I was a senior in highschool when I finally landed a decent part in our school’s annual musical. I wasn’t a true-blue drama geek, but I was interested. Acting seemed a lot more exciting a career path then say, engineering. I gamely went to auditions with my step-sister whose career ambitions included ‘Star-Search’ and whose voice could be described ‘operatic’. In contrast, I wasn’t really a singer in any sense of the word. Actually, I can sing decently, just not in front of an audience. My throat closes up and weird little bleeps and gurgles come issuing forth. So why was I trying out for a musical?
Why do teenagers do anything? It’s a mystery.
Freshman year I landed a bit part in West-Side Story which I quickly got bored with and dropped out. My parents bailed me out, writing Mrs. Adams, the drama coach, a letter that my grades were just too poor to continue. Maybe they thought there was hope for me yet as an engineer.
Sophomore year I tried out again, and again landed a non-entity part with maybe two words to my credit. Again, I dropped out, this time without explanation or excuse. I got chilly looks from some of the hard-core thespians. Don’t be fooled by their low ranking in the social hierarchy, geeks are cliquish. I shrugged it off and pursued soccer.
Junior year saw lots of changes in my highschool affairs. My tempestuous first love came to an end and I began to hang out with the stoners, not because of the recreational pharmaceuticals, but for a reason few people in history have ever sought contact with druggies: I enjoyed their company. I was all wretched and stuff from the heartbreak, and here was a group of people too high to get real personal. I’d found a sample of the male population content just to have me hang around and look pretty. I was rarely if ever hit-on. Stoners are much less sexually aggressive than jocks. I found a great deal of comfort amongst my doped up social network, and so, flanked by a precocious West-street dealer and a theatric little blonde I’d found dropping LSD at an October mixer, I auditioned for the school musical once again.
This time Mrs. Adams pulled me aside and we had a little talk.
“Alissa, I can’t give you a part in the play. You know I can’t give you a part, every time I give you a part you drop out on me.”
“Well, I try out for the real parts, and I always get these little dumb ones. I don’t want to sit at rehearsals for hours and hours when I don’t even have a line.”
“You can’t walk in here and expect a main part. Most of these kids have been in every production. They take small parts or big. They work-back stage. They pay their dues.”
I looked around dubiously. “These kids, you know, it’s not like they have anything else to go do at lunch time.”
Mrs. Adams gave me a long look. Her eyes stayed permanently crinkled at the edges, so it looked like she was always about to burst out laughing or crying. I expected a lecture, instead she said, “Do you actually know any of these kids? Have you ever sat down across from one of them and had a conversation?”
I back-pedalled. “I just mean, this is like their little world and there’s no room for anyone else. If you want new people to try out, you hafta give someone a chance besides the same old drama dudes.”
“I have been giving you a chance, you just keep dropping out. If you want a real part, you hafta pay your dues.”
“Oh, and Alissa? That guy Eric you brought just offered my assitant a joint. Could you get him out of my auditorium, please?”
I didn’t get offered a part in that production, but senior year, I decided to give drama a chance. I came out for all the minor productions offered in the fall and winter that lead up to the big spring musical. I patiently played the court page in ‘The Mouse that Roared’. I let myself get eaten in ‘Little Shop of Horrors’, and I took a back-stage role as a costume assistant in ‘The Tempest’, where I discovered a masculine guy looks just as masculine in or out of tights. I paid my dues with the grim determination of an obsessive-compulsive taking out the garbage. I was the best damn drama drudge in the history of… well… something impressive that has a four year history.
At last, the spring production rolled around, and with some trepidation I heard that the long awaited production of ‘Grease’ had been vetoed in favor of ‘Singing in the Rain’. This was bad, bad news. I was still fairly new among the thespians, and whereas ‘Grease’ featured five major female parts, ‘Singing in the Rain’ had only two: The romantic lead, and the humorous foil, Lina Lamont.
Sara Malakowski was a fait accompli for the romantic lead. We were both seniors, but Sara had a voice like an angel, a face like a runway model, and the moral righteousness of Mother Theresa. She came from a family of radical christians, and it was rumored the change of production was due directly to Sara’s family taking objection to the sexual innuendo in ‘Grease’. With one of the parts spoken for, the outlook was dim.
It was about this time that the drama coach fell prey to lymph node cancer, an insidious form of the ravaging disease. The probability of there even being a Spring Musical became tentative. The drama department fell apart at the news of Mrs. Adam’s illness. She was their hero, their queen, their diction coach. Many made vehement declarations that they would not participate in a musical out of respect. I replied to such statements, not cruelly but concisely with, “The show must go on.” (I’d paid my dues, man) After a time Mrs. Adams called in a favor, and a middle-aged transplant from Chicago arrived to take the helm for this one, shining production.
His name was Steve. Steve was a failed actor, who had dabbled off broadway and never made it in a major way. His skills were astounding. He ruined a lot of young actor’s lives because we quickly realized that if Steve couldn’t make it in New York, there wasn’t a mermaid’s chance in hell that any of the rest of us would. Steve took control of auditions and ran them like a pro. I came out for the romantic lead, which was a singing audition, and Steve politely studied the script while I stood there, making noises that were very much not like singing.
“Are you only interested in the part of Kathy?” Steve asked me.
“Would you like to try out for Lina?”
“Does she sing?” I croaked, my throat so tight I couldn’t have swallowed a tic-tac.
“No. It’s a speaking part.”
I perked right up, and reached for the script. I hadn’t actually seen ‘Singing in the Rain’ but I got a little bit of an idea from the script packets they’d handed out for the audition. I decided the big thing was to try and project my voice.
After auditions, Steve approached me in the hallway, beaming. “That was genius! Youre definitely going to be Lina. How did you come up with that voice? It was like Miss Piggy mixed with Marilyn Monroe, with just a dash of Rosie Perez thrown in! That’s the perfect voice for Lina.”
I shrugged modestly, and launched into some bullshit, “Well, I just sort of thought about the character, and how she would say the words…. I tried to get inside the part…”
Steve’s smile slowly faded, and he blinked. “Ohmygod. You really talk like that.”
Later I discovered that the thrust of the whole Lina Lamont character is her wildly unappealing voice. It’s a cornerstone of the entire plot. According to Steve, I was a dead-ringer.
Singing in the Rain was a smash success. Sara Malakowski played the romantic lead. C.J., a boy that I was most vehemently not attracted to, played Gene Kelly’s character; so I felt not even a twinge of Lina’s jealousy for his affections. Playing a funny character is several hundred times more fun than having to play it straight, as I discovered. And hey, I got to keep the voice.
Mrs. Adams attended our last performance that spring, before the ravages of ill health took her life in the summer. I never knew her near as well as the geeks who frequented the drama department those four years, and in this one instance I finally discovered a reason to extend those true-blue thespians my envy.
So if you’re listening Mrs. Adams, take a bow.