“They want me to sing about guacamole!” I whined to Jonny. Jonny sat up at his desk and turned his swiveling chair to face me. He looked incredulous. “What?!” He asked. Jonny was a senior and my direct superior in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts’ work study program. “Yes.” I answered. “Things In Guacamole from Finnegan’s Rainbow.”
Jonny rolled his eyes. “How Are Things In Glocca Morra.” He said “From Finian’s Rainbow.” ”Whatever.” I replied. “I don’t know it but I have to have the music by Wednesday.” “No problem.” said Jonny picking up the phone. “I’ll have someone from the library bring you the tape and the sheet music.”
I was pouting because only a week before Jonny had begged me to participate in the Academy’s first ever visiting instructor musical theater workshop. “Hardly anybody has signed up.” He lamented. “The instructor is Mary Alice! She’s one of the best musical theater coaches in New York!” I shrugged. I had no clue who Mary Alice was nor did I have much interest in Broadway musicals. Needing to “pad the house” so to speak, Jonny insisted that I sign up for the workshop. “If we don’t get enough people she’ll never come back.” he told me.
Jonny brought up the fact that I had been complaining about my vocal production class (the Academy’s required singing course) for weeks. “You hate to sing.” He added. “This workshop will help you.” I declined. How could someone with my singing discomfort be helped by “one of the best musical theater coaches in New York”?
The registration deadline passed and Jonny finally convinced me to sign up for it. He sweetened the pot by waiving the fee and reminding me that every single acting teacher at the Academy consistently told us to get out of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves.
I walked into that first workshop cursing Jonny and clutching my sheet music so hard I thought it would rip. It was time to meet Mary Alice. She was a petite middle aged spitfire who really knew her stuff. She was gracious but I could tell she was going to be tough.
“Our accompanist can play anything.” she told us that first day. “He’s brilliant! Been playing a long time!” Accompanist? What accompanist? There did not seem to be anybody at the piano. I looked closer and then I saw him. An ancient man sat stooped over the keys. He looked as if he were about to fall off the bench and drop dead at any second. But Miss Mary Alice was right. He played beautifully with exquisite skill.
When it came my turn Mary Alice asked what I would be singing. I only knew one song. The one I had been working on all semester in vocal production class. “Many A New Day” from Oklahoma. “Well ok then.” said Mary Alice sharply. “Get to it!”
I set my music in front of the ancient accompanist. Maybe he would collapse right then and there thus canceling my musical workshop singing debut. No such luck. He started playing. My throat closed up. The words stopped in my mouth. I lost my breath.
Mary Alice, not unkindly, ordered me to stop. She smiled. I guessed she was going to be sympathetic and allow me to skip the song. There was a pause. The smile remained. Then she said “Now get your shit together and start again.”
Startled, I choked out the song. “Do you know what acting motivation is?” Mary Alice asked me when I finished. “Of COURSE you do!” she answered for me. Mary Alice had a habit of emphatically answering her own questions. “Of COURSE you do!” she repeated. ” Your teachers tell me that you are an excellent actress. So listen…” And with that Mary Alice assigned a scene that preceded the song.
This was a revelation to me. What? You mean musical theater is just like non – musical theater?! Songs occur before and after stuff?! Like monologues? She also added a motivation to the song. Motivation too?! Another revelation. “Now Go!” she ordered. With a flick of her hand she signaled the pianist to begin playing.
I sang and she clasped her hands together delighted. “Wonderful!” she exclaimed. “But I’m taking that song away from you. It’s too generic. ” she sniffed. “Too vanilla. Too mid-range for you.” My heart sank. She couldn’t take away the only Broadway song I know. She thought for a moment then told me the title of a song that I had never heard. “You can hit that high A, right?” “Um…” “Of COURSE you can! You’re a soprano! And one more; ‘How Are Things In Glocca Morra’ from “Finian’s Rainbow’, that’ll be a great song for you. Ok, goodbye. See you next week with those two new songs.”
I was glad to see the antiquated accompanist survived the week and was able to resume his place crouched over the keys for the next workshop. Or maybe he hadn’t moved at all and had been sitting there for the last 7 days. He looked far too frail to get up and walk. In fact I don’t think I ever saw him move from the piano bench.
“Let’s hear Glocca Morra!” Mary Alice commanded. I placed the sheet music down in front of our 100 year old accompanist but he surprised me by not playing right away. He peered at the music for a few seconds then pulled a pen out of his shirt pocket. He started writing on the music! “They left out some notes here.” He explained. “See?” He played the newly added notes. “It’s kind of a trill. Still within your tessitura.” My whatty what what? Should a man his age even be discussing a woman’s tessitura?
I asked him how he knew about the added notes. “I was the rehearsal pianist for the show.” he explained. The show? What show? “Finian’s Rainbow” he said. “When it was on Broadway.” When it was on Broadway?! Oh geez, no pressure there.
Mary Alice was tired of this time wasting. “Start singing!” She ordered. Once again I fearfully coughed up a song. It didn’t help that I was singing it in front of the musician who heard it sung by the original actress. I bet SHE didn’t call it guacamole.
Mary Alice sighed, then spoke. “This is a song about homesickness. Where are you from?” “Erie, Pennsylvania” I answered. “ERIE!” she burst out joyfully. “I’ve been there! That beautiful lake! That magnificent sunset! You must miss it terribly. Am I right?” “Um…” “Of COURSE you do! Now think of the last time you saw Lake Erie.”
I didn’t think that this would be the right time to tell her that my last view of Lake Erie and that magnificent sunset included a bloated dead cow that had washed ashore some days previously.
“Sing about how much you miss that lovely lake.” Mary Alice said. “Sing about how much you miss your home.”
I thought about the lake sans the dead cow. Maybe it was beautiful. Maybe I did kind of miss it. I mean Lake Erie doesn’t always have dead cows along it’s shoreline. (Although more frequently than you’d think unfortunately. But dead cows are a subject for country songs not Broadway tunes) Maybe I really could infuse homesickness into the song and make it work. Acting and singing? Together?
Somehow I managed to marry those two concepts that day in Mary Alice’s workshop. The song worked. Mary Alice was happy. I was happy.
The workshop continued for five more classes. I even miraculously hit that high A. And all these years later I sometimes see a willow tree and the Glocca Morra melody just starts flowing through my head. So I glace around to see if anyone is nearby. And if the coast is clear I start to sing.