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Archive for August 19th, 2009

BROADWAY BABIES

by Michele Herman ’79 

I imagine that at most family dinner tables you get a mumbled thank you when you pass the salt.  I’m proud to report that at ours, the recipient is more likely to hold the salt shaker aloft and intone the words of the vengeful Sweeney Todd when he picked up his barber’s razor after years in exile: “At last, my right arm is complete again!”

Yes, our household has the Broadway musical bug, long and hard and deep.  When one son hits the other and says he had it coming, what’s a family to do but slip into its best “Chicago” floozy voice and say in perfect unison: “He ran into my knife.  He ran into my knife 10 times!”  Should my husband’s stomach growl, the next sound you’ll hear will be “F-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-d me” in his deepest, most ravenous “Little Shop of Horrors” Audrey 2 voice.

And yet we’re hardly what you’d call a theatrical family.  We don’t make grand entrances, we wear unassuming clothes, and we never break into song in public unless explicitly invited to so.  We do have one talented singer among us (my husband), but he has trouble remembering words and reading music.  We have a quiet appreciator who occasionally builds a set for a school production, off in some corner where the spotlight never shines (my 17-year-old son).  We have a born actor with a face that can register a thousand emotions, but he refuses to take a theater class or be in a play (my 14-year-old son).  And me?  The great regret of my life is that I’ve never exhibited the least sign of musical ability of any sort.  My musical career hit its high point in 1977, at the Penfield dorm talent show.  I helped choreograph and co-starred in a production number of “Dance 10, Looks 3” from “A Chorus Line” (also known as “Tits and Ass”).  We wore balloons under our leotards

But if there’s talent in fervor, stand up and give my family a hand.  We are the Lunt-Fontanes of Broadway-musical passion, and we deserve one of those special lifetime achievement Tonys.  Show us a good musical – at a local high school, on TCM or at some majestic theater — and we’re goners.  They wash over us in that sneaking, unpredictable way of a crush, an obsession, religious zeal.   Only instead of rising up in church to proclaim the word of the Lord, we have this little vamp inside us that puts the soundtrack on the stereo and plants our feet in the living-room rug and belts – to anyone who will listen or even to anyone who will immediately clamp hands over ears — certain strings of words set to music, words that will sit dumb on the page for most people but that thread themselves through our veins and stir our souls like no other liturgy: My doll is as dainty as a sparrow; I play the violin; it’s too darn hot; poor Jud is dead; anything you can do I can do better; sit down you’re rocking the boat; a weekend in the country; do you wanna have fun?   

There are many definitions of family life.  Here’s mine: it’s the one place on earth where you can do a rough approximation of a Russian dance while belting in a terrible Yiddish accent, for no reason beyond some synapse lighting up like a string of sequins in your brain when someone happens to use the word biddy, “All day long I’d biddy-biddy bum, if I were a wealthy man,” and they’ll still love you. 

Sharing political views, having similar ideas about child-rearing – these are foundation for a solid marriage.  But I say you should marry the man who shares your love (or loathing) of musicals.  My husband and I were a match made in heaven.  He brought, among others, “Guys and Dolls,” “The Cradle Will Rock” and “A Little Night Music” to the marriage.  I came complete with “A Chorus Line,” “1776” and “Hair.”  The other 60-odd musicals on our shelf?   If you live on the Upper East Side I’m told you can forage on the curb and come home with antiques; here in the West Village if you’re not careful you end up with boxes full of well-worn LPs.  That’s how we came to have a library from “The Apple Tree” straight through to “Zorba the Greek” (the surprise dance-floor hit at our wedding).  We even possess an original copy of the exalted 1961 Judy at Carnegie Hall concert.

And if one day you produce children, and they should happen to love a good show tune too, then your work is complete.  Musical genetics is a complicated business.  My in-laws are both aficionados; my father-in-law even prides himself on having once dated a Broadway chorus girl from “Carousel.”  I’m the product of a mixed marriage, and often felt the strain — a mother with a soft spot for Cole Porter and “Finnian’s Rainbow” but a father who was in the anti-camp camp of people who could never suspend disbelief when actors broke into song; it irked him every time.  (They did agree on one thing.  Whenever I lowered the record-player needle onto “The Music Man,” my first musical obsession, and Robert Preston asked for my attention, my attention please, one of my parents was sure to deliver the family bromide: “he’s not a singer but he can sure put over a song.”) 

But aside from my husband and me, our generation is littered with show-tune ignoramuses.  Take his otherwise wonderful and well-rounded oldest brother.  Tell him you’ve never heard of folklorist Alan Lomax and he’ll recoil in horror.  But watch him stare blankly if you ask him to hum a few bars of “One Singular Sensation.”  He’ll then mumble something about not living in New York City, which makes about as much sense as saying you have to live in New Orleans to appreciate jazz. 

I recently read an Usula LeGuin fantasy novel called Gifts in which a father anxiously waits for his particular talent (too complicated and grisly to explain) to manifest itself in his son.  How proud I was on that enchanted Friday evening, our family’s video night, when we knew that our younger son, in 2nd grade at the time, had the dominant gene.  I had taken “West Side Story” out of the library.  His eyes got big when the male dancers snapped their fingers.  He snapped back.  He’s never been the same.  That year he sang “Officer Krupke” in the school talent show, with his big brother – no ham but a real trouper — as the silent Krupke, pretending to write out a ticket that was actually the lyrics in case his little brother forgot a line.  Of course he didn’t — when you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way. 

After he wore out our cassette of “West Side Story,” we happily followed this boy into his long “Oliver!” period, folding in his other long-standing obsession with 19th century London, the bloodier the better.  That year’s talent show number was “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” complete with Fagin cape and Fagin hat and a chorus of urchins borrowed from his third-grade class.  He next settled in for a year with “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown”; as far as I’m concerned, happiness is the choral tour de force known as “A Book Report on Peter Rabbit” and Snoopy’s show-stopper, “Suppertime.” 

And then, in 2005, we saw the Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd, the distilled one in which the frighteningly talented singers double as musicians.  We had such good seats we could see the runs in Patty Lupone’s fishnets and the rosin on the bow of Johanna’s cello.  From then it was all Sweeney all the time — the Len Cariou Sweeney (on our old LP), the George Hearn Sweeney (on the video we took from the library) and the Michael Cerveris Sweeney (the new CD).  Instead of leaning in for a goodnight kiss at bedtime, I found myself singing “kiss me” in something approximating Johanna’s half-crazed soprano.  At the talent show, other kids did numbers from “High School Musical.”  Our son, bless his dark and twisted musical heart, walked onto an empty stage in a white lab coat and spooky makeup and carrying a razor (really a butter knife), and sang, a capella, “The Tale of Sweeney Todd.”   The restless audience went dead silent.  This time his long-suffering big brother played the unfortunate role of the customer. 

The holiday season of 2007 approached.  Christmases tend to take on identities: the year we got the puppy, the year it snowed enough for a snowball fight.  That Christmas, when the “Sweeney Todd” movie opened after nearly unbearable anticipation, was the Christmas of lost innocence, the year Santa got thrown over for Johnny Depp.  

Though living in New York City is definitely not a prerequisite for musical appreciation, it’s a fine life raising a family a mile and a half away from Broadway and the TKTS booth.  The four of us have seen the lovely (if a little goyische) “Fiddler” revival with Alfred Molina, the flawless “South Pacific” at Lincoln Center, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Shockheaded Peter” and last summer’s intoxicating “Hair” in the Park.  We also hit a milestone not long ago: we decided the kids were ready for their first “Forbidden Broadway.”  Back in 2004 I was even able to take my older son to Fred Ebb’s memorial service (there was a little notice in The Times, and he happened to have a half-day of school).  Joel Grey opened with “Wilkommen.”  Karen Ziemba sang a gorgeous ballad called “Coloring Book,” Debra Monk belted “It’s a Business” from “Curtains” and told a really filthy joke, Wayne Brady sang “Razzle Dazzle ‘Em,” and then Liza Minnelli, God bless her, looking more and more as if she stepped off a black velvet painting, got through “New York, New York” and “Maybe This Time.”  I served as my son’s accoustiguide.  That’s Lauren Bacall, I whispered.  She’s about the closest thing we have to royalty in this country.  That’s Dorothy’s daughter.  I came home so giddy with love for irascible, neurotic, brilliant Fred Ebb I could have danced, danced, danced all night.

I think we’ve finally sweated Sweeney Todd out of our systems.  We’re hearing just the occasional hiccup now; once in a while in the shower, when our otherwise gentle younger son thinks no one is listening, he’ll bellow in a heavy Cockney accent, “Oh yes we all deserve to die!  Even you Mrs. Lovett even I!” 

But we seem to be falling headlong into “Cabaret.”   This was spurred by what you might call a series of chance encounters but I call kismet.  First, while we were packing the rental car for our vacation on Cape Cod last summer, who should happen to walk his dog down our block but the original Emcee himself, Joel Grey (and I’m happy to report he was kind and friendly when I kvelled about seeing him at the memorial).  Then, when we got to the Cape, guess what happened to be playing at our favorite repertory theater?  Not long ago, thoroughly bathed in Kander and Ebb, my son and I were riding our bikes down Seventh Avenue singing, way off key, “Money, money, money, money” when a ten-dollar bill appeared on the street in front of us.  I guess that’s one of many reasons we love musicals so much, despite the unlikelihood that any of us will ever get to perform in one: they’re all about suspending your disbelief.  It’s sad but true: I am never going to be Sally Bowles, or either Maria, or Adelaide, or Marion the librarian.  And yet life with my family is definitely a cabaret.

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From Lorraine Rorke Bader ’67: 

I just read Scope Monthly, and I was pleased to see the summer reading and viewing for the incoming freshmen [see the story, “Multimedia homework”].  I admire the deep thought and courage that went into the decision to choose a DVD and related reading. The plan to follow up on this introduction throughout the year offers the students an opportunity to experience right away the essence of a Skidmore education, where the arts are integrated into other subjects and creative thought really does matter. It is energizing just to read about it.

 

 

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