Becoming Cayla in Lerner & Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon

Ann Michels, Ordway 8/2/16

So the Ordway asked me to describe what it was like being cast in Lerner & Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon, and how I’m preparing for my role. So here I am, attempting my first blog and sharing my journey to becoming Cayla!

Let’s start at the very beginning.

I was born in a small town in southern MN…

Just kidding.

Getting the Gig

Reid Harmson (Programming Assistant at the Ordway) contacted me in late March, inviting me to audition for 5th Avenue Theatre and Ordway’s upcoming “revisal” production of Paint Your Wagon. He sent me a song and a few scenes to learn. This is what I knew:

  • I had NEVER seen a production of Paint Your Wagon. I was familiar with some of the music, but I knew NONE of the details of the plot. *Cue frantic Internet search* – which led me to:
  • Cayla (the character I was reading for) was NOT a character listed in the original Broadway production of Paint Your Wagon. In fact, a lot of the character names were different. “Off to a great start.”
  • The song I was asked to prepare was originally sung by a different character in the show. “Now I’m on a roll!

Hmm.

So, at my fingertips I had the original Broadway Soundtrack, an online libretto, the rather strange movie version with Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, and that Simpson’s spoof. It appeared that NONE of those things were gonna be helpful. Regardless, I went to the Ordway on a Monday afternoon where they helped me put it all in a super high tech video recording on my iPhone (you’re welcome, Apple®) to send off to the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. The production is a collaboration between the Ordway and the 5th, so there were some extra steps in the casting process for this one.

Two calendar flips later and I had pretty much given up on hearing back. But then phone call came, accompanied by much rejoicing in my kitchen, and moments of hands-on-my-face shock and disbelief, immediately followed by the realization that I had a BIG JOB to do, so I’d better start fretting about it all right now! Those feelings happened in such rapid succession that my husband, Matt, stopped me in my tracks and ordered me to just enjoy this moment of victory. He’s a good man.

I got the Gig! Wait. What is the Gig?

I learned that I’d be replacing the lovely Kendra Kassebaum, who created the role of Cayla for the 5th Avenue Theatre’s production. She’s not able to join the cast for the Ordway leg of the run as she’ll be opening a show in D.C. during that time (Come From Away) – which is headed for Broadway in 2017. EXCITING STUFF! I learned that my friend and colleague Dieter Bierbrauer would be joining the cast as well, and that the two of us would soon take a field trip (YES!) to Seattle to watch the closing weekend of Paint Your Wagon and get a taste of the show. We were sent “tentative” scripts and scores, and then the fun began.

Researching the Story

It’s here that I’ll admit to you all that I’m a total nerd. I love doing research. I love having an excuse to geek out on any topic. Being an actress lends itself to indulging these loves. It’s an excuse to research an era, a social climate, class structure, a religion, a geographic location, every single time I have a new character to embody. It’s where I start.

With this show I had a lot to geek out about.

I read the script, jotted my questions/interests down, and I made my research list. “Ask my husband how much I love my lists.” I read the entire 58 page 8 ½ x 11, single spaced dramaturgy packet (with pictures!) generously provided by the theater. But I wanted more, MORE, PEOPLE!!! The story is set in the California Gold Rush of 1850 – such a fascinating time in American History! Men (and very few women) from all over the world headed “West” for the promise of a new life, to make it rich or die trying. Ken Burns’ documentary The West is fabulous, with a large bit devoted to the gold rush and the vigorous and adventurous people who journeyed west – American settlers, European and Asian immigrants, African Americans (both freed and slaves), and the Latinos and Indigenous people who already lived there. Oh, and there were some Mormons getting involved in the Gold Rush, too.

Speaking of which, my character, Cayla, is Mormon and is in a polygamist marriage. MORMONISM & POLYGAMY! What could be more fascinating than that!?! So down that rabbit hole I went, watching Frontline and American Experience’s The Mormons along with several other documentaries to get a solid sense of what it might mean to be Mormon at that time. My best friend, Stacia, recommended a book called “The 19th Wife” by David Ebershoff. It’s historical fiction, a whiz-bang of a read and really informational.

Applying the Research

Cayla’s a Mormon woman in a polygamist marriage, in 1850, in the middle of the booming Gold Rush. Her husband is cruel and abusive to her (and his other wives). They happen upon a newly formed mining town filled with ONLY men, and through a series of events, Cayla sees an opportunity to get out of her situation– and she goes for it! “Gotta grab onto life and shake it for all its worth!” It fully parallels what everyone else in that camp was doing there. Shedding the past. Taking a risk. Gambling and hoping to win a better life. And this is where she starts.

Field Trip to Seattle!

So this was the clincher. Dieter’s and my trip to the 5th Avenue Theatre to SEE the show come to life, to HEAR the music being finely tuned, and to experience the play as a whole was the best thing they could have done for us. I was blown away by the production – every aspect. The theater itself is breathtaking with a history worth its own investigation, but to see the show in its full glory was all the inspiration I would need to really hunker down and learn the thing. I spent some time with the dance captain and cast member, Trina Mills, who kindly gave me the dance vocabulary for one of my big numbers with all the men (“Whoop-ti-ay!”) We met stage management, production management, crew, and cast. We watched from the audience, and were given the opportunity to shadow our characters backstage, which was a whole other layer of information. Kendra was entirely generous in leading me around to watch her do all of it. We had fittings for costumes and wigs, and I was finally able to meet the amazing and kind director, David Armstrong; the associate conductor, Kat Sherrell; and producer Kenny Alhadeff. We were even invited to the Seattle closing party, which was a lovely opportunity to relax and visit with the whole team. I could not be more grateful for being given that opportunity.

So, where am I now, a week before my official rehearsals start in Seattle? I know my lines. I know my blocking. I have a sense of my history (thanks Google!) After the Behind Ordway’s Curtain event this past Monday, I’m even more invigorated and determined than before. I’m sure when I arrive in Seattle next week everything I think I know could ALL CHANGE – so I’m just gonna stay loose and follow the wise words of Lerner & Loewe:

“Where am I going? I don’t know. Where am I heading? I ain’t certain. All I know is I am on my way.”

I look forward to seeing all of you at the Ordway in August!

– Ann Michels

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