Lots of people were there – on stage, and in the audience.
These memoiries were extracted from the previous post to spare any reader an endless post. I had become overly enthused about this phase of my writing journey – probably because I made significant contributions to works that were actually staged – two as transition writer (first with lyrics, second with verses) for the director, and the last seven as creator, script writer, and sometime lyricist, and the words flooded the post.
In 1979, my parish revived a tradition and issued a cast call for a variety show fund raiser. My wife dusted off her old tap shoes (which I didn’t know she had) and joined the chorus. She recruited me as curtain raiser. The director was a high school music director with a catalog of shows he had produced, and I observed his strategy: vary the pace between solos, chorus numbers, and dance numbers, and keep solos to two verses. I was disappointed to hear only two verses of some of my favorite songs, but realized long solos often invite audience slumber.
We had an alternating on-stage strategy, and I went onstage for the 1980 show, to reinforce the male chorus. I was totally self-conscious about my atonal voice (next post), but a veteran said no one would notice when seventy people were singing. The only two previous on-stage appearances I remember were second grade, when the teacher assigned me a role as a witch and I freaked out, crying my way into a bunny rabbit role (requiring Mom to sew a costume with coat hangers as ears, which flopped anyway – I might have missed a Shakespearean opportunity – “Double, double – toil and trouble,” and all that); and second, a brief walk-on during the opening “Fugue for Tinhorns” in the Guys and Dolls musical junior year in college.
More significant roles began when the next director, Alice Carey, another high school music director, created a three-show series.
—1984 – in planning the show “Broadway’s Best”, Alice planned a slide show of album covers for various scenes. She asked if anyone had Finian’s Rainbow, to show during “Politics and Poker.” I volunteered that I had the album (courtesy of my lonely days adapting to college in Boston), but “Politics and Poker” was part of Fiorello, and I also had that album. I think I gained her confidence for the musicals that followed. I crewed, Maureen crooned and danced.
—1985 – My credibility points resulted in Alice asking me to write transitions for the scenes in her next show, “Memories.” Her six scenes were “Growing Up,” “Dancing,” “Movies,” “The West,” “Cities,” and “Love.” I asked if I could write lyrics for the transitions. I believed the words would imply the tunes, but only one cast member caught on, so Alice wrote the melodies, and the audience wasn’t aware that these weren’t songs until the announcement at the end of the show. (Sample: “Love, Love – long, long ago; Two hearts, wanting to know: Is it real? Will it last? Are we moving to slow? Or too fast? I remember that first, glow of romance, Again, and again, and again; And once in a while I wonder – Where have you gone, since then?”)
—1986 – Alice re-appointed me transition writer for “A Rainbow Connection,” with scenes involving colors of the rainbow. I asked if I could write the scenes in verse. When I went to present the first draft, she had tears at the metaphor in the second verse, “Can you see with more than your eyes? Can you see invisible angels, painting God’s shadow in the skies?” Alice suggested that I publish the verses. Twenty years later, A Rainbow Journey made it into print.
I’ll include here some verses not in the book. Alice had a “Red, White, and Blue” patriotic scene right before intermission, and a “Black and White” Broadway scene right after intermission.
Intro to “Red, White, and Blue”: “But sometimes, darker storm clouds gather; Why? I’ve tried, but can’t define, The reasons rainbows disappear, And we must make our own sunshine. If Johnny must march overseas, His courage we must share, And bring him smiles, and melodies, To let him know we’re with him there. No color in the universe… No lines in any poem… Can shine as bright, or sound as sweet, As the color he calls ‘Home.’”
Following a George M. Cohan medley, just before “God Bless America,” I added a timely verse from a very recent incident: “Let’s give thanks for our grand combination, Of hues half the world cannot see… And pause, to honor the Challenger’s crew: What colors are Freedom, and Liberty?”
Intro to “Black and White”, after intermission: “While we’re paused in the midst of our voyage, Let’s observe, from this vantage up high, A place where all colors converge and collide, And the only ‘lull’ is a ‘lullaby.’ There’s black, and there’s white, and all colors between! And every character is on display! Each day is a drama! Each moment a scene! And the streets are a stage! And life is a play! They razzle your feet! They dazzle your mind! They make day night, and they make night day! You can search the world, but you’ll never find, Another place like the Great White Way!”
—1988 – I now had the confidence of the parish to organize my own show, and appoint myself as writer/producer, allowing me to schedule my favorite songs. (My scripts are lost to history, unless I can find out how to convert .sam files from the IBM Lotus word-processing product to .doc files.) Also, several of us parents with young children overcame reluctance from old-timers to include youngsters third-grade and up in the performances, so that they would have more of a role in parish life.
“Faraway Places with Strange Sounding Names” was my first such venture. We used a dinner theatre format in our parish hall, with edibles between scenes. An “Around the World” scene before appetizers; “Into the Imagination” before a barbeque chicken dinner; “Into Dreams and Visions,” a Camelot scene, before dessert; “Then Back Home for Coffee,” concluding with The Sound of Music’s “So Long, Farewell,” “Edelweiss,” and “The Sound of Music” finale.
In the Camelot scene, I presented a unique interpretation of legend. Arthur asks Merlin to explain the agony in his marriage, and Merlin replies: “You are only one of hundreds of idealistic kings, and, but for Lancelot and Guinevere, history would have forgotten you; now, in fifty years… five hundred years… five thousand years – when mankind faces its worst challenges – someone will remember Camelot – and they will all try again.”
—1989 –a one performance “Evening Dinner Theatre” to conclude a parish fair with a country theme. Cheese and crackers before a cornpone jug band, a children’s then adult’s country set, turkey dinner, more country songs and an Oklahoma medley, dessert, and a country farewell: “My Own True Love” (from Gone With the Wind), “Ol’ Man River,” and sing-alongs “Country Roads” and “God Bless America.”
—1990 – Our ensemble, now nicknamed “On a Wing and a Prayer,” performed “down by the levee” on the Stonehill College stage. Old southern songs, tap dancers pantalooned for “Mississippi Mud,” a Big River medley, a riverboat gambler scene, Stan Freeberg’s “Elderly Man River,” and a Show Boat medley, ending with a reprise of “Ol’ Man River,” including some Oscar Hammerstein words I had never heard before, recorded in a 1988 reprisal from the original: “New things come, and ol’ things go; but all things look the same to Joe. War go on, an’ some folks die; the rest forget, the reasons why. I keeps laughin’, instead of cryin’; I mus’ keep livin’, until I’m dyin’, but Ol’ Man River, he jus’ keeps rollin’ along.”
—1991 – Again on the Stonehill stage, “Vacation Fantasy” had a family of two adults and four children arrive late for their cruise ship and have to vacation in their fantasies: Dad’s was “Harem-Scarem” with Kismet and The King and I songs. Mom’s was “First Lady” with a 1776 medley. Young son’s was “Let the Good Times Roll!” with Annie and Oliver songs. Young daughter’s was “Love, Far Away” with a Fiddler on the Roof medley. Teenage daughter’s was “Prima Donna” with A Little Night Music and Phantom of the Opera songs. Teenage son’s was “Anyone Can Whistle” with the Sondheim title song and a medley of Disney songs, including a tap dance to “Never Smile at a Crocodile,” and Seven Dwarfettes and Fairy Godfathers bringing down the house.
Show notes: #1 – When I presented the plan to the cast and crew, they were excited for the first five scenes. The finale I had prepared was to me a glorious finale – a Resurrection theme from Les Mis, my favorite musical. The audience went blank. I had worked on the scene in my head for many months and knew it would be great. But… timing is everything. It was the eve of Iraq I, and in the front row was the Mother of a parishioner on the front line. After dulled silence, someone suggested end on a Disney note; Seven Dwarfettes and Fairy Godfathers emerged, and everyone left the performances uplifted.
#2 – One of three women who sang the Phantom theme song, a high school junior, Sandra Piques, after graduating from Boston Conservatory, won a Pavarotti contest in New York City, worked her way up the opera ladder and recently sang leads in national and international productions of Rigoletto and Carmen (http://www.sandrapiqueseddy.com/index.php). She receives rave reviews for her celestial vocals and her down-to-earth treatment of her associates, including children in her productions. While still a teenager, she had sung the Phantom theme at one of my IBM branch office meeting assignments, and the branch manager thought she was from the original cast.
—1992 – Again at Stonehill for a fictional “This is your Life” 50th Anniversary celebration for Grandparents surrounded by family, “Treasures in the Attic”. Scenes were “Roaring Twenties,” “The Depression,” “Home Front,” “USO,” and “Returning Home”; then “50’s & 60’s Superstars” and “50’s and 60’s Dance Party.” Finale was “The Greatest Love of All” and “As Time Goes By.”
—1996 – Under multiple forms of duress, as well as a wing and a prayer, the parish performed “Channel Surfin’, USA!” The duresses were: 1) little was happening in the parish, and my wife, former parish Secretary (I called her the Voice of Hospitality), who had gotten me involved way back, said we needed some spirit, and I had to organize another show; 2) Maureen was in her “final landing,” after five years of cancer treatments; and 3) rehearsals alternated between progress and absolute disaster. The performances were scheduled for November 8 and 9. Twice, I tried to defer – once for three weeks, next for the following year. Both times, Maureen denied the request. I now suspect she wanted me involved outside the home, to shield me from the siege of her suffering, and to allow her to handle things her own way. (She had the same strategy when we hosted the extended family Easter gatherings, continually sending me out for something, with me thinking she wasn’t very well organized, later realizing she worked better without my input.)
This show had a complex theme – television is dominating our lives. A family of six, two parents and four children, had installed the neighborhood’s first “Wall TV” – a monster that took up an entire wall. The adults in the neighborhood were having a progressive dinner with a TV theme, all participants dressed as TV characters, and the neighborhood was to return to the host house for dessert (Act II), and to watch the new Wall TV. The children’s grandparents arrived to referee the screen sharing while the parents were away partying in Act I.
The Cable Guy showed up to show how the Wall TV could have six small screens showing simultaneously, or could present one monster screen. He then asked the Mother (in Lucille Ball costume) to sign a waiver of responsibility: “This Wall TV may create electronic hypnotism, disregard for the outdoors, and inability to communicate with other humans.” Lucy responded “Oh, I thought it was something serious,” and signed the waiver.
Six themes were programmed in: Cartoons, Westerns, Sitcoms, Ed Sullivan, MTV, and Great Performances. The children argued over who would be first to watch their favorite show on the big screen, and the grandparents declared a rotation, including themselves. The teenage daughter passed her first few options so that she could have a longer viewing of Great Performances. The first act ended with a terrific medley from her favorite musical, Les Mis. (Grace was definitely working here, with the scene I had originally prepared for “Vacation Fantasy.”)
Act II began with the neighbors in TV character attire returning for Wall TV and dessert. But a storm broke out, and power was lost. The initial reaction was unbridled disappointment – we have no entertainment! Then someone said look who’s here, we’re all in costume, and the theme resumed, with Cartoons, Westerns, Sitcoms, Ed Sullivan, MTV, and Great Performances, by the neighborhood characters.
I was scheduled for one western scene, with my son, son-in-law, and nephew, as the Bonanza Cartwrights. We arrived at rehearsal on Wednesday and were sent home; hospice had projected Maureen would die on that day. She had other ideas. We rehearsed on Thursday, performed the first show on Friday night, played a VCR tape at home (theoretically, she could hear the video), and she died between shows, Saturday afternoon. We performed Saturday night.
My brother Bob noticed the unusually glorious afternoon sky, bright and multi-colored, as if welcoming a new soul into heaven. He wrote a poem, “Dos Angeles,” celebrating the passing of Maureen, and our sister Mary, who had travelled the same medical route from a two-thousand mile distance, and had died twelve days earlier.
When I told one of the cast members I didn’t know how the cast pulled the show off, he said they did it for Maureen. The front page of the program was dedicated to Maureen and me, from the poem “A Time for Everything” by Catherine Vinck: “We can still make it gather the threads, the pieces each of different size and shade to match and sew a pattern… The coming of night will be darker than the heart of stones unless we strike the match light the guiding candle say, ‘Yes, there is room after all at the inn.’”
The following Tuesday, at the grave site, our lead teenage ‘Fantine’, Danielle Cotter, sang the Resurrection hymn from Les Mis – “Come with me, where chains will never bind you…,” and nephew Jamie led “Do you hear the people sing, lost in the valley of the night…?” The show must go on.
—1997 – The following year felt like therapy constructing a lighter show – “Holi-Daze!” – a travel through the holidays of the year, beginning with Christmas, ending with Thanksgiving – celebrating New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Father’s Day, Labor Day, Veteran’s Day, and Halloween in between. My song “You Can Be Santa’s Helper (every Christmas and all year),” with melody by my brother Mike, defined the theme of the show. Songs from my second favorite musical, Shenandoah, fit wonderfully at different holiday periods, and appropriate standards surrounded them. Interluding of comic drama was provided by the Grinch and Grinchette, beginning with “The Seven Deadly Virtues” from Camelot.
“Channel Surfin’, USA!” and “Holi-Daze!” introduced another new “leading player.” My nephew Jamie had done hammy skits and appearances during his school and college years, but not in a formal theatrical setting. His first stage appearance included characters Cable Guy, George of the Jungle, a Cartwright, and a Les Mis student, and he grasped the concept and filled in gaps in the direction of the show. In the second show, he was the Grinch throughout the show, improvised choreography for some of the scenes, and re-interpreted and re-staged some of the initial blockings. He then took on community theatre roles, and in a faraway place became a lead actor in dramas, comedies, musicals, and improv, and directed high school performances.
—21?? – Times change, the world spins faster, schedules overload, key performers and production staff move on, new parish leadership arrives, and traditions change. However… if requested, I outlined a new show just after the last production – “California Dreaming” – a trek across the continent by foot, train, automobile, and plane. Two-thirds of the world’s shovels were made in my town, Easton, in the heyday of the Ames Shovel Company (estd.1774), and contributed to the western migration, possibly the Lewis & Clark expedition, and the building of the railroad. In 1907 the Easton Machine Company built the Morse automobile. I haven’t discovered an airplane connection, but the show will be music and local history. It’s all in my head, and outlined on paper, somewhere.
This post completes a series of brag outlines of my business and creative lives. Next up will be a recent understanding of threads of my personal narrative – some early experiences which spiraled me into the place where I have temporarily landed.