Month: June 2011

Fiddle-dee-dee

This summer marks the fifteenth anniversary of my association with Morehead Theatre Guild’s production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Tom Musgrave as Motel the Tailor, ca. 1996. I know. The camera adds about 10 pounds...and chiseled features and overall sex appeal.

I have never forgotten the experience, but I had lost track of the years until the recent addition of a Facebook friend who had been in the cast, too.

For me the experience was significant because it was my first — and I think only — experience on the musical theatre stage.

It wasn’t my first go-around in musical theatre though. I’d been in a handful of pit orchestras for Morehead State theatre department productions prior to Fiddler: The Apple Tree, Cinderella, Into the Woods, Bye, Bye Birdie. Birdie was probably the most fun because in addition to playing in the pit. But it really wasn’t a pit because we were about 15 feet above the stage on a platform built inside a giant jukebox the set crew had constructed. It was genius. It also was the last time I’ll ever play anything sitting 15 feet above a stage on a platform built by college kids. But that was long ago when I was much braver than I am now.

In Fiddler I graduated from the pit to the stage. It was not the route I intended. When I contacted one of the directors, Octavia Fleck, I did so to express interest in directing the pit orchestra. I say this partly to tell a story, but also to let people know that at one point in my life I was actually a decent musician. To paraphrase one of my favorite musical satirists, I don’t want people to get the idea I have to do journalism for a living. I could be making tens of dollars a week singing “Volare” on the nursing home circuit.

Octavia kindly let me know her husband at the time, John, would be directing the orchestra, but asked if I’d be interested in auditioning for a part. I hadn’t thought about it, but figured, what the hey. I already had planned on being on campus for summer school. So I went to the audition. I sang and I read a few scenes. Some time later Octavia let me know I had landed the role of Motel the Tailor.

True Fact! Motel the Tailor had been played on Broadway by the late Bert Convy. I’m available if anyone’s interested in a “Win, Lose or Draw” revival.

Fiddler was great fun. A lot of what I learned during that production I still find myself referring to when I’m viewing other stage work with a critical eye. I cringe when I see an actor turn their back to the audience, especially when speaking. Consequently, I don’t feel like such an idiot when interviewing theatre-types for arts stories. I think I could actually do this for a living.

In the story, Motel courts and marries Tzeitel in a wedding Tzeremony that gets trashed by Russian soldiers at the end of the first act. In our production, Tzeitel was played by the lovely and talented Janean Freeman. Janean was the classical music host on our public radio station, WMKY and although she’d probably never admit it, males ages 25 to 40 seemed more interested in classical music during her tenure at the station.

Janean was fun to play off of because she was so good and managed not to take herself so seriously. During the wedding ceremony scene, we’d have to appear as though we were repeating vows from the Rabbi. We actually were filling in with nonsense, like lines from Monty Python sketches, just to make things more interesting. This was a woman who, the summer prior, played Maria in the Guild’s production of The Sound of Music, and even though I think that particular musical is a steaming pile of saccharine-laced cow flop, she performed beautifully, making that theatrical death march just a little more endurable.

I never have returned to the stage since then; not in a theatrical production anyway. I’ve threatened to. There are roles I’d love to play if ever given the opportunity: Leo Bloom in “The Producers,” Nathan Detroit in “Guys and Dolls,” Abigail Adams in “1776.” I’ve also been cooking up an idea for my own production called Scathing Revue, which is basically a collection of some of the most naughty, irreverent and fun tunes from comic opera and musical theatre. Think of anything from Gilbert and Sullivan to Mel Brooks. Booze would be sold during the show to pay the royalties for all the songs because of the stupid copyright laws. Who knew composers liked to be paid? So, set ’em up, Joe.

And there goes a quarter to the estates of Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. Already, I’m in the hole.

I also have been tossing an idea around for a spinoff musical based on one of the descendants of Motel the tailor. It would be set in the 22nd century and revolve around the life of Motel’s great-great-great grandson, also named Motel. In post apocalyptic New York he has tossed aside his family’s tradition of creating high fashion in favor of reviving the long dead tradition of economy lodging along major U.S. highways. The title of the musical?

Motel VI.

For those of you that hung in there until the punchline, you’re welcome.

To the [insert name of high school here] Class of 2011

I was going to write about the practice at Scott County High School, and other high schools, of awarding a bajillion valedictorian honors to its graduating seniors, but I think I can sum up my thoughts on the matter pretty succinctly: SCHS please grow a pair. This is not T-ball where we don’t keep score and everyone gets a trophy. This is dress rehearsal for life. Just like in the Final Four, Highlander and job interviews, in the end there can be only one.

And now for something somewhat related …

I didn’t get to give the commencement address at my high school. We did it by vote, so the speakers were selected by their mass appeal as opposed to their ability to string together a cogent series of thoughts. On the whole, thought, I was not disappointed. Nor was I inspired to greatness, otherwise I might have chosen a more lucrative career than journalism, mightn’t I?

Still, I always felt robbed of the opportunity to rain down a veritable weak mist of wisdom upon my fellow graduates. Twenty years later, lo and behold, the Internet has given voice to millions who otherwise never should have been given such a public forum, even in a free and open society. Never. Ever.

Except for me. My intrepid blog and I will function as a virtual guest commencement speaker.* This bit of prose is intended not only to rectify my rather deplorable omission from the graduation dais, but it might also bring some sense of hope to the class of 2011, wherever they might be.

But mostly, this is just for me.

Without further a-doo-be-doo-be-doo …

Faculty, staff, administrators, former lovers and, of course, graduates, I am honored to stand here before you donned in this unseemly gown, cardboard hat, and cheap clip-on tie. And if anyone in the front row is going commando underneath, please refrain from crossing your legs until after the ceremony.

If there was only one piece of advice I could give you, it would be this: stop texting, put down the mobile phone and for the love of God be interesting.

Be interesting to your fellow human beings: friends, coworkers, sexual partners. You have been raised in the age of the Internet. Your teachers, muttering the rallying cry of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” incorporated those abominable devices into their lesson plans with the intent of making education “hip” or “relevant” to your generation, but they have really turned you into “zombies,” or worse “social eunuchs” (the rest of you can take a moment to look it up).

A long time ago, in a high school one county away, if you were, say, socially awkward around females, a bit gangly, had an unusually long neck and an abnormally high forehead, you made up for those physical deficiencies with something I like to call “personality.” As in: “He’s not much to look at, but he’s got a good personality.” If you were an insufferable band geek, you went to Personality Graduate School and received your “sense of humor.”** Armed with a “good personality” and a “sense of humor,” most guys and gals could, one day (if they really put their shoulders to it), score.

What? You were expecting me to say meet and fall in love with the man/woman of your dreams and spend the rest of your lives together? No. That’s much too advanced right now. Truth be told, getting each other into bed at this point is probably a non-starter, even with “personality” and “a sense of humor.”

Still, scoring is not the goal of developing your “personality” and “sense of humor.” But I believe you have an obligation to be interesting to someone else, because that’s in such short supply in your generation, I’m afraid. In my professional life I can count on one hand (possibly two, but definitely not three) the number of honest-to-God young people I would sit down and have a second conversation with. And I know I just ended a sentence with a preposition, but we’re moving on. Or on we’re moving.

One hand. That’s five fingers: the number of high school kids who intrigued me even a little bit; who gave more than a “yes” or “no” answer to a question. And I meet a lot of young people in this line of work (journalism, in case you didn’t read the bio in your program). I don’t meet them in the creepy “Oh, my God! What’s Chris Hanson doing here?” sense, but rather in the course of writing stories or just out and about.

Just as scoring should not be the goal in the development of “personality” and “a sense of humor,” impressing me should also not be your goal (although you are welcome to try). It should be about successful non-horizontal social interaction. And I recommend the non-horizontal version before advancing to the bonus round. Believe me, you’re gonna want to have some good conversation skills to fall back on after that first time. Otherwise, those awkward moments are just filled with a lot of crying (and possibly some pointing and laughing).

So, to recap. Put down the iPod, cell phone, Gameboy, or whatever the hell else you kids are holding in your hands to substitute for real life. Put them down and engage. Let us see that there is a human being behind those glazed over Borg-like eyes. Rejoin the human race. You won’t get rich by doing it, but you will — I hope — make someone else’s experience richer merely by your presence.

Oh, and don’t do drugs. Or at least don’t do the ones your parents were doing when you were conceived.

And wear a condom. Always. Even if you’re a chick.

Thank you, and good night.

* Now taking advance booking for the 2012 graduation season. Cash only, please.

** I am not talking about myself. Seriously. Why would you think that?