Sunday, September 14, 2008

Dinner and a Show 2: Miracle of Miracles

As I mentioned, I hold no feelings of superiority regarding Dinner Theatre. I spent many of my formative years appearing in such a venue; during those years, I learned a great deal of my craft, and played many major roles I had no chance of playing in larger, more professional venues.

My Dinner Theatre experience all happened at the Granada Theatre, in Granada Hills, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles at the north end of the San Fernando Valley. This theatre was actually an outgrowth of the local Woman's Club (no, I was not a member, smartass), a group which initially did one show a year as a fundraiser. They served donated food at these affairs, which all took place in a large meeting hall with a stage at one end.

The acoustics were all that you would expect in such a barn.

Anyway, my mother's friend (let's call her "Jo") was the ringleader of this gang of middle-aged ladies putting on shows. They had the ongoing problem of finding men to cast in their productions (you can only do "The Women" so many times, and the Nunsense musicals were yet to be inflicted upon the world). The ladies' husbands were usually not interested in donating their time to such projects, recognizing that if they did so, they would be spending far more time with their wives than if they declined to participate (who wouldn't want several nights a week of freedom from the girls, who were at rehearsal?).

Once Jo discovered that she had a friend with a son interested in performing, she demanded that I come down to the clubhouse to audition for their upcoming production of Fiddler on the Roof. I could not have been more than 18 or 19 at the time. I have to explain at this point that, though I secretly considered myself a Musical Comedy Star, I was very self-conscious about my singing ability. I had been told in high school that I could not carry a tune very well (which may have been true at the time), so I was always hesitant to audition for the Big Musical. Once I hit college, though, I gathered up my courage and auditioned for Li'l Abner, and was astonished to be cast in the featured role of Lonesome Polecat. The role was pretty small, though he was memorable as the only Indian onstage (we called them Indians back then), and I was part of the dancing chorus of the show. The Big Thing for me, in getting this goofy little part, was the fact that, for the first time, I would be singing onstage, alone. I had sung onstage in a chorus in high school, but I had never had any kind of a solo.

In Li'l Abner, Lonesome Polecat has the distinction of being the first character to speak, and his first words were in song. I had two whole lines of the opening number, all to myself, at the very top of the show.

I acquitted myself admirably, I must say, so by the time Jo approached me to audition for her production of Fiddler, I felt I was ready for my next step: singing an entire song alone. So I agreed to come to the Granada Hills Woman's Club and audition. The role for which Jo was interested in me was Motel the Tailor, and that should tell you exactly how inadequate a director she was.

Motel is decidedly Hebrew, and I am decidedly Presbyterian; I should have been considered for one of the other young men in the show, both of whom are much more goy than Motel. But no matter, I learned Motel's big solo number ("Miracle of Miracles". Never heard of it? Nobody else has, either. It is one of the very few songs in the score which are NEVER sung outside the show).

So, I arrived at the clubhouse prepared, but nervous. My hesitation increased when I walked into the hall to discover at least a dozen club members waiting around just for me. I was going to have to sing this solo in front of all of them, as well as the director and musical director.

I climbed onto the stage to face my humiliation head-on. I realized the only way I was going to get through this nightmare was to treat the song as an acting exercise. (It is the way I treat every song I sing now, but way back then, that was a novel idea to me.)

"Miracle of Miracles" is an explosion of exuberant emotion from the character, who has just been granted permission to marry his love. So, while singing the song, I was constantly moving, leaping up onto furniture, dashing hither and yon, and even, in the last phrase, turning a cartwheel. The place exploded with applause, and Jo the director approached the stage to offer me the role. I crouched down to hear her words of praise.

"That was terrific, Scott! Could you tell that you were singing offkey?"

In hindsight, I don't believe singing offkey would have kept me out of the show, they were so desperate for male actors, but in fact, I knew very well that I was singing offkey. The song is written for a tenor, and I am decidedly not one.

"Yes," I replied, "the song is too high."

Jo gestured for me to follow her to the piano, where the musical director sat. I murmured that the song was lower in the Vocal Selections book from which I had learned the song. Don't you love actors who make excuses for their poor performances? The pianist took a look, played a few phrases which I sang (on pitch, thank you), and the part was mine.

This happened at least 30 years ago, and I have never since been privileged to have a song's key adjusted to suit my voice.

This production of Fiddler on the Roof remains etched in my brain. Remember it was being produced by a bunch of middle aged women, many of whom performed in the show. Yes, all five of Tevye's daughters were being played by ladies in their 40s and 50s. I played opposite a woman named Muriel, a very nice lady though a crummy actress (all she did was smile). I still shudder when I recall the wedding sequence, which culminates in a kiss between my character and hers. It was like kissing my mother on the lips.

Paging Dr. Freud.

There were other icky aspects of this show. The make-up artist, I think her name was Beverly, was a chain-smoking broad who sipped her Scotch while building my beard, on my face, one hair at a time. Think a smelly Elaine Stritch, but more butch. She claimed to have studied stage make-up, and she was pretty good at building beards, but she had apparently missed the day in class where one learns how to build a beard which can be used again. So, before each and every performance, I sat on a stool in the clubhouse kitchen while Bev spread spirit gum all over my face and laboriously built my beard, hair by hair. The fact that this practice was allowed to happen in the kitchen shows you how far under the radar this group operated.

All the actors were paid, of course. But not in dollars. We each received two cocktails per show for our efforts. Even those actors (both of us) who were under 21. It was during Fiddler that I had my first cocktail, and for many years afterward, I drank only Bourbon & Sevens, which may be the sweetest of all highballs. I always had my two drinks after the show, but I was the only actor who held off so long. Most of the others had their first drink at intermission, and their second after the curtain call.

After several performances, I started to think I should be doing the same. Motel the Tailor is at the center of the major plotline in Act One of the show, but in Act Two, my character receded into the background, with only a few appearances onstage. Why not enjoy my first cocktail with everyone else at intermission?

I did that only once.

That single drink did not make me drunk, but, mixed with the adrenalin of being onstage, it interfered with my equilibrium. There was one scene which, in classic musical theatre terminology, is played "In One." It is a scene which takes place in front of the stage curtain, and is placed there so a major scene change can be performed behind the curtain. In Fiddler, this scene consisted of several actors cris-crossing each other as they spread a rumor around town. The problem at the Granada Theatre was this: there was no apron on the stage (the apron is the part of the stage which juts out in front of the stage curtain), so this cross-over sequence always required some maneuvering, as one actor passed behind or in front of another.

Can you see this coming?

On that fateful night when I decided to have my first Bourbon & Seven at intermission, I entered this scene, crossed to center, stepped right off the front of the stage and fell into the audience.

This production of Fiddler on the Roof happened around 1977. From that day to this, I have never touched a drop of alcohol before any performance, no matter how many hours before the curtain goes up.

There are more stories from this fated production of Fiddler, but I'll continue to be grateful to those Granada Hills battle-axes for giving me a relatively safe place to learn how to sell a solo.

This group soon graduated from being an annual fundraiser for a Woman's Club into a full-fledged Dinner Theatre. I had many more adventures there over the next years. Stay tuned...