unenthusiastic reviews, gone on to earn a few award nominations for Rebecca Sutton’s admirably crafted screenplay, and quietly disappeared into the vast catalogue of minor titles in art house lovers’ home video collections.

None of which entirely explains Jeff’s reaction, at least as far as I can make out. Fletcher is an aspiring leading man in his prime, just a few years younger than Jeff. Why shouldn’t he throw his hat in the ring for a project as high-profile as this?

Jeff, however, clearly has a different opinion. “After everything that snake pulled, you want to reward him by casting his substitute for me as my substitute all over again? What kind of message do you think that sends?…”

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