My generation, the oft-forgotten Xers, grew up with vinyl albums. I had a small collection when I was a little girl: the soundtrack to The Sound of Music, Barbra Joan Streisand, Barbra Live in Concert at the Forum, and the original concept album of Jesus Christ Superstar. Unusual for a six year old, I admit.
While visiting NYC in 2008, I saw this revival of Gypsy with my son on a day when Ms. LuPone had to perform in her house slippers due to a foot injury. Even in her fuzzies, she brought the house down as beleaguered Mama Rose. My son bought me this record, I love to sit and listen on the leather recliner when my husband isn’t home.
Music is an enchantment. Story is great magic. Solitude is a gift. And the love of my son is priceless.
This week, I began my journey to Golden Pond. I had seen the audition dates months ago, and in a rare case of wanting to do a show badly enough to make sure I remembered the dates, I put the audition dates on my calendar. Circumstances out of my control took me out of town on the weekend of the audition dates, so I told myself that I clearly was not meant to do the show, that I had never worked with this director, so he probably wouldn’t cast me anyway, that my high school reunion conflicted with one of the show dates so I would just go to my reunion instead, that the 45 minute drive to the theatre was too much trouble.
Then I found out auditions had been postponed for a week.
I spent several days reciting all the reasons above and skipped the first night of auditions. On Monday, I posted on Facebook about my struggle and asked for advice: audition or high school reunion? The overwhelming response was “Audition!” So I did. Most of my friends are theatre folks, they totally get how doing a show can trump just about anything, and my high school and college friends know that I have always been a performer first, so they probably weren’t too surprised!
Auditions are hard for me. I don’t get stage fright on opening night, but at auditions I can barely breathe and I keep having to dash to the ladies’ room. Auditions are scary because you’re being judged, you may not have seen the script, you’re sometimes partnered with folks who are not helping you be your best, and if it’s an open audition, everybody there is watching.
But I did pretty well, I thought. I remembered my Shurtleff guideposts, thought through the relationship/objective/obstacle/tactic mantra, and tried to use the breath like my teacher said to. If I ever felt disconnected from the character, Chelsea, I just visualized my mom. That did the trick.
On Tuesday, I tried not to strain to hear the ring of my phone. It didn’t ring the entire day at work, nor on the drive home. When it finally did ring, I missed the call! I called the stage manager back, and she asked if I could come for a call back.
Last night’s call back was nerve wracking: me and one other lovely lady, both reading with the actress who had been cast as Ethel, the mother. My competition was pretty, tall and willowy with a sharp pixie cut and a cute dress. I recited my mantra while she did her reading, then went on stage.
Magic happens on stage. True magic. If you’re an actor, you know that sensation. Suddenly, the story takes over. If it’s a good script, the playwright’s words dig deep and a well of emotion springs forth. Sometimes laughter, sometimes tears. If you’re lucky enough to be on stage with actors who know how to connect with their scene partners, it’s exhilarating. I was lucky.
Last night, after I got the call that I had been cast, I got a Facebook message from my stage father saying he was looking forward to the show. He and I used to work together teaching theatre, and it was a rough relationship. I am both excited and nervous about that- this play may be instrumental in closing that chapter.And I just got off the phone with my stage mommy, a local actress I have wanted to share the stage with for quite some time. She wanted to let me know how excited she is that we are going to be working together. It’s always nice to work with folks who are giving.
I am looking forward to working on this script. My relationship with my own father was not fraught with the antagonism and misunderstandings that Norman and Chelsea face. But my mother’s relationship with her own father was. She was ever the little girl, trying to be pretty and thin enough to please him, still chasing softballs to earn his praise until she just couldn’t physically play any more. I think this play will help me get into my poor, damaged, addicted, deceased mom’s head and heart just a little.
I bet I’ll cry more than once. And I think I will learn something about myself. I think Ethel’s words to embittered Chelsea will resonate deeply for me:
“Don’t you think that everyone looks back on their childhood with a certain amount of bitterness and regret about something? It doesn’t have to ruin your life.”
Plays can heal. Relationships can be mended. Hearts can be opened. Family can be made. Right, fellow Thayers and Thespians? I love what actress Juliet Binoche says about the power of theatre to create connections:”Choosing to be in the theatre was a way to put my roots down somewhere with other people. It was a way to choose a new family.”
What’s coming? I don’t know. Late rehearsals, exhaustion, sweat, tears, bright lights, these I know will happen. But there’s a whole world of exploration, revelation, and love to come.
Anyone out there seen the classic and hilarious film, “Waiting for Guffman?” It is the perfect spoof of the unique world of community theatre. Travel agents, a Dairy Queen cashier, and a dentist all come together to create a piece of performance art for the delight of local citizens. In community theatre, a bunch of oddballs can become minor celebrities, recognized at the Piggly Wiggly like local versions of Patti Lupone or Hugh Jackman.: “Didn’t I see you in…?” “Why, yes! yes, I did play Rosie in Bye, Bye, Birdie! It was so much fun, thank you for coming to support us!”
I love community theatre. It’s chock-a-block full of regular folks who love theatre, but for whatever reason, don’t make it a profession. For some (like me), marriage and stability were a better option than the gamble of New York, Chicago, or L.A. For others, they discover their creative side later in life and volunteering at their local community theatre is the most accessible route to artistic expression. For others, the community theatre becomes a surrogate family, a place to let your quirky imagination out to play without the judgement of straitlaced cubicle mates.
I have spent most of my adult life in rehearsal at the community theatre house for one musical or another. In my 30’s, I had the chance to play dream roles like Marian the Librarian, Sarah Brown, Julie Jordan, Nellie Forbush, and Annie Oakley. I have sung the great ballads, from “Moonshine Lullaby” (Annie Get Your Gun) to “How Could I Know” (Secret Garden). I’ve performed Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Berlin, and Sondheim.
Moving into my 40’s, the roles began to be harder to come by, though I have had the utter joy of playing The Chaperone (Drowsy Chaperone) and Joanne (Company). Community theatres like to play it safe. They have aging audiences, and they are afraid of alienating them. Chestnuts by Rodgers/Hammerstein or Lerner/Loewe are proven ticket sellers. I get that, I really do. But younger audiences (and by younger, I mean 55 on down- not exactly spring chickens) like to see shows written sometime after 1980. I know- it’s radical to imagine doing a show that’s got thirty years on it, instead of sixty!
Interesting roles for women in their 40’s and 50’s are being written. Roles full of interesting character, gripping dilemmas, heartache and humor, and problems that don’t always find resolution in a wedding march. Dammit, there are great roles in musical theatre for women who are somewhere between Laurie and Aunt Eller: no longer the ingenue, but not ready for the granny wig.
Of course, all musical theatre aficionados recognize Mama Rose, Miss Mona, Adelaide, and Miss Hannigan. Gypsy, Best Little Whorehouse, Guys and Dolls, and Annie are community theatre staples. Wonderful shows. Tried and true. Worn and exhausted, some might say. Cliche, even.
Hollywood has long had a problem with this, constantly forcing women in their 40’s to play the discarded wives, or heaven help us, the mothers to their forty-something male counterparts. But the stage has always been willing to take risks on women in their middle age, when their talent is ripe, their life experience rich, and their voice in its prime.
So as a forty-something actress/singer who longs to play great roles, maybe even alongside actresses in her own age bracket, I present the following list of musicals for the local community theatres to take a look at. They are great shows, they will sell tickets, they will capture new audiences, and they will excite your theatre ensembles. As an added bonus, they feature major roles for women in the middle:
Light in the Piazza: Margaret Johnson is a mother visiting Italy with her developmentally delayed daughter. Her marriage is dying as her daughter falls in love with a young Italian dreamer. The vocal score is exquisite, the emotional journey heart wrenching.
Kiss Me, Kate: Lilli Vanessi is an aging star. She gets to sing “I Hate Men” as Kate, and “So In Love” as Lilli. It’s Cole Porter and Shakespeare combined. The 1999 revival ran for two years and received numerous Tony nominations and several awards. It’s a crowd pleaser!
Mamma Mia has three (!!!) fantastic roles for women in their 40’s. They don’t have to be movie star gorgeous with size 2 figures! They still get to be fun and sexy! With a score built upon the songbook of Abba, it’s got a guaranteed fanbase.
Ragtime is just the most beautiful musical. And it’s got fantastic roles for all sorts: age, color, body type, vocal range; it’s all there. Including a plum role, Mother, a woman who discovers that her sheltered life is not fulfilling and takes the plunge into uncharted territory.
Nine to Five is not necessarily a masterpiece of the Broadway cannon, but with the popularity of the movie and name recognition among those over forty, its catchy numbers and physical comedy are sure to be popular.
Next to Normal’s Diana Goodman is bipolar. Not exactly the feel-good premise that community theatres often go for. But this story is contemporary, relevant, and resonant. The music, a rock score, reverberates long after the notes have faded. For a theatre that takes risks, this one is a powerful choice.
I did a little reading on roles for women over 40, here are a couple of articles/blogs I found that had good stuff to say: