I Am Reclaiming My Musical Theater Dreams On Stage 19 Years After I Gave Them Up
As a kid, I dreamt of being a musical theatre star. My parents had taken me to see productions of “Cats,” “Pippin,” and “Cabaret,” to name a few, and that was IT. In my bedroom, I played cassette tapes of the cast albums and sang along with the actors, learning every word, and imitating every inflection.
While other girls were singing The Go-Gos into their hairbrushes, I was doing jazz hands. I practiced my “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” while dancing atop my yellow floral bedspread, occasionally jumping off for dramatic effect, as in Javert’s suicide scene from “Les Mis,” thank you very much.
I did all the musicals in high school, including “Hello Dolly” -- I idolized Barbara Streisand, and watched her in the movie version for inspiration. Then I headed confidently in the direction of my dreams when I went off to college with a theatre scholarship and a double major in music.
My freshman year I beat out seniors to win the role of “Bianca” in “Kiss Me, Kate” –- it was a fabulous experience, and I felt like I had arrived. But, for logistical reasons (i.e., the music theory class was scheduled in direct conflict with the acting class) I left the music program and only continued to do straight theatre. “Kiss Me, Kate” was not only the last musical I did at school; it was the last musical I would do at all.
Although I wasn’t performing anymore, I went to see Broadway and touring shows, but every time, there was a little tinge of sadness. Regret. Disappointment. “The Sound of Music” made me wistful. “The Drowsy Chaperone” depressed me. Even Carol Channing bummed me out. Agony was replacing my enjoyment of the art itself. Sorrowfully, I accepted that my sister, a trained, legit opera singer, was going to be the singer in the family.
I was on Facebook when I noticed that a friend of a friend was casting a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers,” a witty, slapstick romp of an operetta. The production was for a cute, historic little 99-seat theatre in Sierra Madre, California. Hmmm. A small songbird started humming in my heart. My inner Barbara Streisand bombarded me with demands.
“You must do this show,” Babs whispered in my ear.
“I haven’t sung in a show in 19 years,” I said.
“Darling, you’ll figure it ooouut,” she belted.
I dusted off my musical theatre songbook and chose “Goodnight, My Someone,” from “The Music Man,” only because I knew it by heart after years of childhood video viewings. I put on a navy dress and headed for the audition. I wore flats instead of heels because I knew my legs would shake. I sang, then the director had me vocalize, going up and down the scales. I knew was out of shape –- I hadn’t had a voice lesson in eons. I pulled it out, and surprised myself.
I told myself it was a win just to have done the audition. But, a few days later, a phone call came through: I’d been offered to understudy the role of the Duchess, and also to do chorus. As an understudy, I was guaranteed at least two actual performances.
Oh, no! I had hoped for only a very small role or chorus. I certainly didn’t want my own solo number! I was terrified. I called my family and friends -- all hoping they’d tell me it was too much and to decline the role.
But, when my sister told me, “Of course you’re going to do it: it will all come back to you, and it will be epic,” I believed her.
Getting out of my head was the only way I was going to see this thing through. I realized, as the performance date approached, that during my long hiatus I had developed severe stage anxiety. A few nerves are normal, but my heart pounded and I got lightheaded and nauseous to the point that I felt, as Javert would put it, “There is no way to go oooon!”
With only a few weeks left until the show opened, I knew I had to get it together. I wanted to perform, yet I was filled with angst and paralyzing fear at the thought of performing again. Would I remember the lyrics? Freeze onstage? Be unable to hit the high note at the end of my solo number? I was psyching myself out and I knew it.
A friend of mine, a nurse and hypnotherapist, offered to give me a couple of free sessions. Yes, please! We did guided visualizations along with some energy work. Despite my fears, I performed without one missed line or lyric. There were kudos from some very talented colleagues (straight shooters, all). I made incredible, enriching friendships. It was a success.
It was a small theatre in a quaint town, but to me it was a return the person I once was -– filled with hope, possibility, and joy. When you pare it down, you realize it’s the pure doing of the thing that brings happiness.
What dream did you let go of? Though you may have reprioritized your life, is there some way you can reclaim an element of that dream? While it’s unlikely you will leave your job to tour with your Grammy-winning rock band, can you perform a few songs at a coffee shop with your guitar? Find a concrete way to allow your love of whatever it is to emerge and go for it! As Sally Bowles would say, “What good is sitting alone in your room/come let the music play/life is a cabaret, old chum/Come to the cabaret.”