“Oy ain’t never done nuttin’ so hard in me life,” I told a neighbor in my best cockney accent. “Oy my a bitten off mor’n oy can chew. Oy’m one scared bloke, Oy am.” I switched to normal speech. “This was a mistake. Picking My Fair Lady as my first attempt at theater. The dialog, dancing, and, oh Lord, the singing are way more difficult than I ever imagined. I can’t remember any of it. This is scary.”
“It’ll get better, easier,” she, with her theater background, told me. “Muscle memory will kick in.” She was right, of course, but it took four-to-six weeks for that to happen. That is how long I struggled through rehearsals in panic mode. But then, about the time we moved from rehearsal hall to stage, it all began to make sense. My emotions went from fear to fair.
Participating in a theater production, particularly musical theater, had been a longtime aspiration. But now that I was in rehearsal, it became reality and an eye-opening, humbling, exciting, and rewarding experience. I have seen how difficult a job a director, musical director, choreographer, or stage manager can be. I have observed seasoned professionals accept direction without comment, learned to accept directorial vision even though it was contrary to mine, and have watched a work-in-progress, with its constant changes and evolving details, gel. I have observed a cast and crew of seventy-plus volunteer countless hours of time with minimal negativity.
The cast ranged in age from eight to ninety-something. It included the marvelous pre-teen Julian; the fascinating Swanson Family, especially the talented teenage Michala who became Eliza; Brian, Marsha, Catherine, the Marks, and the other pros who taught me so much by example; and the inspiring Chaloners.
For me, it started as a test. Auditioning for a role in a play. Oh, I suspected I could perform; I’d performed in front of others countless times. But I had always been in control and it always had been short and in somewhat improvised occasions. Could I actually memorize dialogue? In the past, when I had to make a structured speech or presentation, I always used 3 by 5 cards. I had never been a competent memorizer. Would I, with my septuagenarian mind, be able to memorize lines now?
Lakeside Little Theatre’s 2019-2020 schedule included My Fair Lady. I thought, That could be fun. There has to be a small non-singing role in that for me. I studied the script. Zoltan Karpathy, with his mere 131 words of dialogue appealed to me. He doesn’t sing and he speaks with a Hungarian accent, I noted. I can do that.
I met Director Dave soon after arriving at the auditions. I told him I had never done theater before, and, if not selected for the Karpathy role, was interested in ensemble positions that required dancing, but did not consider myself a singer. I even offered myself for backstage work. He apparently had heard similar pleas before, because, moments later, as he addressed the sixty-plus would-be cast members, he announced we all would be tested for singing and dancing abilities prior to the acting auditions. Swell, I thought, as echoes of college fraternity brothers telling me to lip sync when we sang reverberated through my head.
The dance audition was first. Two short, simple sequences. I did OK. Then came the dreaded vocal test. Sheet music for several of My Fair Lady’s classic tunes was handed out. The pianist sat down at the keyboard. Trained singers sang. Then it was my turn. I croaked “Get Me to the Church on Time.” Musically, I was horrible. But I sold the character. And I projected to the back row.
Acting auditions were the next day. When I was done, I heard Director Dave whisper, “I think we’ve got our Karpathy.” Therefore, I was not surprised when he called several days later to inform me of my casting. But I was shocked when he added that I would be dancing and singing as other nameless characters in ensemble numbers. “You did say ‘dancing and singing?’” I asked.
I gave my characters names, however, and Johanna and her Wizards of Wardrobe gave them costumes. I didn’t realize, though, until the first dress rehearsal, that the beige corduroy pants assigned my poor street-person Frankie Hopkins were women’s pants. They fit. But zipping and buttoning them on the opposite side was as challenging for me as singing Lerner and Loewe.
While I look back at the experience with countless fond memories, I have two primary thoughts: First, I apologize to those castmates who I irritated with my early self-doubt, panic, and over-analytical thinking. That apology is extended to Director Dave, choreographers Alexis and Mary, and musical directors Ann and Robert who I am certain were stunned by my inability to count to eight, my constant need for instruction and attention, and my unsolicited suggestions, as if inexperienced me had the background for “suggestions.”
But, more important, I recognize that I succeeded at a lifelong dream; I performed in theater in, of all productions, My Fair Lady without screwing it up. I did not humiliate myself so seriously a move to another Mexican gringo enclave was necessitated. San Miguel, Puerto Vallarta, Mérida, and Querétaro . . . you are safe. I will, however, consider relocating to Broadway if an all-male, septuagenarian revival of Annie were produced. I would make a fabulous Miss Hannigan.