I started college at Tufts University, outside of Boston, in the fall of 1974. A few years prior a group of students had started an organization called Torn Ticket (which still exists) to produce musicals. That's impressive, when you think about it, that undergraduates could mount fullscale shows like this. And believe me, these were (and probably still are) fullscale productions.
Here is what I didn't know at the time: The group of students who had started the organization had graduated the previous spring. This meant that the fall of 1974 was the first time that the show's director did not come from the ranks of that particular clique. It meant that this was the first time that a show was selected without pretty good advance knowledge of who the leads would be. The show's director, a graduate student, had not been part of the original Torn Ticket crowd. She was probably the one who selected How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and everybody was quite concerned that they would be able to find somebody to play the lead role, who is onstage for over half the show and sings for half the songs.
I auditioned for the show on something of a lark. I had been in a few shows in high school, and this was always fun. I was pretty certain that being in a musical would be a good way to get to know a lot of people quickly. My experience was that amateur productions of musicals always needed male (particularly tenor) voices for the chorus. At the time I had hair halfway down my back, and I mentioned at my audition that I didn't want to cut it off, if that mattered. On no, they assured me, if I got into the show they could work something out with a wig perhaps. (We'd stuck all my hair in a hat for me to play Moonface Martin in high school -- although we had to cut six inches off at the time to fit it all in.)
Two weeks before the show the director asked me why I hadn't cut my hair off yet. I let her cut it then and there. What could I do, at that point?
Because I wasn't particularly concerned about the audition I was absolutely happy and relaxed and full of energy. I paraded in, sang their silly scales full and strong up to a high G (ah, youth), and had a good time. When I came back to see the callback list the next night I was a little disappointed not to see my name in the chorus, but I figured it was probably the hair thing or the funny voice or something. Then I looked up and saw that I was one of two people called back for the lead. Which had not been what I was expecting, or what I had in mind.
Here's something I learned much, much later (I think after the show). I was late in the audition sequence. They hadn't yet found their Finch. Seconds before I walked in the door the director looked skyward and pleaded, "Lord, send me a tenor." Then I bounced in.
Here's something it took me a very very long and painful time to figure out. The director liked me, and wanted me, and felt she could work with me. Not a single other person involved with the show wanted me for the part. They wanted this guy who was a local struggling actor with I think summer stock experience -- auditions for the show were open to the community, not just to Tufts students. But the director really does have final say, so they called both of us back. The other guy didn't show up, deciding that this wouldn't work out for him, getting out to Medford every night for what was in essence an undergraduate production. So the director got her way, I didn't have to audition again, and everybody else was not happy and never really got over it, at least until the performances.
That is the viper's pit of subtextual background I walked into, all full of fun and youth and energy and the belief that Putting on a Show was FUN!
Ok, it is fun to do a show. And I was having a great time with the other cast members. It was all my first few weeks of school, when everything was interesting and new. But something was very, very wrong. Every night we would have rehearsal, and then we'd sit for notes which consisted of everybody telling me for half an hour how terrible I was. In harsh terms. In personal terms. Well, not so much the director, but the assistant director and the choreographer and the assistant choreographer and the musical director. Somebody in the cast asked me once what the deal was, did I have some history here? He said the chorus had been talking about this, about how out of line certain people were being with me. Yes, he said "out of line". But I said no, everything's fine.
Part of the problem is that I'm not a quick study with direction. Tell me what to do and the next time through I'll be a little better and the next time through a little better than that. But somebody would show me a dance step, for example, and I wouldn't immediately have it down and this would frustrate people who didn't understand how these things work for some of us.
Let's jump ahead to the cast party. Seriously. no lie, no exaggeration, this is what happened: The director, the assistant directory, the choreographer, the assistant choreographer, and the vocal director each separately came to me in great excitement and said nearly word for word the same thing: "I was so pleased with what I was able to do with you!" Because I actually had done pretty well -- but obviously it had nothing to do with me. Ego is a strange thing.
Am I making this up, with the skewed perspective of memory and distance? Well, there was the external validation of that odd thing the guy from the chorus said, but my understanding of things finally kicked in the first night we sang with a pit orchestra. This did not go well in general. Previously we sang to a piano, where the melody is pounded out in the right hand. But that's not how it works with an orchestra -- you've got to find your key and your note and your melody from the whole arrangement. This is not an issue for me, particularly when I have been sitting at a piano drilling and drilling and drilling my notes into my head. This was a big issue for a lot of other folks, though. People or groups would get up and go through their numbers and there would be runthroughs and yelling and more runthroughs. For every one of my songs I would get up and sing and then there would be silence. Then they'd tell me to sit down and they'd go on to the next song. I figured they were saving it up for the nightly trashing of me, my talent, and my place in the world. But no, that night not a word was said to or about me. I walked back to the dorm with a friend from the pit, somebody I knew from the band and wind ensemble. He shook his head and said, "Boy we were just so glad whenever one of your numbers came up." "What do you mean?", I asked. "It's like you're the only one who has ever sung with a pit before," he said.
This was after more than four full weeks of rehearsal. It was the absolutely without question the very first positive thing I had heard. The first. I said this to the guy from the band, who seemed astonished. "But you're the only one up there who knows what he's doing!" Ok, that's a friend's loyalty, but from that moment on nothing anybody said bothered me in the slightest. Really. I just continued to work and, as I say, rehearsal is a very good thing for me.
In retrospect I see a few things. These folks were just kids. They simply didn't have the experience to see what they were doing. And the show rested on me, so that's where all the attention was, and why all the notes and comments and criticism were directed at me. And in some ways I played in: I wrote down their notes, I went home and practiced, I worked my little butt off. This was positive reinforcement. But somebody should have been adult enough to see what was going on.
It's no wonder I lost 25 pouunds.
There are things I learned from the experience. I saw a lot of ego where previously, in putting on shows, I had seen cooperation. I learned that people in authority don't always know what they are doing. My first actual experience playing in a marching band and wind ensemble began during the period we were rehearsing this show, and I got to see what very different notions of "performing" and "ego" these organizations have, and that clarified things for the rest of my life.
And here's another thing: Because of the show, I was unable to attend the weekly meetings of the college gay and lesbian association, although during orientation week I had traced down some of the members and introduced myself. I couldn't wait for that, to meet other gay people my age at last! But it turned out that word had gotten around that "the freshman who got the lead in the Torn Ticket show" was one of them, so the group came all together as an outing to see me in the show and support me, without me knowing it. I walked into my first meeting and everybody applauded, and asked me to do "that smile". That was my first real view of "gay community". Compare that to the experience of many others.
On the whole, it was oh so worth it. And oh so unnecessary.