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“Let Me Entertain You” –Gypsy
It’s second nature to project my voice so that it fills every inch of the theater.
Admittedly, that’s a bit tricky in this space—a majestic old movie theater that was closed down and left to rot three decades ago. Now it’s an in-progress restoration project. Tarps cover chairs. Scaffolding climbs the walls. And a fine layer of sawdust coats every surface. Luckily, the construction crew gave us the space today, so we don’t have to battle the whir and clatter of saws and hammers. But even with those obstacles removed, the combination of soaring domed ceilings and touchy sound system presents a unique challenge.
Still, so long as I control my breath and keep my words crisp, I know that once people are in these empty seats, everyone will hear me just fine.
Being loud has never been a problem for me.
I do, however, occasionally, sporadically interspersed, without quite meaning too, overpower my fellow performers. Sometimes I just can’t help it. The joy of the music and the words and the movement all come together and burst out of me—with the same volume intensity as a foghorn.
Today though, that sense of joy eludes me. Or maybe it’s being sucked out of me by my apathetic castmates. It’s funny. We’re in the middle of a group number, but the only voice I hear is my own.
“Sing out, Louise!” I hiss from the side of my mouth as I chassé across the stage.
“Who’s Louise?” one of the girls asks, her face scrunched up in confusion.
That’s all I can take. There are some theater references that everyone should know. “Sing out, Louise!” from Gypsy is one of them.
“Cut the music! Cut, please, cut.”
After a moment the music stops. Silence fills the room. The cast stares at me in bewilderment. Taking a deep breath, I remind myself they’re theater newbies and I need to be gentle with them.
“Ladies, I hate to say this, but that wasn’t very good. We’re forgetting lines. We’re falling behind the music. We’re holding our voices in, when we need to be projecting them out to the audience.” I fling both arms wide, indicating the correct direction.
The girl playing Molly raises her hand. I can’t remember her actual name. Honestly, I can rarely remember anyone’s name. But for some reason character names tend to stick with me.
“Yes?” I nod at Molly, ready for a question about proper breathing techniques or what vocal warm-ups I’d recommend.
“Does this mean we have to do it again?”
I put a hand over my mouth, hoping they mistake my smothered moan for indigestion. “Yes. We’re gonna take it from the top and this time really give it our all. Okay?”
My castmates, grown adults all of them, were in no way forced to be part of this community theater production of Annie. And yet they act like they’re doing hard time in a Russian gulag. Sadly, it’s the best acting on this stage so far.
“Yes, againnnn. And again and again and again until we all get it right.”
This does not go over well. A sea of sullen faces stare back at me.
Well, okay, I probably could’ve delivered that message in a better way. Tried to relate to them. “Hey, guys, I know it sucks spending your whole afternoon in a stuffy theater. I have other things I’d rather be doing too.” That’s not true though. The theater is my very most favorite place—even when I’m sharing it with castmates on the verge of mutiny. But maybe great leadership means occasionally lying your face off? I don’t know. I have no fucking clue at all. That’s the problem here. As co-director, I’m in charge, and my every decision is making everything that’s already bad, even worse.
And yet the show must go on.
“Mr. Conductor?” I force myself to look down into the nearly empty orchestra pit. Due to budget constraints, instead of musicians and their instruments packed tightly together, we have a dude in cargo shorts and a stained T-shirt. And his boom box. The last time I peered down there, he was clipping his toenails.
Now he gives me a lazy salute, which seems nice…until I notice his middle finger extended. Clearly he’s pissed this rehearsal has run two hours over schedule. No surprise there—everyone is pissed. Adding in an extra rehearsal had seemed like a no-brainer, especially considering how underprepared we are for an opening night that’s five days away.
Instead it was—cue the minor chord progression—yet another wrong decision.
Turning back to the cast, I clap my hands. “Places, everyone. And let’s remember, this is our big opening number. We need to grab the audience or risk losing them entirely. So let’s sing out and give it our all. Okay?”
Half-hearted nods and shrugs are all I get in response. After twelve weeks of rehearsal, excitement levels are supposed to be at a fever pitch. The “OMG this is it!” nerves should be spreading like a bad case of the flu. Instead, the prevailing sentiment seems to be a whole lot of meh with a side of the whatevers.
I don’t get their attitude. For me theater is more than a hobby. It’s more like my baby. I love it beyond reason. I can’t imagine life without it. I insist on bringing it up at all times, even when it’s unwelcome or inappropriate. Just ask the mechanic at Wally’s Auto Lube. Last week I spontaneously serenaded him with “Greased Lightning” while he rotated my tires.
I get that non-theater people, like the Wally’s Auto Lube mechanic who asked me to “please, knock it off already,” may not feel the same way about my baby. But theater people are supposed to get it. We share a secret language. And yeah, this is their first musical for most of them, so I get they’re not fluent yet, but every time I translate, they look at me in this sort of dead-eyed way. Which makes it pretty obvious.
They all think my baby is ugly, and they have no idea how to break it to me.
Yet somehow I keep hoping I might still win them over.
Holding in a sigh of despair, I glance back down to the pit.
“Okay, Conductor, hit it.”
Frozen in our places, we wait out a long moment of silence. Or there should be silence—except someone’s phone goes off. Most people would quickly silence it and apologize. Instead I hear a soft, “Hey, I can’t really talk right now.”
“No phones on stage!” I screech the words like someone just barely holding on to the last shreds of their sanity.
“Wow. Lose it much?” someone whispers to my left. A chorus of giggles follow.
Here’s another problem. These people make me feel old. Old like my tenth-grade music teacher, Mrs. Phazo, who was only a few years away from retirement and used to constantly mutter, “I don’t understand any of you.”
Of course I’m not old. Yeah, I turned thirty a few months back. But thirty isn’t old. It’s not, because I’m not old. Old people have mortgages and children and other things I don’t even know enough about to list because of my extreme youthfulness.
But…the cast is exceptionally young. Twenty-two is the median age. Our Daddy Warbucks just turned twenty. At the little party we had for him, one of the girls pulled me aside to drunkenly whisper, “Not sure if you know, but he totally has a thing for older women.” It didn’t even occur to me that I was the older women, until she squealed, “He’s so into you!”
Damn it. Why is there no music?
“It’s the Hard Knock Life” begins to play.
What happens next is ugly. Like the opening sequence to Saving Private Ryan, it’s horrifying and disorientating. The choreography seems to have been taken more as a general suggestion of how one might wish to move their body. I have to dodge and weave like a prize fighter just to keep from getting knocked out by one girl’s unpredictable twirling broom and another’s series of kickboxing moves.
As the last note fades, it’s all I can do not to throw my head back and howl. Unclenching my jaw, I force a smile onto my face instead. A smile full of warmth and genuine affection.
It’s fake. Of course it’s fake.
But it looks real, and that’s because I am a professional actress. Well, a professional amateur. As professional as someone who never gets paid can be.
Not many people can claim to have performed in community theater shows in seventeen of the fifty states and in forty-one cities. Okay, cities may be generous. Towns. Villages. Once I was Fannie Brice in a production put on by the County Line Theater Company. So I’ve run the gamut.
Some of those shows were bad. None were as awful as this. Somehow I landed myself in an actual shit show. But when you’re sorta the director, you can’t say that. So I turn the smile up a few notches instead.
“Great job, everyone. Let’s take five.”
Retreating backstage, I pull two ibuprofen and my cell phone from the back pocket of my jeans. Almost immediately the phone rumbles. Two more missed calls from my mom since the last time I checked, and one text message delivered in her usual low-key way:
JENNA! CALL ME! IT’S IMPORTANT!! LOVE YOU! MOM!
My mother’s idea of important is debatable. As just a recent example: JENNA! WE GOTTA TALK ASAP ABOUT THIS NEW SEXTING THING THE KIDS ARE DOING. SPOILER ALERT. US OLD PEOPLE CAN DO IT TOO! ;)
I stash my phone away again. Whatever Mom wants, it can wait.
If only this day was so easily dismissed.
I jerk my wig off and massage my aching scalp, my fingertips searching out the spaces between the bobby pins, trying to convince the headache that started behind my eyes to, if not retreat, then at least slow its advance. I’m tempted to find a corner and grab a three-minute standing nap. Years of chronic sleep problems have made me a pioneer in a field I’ve dubbed extreme catnapping.
Instead I step off the stage and stride up the aisle, past the empty rows of plush red seats. I glance up at the curving edge of the balcony, struck anew by the size and grandeur of this place. It’s not often I get to play a house this big.
Reaching the back, I turn around. There’s that classic proscenium arch framing the empty stage, all lit up and waiting for someone—me—to walk across it, find their mark, and sing.
Even after years and years of doing this, my chest goes tight. The dopamine hit fades quickly though, leaving behind a bone-deep weariness. And with it the question that won’t leave me alone.
Is the show shit because of me? Have I lost it? Did I ever even have it?
Trying to shake it off, I push open the double doors that lead to the lobby.
Stella, the producer and other half of our co-directing team, is pacing back and forth on the black-and-white tiled floor, cell phone pressed to her ear as she hollers into it. “I’m gonna call the ACLU. Have you ever heard of freedom of speech? Have you, huh? What about artistic expression? Is that a new one for you too? Well, you better look ’em up, because we’re not going down without a fight.”
Seeing me, Stella puts her hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. “I got ’em on the ropes here. How’s it going on your end?”
“Great!” I lie. What else can I say to the person who considers this show her grand musical theater vision? I can’t say, “Why did you ever drag me into this mess?”
Although she did.
Eight months ago I was in Mississippi finishing up a run of The Sound of Music, when Stella called.
“Aren’t you sick of the same old, same old?” she’d asked. “I mean, how many times now have you done good old Sound of Music?”
Seven times playing Maria and singing “Do Re Mi.” That’s how many. Of course, every production was different. In theory. In reality, some directors played things so straight and by the book that it felt less like art and more like completing a paint-by-numbers set.
Then Stella said the magic words. “Annie meets Fifty Shades of Grey.”
It was so wrong. And ridiculous. I couldn’t help but be intrigued. In retrospect, I should’ve immediately said no. Instead, I heard the word “maybe” come out of my mouth.
Truthfully, my big 3-0 milestone had a part in it. Aging out of my twenties made me want…something. I wasn’t sure what.
That “maybe” was all the opening Stella needed. “Oh, Jenna, please say yes. I didn’t want to get into this, but things with Brian aren’t going great. Also, the theater group is trying to force me out, and well, I could really use an ally. Someone who’s on my side one hundred percent.” Her voice cracked on that last word.
Due to my nomadic existence, I don’t have a lot of close friends…or really any besides Stella. Still, you don’t need twenty BFFs to know the rules, the simplest of which is when a friend asks for a favor, you better have a good reason to say no.
“When do you need me there?” I’d asked.
It was only after I’d arrived and unpacked that Stella informed me (in the same tone you might use to tell someone they’d won the lottery) that she’d not only given me the lead part but made me her co-director as well.
I’d never directed anything before. Never wanted to either. But Stella gave me the big boo-boo eyes as she reminded me, “Jenna, I really need you. Puh-puh-please.”
And now it’s tech week, a.k.a. the week before the show opens, when you practice with lights and sound cues and costumes, and all the five hundred things that can go wrong, do go wrong. But instead of five hundred things going wrong, we’re closer to five million, and the whole damn production is balancing on the brink of disaster.
“Goddamn it, don’t you dare put me on hold again!” Stella returns to her phone conversation, which doesn’t seem to be going well.
She’s chatting with the fine folks at Musical Theater USA, the company we paid for the rights to put Annie on stage. Somehow they got wind of all the shades of gray Stella added to the show, and they are not happy. In fact, they’re demanding we close it down. Immediately.
As Stella starts to threaten once more, I decide to get some fresh air. Head pounding more insistently than ever, I step outside, desperate for some sun on my face—and nearly walk right into a sign reading, SAY NO TO ONSTAGE PORN.
Ah hell. I’d forgotten about the protestors. They’ve been coming round ever since an anonymous editorial accusing the show of “sexualizing girlhood” came out in the local paper. The next day a dozen people were out front chanting “Keep Annie clean!” Now as they catch sight of me, several rush over waving bars of soap.
Keeping my head down, I push past them and then, as they refuse to give way, start to run. Luckily, no one follows when I duck into the side alley, and I’m able to lean against the stage door at the back of the building, catching my breath and letting my heartbeat slow before finally heading inside.
As the door clunks shut behind me, I take a deep breath in. Slowly exhaling, I try to let go of all the things going wrong and focus on what’s going right.
I get to play Annie, a part I’d thought my advanced age made impossible for me to cross off my bucket list. And while the show is a mess, it’s definitely not boring. Finally…
I search for a third good thing as I pull my wig back on and return to the stage. Carefully, I step over my castmates littered across the floor until finding center stage, I plant myself there.
This space right here. This is my third thing. My home. My safe space. My own personal center that only needs a spotlight to complete it.
Getting to stand up here is the reward.
But first I have to earn it.
“Hey.” I clap my hands to get everyone’s attention. A few wan nods and rolled eyes are all the encouragement I get. “Let’s work out the curtain call. Once that’s solid, everyone can take a break until we meet again tonight for the dress rehearsal.”
Actual groans meet this announcement.
“What’s the point?” Molly asks. “They wanna shut the show down. I don’t care what Stella says about refusing to wave the white flag—whatever that even means. They don’t want us to add flags to the show, do they?”
“No, they are not asking for white flags,” I patiently explain. “They don’t like that Annie and Daddy Warbucks have a sloppy kiss at the end of the show. They also want us to stop stripping during ‘You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile.’”
“Oh, c’mon.” The flexible blond girl playing Pepper joins in the discussion. “That is definitely a stripper song. Maybe in a more wink wink sort of way than we do it, but still, it’s clearly about getting naked. Am I right or am I right?”
The other girls hoot and holler in agreement. And they’d know. Most of them work at Topaz, the strip club out by the interstate. After we lost half the original cast at the first table read, Stella was desperate for anyone with stage experience. So she went out to Topaz and sold being part of our musical as a mix between a blowout party with top-shelf liquor and a day at Disneyland.
Frankly, I was tempted to drop out too. Once Stella fully articulated her vision, I couldn’t help but think it sounded more crass than clever.
“Girls kissing girls kissing boys kissing girls! It’s the Great Depression and everyone wants to get laid!”
The words “I quit” were on the tip of my tongue, but remembering I was there to support Stella, I swallowed them down and replaced them with “The show must go on.”
Those five words have a near mystical quality to motivate me. I’ve gone on with bronchitis. Sunburn so bad it left blisters up and down my arms. And even a broken foot. That last was during My Fair Lady. With the long dress (mostly) covering the big clunky cast, I didn’t just go on, I convinced everyone looking at me that I really could’ve danced all night.
Now I search for some way to transfer even a bit of that never-say-die feeling to this group of people who are mostly here for fun. As a way to pass the time.
I close my eyes. My head pounds even louder. And then—at last—inspiration strikes.
“Happy hour at the Wishing Well before the next rehearsal! First round of drinks on me!” I announce.
And finally I’m greeted with cheers instead of jeers. Making a mental note to remember my credit card, I circulate around the stage as everyone peels themselves off the floor.
“Great job on that final number.”
“Loved your energy in the first act.”
“Good recovery after losing your line.”
I drop words of encouragement here and there, hoping between that and the promise of free booze we can pull this thing across the line.
As the three stripper poles are moved downstage, I explain how immediately following the final number, everyone needs to gather in the wings. At that point the music for “Tomorrow” will start. I organize the cast in the order they’ll come out, in threes, with each swinging round the stripper poles before taking their bow.
“All right, let’s do it!”
Everyone stares at me until I clap my hands, and then they scatter into the wings. Again, I point to our conductor. He sighs loudly before pressing Play.
The opening notes to “Tomorrow” begin, and I join the cast backstage. As the lead, my bow is last. Right before me, Mrs. Hannigan and Daddy Warbucks will come out and do their spins round the pole, and then the whole cast will turn upstage and I’ll enter stage center.
In theory this should be easy.
But first they forget the order. Then one girl takes too long on the pole, launching into her whole routine from Topaz. The guy playing President Roosevelt stops the whole thing to argue that his character would not use a stripper pole, seeing as how he’s in a wheelchair. I explain it’s okay to break character for the bows, and he goes off on a ten-minute rant about kids today not respecting history, while I struggle not to roll my eyes because this is already our third Roosevelt and I doubt we’ll be able to dig up another. Finally, we compromise. The Boylan sisters will help him out of his wheelchair, and then he’ll take a go on the pole.
We run through it six times and not once do we make it to my bow.
As “Tomorrow” starts up again, I can’t stand to watch. Hating myself for doing it—
especially after my earlier freak-out—I pull out my cell phone.
There are several more texts from my mom, mostly consisting of scared cat emojis and exclamation marks. I can’t even begin to guess what they might mean. Below those is a short text from my niece, Maxi. As a teenager she instinctively knows how to compose an attention-grabbing text without resorting to all caps.
Grams really wants to talk with you. I think somebody died or something.
My heart stutters and then stops. Somebody died or something.
I peek between the curtains and see Mrs. Hannigan and Daddy Warbucks preparing to step onstage. Mind racing, I watch as Mrs. Hannigan completes her rotation round the stripper pole. Daddy Warbucks follows. It’s my turn to step onstage, but instead my thumbs are rapidly typing out a text to my mother.
IS IT DANNY?
I need to move. They finally did the curtain call perfectly, and I’m screwing it up. But I can’t go on, and neither can the show—not until I get an answer.
It comes at last.
HOW DID YOU KNOW? CALL ME. OK?
My phone slips from my hand. I don’t bother to pick it up as I step onstage, singing along with the rest of the cast, the words coming automatically.
Suddenly my throat is too tight to sing.
I reach the stripper pole and wrap both hands around it. Instinctually I turn my smile up a notch, sending it out to the empty seats as my legs bend, prepping for my turn. There’s someone out there at the back of the theater, half in shadow.
I recognize him instantly despite all the years that have gone by.
Danny. It’s Danny. Or his ghost.
I am spinning while also twisting awkwardly to look over my shoulder, to see him again. My hands, suddenly clammy, slip. Then I’m flying. And falling. As my head thumps against the hard boards of the stage, I am not thinking about how no one is singing or that we’ll have to do the curtain call again or any of the things that have been tying me into knots today.
There’s only one thought in my mind. And it’s this:
Danny is dead, and it’s all my fault.