Monday, September 04, 2006

The Theatre is a Temple

MotherBang is in the process of preparing for a cabaret show of Johnny Mercer songs. It's going to be a big moment for her. You can all start singing "New York, New York" now:

"If she can make it there,
she'll make it ANYwhere,
it's up to YOU
New York
New Yoooooork!"

Except Mom's not trying to make it anywhere. She just loves to sing and does a lot of it, and she's good at it, too. My parents met while doing a community theatre production of "Guys and Dolls" in Binghamton, NY. Mom was the star, Miss Adelaide, and Dad played Harry the Horse.
With such beginnings, did I have any choice but to become a huge theatre freak? I remember going to see the Broadway revival of "42nd Street" with both my parents. When I started weeping at the overture, my father looked at my mother as if to say, "Is she okay?" Mom squeezed my shoulder and gave my Dad a look that just said, in effect, "This is her church. This is where all her big feelings come out."

I got into trouble with some dinner guests the other night when I said that I don't like to perform at church talent shows. Oh, what a snot! Oh, so elitist! Think you're too good for us, eh?

No, not too good at all. Too experienced. Too devoted to the magic of transformation, the sets, lights, costumes and orchestra, the preparation with other performers, the hush of opening night, the backstage jitters, the sanctity of the curtain, to perform under casual circumstances such as a church talent show.
There's that, and then there's my sense that I've had plenty of opportunities to be a performer and to get all that attention. Let someone else get it for a change. I get enough attention as a minister. Let someone else get shined on for a night!

I have been performing since I was six years old, and I have entertained thousands of people on dozens of stages. I have loved all the women I've been on the stage. I have been Laurie in "Oklahoma," and the Incomparable Rosalie in "Carnival" and Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd" and both Marty and Rizzo in "Grease." I have played one of the daughters (Kate) and Ruth in "The Pirates of Penzance" and Reno Sweeney in "Anything Goes" and Eulalie MacKecknie Shinn in "The Music Man" and Chloe Haddock in "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" and Hermia in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." I was Nancy Twinkle in "Little Mary Sunshine" and Ella Peterson in "Bells Are Ringing." I played Hodel in "Fiddler on the Roof" and Leah in "Two By Two" and Mary Kenny in "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?" and Emma Goldman in "Ragtime" and Miss Hannigan in "Annie." The list goes on. I treasure these characters and my incarnation of them. In each production, I brought passion and care and deep attention to the role. I had time to learn how to be the character in relationship to the other characters and the actors playing them, and most of all, in the rehearsal process my fellow actors and I prepared ourselves for something serious and deep to happen between us and the audience. For all the work you do putting together a show, that's the payoff. And it's a huge payoff.

Of all silly things, I remember playing Reno Sweeney in "Anything Goes" during a particularly miserable time in my life. I was standing on stage with the actors playing Billy, Hope and Sir Evelyn singing "At Long Last Love" when suddenly the four of us just knocked the dumb song out of the park. I don't know what happened; an extra swell in the orchestra, a weird electrical current between us. Suddenly what had been (for me) a throwaway moment became amazing.
I looked out into the house and saw a man sitting and openly weeping. From that moment on, I no longer doubted my belief that the theatre is a temple, and that the gods of comedy and tragedy do reside there and work on the human soul. You must pay it the utmost respect.

Many of you know that I opened as Ella Peterson in "Bells Are Ringing" the day of my father's funeral. He had had heart problems for years before being taken by a heart attack. So to stand on the stage and sing,

The party's over
It's time to call it a day
No matter how you pretend
you knew it would end this way
It's time to wind up the masquerade
Just make your mind up
the piper must be paid.
The party's over
The candles flicker and dim
You danced and dreamed through the night
It seemed to be right just being with him
Now you must wake up
All dreams must end
Take off your make-up
the party's over.
It's all over, my friend

was pretty transcendent, and not in a good way.
My extended family (all in town for the funeral) took up at least two full rows in the orchestra. It was the most solemn moment I have ever spent on the stage, right in the midst of this lovely, light-hearted little comedy. As I sang in the spotlight (and it wasn't really me singing, but someone much more together and capable than I singing for me), some of the spotlight fell, as it always does, over the audience. Alone of all the audience, my sister was illuminated in the residual glow. I could see her clearly, watching me without realizing that I could see her.
It's not an image I will ever forget. It's not a song I can hear without walking out of the room.

The only story I feel I can tell as a singing/performing minister in a church setting is "Hi, I'm your minister but did you also know that I love the theatre and that I love this song?" I don't think that's a very interesting story. They already know it, and if they don't, the pressure is too high to be really good. When I'm singing within the context of a show, I can trust that the director cast me for a reason and that we've done our work well by opening night. I trust that I am bringing the character to life in an appropriate way. I have the support of a great character, a cast, an orchestra, lights and costumes, etc. In a cabaret setting, it's just me and a microphone. I don't enjoy that at ALL. It's too raw and exposed and unless someone is a huge expert at it (Barbara Cook comes to mind , or someone like my mother who really loves it), I just don't think it's a very compelling art form.

I do occasionally sing for my own congregation -- I include bits of songs in sermons where they might communicate a point that I can't find any better way to communicate. I sang "In Whatever Time We Have"* from "Children of Eden" the morning of my Installation service, which has lyrics that were perfect for a minister and her congregation. I was thrilled to share it with them as a gift. I have sung at the Canvass Dinner, again as a love offering to people I love.

Aside from that, I'm much happier to attend church talent shows or coffeehouses and get to see the hidden talents of people who don't have a regular opportunity to be the stars. When I get good enough on the BANJO, I'll probably torment church folks with that, because it's different.

Back to Mom. She's worried that she might mess up on a lyric. I told her not to worry, because she's already committed the greatest lyric mess-up of all time. Picture this: adorable 65 year old woman with a gorgeous voice singing "The Christmas Song." You know it. She's gracious and classy, she's smiling in her winning and warm way. She starts the song and she goes,

"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...
Jack Frost nipping at your nose...
Tiny tots being hung by the fire..."

As I said to her, "Mom, if you manage another lyrical mistake like that one, you couldn't ask for anything better."

P.S. Mom did manage to persuade me to perform one number at her cabaret. I'll be doing "Accentuate the Positive."

In whatever time we have
For as long as we are living
We can face whatever comes
If we face it now as one.
I could make on my own
Let me know that I don't have to
No one really wants to be alone
In whatever we time have.

If at times we are afraid
With so little to believe in
It's alright to be afraid
I will hold you in the dark
All we know for sure is this
Though the world could end tommorow
You and I will be together
In whatever time..

We know life can be a battlefield
we won't run and we won't fear
You'll be my fortress and I will be your shield
There are time I've been afraid
In a world that's so uncertain
Then I feel your hand in mine
And there's courage in my heart.
We could live a hundred years
Or the world could end tommorow
But we know we'll be together, in whatever time...

From this day forward nights don't seem so black
From this day forward we will never look back
In whatever time we have
We will make the most of time
And at least we'll be together in whatever time
We have.

"In Whatever Time We Have" Stephen Schwartz


Blogger Caroline Divine said...

PB, I LOVE "Guys and Dolls" ! It is one of my all-time favorite musicals. I think I know all the songs by heart. I never performed in it because I was a little kid in summer camp when I first saw it and only the seniors got to be in the annual musical. They were, I have to say, fabulous. (The director was a theater/music professional, so the camp plays were GOOD.)

And I too played Hodel in "Fiddler on the Roof."

We must be related.

Caroline Divine (whose blogger name and current location do not reveal some of her not so distant New York roots)

Blogger Magdalene6127 said...

PeaceBang, I love your story of the man weeping during "Anything Goes." I have found my experiences in the theater (both as a performer and as a member of the audience) have offered me some pretty transcendent moments too. (BTW, last summer I did Ruth in Pirates, with both my children in the cast. Too much fun!)

I'd love to have a conversation about how we sing in church...

Blogger Magdalene6127 said...

...But the thing I meant to say is... I'm in Binghamton NY. Is it your hometown? Were your parents members of the Summer Savoyards? Are YOU a Savoyard???

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Mag, WOW. My mother grew up in Binghamton and my sister was born there. My grandparents lived in Front Street until their deaths, and I still have a cousin and two uncles there!

Blogger ms. kitty said...

PeaceBang, what a wonderful post. Thank you for telling us these stories.


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