Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Why of course you can! Ruddigore, The Overture

There are many things which I will never understand, even if I live long enough to be as wise as I think I am. Somewhere, I would say sort of in the middle of that list of unknowables, is the concept in Jewish law of oaths and vows. Not content with simply saying – in the off-the-cuff manner which most of us adopt – that the party in question won’t ever again eat Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream, he instead makes a formal declaration to that effect; or he turns it around and pronounces that said ice cream flavor is henceforth forbidden to him (the kind of mind-numbing distinction that has been the source of pride for our People, lo, these many centuries). Now it’s three years later, and this same person wakes up one fine morning with a hankering, an irresistible urge, for this particular flavor. What’s he supposed to do? I believe that he can round up a bunch of rabbis to absolve him from his unwise and hasty decision. But that’s not my question. Why would someone be so stupid, so headstrong, to get into this mess in the first place? I mean, what’s the benefit? That’s my question.

Normal people (which includes some of the people who might be reading this) feel free to make pronouncements about things that they don’t plan to do, places they never want to visit, people whose very sight at the time causes constriction of their veins and arteries. These same normal people, however, understand that they are allowed to change their minds – even if it pains them to do so. Some of us, moreover, understand that the ability, in fact the willingness, to change one’s mind is part of the joys of being alive. What better way to wake up in the morning than with the belief that you can do something startling, something that you never did before, or that you never thought you would ever do again? That’s how to get your toes twinkling as they hit the cold floor at some ungodly hour of the morning. All within reason, of course. With or without a formal declaration to that effect, it is exceedingly unlikely that I will be found sky diving, para-gliding, or bungee jumping. Not in this life, at least.

There are, however, things I will do, things I have done, which weren’t part of my plans when we got off the Nefesh B’Nefesh flight three and a half years ago. I fully expected to continue doing my photography with black and white film, chemicals, and an enlarger. However, I have begun to see the possibility of doing work in color and the necessity of using digital equipment for some or all of my work. And that’s what I’m doing these days. But that’s not what this article is about. Today’s topic is music and singing – as in me singing.

I never made a decision, formal or otherwise, the night when I left the Carnegie Hall stage after performing with the New York City All-City High School Chorus back in the spring of 1958, to discontinue future similar activities. It just happened. Once I got to City College, my life veered off in wildly different directions, and I never looked back to those days of yore. Of course, I continued to sing – for my own amusement. Those who know me well are aware that I am a walking jukebox of American songs of a certain vintage, from which collection I can always be counted on to blurt out a snippet if someone gives me the right cue. Mention a southern state, and I may well start to warble: ‘Down Among the Sleepy Hills of Ten-Ten-Tennessee….’ Or ‘There’s a Cradle in Caroline….’ One of the reasons our marriage has survived thirty two years is because Barbara actually enjoys it when I serenade her.

If you were to ask me what changed my mind about choral singing, I’d have to say that it was watching the Encore Theatre’s (They spell it ‘theatre,’ we spell it ‘theater’. Same idea.) production of ‘Oklahoma’ in the spring of 2009. I had seen two of their previous productions, The Mikado and HMS Pinafore and my reaction to each had been: “Wonderful! I’ll definitely come back the next time they do something.” That’s as far as it went. “I’m retired from singing. Let the company perform, and I’ll watch from the comfort of my seat.” Yet, have you ever had a moment of revelation and inspiration, when you see people doing something superbly well, and they seem to be having the best time of all doing it? You think to yourself, “Hey, I could do that. Why don’t I?” And then, you successfully fight off all the negativity, the list of reasons that all of us can come up with at the drop of a hat why we shouldn’t venture forth even one inch from our comfort zone; and you actually do something grand, something which makes you genuinely happy.

Something got to me while watching ‘Oklahoma.’ Maybe it was witnessing one more time the magical moment for any thespian when the curtain comes down and you get to come back, bow to the audience, and acknowledge their applause. Maybe it was my intrinsic sense that, if something is going on, I should be doing it not watching it. Maybe it was the realization tha, if I were in the company, I could hear these wonderful performers every week. Whatever the reason, I decided to try out for the chorus of the company’s next production, Pirates of Penzance, which would be performed in December, ‘09. But are things ever as simple as one might expect? Lo and behold, when were these auditions held? In June of that year, exactly the one week when Barbara and I were on our cruise to Greece, the only time when I would have been unavailable. So I wound up watching ‘Pirates’ from a comfortable seat in the Hirsch Theater, loving every moment of it, yet suppressing an urge to leave my seat and join the chorus on the stage. Too bad; try out for the spring 2010 production, ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ not one of my favorite shows; but, hey, that’s what they were doing.

Plenty of time to get ready for the audition. All that I had to do was to select a song, memorize the lyrics, and get comfortable singing it – because you only get one shot at an audition. But what song? As I said before, I’m familiar with snippets and snatches of hundreds and hundreds of songs. I needed to find one that suits me – not too high in my vocal range, or too low – a song that I really like, one that would make a good impression. For a month before the auditions, I kept singing dozens of songs to myself, deciding on one and then changing my mind – over and over again. Finally…….after agonizing unduly, I went with one of my all-time top favorites, ‘Once in a Blue Moon,’ music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by a mostly forgotten songwriter, Anne Caldwell, from the 1924 Broadway show, ‘Stepping Stones’ – a song lifted from relative obscurity by the great cabaret singer, Mabel Mercer. (Once in a blue moon, you will find the right one; Once in a blue moon, find your dear delight one; Then with a thrill, you know that love is true, Once in a lifetime, when the moon is blue…..)

The song firmly embedded in my brain, I arrived that fateful night at the auditions -- held in a small studio on a back street in the Talpiot section of Jerusalem – not knowing what to expect. Certainly, I had not anticipated joining a mob scene. It seems that EVERYONE within hailing distance who could sing worth a whit wanted in – wanted to enter the make-believe shtetl of Anatekva to recreate in song a moment in their great-grandparents’ lifetime. Studio Indigo is on the top floor of a commercial building, all the way at the end of a long cat-walk. This outdoor hallway was jammed with people waiting their turn to perform. Some were sitting and schmoozing; some (like me) pacing nervously; some practicing a song. You could hear groups of teenage girls serenading each other in the stairwells. One guy came with a puppet; perhaps he was going to do a duet of “If I Were a Rich Man.” Another fellow, looking like Tevye’s alter ego, came over to me. When we sorted things out, I realized I had known him thirty years before; we had last seen him when he was the part-time cantor at the Conservative synagogue on Jerusalem’s Agron St. (He didn’t look like that then!)

Everyone was given a number and a short form to fill out. Everyone got his picture taken. Otherwise, how would anybody remember who was who? I discovered later that over 150 hopefuls tried out for a part, any part, meaning that two thirds of the auditioners would be left, as the Rube Bloom-Ted Koehler song goes, ‘Out in the Cold Again.’ There were so many people trying out that many of them had to come back another night to audition. I had come early enough to be #37, so I got in the first night. When my turn came, I gave it my best shot, with only minimal signs of nervousness. Robert Binder and Paul Salter, who along with Arlene Chertoff are in charge of the productions, were as attentive as they could be under the circumstances, even complimenting me on my choice of material, a song which neither of them had ever heard before. But I was not optimistic; the numbers were against me. Quite a few of the people there had been in previous Encore productions, and it stood to reason that someone who was a known quantity would have a better chance of success. Needless to say, I got a polite e-mail a week later, expressing regret that they couldn’t use me and encouraging me to audition again for the next production, Ruddigore. Looking back at things, it may have been a blessing in disguise that I wasn’t chosen. The performances of ‘Fiddler’ took place right after we replaced our kitchen and married off Tina; so the needle on my personal stress-ometer might have been in the red zone with everything going on. In fact, I didn’t even get to see ‘Fiddler;’ the night we had to tickets, I was too ill to make it to the theater.

You can’t get rid of me quite so easily. Auditions were announced for ‘Ruddigore,’ in September and I would bite the proverbial bullet one more time. I figured this way: this is not one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s better known collaborations, so there would probably be fewer applicants than for ‘Fiddler.’ Plus, you sometimes get points for perseverance. Once again, what was I going to sing for my try-out? The same hundred plus songs cascaded through my brain, like an out of control IPod on auto-pilot. Perhaps this time, I would go with something a little better known, but one that nobody else was likely to be using. How about ‘September Song,’ by Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson, from the 1938 show ‘Knickerbocker Holiday’? (….And the days dwindle down to a precious few, November, December; And these few precious days, I’ll spend with you; These golden days, I’ll spend with you.)

If the auditions for ‘Fiddler’ were comparable to being on an Egged bus (or a NYC subway, for that matter) during rush hour, ‘Ruddigore was like being on the last bus leaving for Ma’ale Adumim at midnight. Were all of the singers still stuck in Anatekva? The evening I chose to audition, I was #7, and there weren’t many numbers after mine. Feeling more optimistic about my chances, I marched in for my turn and gave it my all. When I was done, Rob Binder asked me if I knew what anti-Semitic character sang that song? I was ready for him. Walter Huston sang that in the play and the botched film version, so I could guess it was Peter Stuyvesant, the role that Huston was playing. Right on the money!

It took only a few days to get an e-mail, inviting me to join the other residents of Rederring, a mythical town on the English coast where Ruddigore takes place. A schedule of rehearsals was included. I was in! Time to grease up the old vocal chords and stock up on throat lozenges. I guess the Great Gatsby was right, after all. “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can.” If you are patient enough, I will recreate the present and write about performing in the chorus of this under-performed G&s operetta, in which I sang and danced.


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