The air is cool backstage on the left wing but my hands are warmed up. The monitor hanging from the production booth shows a full auditorium of eagerly awaiting guests. The show is moments from starting and the Cruise Director walks up to me mic in hand and says “Today has just been draining with the ship moving to and fro. I’ve just wanted to take a nap all day!” I say “I hear you. I’ve been laying down every hour once the sea sickness starts to kick in.”
“Anything you want me to say about you?” she says
“Uhhmm. Yes. Please mention I’m the most handsome performer you’ve met and the best dancer too. I’m kidding, I trust you. Oh actually, I’m from Puerto Rico and New Orleans and some of that influence will be heard in the music.”
Giving me a sly look she says “Ok, I’ve got you.”
The Cruise Director then proceeds on to the stage and tells the audience where I’m from, the musical influences and that I want them to know I consider myself to be the best dancer and that I’m single and ready to mingle.
I slap my forehead and proceed on stage when she calls my name. As I pass her on her way back stage she says “Gotcha” under her breath.
Well guys it’s time to let you in on my plan. I keep things very close to the chest because if I start talking about plans and they don’t transpire well it’s no good for anyone. But seeing as half of the goals I set out for have transpired and the other half have yet to materialize I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet to at least let you all know what I’ve been up to this past year. And whether I succeed or fail, this has been the one singular thing I’ve worked for and continue to work for every day and it has been a great journey, learning experience and life event for me that I’d like to take a moment to share.
I’m going to do this in the format of a step by step guide to getting your own show. Partly because it’s fun and partly because some of you reading this may actually want to do this. I know many of you who just like to read the content I put out so I hope you feel entertained and also get something out of my experience this past year.
STEP 1: RESEARCH
The plan was to get a show. It would require research, planning, testing and lots of time. I would start it from scratch and I would develop it and test it in front of a live audience. I started simply with the research period. My voice coach and mentor Ella Glasgow directed me to a book called “The Live Music Method” by Thomas Jackson. In this book is a blueprint for building an incredible show that focus’ on moments that will give people lasting impressions of a life changing nature. It goes beyond entertainment and it delves into communicating and engaging your audience with the essence of who you are and that they in turn might learn something about themselves through watching your show. It focus’ on being an inspiration not just an entertainer. This book has changed my life in it’s application to my show and if it’s something you’re interested in you should give it a look. It’s a little pricey at $75 on his website LiveMusicMethod.com but it’s well worth the investment if it’s something you’re looking to delve into.
STEP 2: OBSERVE & TAKE NOTES
Beyond reading Tom’s book, I would go into the theater in my cruise ship contracts and watch the Guest Entertainers perform. I took notes about what worked and didn’t worked. Set list orders and energy levels of each song and the peaks and valleys of the show. What the performer had to say or if they had nothing to say at all just perform a series of songs virtuosically and “let the music speak for itself”. I judged hard. I asked myself how I felt after. Did I feel inspired? Most of the time I didn’t but for one performer who blew everyone else out of the water. I also went on Youtube and watched broadcast performances from artists like John Legend, Alicia Keys and subjected them to the same scrutiny. I observed how many times they got off the piano and onto the stage. I observed what they said to the audience and how they said it. What they said about their songs and etc.
After I felt like I saw a sufficient amount of shows, I went the drawing board and looked through my repertoire. The entire show would need to be memorized. It would also need to have a theme, it would have to contain a series of moments and unexpected surprises to keep the crowd engaged. My excitement level was that of a little boy chasing an ice cream truck. Knowing that I wanted to eat that ice cream it was just a matter of choosing the flavor.
3. PIECE TOGETHER YOUR SHOW
In Tom Jackson’s Book he has a series of moments that each song leads into. First is the Introduction moment which comes after the first song. This is a short brief statement to your audience about what to expect for the rest of the evening. I often let them know they’re free to sing, clap or dance along to anything we play so that there’s no question whether it’s appropriate to let loose or not. Then you play another song that is nearly identical to the first in terms of energy and who it is speaking to: the audience. Each song leads into another moment. Each one is important and achieves a crucial goal to engaging the audience. The Great song moments are the songs that 90% you do them the audience goes wild. The BIG FUN MOMENT is the time where you fully interact with the crowd and ask them to participate in making the moment happen. I chose to have everyone stand up and dance with me like we were in a New Orleans Second Line processional. But I could also have chosen to have a couple of volunteers join me on stage, or something else of that ilk. The point is that this is the highest point of your show and that audience reception is crucial to get them to be receptive enough to receive the next moment: The TOUCHING MOMENT. This is where you speak to your audience’s hearts and minds. Where you reveal your vulnerabilities to them and let them in to who you are. To make a real connection with them. Once that’s done it’s time to close out the show with the CLOSING MOMENT. This is a song that starts slow and then picks up. A perfect example of this is “Proud Mary” the Tina Turner version. But I’m no Tina Turner. I chose Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” because it features a moment that I created which contains surprise, intensity and shows off my classical ability. Tom Jackson says if you come to choosing the right song or a right Moment ALWAYS choose the moment. So I chose this moment and people always come to me and said “What you did with the Phil Collins was amazing!” It’s one of the most memorable moments of the show. But the number one moment that overshadows all others and that guests constantly come to talk to me afterwards about is the New Orleans moment.
In my first iteration of the show I had the following:
I had to replace the first song because the assistant cruise director on the ship was doing the same song in his show so I traded it for “My Baby Just Cares for Me” - Nina Simone. I realized that it wasn’t an effective opener after two shows so I wrote a new arrangement for “Stand By Me” - Ben E. King and it works splendidly. It is 3.5 to 4 on a scale of 5 being the most high energy and it opens in a kind of sprint with the drums ticking away on the high hat. Then it breaks into a salsa on the chorus.
4. WRITE YOUR SHOW OR GET SOMEONE TO WRITE IT FOR YOU
Before I knew any of that though I had to write the show from scratch for each instrument. I’ve been using Finale notation software for years, mostly for fun, transcribing music scores from movies like “Spiderman” 2002 (the original movie with the Danny Elfeman Score) and “Cries of Whispers” from “Oldboy” 2013 a Park Chan Wook film from South Korea. But in more recent years I’ve been using it as a means for transcribing and arranging scores for stage performances. I used my knowledge obtained from years of music theory and the arranging skills of my dad Harry Rios Sr. to fill in what I did not know about arranging for horns. I also consulted with the musicians on board the ship whom unknowingly would be taking part in my show in the near future. I would invite them for lunch and show them the score I was working on for them and say “I’m thinking of writing a show. would you hate reading this or would you love it?” If the answer was not “I would love reading that” I would ask them if you had to sight read this on stage for a live show, what would make you love reading this? And then the floodgates opened and they’d tell me exactly what they hated about the score and would change. In some cases they showed me examples of scores they considered perfect for them. I would listen, take notes and even take pictures of the examples. I went back to Finale and got to work. Then I would rinse, repeat an recycle this process until the verdict was unanimously “I would love to read that!”
This was a painstaking process and took the longest of the preliminary steps because I chose to do it on my own. The easy way out is to pay someone to do it for you but then you give total creative license to them and the show will be their vision, not yours. Ideally if you go this route, it would be great to find someone whom you can write the show with together and give them your vision and they only add to that vision with their expertise. Make friends on the ship with the musical directors. They often are the people to go to when it comes to matters like this.
5. PITCH YOUR SHOW
The Cruise Director has final say on whether you get the show or not so you have to make it easy for them to say yes. Don’t just say “Excuse me Mr./Mrs. Cruise Director. I’m thinking of writing a show, Would you possibly be interested in letting me perform it maybe one day?” That’s not gonna work. Imagine that an Entertainer that was supposed to be on board had their flight delayed and couldn’t make it to the ship in time of it departing a port. There will be a vacancy in the schedule and something has to fill that spot. That spot could be you. You’d need to have the show already prepared, arranged and ready to present. You want to be able to say to the Cruise Director “I have a show. All the parts are written, this is the theme. I can cover for you in an emergency if there is a vacancy.” They will LOVE you because you just saved them a huge headache in the future.
6. DO A BETTER JOB THAN THE BEST PERFORMERS
Easier said than done but crucial that you make the best first impression possible. You want the guests to be clamoring to the Cruise Director to have you back on stage. On stage you need to be confident, and to be confident you must be prepared. I would often go on the stage after midnight when no one else was around and I would run through the show. I’d rehearse the jokes and stories in between songs. I would time it so it was about 45 minutes. If it wasn’t I’d make a note “Stories need to be shorter. No rambling uh’s or um’s.” In the New Orleans Medley there’s a 2 minute monologue I have about the Jazz Funeral. I think it started at 4 minutes and thirty seconds and I just cut it down from there.
A lot of entertainers will fill their show time with talking and only have a few songs to present. Although I feel quite comfortable talking and bantering with the audience, I didn’t want my show to be talk with music. I wanted it to be music with stories that would uplift that music. I’m still learning how to inject myself into the stories because I’m finding people really like to hear about you, what you’re like in real life, how you came to be this performer on cruise ships. So instead of a regular monologue of the Jazz Funeral, I talk about how my sister and I when we were very young used to accompany my dad at his gigs in New Orleans. Some of them happened to be funerals and they would always end with singing, dancing and waving handkerchiefs in the air. This seemed normal to us as they were the first funerals we were ever introduced to. But this phrase called Second Line kept coming up. I never knew what it meant until one day I looked up at my dad and asked “Papi, what’s a Second Line?” Then he proceeded to tell me about how the body goes into the ground in the first line and mournful songs can be heard. This is the part of the show where I cue the trumpet player to play “Just A Closer Walk with Thee” in rubato. Then I explain how my dad told me the mourners of the deceased will cry into their handkerchiefs. Then when the body has been put to the ground the second line starts. The handkerchiefs that were being used to cry into become flags of triumph for the dearly departed who’s gone to the great party in the sky. I say to the crowd “So when the music changes, we’re going to get up and dance like we’re in new Orleans. We’re going to wave our handkerchiefs in the air. Some of you may not have handkerchiefs but that’s alright. Waving your hands is just fine.” Then I pull out my handkerchief and say “are you ready?” Cue the drums to play the 20th Century Fox intro then the band plays “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Another story I tell is about “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I mention how I had a cassette player in my room inside a cabinet. My mother used to collect Greatest Hits albums and blast them throughout the house on the weekends. She had Elvis, Billy Joel, Simon and Garfunkel and many others. I took a liking to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel because of the piano intro. Our upright mahogany Yamaha was downstairs in the living room. I had no concept of what written music was nor music theory. I just had my ears, interest and loads of time. So I got to work and played the song on the cassette tape. I heard the first few notes ring through the air. Immediately stopped the tape. I hummed the first most recognizable note I could retain and ran downstairs as if I would lose the note if I even blinked for a second. Along the way there are obstacles. The cat is on her way up the stairs, I trip over her, the hamster is walking in his hamster ball at the foot of the steps, I trip over it and fall on my butt, I get to the piano and respectfully pull the bench out from under the piano and sit down. Played until I found the matching note. Run back upstairs to the cassette player and find another note. On my way back to the piano I encounter the cat going down the stairs and the hamster headed back the living room at the foot of the stairs. But when I eventually reach my destination, I had accomplished mini goals until I had a whole piece of something to show my parents. Of course I had no idea what I was playing or how to incorporate nuance or dynamics to make it sound musical but I made an almost perfect copy of what I heard and translated it physically to the piano. I was so proud I in turn show it to my parents who look at each other and say “We need to put him in piano lessons.” And that was the Genesis of my interest in piano to which I go into “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins who coincidentally used to be in the band “Genesis.”
7. NEVER STOP TWEAKING YOUR SHOW
I step out onto the stage and see the lights and the silhouettes of the crowd before me. “Stand By Me” has already started and the horns are playing their solei to bring me in. I go through the beats of the show with a serenity and comfort. My nerves never best me and there are no awkward silences. I feel good, confident and there’s a sense of belonging and comradery with the crowd. When I ask, they respond, when I talk, they listen. When I finish they stand and they clap. I take the bow and I move off the stage. 30 minutes later I’m dressed in casual clothes helping the rest of the band sanitize the theater I just performed to. It’s not the place I want to be of course but it’s the place I’m willing to be now because I know what the future is going to be.
Although I’m in the beginning stages of this experience I look back and see where I’ve come from a year ago, saw what I wanted to accomplish and have made it there, it’s very humbling. I have a great support system in family and friends and of course you. I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity. I still am constantly working on my show. For instance I don’t believe “Valerie” is a good enough Encore. I’m working on another arrangement to replace it from Stevie Wonder. I also may change out a few other songs. I’m also working on a new show completely different from this one. It will feature different instruments, medleys as well and serve as a story from the beginning of my life until now. The next step is the stage full time on sea and on land. And the next step after that is -- well let’s just keep it one step at a time. Will keep you posted how all of that goes.
Until then feel free to leave a comment below and let me know how you’re doing!
Harry L. Rios
Founder of HarryLRios.com
Harry L. Rios.com