Monday, January 31, 2011

Hatless in Ra'anana. Ruddigore Act 2

I just know that this sort of situation has happened to you too. You start a project, any kind of a project, and you have sooooooooo much time to get it done. Then you wake up one day and the time has flown by and, whether you feel the urge to panic or not, D-day is almost upon you………

We started rehearsing Ruddigore the end of September; the performances were scheduled starting December 28 – enough time to fall in love, start a career, lose or gain twenty pounds, watch a full season of American football games (not counting the post-season), the list is almost endless. We started rehearsing comfortably enough, singing while sitting on our fannies, holding our scores in our laps for dear life. As December crept upon us, we were trying our best to learn Arlene Chertoff’s dance routines and trying on parts of our costumes as we got them. Every rehearsal, Rob Binder would show up with more stuff that somebody could wear and hand it out. Most of the women in the chorus had only one outfit; the younger ones were outfitted as 1920’s flappers with wigs and dresses sewn for the occasion. For the gentlemen (I use the term loosely), it was a lot more complicated because we played different roles in each act.

You have already been introduced to Cedric (Bilgie) Bilgewater, my Act I persona. It turned out that a close approximation of Bilgie’s country apparel could be found in my own aron: a not-as-well-tailored seersucker jacket, a replica of a good straw hat (which I wear to shul on a summer Shabbat morning), and a perfect pair of white trousers. Almost perfect. Bilgie, being a few decades younger than me, is a little trimmer around the mid-section. The trousers would fit him just fine, but they were a little snug on me. Could I jettison, say, five pounds in a month? Or could I exercise away a half an inch or more in the same time? The answer was, sadly, no. No matter how much Shabbat dessert I eschewed and sit-ups I performed on a morning, the white cotton trousers remained resolutely snug. A compromise would have to be effected: a pair of blues that didn’t quite catch the spirit of the occasion; but, as I reminded Rob, breathing is good. All that was missing was an appropriate cravat. Bilgie, when he was away from his haunts at the Drones Club in London, was partial to bow-ties, which he wore despite the disparaging remarks of his ‘man’ Groves. Trouble was, I didn’t have one, either the real kind that you would need assistance to put on or the pre-made fake ones so prevalent in today’s more casual world. Fortunately, Rob had a few extra ones – the real kind – which Arlene conscientiously affixed before each performance – in Groves’ absence, of course.

Act II was another matter. Like everyone else in the men’s chorus, I would be playing the specter of an ancestor to the current baronet, in my case, the late Sir Frederick Murgatroyd, the fourth Baronet of Ruddigore. Nothing I owned remotely resembled what the British minor nobility of his time would have worn. However, by one of those amazing coincidences that seem almost impossible to fathom, an outfit was located for him that seemed an exact replica of what the Pirate King had worn in ‘Penzance.’ I received it a piece at a time over a several week period: the breeches, fastened by an eye-hook and antique Velcro on the right side; a gold-colored vest, fastened with about twelve snaps; a black coat with gold trim; a white shirt and sash; a pair of leggings that would serve as boots. There was no hat; a brown wig that had seen better days would have to do – but then the character was himself dead for about four hundred years. I imagine that with Groves’ help, I could have arrived on stage after the intermission fully changed in less than fifteen minute, but unaided…………

‘A piece at a time.’ Everything about the production was coming together, one item, one piece at a time – not just the costumes. Every Friday morning when I went to help with the sets, I could see what had been accomplished. The strange things I had cut or glued began to be an integral part of the scenery, in a way I could never had imagined. The only conclusion one could draw was that the lady in charge of designing the sets, Roxanne, had an imagination and a talent to take note of. As we got closer and closer to the actual performances, more and more people made themselves available, literally backstage: people to help with the sets, with the props, with makeup. All manner of curious family and friends were showing up for our rehearsals. Even an orchestra! From the very first rehearsal, our sole source of accompaniment had been Paul Salter and his keyboard. About a week and a half before we were set to open, about fifteen musicians showed up, this year’s version of ‘The New Savoy Orchestra’: a few native-born Israelis, a few originally from the British Isles, and the rest from – where else? – somewhere near the Volga. Collectively, they were…………awful, at least in the beginning. We sat there and scratched our collective heads and wondered what would be. What was Paul going to do? Well, one thing Paul was not going to do was get nonplussed (it would take a lot to get Paul nonplussed). Somehow, he got them ready so that the N.S.O. actually sounded pretty credible by the first performance. Not only that, he did it the hard way, because he never had exactly the same group of musicians from one evening to the next. Somebody always had another gig and sent in his place a cousin who also played the viola – someone who thought that G & S stood for Alexander Glazunov and Georgy Sviridov.

A piece at a time; a day at a time. Each of my days seemed more and more to be devoted to some aspect of the show. People were needed to man a ‘hot line,’ to help out would-be customers who were, for whatever reason, unable themselves either to call the Hirsch theater box office or go on-line to the Encore website and order their own tickets. At first, it meant simply being home on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10 to 3 and getting an occasional phone call. But as we got closer to ‘show-time,’ more and more very polite British voices kept getting on my phone, to the point that I couldn’t get anything else done.

And I did have other things to get done. In the middle of November, I received an e-mail from a Jewish publishing outfit in The States. I had edited the commentary for a haggadah for them a few months before, and now they wanted me to “tweak” something else. It seemed like a lot of work (180 pages of actual text), but they would be paying me and I have a healthy regard for money. No problem; I should be able to finish the job by the end of the secular year. Except now, all these very polite people were inundating my phone line in the few free hours I thought I had.

It was easy to feel that one’s life was being swallowed up in a Ruddigorian black hole. We were no longer doing one or two rehearsals a week, each ending at a civilized 10PM – so that, thanks to Sara and her ride to the bus station, I could get off the bus in Ma’ale Adumim at around 11; we were now doing run-through’s of the entire show. All of us understood that there was no other way to get the job done, but I was crawling into bed at midnight, and there were others (maybe younger and more resilient) who had farther to travel than I.

The Monday before we opened, was a day designed to tax my limited supply of energy. The crew helping with the sets was needed at ‘The Mercaz’ at about 7:30AM. Fortunately, I got a ride from Ma’ale Adumum, otherwise I would have been riding the buses at the crack of dawn – not my favorite part of the day. We had to load all the scenery onto a truck and bring it over to the Hirsch Theater, maybe a mile away, and unload everything onto a docking station right by the stage. That’s how I happened to be standing on that empty stage, looking out towards the rows of unfilled seats, each one identically upholstered in lavender. Sooner than I could imagine, most of them (we hoped) would be filled with an enthusiastic audience member looking up at the stage. Everyone around me was busy doing something, but I just stood there and looked out.

The difference between looking down from the stage at an audience and looking up at the performance from the auditorium is not a matter of 180 degrees – just as the difference between the surgeon and the patient on the operating table is more than which one is holding the scalpel. It has to do with different worlds of expectation and experience; I started to prepare myself emotionally for what it would be like, being in a real performance on a stage in front of a real audience, but the hustle and bustle around me cut short my reverie. Getting the sets for Acts I and II in place would require a lot of work, and some of the people would be there all day doing it. I had to go. The way I had it figured, if I left the theater by 9:30ish, I could get back to Ma’ale Adumim in time for a one hour nap, giving me enough time to get back on a bus to Hebrew U. in time to grab a coffee and a croissant and be ready at 1PM for the first of the three students I would be tutoring. If I finished at 4:30, that would give me plenty time to pick up a light dinner and get to the theater (near the David Citadel Hotel) by 5:30 for our one and only final run-through.

There was one bit which none of the cast had seen, and Rob was anxious that we do – for it was his baby. He had conceived a production that was updated to the 1920’s (Ruddigore was written as a spoof of Victorian melodrama). In keeping with this concept, a short film had been prepared, designed to be shown while the overture was being played: first giving a synopsis of the plot (!), and then imagining how the show would have worked as a silent film. The film clip that was inserted I had seen before and is fairly well-known in certain circles; but that leaves out most of the world. The villain, for some unexplained reason, ties the heroine (a young Gloria Swanson) to a railroad track, leaving her dog to find a way to rescue her. The pooch alerts the hero and several other people and leads them back, over a bridge, through woods and meadows, to the scene of the villainy – getting there just in time to warn the crew of the oncoming train to stop it in the nick of time. Needless to say, this canine then chases the villain up a tree where he is captured. What is so fascinating is that the overture to this 1887 operetta works perfectly with the rapid cutting of the 1920’s film. Would the audience get it? Or not?

There would be only one way to find out. It’s called opening night. That’s when the directors, the cast, and crew see if what they have been working on for months and months – the songs we memorized, the dances the men stumbled through, the gestures we spent so much time learning, the comic bits that we thought were so funny, the sets and costumes that had been so carefully wrought would pay off or not. Some things you can’t even be sure about until you get into the theater. I know that on Tuesday, while I was placing ticket orders for very polite customers, Rob and the stage crew were working hard to revise and refine the sound system and the lighting effects because certain preconceived notions wouldn’t work. All the cast had to do was show up a few hours before show time and get into our costumes and, for the first time, get fussed over by the makeup crew. Then we would watch and wait to go on stage.

It’s a funny thing. We began rehearsing individual scenes of the play and watched as everything coalesced into a unified production, and now everything was being reduced back to the scenes we are in and the scenes immediately before – the cue to get ready. The various members of the cast would hang out back stage, talking, nibbling snacks, reading, knitting, but essentially waiting for their turn. The men’s chorus wouldn’t go on until pretty late in the first act. As soon as we heard ‘Mad Margaret’s’ entrance, that was it: assemble at the proper place off-stage, remove eyeglasses, watches, and jewelry, pick up our props (in Bilgie’s case, a croquet mallet) and wait for that magical moment to walk on stage, announcing to one and all, “When thoroughly tired of being admired……”

Sara, the woman whom I could count on for a lift to the bus station and a veteran cast member, had said that the two weeks of performances would pass by in the twinkling of an eye. But I wouldn’t say that it was a blur. Each evening, each performance had its own dynamic. In what passed for our dressing room, a corridor between the lobby and backstage, we could hear if the audience was ‘getting it’ when the silent film was being shown. We could hear the level of applause as the curtain went up and as each musical number was completed. Opening night, for example, was almost sold out, but the audience was, in a word, polite. Wednesday evening the crowd was smaller, but they were much more enthusiastic. Thursday was the real marathon: two performances, and then we had to knock down the sets and load them on the truck. Why? Because on Sunday, we were doing one performance, just one, in Ra’anana. So instead of having one more day of ‘leisure,’ we were on the bus at 2PM, the idea being to give us an extra margin of time to prepare. What it gave us, in fact, was time for most of us to go shopping on the very affluent main drag right by the theater. A good thing, too. There I was, an hour to go on, in my Act I costume, all made up, when I realized I had left my straw hat on the shelf, in the closet, in our bedroom, in our apartment, back in Ma’ale Adumim. Other members of the chorus had forgotten parts of their wardrobe, but it wasn’t any big deal to have somebody bring a pair of shoes to the theater in Jerusalem. But there I was, hatless in Ra’anana, a fate almost worse than death. The rule is, you don’t go on stage sans part of your costume. I consulted with the hevra; what to do? Sammy, who portrayed a bishop in Act II, saved my skin. He remembered passing a number of clothing stores on his earlier jaunt and would be happy to run out and find me some kind of topper to wear. And he did. An ersatz straw, more like an elderly Semitic gentleman would wear, but it would pass muster from a distance. After we finished, I would toss it into a prop box for a future production. If the Encore Company ever does a musical with ‘Miami’ in the title, the hat will be perfect.

The scoop of Ra’anana is, the theater is second rate, the audience wonderful. Finish the show, knock down the sets, get back on the bus, head back to Jerusalem. Given the anticipated late hour of our arrival, I had arranged to take advantage of Jeff and June’s kind offer of hospitality and spend the night with them in Ir Hakodesh. Back to Ma’ale Adumim the next morning; back to Hebrew U. in the afternoon for my three eager students.

Four more performances to go. Three more performances to go. Two more performances, another double header on Thursday; and then…. All our earlier worries about this and that had vanished, to be replaced by a very different anxiety. The ‘OMG, it’s almost over’ feeling, the kind you would get the last week of summer camp. The people you formed a bond with, the experiences you shared; soon to be gone with the proverbial wind, one more memory to be stored away.

Nine times the performance would come to an end. Nine times the cast would return to the stage to take a bow in the order and the manner we had rehearsed: first the village women, then the men’s chorus in our ancestors’ costumes, next the bridesmaids, then the principals: Old Adam, Zorah and Richard Dauntless, Sir Roderick and Dame Hannah, Sir Despard and Mad Margaret, finally the leads, Robin and Rose Maybud. Applause and rhythmic clapping as everyone of us walked from the wings to center stage and then, on cue from Arlene, took our bow. No matter how small your part, you get your turn and you feel grand. I have to think that W.S. Gilbert had it all wrong: the theatrical person is never tired of being admired. The secret is revealed. Consider it a RuddiLeak.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Musical Minestrone. Ruddigore, Act 1

What would happen if we decided to make a short film of this part of my adventures here in The Land? The segment we would be looking at would open, not with a shot of the New York skyline, Big Ben, or the Eiffel Tower, but with a shot of the less-well-known Hadar Mall in Jerusalem’s Talpiot district. Traffic continues to flow on adjacent Pierre Koenig Street, and a #21 bus arrives at the bus stop in front of the Mall and discharges some of its passengers – one of them being yours truly. The camera follows me up the hill and onto Yad Harutzim St., down to the end of the block, into a less-than-enticing commercial building, up the stairs, down the long corridor to Studio Indigo, the rehearsal space for Ruddigore.

This would be the first rehearsal for the men’s chorus, and I make sure to arrive early. A few men have already arrived; several more will enter as the scene progresses. We are welcomed by Paul Salter, the musical director and Arlene Chertoff, the choreographer (Robert Binder, the artistic director, will be away in the States for several weeks). At 7:30, we begin our vocal warm-up exercises. “Tra-a-vi-a-a-a-ta.” Perhaps “Do-o-le-ro-o-o-so.” Even “Icicles, and bicycles, and tricycles.”

Now comes the first flashback (something you can do best in a movie): the scene shifts back over fifty years as I recall a similar situation, one indelibly etched in my mind. A much larger group of basses and baritones, all high school students, the best available talent in the city, are gathered in a school room (forgive me if I cannot remember which high school in Manhattan it was). Harry Horowitz, seated at a piano, is having us do some similar exercises before we start rehearsing our parts. We would spend months in working by ourselves before we were considered ready to join with the tenors, the altos, and the sopranos – the latter group under the tutelage of Peter J. Wilhousky, the former chorus master for Arturo Toscanini. It was fairly obvious to my impressionable ears that the music we were singing was a lot more complex than the arrangements that Mr. Dycke, the music teacher at DeWitt Clinton H.S., was giving us to sing for the senior chorus there. With both groups, we spent many months learning our parts and getting ready for the one big night, whether it be the yearly H.S. graduation exercises held in the Dewitt Clinton auditorium or the annual concert in Carnegie Hall, which was performed in conjunction with the All-City H.S. Orchestra.

And that was the last time I did vocal exercises and that was the last time I ever wrestled with a vocal score, I thought to myself, as I opened up the score with chorus parts which Paul was handing out – wrenching me out of my reverie and into the stern reality of the moment. We were now on page fifty three, “When thoroughly tired of being admired by ladies of gentle degree, degree; With flattery sated, high-flown and inflated, away from the city we flee, we flee….” And on each page there are notes, whole notes and quarter notes, high notes and low notes. And key signatures, and a treble clef along with a bass clef. Sharps and flats and rests and repeat signs. They stare back at me from the printed page in silent reproach: “Don’t you remember us after all these years; don’t you remember what we stand for?”

Now comes another flashback, to the music room in J.H.S. 80 in The Bronx, where an even younger me was wrestling with a clarinet in the school orchestra. I certainly knew how to read music then; my problem was manipulating my short, stubby fingers around the keys of the beautiful instrument I was playing and getting my lips and jaw to make some semblance of the right notes. No easy task; which is why I wisely joined the chorus in high school, laying aside the clarinet on which our parents had spent their hard earned money.

Leaving aside our little film narrative for the time being, let me just say that I was a tad nervous the first few rehearsals. For one thing, there is safety in numbers. In my high school choruses, there were ten or more voices to a part. Easy to blend in. Here we had only three or four basses, baritones, first, and second tenors. If anybody hits a wrong note or comes in at the wrong time, it can easily throw the rest off. If you are the miscreant, it’s easier for Paul’s ever vigilant ear to detect it. Now Paul can sight-read, meaning that if you give him a piece of sheet music, he can sing it unaided. Most of us need a lot of help, which is why Paul would e-mail everyone in the chorus a recording of his or her part. Now I could sit and home and practice my part, using the score and the recording at the same time. “Act one, number 12 for the baritones: ‘When thoroughly tired of being admired by ladies of gentle degree, degree….’”

One more thing, under the rubric of the gentle ironies of life. Peter J. Wilhousky and his assistants were concerned only with the music, that we sang the right note at the right volume at the right time; our accent was whatever it was. Paul needed to instruct us on how to pronounce every word. I am from the Nawth Bronx, where the words ‘are’ and ‘ah’ are pronounced pretty much the same; and I have spent my whole life trying to mitigate my accent, probably a subset of a subset of a Bronx dialect. And along comes Paul Salter, “it’s not tirrrred, it’s tiyud, admiyud.” After some gentle prodding, I can pretty much get the pronunciation requiyud for Ruddigore. But poor Jerry, with a good strong voice – from California! “Jerry, it’s tiyud, not tirrrrrrrrrred.” How many times did we hear that one as the weeks went by.

After these first few rehearsals in which the men’s chorus practiced separately, it was time to meet the rest of the cast. Now the small space at Studio Indigo was overflowing with talented men and women. Everyone introduced him/herself, and if you knew most of the people already or were especially attentive and retentive, you could remember who everybody was. I can say that by the time we were ready to perform I got to know almost everybody, but it wasn’t easy.

With the addition of the sopranos and altos, things got more complex. Before, we were dealing with the sounds of two or four parts at a time. Once we added the females to the mix (they had also been rehearsing by themselves), there were a lot more notes being sung at any given moment. Now it really got hard to concentrate on singing your part with everything else going on. Just when you thought you had it made.

After a few weeks, Robert Binder returned to The Land and to the rehearsals; and things got even more interesting. From then on, we would not be merely singing, but acting as well. Oh, and moving around an as-of-yet imaginary stage. Entering and exiting. Gesturing and showing expression. In order to make it possible to do these things, we would have to memorize our parts. No more sitting on our duffs with our scores in front of us. That’s for wimps and chorale singers! You got two weeks to memorize your part. (No one said this would be easy.) At every rehearsal, Rob would add a new wrinkle, a new series of gestures, always trying to refine and improve his conception of how the show would look.

To get our attention and to help us get into the spirit of things, Rob asked each member of the chorus to submit a ‘bio’ for his/her character. I obliged with the following for my first act character, Cedric (Bilgie) Bilgewater, one of the young bucks coming down to the country to ogle the local lasses:
Cedrick (Bilgie) Bilgewater, second son of Lord Cecil and Lady Agatha Bilgewater of Staffordshire. Educated at Malverne House Preparatory School and Magdalen College, Oxford. Member, The Drones Club. Occupation: Gentleman and Socialite. Activities: Assisting chums in distress and avoiding matrimony. Keen on golf and cricket.

Now you may consider this exercise somewhat over the top, but you would be underestimating Rob’s sense of theater.. What he tries to do is to make every member of the cast understand that we are not just anonymous persons out there to sing and walk around and look pretty (hey, I can do that!), but that we are playing a role and reacting on stage – maybe not as big a role as the principles, but a role nonetheless. This ability to create a character served me well in the following situation: It was late, almost quitting time at a particular rehearsal (these were scheduled from 7:30 to 10PM) and everyone was understandably tired. Rob wanted to start one new item, the short gavotte in Act 1. The first thing was to announce the pairs. First would be the two leads, Aviella and Mory; next, Fred and Yael, then………. I was too tired and intimidated to protest, “I can’t dance. I never suggested in any way that I could.” But as I thought about it later, I realized “I’m not going to be up there dancing, ‘Bilgie’ is. He loves to dance.” Whew, thank G-d for Bilgie, a capital fellow (and incidentally, a chum of Bertie Wooster, even though he had the sense never to make it into any of the P.G. Wodehouse stories). This attitude served me well in another capacity, as you will soon see.

Somewhere around this time, our rehearsal space was moved several blocks away to the central building for Melabev, a wonderful organization that works with frail seniors. Here we had more room to work, making the constant movement required a more reasonable possibility. Up until now, those of us in the men’s chorus had only seen bits and pieces of the production and had no idea what this musical play was about (some of us still don’t!). All we had seen, truth to tell, were the parts we were involved in. Now we could begin seeing the production come together.

How do you put on something like Ruddigore? How do you do anything? You start at the beginning and work your way to the end – more or less like what I’m doing with this article. Sometimes that approach doesn’t work. If you’re making a film, for example, you shoot all the scenes in a given outdoor location at one time, regardless of their contiguity in the final version because no one is bringing cast and crew back to Morocco three times. In our situation, you would want to work privately with the principals, going over their solos and duets – whether in Acts I or II – as much as possible not to waste anyone else’s time. Only after a while do you start putting everything together – like a musical minestrone. And so standing around the hot water urn or sitting on chairs around the periphery, listening to the other performers do their parts, we could begin to understand what our ‘product’ was supposed to be: the genius of G& S’s original conception, the splendid work of our cast, and the sophistication of Rob Binder’s realization.

I had expected to have to sing a lot and emote a little when I auditioned, and I soon realized that I would have to prance around a bit, but helping with the sets? I have always admonished friends and acquaintances that “you don’t want me walking around your place of residence with a screwdriver.” Barbara can attest that, in general, that’s good advice – which is why in our house, she’s the one wielding the tool du jour, and I’m the one in the kitchen with a spatula in my hand. But there was a general appeal for help creating the sets, so I headed over on a Friday morning to the small theater in the center of town where the work would take place over the next two months. Maybe there was something I could do to be useful – at least not get in the way. Anyway, if I could dance my way through Ruddigore, I could paint my way as well.

Understand that what the Encore Theatre company does is what I imagine small theatrical groups around the world do: recycle the sets. In theory, Judd Fry’s shed in Oklahoma could be a peddler’s stall in Fiddler, which could be the Mug ‘N David tavern in Ruddigore (I am in no way responsible for that title). So the first thing to do is obliterate any indication of prior use. Take all these enormous panels and paint them black. Even I can slap black paint on a board so that from a distance it looks OK. That was day one. The following week, I was engaged in taking pieces of cloth, dipping them in paste, and stapling this disgusting mess to the bottom of other panels on wheels. The third week, I came into my own. They needed someone to trace the outline of a design onto a bunch of knocked down cartons and then cut out the shapes. Magic marker and box cutter in hand (for reasons I do not understand, this American tool has been renamed here a sakin yapani [a Japanese knife]), I began the job. Others did too, but only I remained steadfast and loyal, spending several weeks hacking away at various thickness of cardboard. Not for me to reason why, Roxanne (the very talented set designer) soon will clarify………. But that we will leave for the next and final episode.

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.