Life Upon the Wicked Stage

31 01 2010

The scores and books of classic musicals are full of the warnings: “Life upon the wicked stage ain’t never what a girl supposes…” sings a winsome young gal in Act Two of “Show Boat,” (widely considered the first American ‘book’ musical).   An aging chorine in Sondheim’s brilliant masterpiece “Follies”  remembers “walkin’ off my tired feet, poundin’ 42nd street, to be in a show….,”  Margot Channing, the heroine of “Applause” (the musical version of the classic show biz story ‘All About Eve”) welcomes Eve to the theater with the warm lines ‘welcome to a life of laryngitis, welcome to dark toilets in the hall!”  The daughters of that stage mother of all stage mothers in “Gypsy” lament how normal life could be if only “Momma was Married” rather than bellowing “Sing out Louise! Smile baby!” from the back of countless vaudeville theaters.   And truthfully, what sane responsible parent would want this for their child?  A life of constant competition, a merry go round of dance, voice and acting classes, perennially cold rehearsal spaces, scratchy costumes, far-too-late-for-your-age bedtimes, throat lozenges, and homework done while spread out on the dusty musty floors of theaters and studio spaces?

The answer of course is no sane parent.  What responsible mother would say to their child “why yes it’s a fine idea to spend all of your formative years learning skills that if you’re supremely lucky and are in the right place at the right time and know the right people and look exactly the right way possibly maybe could one day net you some unreliable and low-paying work!”  This isn’t exactly what the stuff of sensible parenting is made of.  And yet, when theater is as much a part of your world as your morning coffee, when words like “blocking,’ “off-book,” and “downstage” are as much a part of your vernacular as ‘bread and milk,” when “call” is not something you get on the phone and “house” is not the place you live, how could you deny your child the chance to also learn about, live, move and be in that world?

The love for theater runs deep in my family. My  father grew up in New Haven in the 1920s and 30s when all the major Broadway shows had their out-of-town tryouts.  He and his best friend Keith Brown were classic stage-door Johnnies, even one time sneaking into Katherine Hepburn’s dressing room only to be thrown out when she found out they were not in fact Yale men.   From this world my father carried his love of musical theater into the rest of his life as a husband and father taking my mother to New York for their honeymoon to see the original production of “Guys and Dolls,” and, years later, singing his youngest daughter to sleep with medleys from “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” and “Anything Goes.”  (Although I do need to point out that my father knew about 5 lines of every show tune ever written he never seemed to know any song in its entirety.  Only in my adulthood did I discover that not all of these songs shared “la de dum dum” as a lyric).  This early exposure to Rogers and Hammerstein, Hart, and Porter, instilled in me a love for and fascination with the world of musical comedy and an often unsettling feeling that I should be ‘doing that.’  My parents indulged my interest, taking me to five shows a summer at Maine State Theater ( formerly the Brunswick Summer Music Theater) where I insisted we sit in the front row so I could be as close to the stage as possible.

When I was in the fourth grade a troupe from the Children’s Theater of Maine came to visit my elementary school.  At the end of their riotous performance they invited any of the students to come sign up for their summer theater camp.  At ten I was pudgy to put it politely, awkward and quite shy but I remember marching up to one of the actors and announcing I was going to go to their camp, then praying I could convince my mother to let me.   Well of course she let me, if anything my parents were probably overjoyed I was finally venturing out a bit from the safety of the cocoon of my family life.   I will never forget that summer, the long hot days spent in a dilapidated warehouse doing odd acting exercises and playing a court jester in a show about the princess who wanted the moon. To this day I still remember the lesson one actor taught me about how to make it look convincing on stage when you’re drinking out of a cup with nothing in it.   To say that summer changed my life might be a bit of an exaggeration but it was the first time I felt truly at home, truly with people who understood what I knew – that there was no better place to be, no better way to spend your time.  And my parents gave me what was quite possibly the greatest gift ever.  They never tried to talk me out of it, to tell me it was a foolish pursuit, or I should spend my time studying something more practical.  They never missed a performance – even the edgy experimental student written shows in college that they didn’t understand. And at every show my mother would cry tears of pride and my father would announce ‘that’s my daughter” to everyone around him.  After college my inherent cowardice and fear of being able to navigate a big city kept me from ever making a full-time career out of acting,  but I  have been able to carve out a satisfying life working in arts management by day and occasionally treading the boards at night.

Flash forward thirty -our years from that summer with Children’s Theater and now I’m the one driving my ten year old to theater camps, rehearsals, dance classes, and performances.  When Liza was a baby I used to say I didn’t care if she ever set foot on stage I just wanted her to grow up loving the experience of going to the theater, nothing else was important.  Then, one fateful night as I was bathing three year old Liza she sat up in the tub, looked at me, frowned and said “momma, this is how I look angry…!”’  Then she laughed and said “this is how I look happy,” after making a wide-eyed faced she announced “and THIS is how I look surprised!”  I knew in that moment it was hopeless.  It was in her blood.   At first I humored her, not really ready to believe that maybe there was something there in her.  But after nearly eight years of dance classes, acting classes, summer theater camps, she continually surprises me with her tenacity, her drive, and yes her talent.  Believe me I’m no Mama Rose, (much as I would give anything to play her).  I never seem to have the right makeup or hair accessories for a given recital or performance,  I never embellish her costumes so she’ll stand out on stage.  I run errands or do crossword puzzles during her rehearsals rather than watching her and the chubby shy girl I was as a child keeps me from fully entering into conversations with the moms around me.  I don’t enroll her in the glitzy programs at better equipped theaters where local Baby Junes smile from the stage in sparkly outfits at their clapping moms, but rather in a comfortable challenging program in a run down old church basement where her teachers embrace the funny, smart, quirky girl she is while pushing her to try a little harder, reach a little higher, and soar on her own wings.  Where she comes home spouting about Chekhov, Sondheim and “the fourth wall” and “realism.”  Where she has found friends that are closer to her than her school friends. Where she is home.

I often hear from other moms, “I can’t believe how much performing she does!  It’s unreal.”  I wonder sometimes if my co-worker with the two children on multiple travel hockey teams and soccer teams hears the same thing.  If that children in sports are granted a pass that children in the arts may not be.   I hear that surely Liza must need more “down time,” and yet when she has that precious down time she spends it singing, dancing and putting on shows in our living room.  Our conversations in the car and at bedtime are about the plots of musicals, backstage goings-on, and what colleges offer good theater majors. She pores over my Broadway books, my sheet music collection and obsesses about what part she could play in Chorus Line or Wicked someday.

I’ll admit I do worry for her,  worry that my sensitive, funny girl will be lost in the shuffle of a business that all too often is based on looks.  (And let’s face it, we don’t exactly grow ‘em tiny and blonde in this family).  But mostly I worry the opposite of what the women on the ivillage messageboards think I should worry about. ( On ivillage, to publicly admit you have no qualms about your child pursuing a degree and career in the arts is right up there with admitting you didn’t breastfeed and that your child watches Family Guy – both also true in my case).  I worry that she’ll repeat my pattern and be too timid to really give it a shot.  Yet as Kelly points out to me time and time again, Liza is not me and her successes are not mine and her mistakes and triumphs will be different than mine were.   So for now, I drive her where she needs to be, I never miss a performance,  I hug her when she cries because a show is over,  and I cry tears of pride when she sings, and tell everyone in earshot she’s my daughter.   And somewhere, my dad is smiling as the tradition continues.

Sing out Liza.   We’re all listening.

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