“I’ve got to be where my spirit can run free, gotta find my corner of the sky”. Pippin
I was watching Dave Letterman tonight and the musical guests were the Broadway Cast of “Pippin”, along with Tom Hanks, who was starring in a Nora Ephron play on Broadway. It was an all Broadway episode, I guess.
The Leading Player and the Ensemble from Pippin performed the opening number, “Magic to Do”, and I was taken back to over 20 years ago to one of the happiest and saddest times of my life.
I was in grade 11, and we had the greatest choir teacher you could imagine. We actually had him for five years at this time. We had him through grades 7-9, and when we made the move to a new school for grade 10, he took a job as the high school choir teacher. It was if we were on a show like Degrassi or something and the producers had to find a way to keep the most popular teacher on the show or something. Transitioning from junior high to high school, as you may remember, was fraught with uncertainty and anxiety, but knowing that our choir teacher, Mr. H., would be there waiting for us made the adjustment a little bit easier.
Mr. H was this fun, interesting guy who would take trips to New York City whenever he could to see all the new musicals and then would return home full of ambitious ideas. For example, he put together an abbreviated version of Les Miserables, with just the more popular songs and we performed it in full costume for the school and then were asked to perform it again in front of the School Board, which was a little unnerving, but we did it because we trusted and liked our teacher. Choir was one of those things I genuinely enjoyed but I couldn’t really admit that out loud, because it wasn’t cool. Instead, I convinced most of my friends to be in it because it was an easy credit (it was!) and since we only met on our lunch hours, we got more spares during the day. While I think most of my friends took choir because it was easy and we could cut out early, I did it just because I loved singing and I liked Mr. H. Simple as that. He would register us for this ridiculous festivals, or downtown concerts, or visits to nursing homes, you name it, and we just did it.
So in grade 11 he announced that the high school musical that year would be “Pippin” and he said I should audition for it. “Pippin”? What the heck is “Pippin”? I had never heard of it. Other schools were doing “Guys and Dolls” or maybe “West Side Story” or even “Cats”, but we were doing something called “Pippin”? I knew nothing about it, and I wasn’t a big “auditioner” (still am not), but I somehow worked up the courage, and I decided that I probably had a shot at the chorus regardless (which was really all I wanted) and so I decided to sing a joke song instead. Like pretty much everyone else in Jr High and early High School, I was obsessed with Monty Python, so I went into the audition and said to Mr. H that I brought back-up singers:
“I’ve got three back-up singers, is that okay?” I said to Mr. H. He and the drama teacher were in charge of auditions. The teachers looked at each other and said, “Sure, why not?” I had convinced three of my friends who were girls to do this for me, and they oddly enough agreed. We had one practice and off we went.
“Mr. H, Today I will be singing ‘The Lumberjack Song’ by Monty Python. I will be backed up by Tina, Terri and Heather”. And I launched into it, giving it my all. By the end of it, Mr. H and the other teacher had tears in their eyes from laughing so much, and I took that as a good sign. I couldn’t have known at that time how good a sign it was.
I week later, Mr. H asked me to stay behind after choir and he said, “We want you to be the lead in the play. We want to you be Pippin!”
I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I was never an overachiever (it’s one of my hallmarks: under promise and over deliver, right?), and here I was being offered the lead in the play, and I was only in grade 11? There were a bunch of grade 12’s cast in the musical too (Better singers, actors and dancers than me FOR SURE), but I don’t think they were looking for someone who could actually sing or act or dance well, they were just looking for someone a little goofy who had a lot of energy and who could “Sell the story”. I could do that.
My best friend Ed was also cast in the play, and rehearsals began. I was actually numb from the news, but secretly really proud and excited, and I thought, “I can DO this. WE can do this. This is going to be GREAT”. The play itself was really demanding. It was from the early 1970’s and originally directed by Bob Fosse, so the choreography has all those great trademark Fosse moves (top hats and canes in one part!). The whole story has a fractured fairy tale feel to it. It’s all supposed to feel spontaneous, “Godspell” style, but it takes so much work to make something look spontaneous. Towards the end of the play, (the whole thing is a “play within a play”) the “ensemble” gets fed up and walks off-stage, essentially ending the show. It was all very experimental in the 1970’s, and very foreign to us high school kids who were used to “The Sound of Music” or “My Fair Lady” for example.
My wife calls me a pessimist because I don’t seem to gush or get excited about things ahead of time. I counter that I am not a pessimist, but a cautious optimist (I know we’ve been over this ground before. Apologies, fanbase!) who saves the excitement for something when it’s actually going to happen. I guess I’ve been burned in the past: Case in Point.
As wonderful as Mr. H is/was, he was not all that organized, and mounting a high school musical takes the coordination of a Normandy general. It wasn’t just singing, we had lines, costumes, lights, sets, you name it. The whole school had to be on board and on the same page, and while certain areas (the drama, the singing) were coming along as well as you would hope, there were alarming signs that the rest of the production were delayed at best, still-born at worst, and the May deadline was fast approaching. As the “Lead” I felt like I had some sort of leadership role to play in all this, and I began to go to production meetings with the teachers, the heads of the props department, the art classes that were designing the sets, to see if I could help in getting this production off the ground. Imagine a 16 year-old me, feeling the weight of the school’s hopes on my shoulders, attending meetings before and after school with a bunch of burned out, disillusioned middle-aged teachers who really couldn’t give a fuck, as it turned out. As life (and this blog) repeatedly demonstrates, we don’t live in a Hallmark made-for-TV movie, and one morning Mr. H. had to break the news to me that the musical was going to be cancelled.
There were no tearful, last-minute attempts to save it, from me or from anyone actually. I was actually okay with the decision. It was the right decision, based on where we were at, production wise. I had attended those meetings, the writing had been on the wall for quite some time, and since I never really get excited about stuff ahead of time (I’m always assuming the worst), I’m rarely disappointed. My wife hates this about me, but it’s a coping mechanism that has worked quite well for me so far.
The hardest part about the cancellation was that I was going to have to break the news to my Dad.
My Dad had been suffering from Depression that whole Spring and was eventually hospitalized for it. I’m terrible at visiting hospitals. I just hate it. Plus, I was 16, and I didn’t really know how to talk to my friends about my Dad’s illness, or really even talk to my Dad about it. He was “out of it” for most of the visits, but there were some “moments of clarity” I guess you could call them, and the school musical provided an excellent excuse for a topic of discussion when I couldn’t think to talk about anything else. I would visit him and tell him all about the daily minutiae of rehearsals and stuff. You could really tell that he was so proud that his son was the lead in the school musical. My Dad was also a singer and when he was well he would often show up unannounced at our concerts, especially the downtown ones. He would come in to whatever hotel lobby or art gallery or mall where we were singing and stand at the back in his giant parka and grin so goofily at us the whole time. You’ve heard the term “Beaming from Ear to Ear” but in my Dad’s case it wasn’t an exaggeration. All my friends loved him and would often ask me ahead of time if he would be “making an appearance”. I often wouldn’t tell my Dad about these concerts because I was a little embarrassed by the attention but I also secretly loved that he would come and hear us. It’s always more fun when there are people you know in your audience, and my Dad rarely disappointed my friends. After the concert, he would always come up to our director and say, “Nice job, Vic!” (He was on a first name basis with our director, apparently.)
So when I had to tell him that the musical was cancelled, he didn’t take the news very well. “But, but that’s TERRIBLE.” was all he could get out, and he started to cry. I hugged him and kept saying, “It’s okay. It’s REALLY okay. It’ll be okay.” And I really meant it. I was okay. And I so wanted to believe that things would be okay too, not just at school but with my Dad, obviously.
But what have we learned so far, class? Yes, that’s right: life is not a Disney Special, and a few weeks later we lost my Dad through suicide. I have no idea what was going through his head on that last day, and I doubt the cancellation of the high school musical was on his radar, but I’m sure it didn’t help. That was 22 years ago next month and I’m serious when I say I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t think about my Dad in some way. Sure, I’ve moved on. You have to. I’ve put together a pretty sweet life here, filled with wonderfully great people. I guess you could say I’ve found my corner of the sky. And actually if it wasn’t for the revival cast of Pippin appearing on Dave tonight, I probably wouldn’t have ever thought of that musical again. It’s no “West Side Story”, after all. It’s just a weird cabaret show about a boy who has a difficult relationship with his father and who, in the course of the show, inadvertently murders him. Odd that I’m not so keen on revisiting it.
Instead, I’ll just leave you with this clip from the original Broadway cast, starring the great Ben Vereen and William Katt, doing what we never could. It’s the first 10 minutes or so of the musical, if you’re not familiar. If you watch through to the 6 minute mark, you’ll get to “Corner of the Sky”, my first big number. It was high, but I was almost getting it.