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Go on and take a bow

September 12, 2009

“Well, how about a round of applause,
Standing ovation…”

I’ve had this song stuck in my head all morning. It’s not a great song. It’s not even a good song. Most alarmingly, it’s a song by Rihanna, who is most definitively a performer whose marketing stays firmly outside my demographic. My nieces listen to Rihanna. I do not listen to Rihanna. This song is totally not my style. So why is it stuck in my head?

I went to find the song online this morning and discovered I still don’t like Rihanna. Who I like is Lea Michele, who sang this song in the season premiere, the second episode, of Glee, which I watched last night on my computer, tucked up in bed next to a sleeping Mr. Spy, my headphones in. Because this is what happens sometimes when you’re old, married insomniacs in the twenty-first century. I watched some of it twice.

“Now it’s time to go,
Curtain’s finally closing…”

I don’t watch a lot of TV. It’s not for lack of trying, just for lack of interest. There hasn’t been much I’ve wanted to watch in a long time. I don’t like reality shows. Reality is the last thing I’m looking for when I turn on the TV. I like a plot. The last show I followed regularly, Veronica Mars, was cancelled years ago. But I knew that Glee was going to hook me before I even saw the pilot last spring. It’s a show about a world I inhabited for a long time. It’s a show about choir and show tune nerds.

I auditioned for my first musical in sixth grade. I was living in London and my school (middle and high school) was putting on a production of The King and I. I had seen my friend Danny, the one with the red hair who could belly dance like that sailor in South Pacific, perform in Annie Get Your Gun the year before and I thought it looked like fun. By that point I’d been playing violin for three years and studying ballet for seven. And while I hadn’t done much singing, I always got handed solos in music class recitals. I got the role of one of the children of the King. I had a couple of speaking lines and I got to sing some choruses. I was thrilled. The next day I had to tell them I couldn’t do it. We’d just found out we were moving again. I would be gone before the performance went up.

Back in the states for the last two months of sixth grade, I got thrown into a musical in which everyone in the sixth grade took part, a production of America: Of Thee We Sing that we put on for the parents. They found out I could sing and read music and gave me a solo in which I rattled off a list of Industrial Revolution era inventors and their inventions while wearing a pioneer sunbonnet. This did not make me especially popular with anyone but my mother (nor did my English accent). But I loved it anyway.

In seventh grade, I went to a different school, the local junior high. The junior high had a drama club. And choirs. And they put on a musical every year. I joined the Serendipity Singers, an honors choir that practiced before school under the direction of a conductor who was completely tone deaf. We performed a lot of medleys: Beatles tunes (Fool on the Hill, Penny Lane, Sgt. Pepper), Beegees tunes (How deep is your love?), Pippin (Corner of the Sky), and Muppets (The Rainbow Connection). There were a lot of jazz hands. In my spare time, I crooned to my hairbrush in front of the bathroom mirror.

In drama club, I played the men’s roles that no one else wanted because only one boy was brave enough to join the drama club. And then one day the English teacher who directed it gave me a starring role as a blind woman in a one act. I won it because I tried to look blind with my eyes open, because I’d read that those who were blind from birth had open eyes. Everyone else closed their eyes and came close to teetering off the old wooden stage of the school auditorium. I got to wear support knee-highs and carry a cane. After Christmas break, the audition notices went up for the school musical: Bye, Bye Birdie. I got cast as random screaming, fainting teenager. I wore a circle skirt and a white blouse with a Peter Pan collar and a pink shrug embroidered with roses that had been my mother’s. Because I could dance, I got put in lead positions in some of the dance scenes. I practiced every night in my bedroom so I wouldn’t forget my steps.

I spent nearly every afternoon that spring sitting in the back of the auditorium waiting for someone to need me. I developed a crush on the boy who played Albert, the geeky male lead. He was a year older than me and lived a couple of blocks down the street. We worked on the school paper together, but he hadn’t impressed me there before. There he was competition. I wanted desperately to be taken seriously on a paper where I was the only girl who didn’t write a gossip column. He was tall and skinny with reddish brown hair and bore a slight resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman, but I didn’t care. He was hilarious and talked as fast as I did and I was fascinated by his Adam’s Apple.

The next year we did The Music Man and my crush played Harold Hill, while I had a dance solo in the Marian the Librarian scene. I spent a lot more time on stage, but still had no lines. On opening night, my crush grabbed me a kissed me right before he made his first entrance and I almost missed my first cue. At the cast party, our director, a classic female drama teacher who did a lot of emoting, showed a video from that performance. Everyone could see that my cheeks were still red when I walked on stage. But by that point, I didn’t care. I was sitting next to my crush. Well, almost next to him.

The summer after 8th grade, I was supposed to go to an orchestra music camp. But they didn’t get enough people to run the program, so instead, they put me in swing choir. I was by far the youngest in the choir. The rest of them were all juniors and seniors in high school. They treated me like the mascot. We sang a lot of medleys there too. But I got to sing a solo on Hi-Lili-hi-lo and I got to do a lot of twirling in dance skirts and shoes.

In 9th grade, my mom made me stop with the musicals. I was taking violin lessons twice a week and playing in three orchestras and editing the school paper. She thought I had too much to do, and she was probably right. But I was heartbroken. I didn’t even go to the school musical that year. But I knew it wasn’t really my thing. It was a diversion, a way of working out the way from childhood to adulthood, of trying things on for size without much of a commitment, about a safe place to be emotional without having to follow it up with real feelings that I didn’t yet fully understand.

In tenth grade, I moved up to the high school and didn’t think about singing or musicals until spring. I played violin every chance I got, was a principal in the school orchestra, and spent all study halls and pep rallies practicing in the music wing and hanging out with other music geeks. In the spring, though, my orchestra conductor asked if I’d be in the orchestra for the spring musical. They were doing Cabaret and the orchestra had to be on stage and in costume. And guess who was playing the emcee?

Of course I said yes. The musical director for the show was a young music teacher from a neighboring town. After rehearsals, the orchestra would pile in the back of his pickup truck and we’d drive to the Howard Johnson’s near the highway for ice cream. We’d duck down every time we thought we saw a police car, in case he busted us for riding in the flatbed. After a while, my crush started tagging along with us. We stayed out late and did everything together for weeks. It was the most fun I’d had in a show ever.

And then I moved again. And again. And that was it for me and musicals until I graduated from college, when I found myself playing in a pit orchestras for a summer stock company doing what we called “guerrilla theater” — 9 shows in 10 weeks, fully staged, choreographed and costumed. We lived in an old in on Cape Cod, rehearsed every morning , went to the beach every afternoon, and played shows at night. It was a blast and I’d do it again in a heartbeat, if only I could.

Since then, I’ve kept singing and playing (dancing only in the privacy of my own bathroom) but my repertoire has veered more solidly into serious classical music (except for the occasionally foray into conducting Gilbert & Sullivan), and there it has stayed. But I still have a soft spot in my heart for the all-in, sing-your-heart-out musical performance. I have whole shows memorized by heart.

The premise on which Glee is based, that high school performers are acting out their lives, is not just metaphor. Getting up on a stage doing something ridiculous in front of your friends and enemies is vulnerable and passionate and ill-advised and necessary. It’s something so tied up for me with being young. Watching Glee is familiar and somehow both comfortable and excruciating. It’s a lot easier to laugh at it when it’s somebody else. Also, Glee is hilarious, especially Jane Lynch who plays a sadistic cheerleading coach who, in the pilot screams through a megaphone after a nearly perfect routine, “You think that’s hard? Try waterboarding. That’s hard.” But I remember back then thinking how incredibly high the highs were, and how low the lows. It was exhausting being 12 or 14 or 16. But I thought the lows were a fair price to pay for the highs. I lived for the highs. And, so far, at least, Glee gets that too, without getting bogged down in earnestness.

But the best thing about Glee is the music, which is tremendous, from the flashy production numbers, to the a cappella interstitial music by the Swingle Singers. Lea Michele, who plays the character of Rachel, has a terrific voice. It is she who sings Rihanna’s “Take a Bow,” and it is her version that I’ve got stuck in my head this morning. It’s still not a very good song, but I love the way she sings it and I’ll keep watching to hear her sing more.

Years after leaving my own career in swing choirs and musicals behind, when I was in my second year of grad school, I was on a tour of the east coast with a choir. We made a stop in New York City, where we had some free time. I got off the bus at Port Authority and strode off on my own. I was heading up to the Upper West Side to break things off with an on-again/off-again boyfriend I’d met in France (he seduced me by singing plainchant in my ear on a train to Paris) a year earlier. I was focused on my mission, but out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a guy walking toward me who looked a little familiar, although I couldn’t quite place him. As we passed each other, we both stopped and looked back and realized that we knew each other. He was my childhood crush, the musical lead in all those plays. It had been more than ten years since I’d seen him. We irritated a lot of busy pedestrians by stopping in the middle of the road to hug and talk. I was still in music. He was still in theater, although neither of us was in the performing end of the business anymore. “Do you remember…?” “Yes, and then…” “Where are you…?” “Really?” “What if we had…?” But the moment had passed. We had our first and last dance on a sidewalk in the middle of Manhattan and for just a minute we were 12 and 13 again and singing our hearts out on the biggest stage in the world before continuing in our opposite directions.

I don’t remember much about the breakup with the guy I ran off to meet, other than that it took place in a sushi restaurant with wall-to-wall aquariums, which seemed cruel. It was a foregone conclusion anyway. But I remember that dance on the street. It was the last time I saw him.

“That was quite a show
Very entertaining…”

Listening to “Take a Bow” through headphones this afternoon, it takes me back where I cared a little too deeply about everything I did. And I realized that’s why this song is stuck in my head. Because with age comes perspective. And while perspective is good for most things, it is not always good to blind passion. No one knows passion like a teenager. Sometimes it’s good to remember what that kind of passion feels like.

[You can see Rihanna’s version here]

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2009 9:55 am

    I recorded Glee but haven’t had a chance to watch it. Though you’ve excited me about it.

    PS: The Music Man is my favorite musical, and probably movie, of all time.

    PPS: Gotta find my cor-or-ner of the sky! (aaayy!)

  2. Peppypilotgirl permalink
    September 12, 2009 9:55 am

    Like you, I don’t watch much TV; it’s just not worth it. I stopped when we cancelled “real” cable 4 years ago and I could no longer watch Stargate so I haven’t seen Glee. This post, though, hits a little too close to home. I’m surprised to find how brutally clearly I remember the angst, the intense desire to actually get a speaking role or solo or to have my crush notice me. How wild that you should actually have run into yours in NY all those years later. Sometimes, honestly, I think *your* life should be made into the TV show. *That*, I’d watch.

  3. September 12, 2009 10:56 am

    Holly, the Music Man is a huge favorite of mine as well. Peppy, Glee is on network (Fox) and you can watch it online at http://www.fox.com/fod/play.php?sh=glee . Both episodes that have aired so far (the pilot first shown last spring and the premiere showed this past week are up. You can also find them on hulu.com.

  4. September 12, 2009 10:49 pm

    It is so weird you should write about this song. I had a student bring the sheet music to me last year because she wanted to learn it. It’s a terrible song, but it was a good learning experience, working out the syncopated rhythms that are so easy to intuit and so hard to get off the page. If it hadn’t been for this girl, an overweight lesbian to whom the song spoke volumes, I would never have heard of it, or its composer.

  5. September 13, 2009 8:02 am

    It is a terrible song (although the tune is pretty). But it’s less terrible for an adolescent than for an adult. That, too, is part of why Lea Michelle’s performance as a high school student is to me more palatable than Rihanna’s music video. It seems extra trite when Rihanna sings it.

  6. September 13, 2009 8:36 pm

    Well, if I can pick my time (with the online tv shows), your essay has convinced me to watch at least one episode of Glee!

  7. September 14, 2009 1:43 pm

    I think I need to watch this. I dabbled – I played in the pit band for several shows (Gypsy and Cabaret come to mind).

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