There it was, right in the newspaper: open-call auditions for Beach Blanket Babylon, San Francisco's musical-theater equivalent of the Energizer Bunny, still going after 30 years. The gig even offered health insurance.
Dog Bites' life flashes before our eyes. Twenty years ago, we auditioned for BBB. Our life is repeating, like Groundhog Day. We are so there, even if we haven't done musical theater in two decades.
Hey, health insurance!
Audition Day: We are warming up, screaming Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart" with Velcro rollers in our hair, driving down Lombard Street, and suddenly it is 11 a.m. on Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard. Auditioners of all shapes, sizes, types, ethnic persuasions, and, yes, ages are already lined up around the block.
BBB staffers assign us numbers. Dog Bites is No. 59, out of maybe 200. At Green Street Mortuary across the street, a military marching band begins to play, leading a funeral procession of convertibles. Ominous.
As we file into the theater, though, "Footloose" is playing on the sound system. We look for Kevin Bacon. We take our seat, drinking tea to keep our pipes warm, even though, we know, Janis would have sipped Southern Comfort.
Director Kenny Mazlow greets us. He's seated at a table in front of the stage along with Jo Shuman Silver (widow of BBB creator Steve Silver) and several others. He tells us they are looking for specific types, so if we are not called back, it doesn't mean we aren't wonderful. We warm up with a group sing of "There's No Business Like Show Business." Dog Bites fakes it with gusto.
Mazlow has the first dozen people line up on the stage. A blond ingénue begins "Crazy." Midsong, Mazlow asks her to sing it as if she were "Snow White," that is, in a cartoony, helium voice. Then like Cher. We are laughing, clapping, cheering. It's a giant musical-theater summer camp!
An African-American guy sings "I Feel Good." Mazlow asks him to run around the stage spewing unintelligible James Brown mumbo jumbo. "Kiss myself, heyyy!" the guy cries. Mazlow screams, "No, I can still understand you! More garbled!" "Budda BEE, heyyyy, yabba DOOO, heyyyyygahhda heYYY!" the guy yells, prancing around JB style. We laugh like hyenas.
Mazlow keeps several from the first group, then changes things up. The next batch takes turns singing "It's My Party," handing off the microphone. If Mazlow approves, you sing your own song. Some guy drops his pants when it's his turn; he is cut. A whacked-out little guy in a baseball cap sings a number from Thoroughly Modern Millie; he gets a standing ovation.
Another group auditions -- we hear some Aretha, some Michael -- then Dog Bites' group is up. We will show them we can rock. Like Janis! We change up the melody on "Cry if I want to, cryyyy if I want to," gettin' down and dirty.
The entire group is cut.
We are crushed, but stick around to be a spectator at callbacks. Dueling Tina Turners, Barbra Streisands, and Ethel Mermans fight to the finish. We approach Mazlow for a quote. "Auditions are one of the best perks of my job," he beams. "We respect the talent and welcome the experience. I want the kids to have fun!" We like Mazlow. Even if he did destroy our dreams. Again.
Leaving, we call out to our favorite African-American diva. "Can we get your name for an article?" She offers her photo, a glamour head shot. The name: Emily Baloney. My baloney has a first name; it's E-M-I-L-Y ... . (Kimberlye Gold)
When we finally get up, 2,200 feet above the checkered pastel of Pacifica houses and surfers along Highway 1, Jassen Todorov becomes even more animated than usual. On takeoff, his 30-year-old Cessna prop plane (on $85-an-hour loan from the Half Moon Bay Flying Club) gets knocked around like a tin kite. But once we reach cruising altitude, things smooth out, and Todorov -- amateur pilot, virtuosic violinist -- lets go of the yoke and holds his hands up, apparently to ease Dog Bites' mind. "See?" he exclaims, smiling wildly. "No problem!"
This hour will mark Todorov's 200th in the air, and in two days he will celebrate his second year in the skies. As we fly, Todorov is excitable, shouting an explanation of the plane's array of dials into his headset microphone and pointing out the Creative Arts Building at San Francisco State. He gestures up at the pregnant underbelly of a 757 on descent a thousand feet above. When he senses that this makes his passenger nervous, he lets go of the controls to fiddle with an air map, to prove we're clear of the restricted zones around San Francisco International Airport.
Apparently the restrictions don't prohibit a novice pilot from puttering (what seems to be inches) over the landmarks of downtown -- the Golden Gate Bridge, the peak of the Transamerica Building, and the specks of ballplayers in the outfield of SBC Park. When we finally return to the airfield at Half Moon Bay, it's just after dark. Todorov dials the remote that brings up the lights of the landing strip with his left hand; his right hand flourishes, as if conducting a Wagnerian swell. He's dramatic, giddy, confident.
On the ground, the 29-year-old Bulgarian native is much the same. Three years ago, he made waves in the classical community by becoming the youngest musician to record all of Eugene Ysaye's violin sonatas. The recording was praised by snooty classical music trade journal The Strad for nailing "mercurial passages with commendable accuracy." Last year, after completing graduate work at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester (New York), Todorov became the youngest faculty member in the music program at San Francisco State University and is determined to help transform it into one of the best music programs in the country. Over the next two months, he is embarking on another notable challenge: a complete cyclic performance of Mozart's 18 sonatas for violin and piano -- something that hasn't been heard in San Francisco (or anywhere else on this continent, according to Todorov) in decades.
"Some of them are gems that are never performed," Todorov stresses with his buoyant, Bulgarian-lilted English. "The difficulty of performing them is not just the playing, it is also the psychology. To really understand the composer, you need to play them all in a cycle, not just two or three. It's like eating a meal, instead of just eating a salad and a dessert and having little tastes. We will be having the whole meal!"
On a Saturday morning early this month, Todorov invites us to accompany him to the parlor of William Corbett-Jones, Todorov's musical partner and a fellow SFSU faculty member. Corbett-Jones is a pianist of international distinction. ("He's played with everyone," Todorov brags. "All the big ones.") The room is dominated by a black Steinway and cluttered with records and scores, a bust of Beethoven, and a portrait of Bach. Corbett-Jones takes a seat, Todorov wedges his violin under his chin, and they blow though Mozart's K 306 in D Major. It's one of the more famous of the sonatas in the four-concert cycle, allegedly a favorite of Alfred Einstein.
But the second movement is giving them a little trouble. It opens with a lengthy piano introduction and a single sustained note on the violin. They pause to discuss how to approach the passage.
"This is extroverted by any standard," Corbett-Jones, the senior musician, says with a concerned tone. "Extroverted for Mozart ... for anyone."
"Maybe," Todorov suggests somewhat mysteriously, "it should enter like a voice from nowhere, it should descend from above." With an expressive arc of his bow the issue is resolved. When the rehearsal ends an hour later, Todorov jumps into his Honda and speeds back to the airfield for an evening flight. For one of the most ambitious young performers in the city, flying is a way to get away from his work.
"There are so many musicians who can practice a lot but can't express anything about living. They can't even communicate with other people in a conversation," he explains. "How can they communicate using an instrument? I [fly] to balance my life and expand my horizons."
"And up there," he adds with a mischievous smile and a broad gesture, "the horizons seem so much bigger." (Nate Cavalieri)
Todorov and Corbett-Jones perform the final three concerts of Mozart sonatas for violin and piano on Oct. 5, Oct. 25, and Nov. 11. All performances begin at 8 p.m. in Knuth Hall on the SFSU campus.