Hi all! I’m very excited to announce the release of a new website, www.OneGrainMore.com! We’ve put together all the behind-the-scenes info you could want on the film, including commentaries, cast and crew bios, press, behind-the-scenes photos, and much more! Be sure to check it out, and to send it on to anyone who craves more info on the project (cravings are common in food allergy land).
It was with tremendous excitement and years of waiting that I entered the movie theater today to see my favorite show up on the screen for the first time.
Overall, my position on this movie is right in the middle, leaning toward it being very good. But it isn’t that I’m indifferent: Rather, it’s that I absolutely loved about half of the film, and thought the other half could have been done better. The parts I loved and disliked were interspersed, though I felt that the first 30 minutes or so were more consistent than the rest.
There are a few reasons for my ambivalence, and they go hand in hand. For example, the vast majority of the movie was filmed in close-ups of the characters. On the one hand, this created an incredible depth of character that I have never before seen in staged versions of Les Mis. I found myself knowing these characters in new and amazing ways, which is a tremendous achievement considering that I’ve been listening to this show on loop since I was five. On the other hand, these frequent close-ups meant that the director didn’t really take advantage of the sets much of the time, and the characters tended not to move around a lot, which sometimes came off as a little boring.
Another impression from all the close-ups is that there was a little too much weeping. I realize the irony of pointing out that the characters in a show called Les Miserables are too miserable, but nevertheless I wanted to see the characters smile once in awhile, if just for a moment. Something I teach my students is that one of the most beautiful things that an audience can see on stage or on screen is a person trying to smile through their tears – it shows that they are still fighting, and that they want to be happy, which makes us appreciate all the more the fact that they are so distraught.
Next, consider the live performances (for those of you who don’t know, Les Mis is the first musical movie in which all performances were recorded live on set). The benefit of this is that it made for an unprecedented level of believability (Anne Hathaway in particular took the gold for a breathtakingly vulnerable performance – see below).
The negative consequence of live singing, however, is that much of the singing was not its best. This was probably unavoidable, though – as someone who has sung Les Mis countless times, I know firsthand that it is an incredibly challenging score to sing, let alone to sing any given song the 100-times-in-a-row that is necessary for a professional film shoot.
I don’t want to say anything negative about specific actors, but the consequences of live performance included:
1) Overuse of vibrato (in some actors)
2) Underuse of vibrato (in others)
3) Lack of dynamic range – the volume was relatively stagnant throughout the movie. My theory on why this happened is that the singers each had an earpiece playing live piano music, but the movie was orchestrated later on. This means that each singer is singing the way they would to a piano, and not the way they would to an orchestra.
All in all, however, I think that the positive outweighed the negative. Les Mis has always held a very special place in my heart, but I don’t think that it’s ever been as real for me as it was today. So by all means, see this movie, and drop a comment about what you thought!
PS: For those of you wondering – Yes, it was extremely weird for me to hear “One Day More” and for it not to be about gluten-free food substitutes. I’m thinking they should have used my lyrics instead – it would have made for an interesting plot twist : )
Mournful of the fact that I would be unable to enjoy any party desserts due to my recently discovered allergy to pretty much everything, I began baking myself some chocolate chip cookies made of neither wheat nor chocolate chips. I was listening to Les Misérables at the time, and as I tend to do, I was singing along, inserting some of my current activities into the lyrics of the song “One Day More.” When I sang the part about “This never-ending road to gluten free,” I immediately cancelled my plans for the evening and started writing.
I did my best to include every major food allergy, and researched the various substitutes that are used in each case. Most of these substitutes range from disgusting to flat-out terrifying, and lend themselves to parody just as easily as the Les Mis characters that I decided to use and mock to tell this story.
A few hours later, I had finished my first draft of “One Grain More” (my mother actually came up with the title), and made my first call to Lily Bayrock, a multi-talented actress and director who had recently assistant directed scenes from Fresh!in its Off-Broadway presentation. Lily has a number of food allergies herself, and was actually the person most responsible for leading me on the road to getting tested in the first place – so naturally, she was the first person I thought to call.
“I’ve written a new song,” I told her. “It’s a parody of Les Mis and food allergies, and you’re either going to think it’s brilliant or that it’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever had.” To my delight and partial shock, she took the former position (having several food allergies herself), and agreed to co-direct the project with me and play the role of Cosette.
I then went about casting the other two parts. I had directed Michael DeFlorio in a production of RENT the previous summer, and his powerful voice mixed with his charming silliness were perfect for the role of Marius. My final recruit was Megan Ermilio, a student of mine whom I had seen play Fantine in a production of Les Mis, and whose phenomenal belt and tremendous acting were a sure hit for the role of Eponine (whom Lily brilliantly decided should be named “Epipen”).
Unimpressed with the karaoke recordings available, I recorded an original backtrack. The four of us then recorded our vocals, and spent the next few weeks studying our own performances in order to re-create them in filming. (A lot of people have asked if we are lip-syncing in the film; the answer is yes and no. Yes in the sense that in a musical film, you almost always pre-record vocals ahead of time in order to preserve the quality of the soundtrack. No in the sense that the film contains our real pre-recorded voices, and during filming we were still singing at the top of our voices. Just ask our neighbors!)
We filmed “One Grain More” in two days across three different locations. The second day involved most of the “night” scenes, and required us to black out the entire house in order to make it look convincingly like evening. This was fun, as it was both a windy and rainy day and the tar-paper we had placed over the windows and skylights had no interest in remaining attached to the house. I also spent a lot of time on a ladder in the backyard with our two incredible production assistants, Matthew Dorsch and Liz Sanders, using a 15-foot pole saw to lift bedsheets over the skylights. Thanks to the wind, we had the opportunity to do this roughly ever fifteen minutes.
We had already devised a detailed shot list ahead of time, and since we only had one camera to work with, Lily and I had gone through every shot one at a time to determine exactly which angle each shot would be filmed from. But the credit for the perfect clarity and beautiful framing and lighting of the shots really belongs to Dena Blumenthal and Bernie Langer, without whom “One Grain More” would probably look extremely grainy (haha). Somehow (I think by magic), the two of them managed to make everything look phenomenal using only two portable lights. We also owe a lot of thanks to Matthew and Liz, who in addition to their manual labor kept a keen eye on continuity, and kept us singing at something resembling the right time.
Lily and I split the directing, working together on group shots or scenes with just Michael and Megan, and waving authority to the other in any shot where one of us was on camera so that we wouldn’t have to direct ourselves. Dena and Bernie would spend about 20 minutes setting up the lighting of each shot, and then coming up with creative ways to keep the lights from falling and burning the house down. Often this required one or two of us to hold the lights, Statue-of-Liberty-style; this meant that our hands were frequently burned, but at least the house was okay. One of the amazing things about the people involved in this production is that even though we each have our specific credits, every one of us shared each others’ responsibilities during the shoot. The directors held the lights; the lighting designer acted; the actors went up on ladders to block out the light; the camera operator/editor directed. Without that collaborative atmosphere, there is no way this project could have turned out the way it did.
All in all, “One Grain More” is a wonderful example of what can be accomplished when you assemble a team of talented, passionate, funny people who love what they do and the work that they create. I am so proud of the ridiculous piece that we have created and the attention that it has been getting. I would also like to thank “millet” – I’m still not sure what it is, but if it hadn’t provided me with the opportunity to make gluten free cookies, none of this could have happened.
If you would like to acquire a “One Grain More” DVD, blooper reel, and/or a poster poster signed by the entire cast, check out the fundraising campaign for my original musical Fresh!
From left to right: Dena Blumenthal, Michael Bihovsky, Megan Ermilio, Lily Bayrock, Michael DeFlorio, and Bernie Langer
(Not pictured: Matthew Dorsch and Liz Sanders)
You’re not going to believe what happened to me today.
No, seriously, just stop reading right now, ‘cause you’re not going to believe me. But I swear I’m not making any of this up, or even exaggerating. I’m just not creative enough to make up stuff this good.
Are you sure?
So it all started yesterday, when I was driving my brother home to Center City from the suburbs of Philadelphia. I was planning to drive down I-95 straight from his place to surprise my parents, who were on vacation in Delaware and had invited me to come along. I hastily packed everything of vital importance for such a trip – ie., enough medicine to take down a reasonably well-trained militia, my guitar, and my laptop.
Sadly, the laptop’s adapter only made it about halfway into the car, and just before I got on the highway, I heard a loud CRACK, which turned out to be the sound of an adapter chord being sucked into a car tire. As far as my hubcap, all I can say is that it was now in a Better Place (the curb of Wynnefield Avenue). I immediately pulled over to the side of the road, and got out to inspect the damage, accompanied by my brother’s ever-helpful taunting and laughter.
I knelt down beside the tire to inspect the damage, a feat that was made all the more entirely pointless by the fact that I could not fix a broken tire if held at gunpoint (in fact, if ever put in that exact situation, I would probably just remain still, and trust that my mere presence would cause the gun to spontaneously combust). Nevertheless, I did my best to tie up the ends of the ensnared wire, and got back in the car to finish driving my brother home.
So: I got back in the car, and trekked the rest of the way into Center City. As I pulled up next to a fire hydrant on my brother’s block, I decided to call my parents to see if it was indeed safe to take the car on such a long drive with only half-a-tire (Note: this is not recommended), only to notice that my phone was no longer there.
“You probably dropped it when you knelt down to fix the tire,” said my brother. “Good luck with that,” he added helpfully.
In a panic, I hastened back toward where I had pulled over, my only landmark for this location being a puddle of water that I had noticed a few feet from where I had initially stopped. It should go without saying that about five minutes before I got there, it started to rain.
As my puddle-landmark could now be applied to the entire state of Pennsylvania, I proceeded to spend two hours in the pouring rain searching for a phone that simply wasn’t to be found. And so I came back home, soaking wet and in a furious temper. Then, at around midnight, I got a call from my friend Aaron, whom I had not heard from in nearly two years.
“Some guy named Frank called me,” Aaron confided to me. “He told me he had your phone. Man, I hate being first on everyone’s list.”
Although it was nearing midnight, the man had apparently just called, so I gave Frank a call in vague hopes of reacquiring my lost phone.
“Bethel Outreach Deliverance, this is Minister Frank Johnson speaking, how may I help you today?”
It turned out that the man who found my phone was a kind and helpful man from a mobile pastoral service (wait, what?) in central New Jersey. We made plans to rendezvous the following day (today), where apparently a man known only as “Brother James” would be waiting at a church back on Wynnefield Avenue to give me back my phone.
And so, at 2:45 this afternoon, I found myself at a small church on Wynnefield avenue, surrounded by helpful, kind-hearted Born Again African American Christians who wanted nothing more than to Save my Soul by handing me pamphlets about why I was going to burn in hell for all eternity, and what I could do to stop it (“Pretty much nothing,” seemed to be the unspoken consensus).
I told them that I was looking for my phone, and that Minister Johnson had sent me to get it back from Brother James.
“Brother James isn’t here just yet,” said a kind elderly lady seated at a decaying wooden table. “But we’re putting on a play about the men of the Old Testament! You have to stay and watch!”
Helpless without my cell phone, I proceeded to sit down, and spent about an hour listening to Moses prophesize the birth of Jesus Christ before Brother James finally made his grand debut.
“Brother James,” I called out brightly.” My name is Michael – it’s so nice to meet you! I was sent by Minister Johnson… I hear you have my phone?”
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Brother Michael, and Minister Johnson sends his very best to you on this fine day. But I’m afraid I don’t know anything about a phone.”
It turned out that after an hour of waiting, this was an entirely different Brother James, sent by an entirely different Minister Johnson. And he didn’t have my phone.
Rushing back home to use a landline, I called back the first Minister Johnson, who informed me that he had mistaken the day on the calendar, and that Brother James was going to be on Wynnefield Avenue yesterday (as it turned out, this information was not useful to me). Today, he was making a delivery to the New Covenant Church on Germantown Avenue, about a half-hour away from where I live.
So I went to the New Covenant Church, where I was horrified (but not altogether surprised) to find that today was their seminary’s graduation and ordination ceremony, and what seemed like the entire Born Again African American population of Philadelphia had apparently come out for the occasion! Now, I am not a racist person – I know this is the typical defense, but I have black friends (though not too many, as I have spent the vast majority of my life in Jewish Day School). I hope that I have never had a racist thought in my life. But I will draw upon my strength as an artist of words to describe to you how it feels to be the only Jewish white person in a church full of thousands of incredibly outspoken and spiritually exuberant people who are all of a different race and religion than you:
It is uncomfortable.
Groaning to myself, I walked into the church, and was jovially ushered into the main service by two helpful and increasingly alarming middle-aged women, who introduced me along the way to a stern-looking security guard who immediately informed his superiors of the situation.
“This is Security, calling Base,” he said. “I got a white boy looking for his cell phone.”
Assuring me that they’d let me know as soon as Brother James arrived, I was ushered into the main sanctuary, where a 50-person gospel choir and band was performing music like I have only read about in Christian storybooks to thousands of testfyin’ True Believers. In response to encouraging looks from my neighbors, I started singing along.
For the next two hours, I cried out all my hallelujahs as I was preached the all-loving qualities of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. At one point I got into a friendly argument with a minister next to me.
“You’re a good boy,” he said, “I can see that. But you know, Hell is full of good people.”
“But what about Heaven?” I persisted. “If good people get into Hell, can bad people get into Heaven?”
“Well, the thing about that is-”
He cut off, looking stumped, and graciously excused himself from the conversation.
Finally, after a total of 2 ½ hours of this, rumor carried around that Brother James was here, and he was looking for Brother Michael to give him back his phone.
And so, with one last note of spiritual jubilation, I got the heck out of there, and in the course of about eight seconds, found Brother James, and got my phone back.
I’d like to say that I learned something from my little adventure, but really I just want to curl up in the fetal position for a few months and catch up on some Adam Sandler. So for now, this is Michael Bihovsky, signing off, keeping the faith, and grateful for the always unexpected experiences that make up his incredibly bizarre life.
I don’t know how this happened, but somehow it’s been nearly two years since my last post. But if anything merits my returning to the world of virtual blogging, it is the closing of the Broadway production of RENT, which, after twelve unrivaled years, is in the midst of its last performance as I write these very words.
Whether you know me on a personal or professional level, I have no doubt that you are aware of the countless influences that the show RENT, and its creator Jonathan Larson, have had on my life. I am in no way exaggerating when I say (as I often do) that it is because of Jonathan that I do the work I do today, and, even more importantly, that I do my very best to lead a life of patience, kindness, and acceptance.
This past weekend, I was honored enough to be a part of the closing celebrations of the Broadway production, as a result of having won a video competition in which I had two minutes to relay the impact that RENT has had on my life (a daunting task, but for better or worse, the video can be seen here). This included an unbelievably awesome party at the Life Café, which I will honestly say, again without the slightest hint of hyperbole, was the best night of my entire life. I was honored enough to have the chance to converse extensively with various members of the Larson family, and to dance on the tables of the freaking Life Café while singing the part of Mark in La Vie Boheme, accompanied by the most diehard RENTheads I have ever known. I was then lucky enough to be presented tickets to yesterday’s performance, which I think was the most energetic performance I have seen thus far (and believe me, that is saying something). The experience of the entire weekend was overwhelming in the best possible way, and the wonderful memories, opportunities, and new friends I will most certainly treasure for the rest of my life.
The era has ended – but no matter how pretentious it may sound, I promise right here and now that I will do everything in my power to help usher in the next one, based on all of the invaluable and inexpressible lessons I have learned from my mentor and inspiration, Jonathan Larson. The production is closing – but from the day of the first performance, over twelve years ago, this show has been much more than just a production. RENT lives on forever in the definition of and connection between multiple generations. For us artists, it lives on in our work, and our commitment to changing the world, however subtly, through that work. But most importantly, it lives on through our actions, and the love and respect that we all have the ability to give to the people around us, each and every day of our lives.
Thank you, Jonathan Larson. No Day But Today – And always, always, hope for tomorrow.