I just got finished with three weeks of Freedom Ride rehearsals and performances at the Marigny Opera House, and there are so many things I want to share with you: working with all of my colleagues and students again after so many months; how beautifully the entire cast sang over the weekend; the new Taco Bell on Bonnabel and Veterans. But something happened to me on my last day in New Orleans that genuinely ranks as one of the single most incredible moments of my entire life. A Very Special Person said three Very Special Words to me. And this, O my Best Beloved, is that story—a new and a wonderful story—a story quite different from the other stories.
But first I should back up a little bit, to the saga of St. Mary’s Academy. Longue Vue’s intrepid Hilairie Shackai had been trying for some time to arrange a visit so Dara and Wilfred could perform a little bit of music for the students and all three of us could talk about the experience of working on an opera. The scheduling was not going well, and after a huge number of phone calls, emails, and text messages, Hilairie suggested in angst-ridden tones that maybe we should just cancel the whole thing.
I responded, “No. Don’t worry, we WILL make this happen.” Because the truth of the matter is, I love visiting schools. And I love talking to students. Some people don’t, and that’s fine. And some people don’t mind it, but they figure it’s part of their obligation as artists. That’s fine, too. But I love it, for the simple reason that I remember vividly the few times from my childhood when I was able to talk with professional actors and musicians. And one time in particular.
At nine years old, I had already received my very first paycheck for working in the theater. It was for fifty dollars, which I considered to be a tremendous amount of money, and, come to think of it, which I still consider to be a tremendous amount of money. I had performed as part of the children’s chorus for the Muhlenberg College Summer Theatre production of Oliver!, and I’m sorry to say that in the past thirty years neither my singing nor my fake British accent has much improved. At the audition, however, I told director Charlie Richter and musical director Jeremy Slavin that what I really wanted was to write operas, and there has been at least a little bit of progress on that front.
So when we were told at school that there was room on an optional field trip to see a new musical downtown at the Pennsylvania Stage Company, I was fairly drooling with excitement. It was based on Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, which book I with my innate nerdiness eagerly devoured in anticipation. And the performance was thrilling to me, as just about every performance I ever saw always was. (Including Bill Harley singing “Monsters in the Bathroom,” but not including the clown who visited our school and refused to answer seriously the questions that this still-resentful editor of the elementary school newspaper put forth with true journalistic dignity.) There were professional actors onstage! They sang! They danced! They changed costumes! And this was no hobby or after-school program—this was their life. They were living the dream.
Afterwards, the actors had an audience talk-back for us little ones, and I moved up a few rows to get closer to the stage. After chatting a little bit about the show and rehearsals, they took questions from the audience. And one boy—no, not me, I’m STILL too nervous to open my mouth at these things—asked the age-old question: “I want to be an actor when I grow up. What do I have to do?”
One of the cast members gave this reply:
“If there is anything else—anything at all—that you can imagine yourself doing, you should do that instead. Don’t go into the theater unless there is absolutely nothing else that you can see yourself doing.”
Wow. I mean, WOW.
That was probably meant to discourage us from frittering our lives away in the immature and senseless pursuit of a lousy career choice. But for me it was a seminal—and perhaps the defining—moment of my childhood. If the voice of God had come down to me from the heavens it couldn’t have been any louder or clearer. No, of course there was nothing else I could possibly do. Yes, of course I was going to do this for a living. I wasn’t just going to write music. I was going to be a COMPOSER.
Thirty years later, here I am, working on Freedom Ride. And yes, we were able juggle some things around and get over to St. Mary’s Academy, thanks to the willingness of Assistant Principal Cheryl Brown and choir director Irene Young to accommodate our tight and wacky schedule. Dara’s singing made opera fans out of about a hundred schoolgirls packed in a room so tightly I was sure the fire marshal was going to kick us out any minute. And we learned that Sylvie’s aria from the end of Act I, in which she throws herself desperately and passionately at a non-reciprocating Clayton, goes over REALLY WELL in an all-girls Catholic middle school.
But that’s not the story I wanted to tell you today.
My story is about Larry Marshall. Larry Marshall who sang Sportin’ Life on the Houston Grand Opera recording of Porgy and Bess, Larry Marshall who played Cab Calloway in The Cotton Club and Simon Zealotes in the film of Jesus Christ Superstar, and Larry Marshall who was sweet-talked by Dara into flying down from New York to see our performances of Freedom Ride at the Marigny Opera House last weekend.
Now I do have some experience dealing with celebrities. I once bumped into Kaija Saariaho at the Prudential Center in Boston. And let’s not even talk about the time I MADE EYE CONTACT WITH MIKE LOWELL during the 2007 Red Sox parade. But a weekend with Larry Marshall? This was intense. This was not only a legitimate star, but a legitimate star whose work I knew well and had known well since I was just a kid and—oh day of sweet innocence!—saw Jesus Christ Superstar for the first time. He comes to the performance. Then we go out to dinner. The next day we go out to lunch. The next morning I pick him up at his hotel (who needs a limo when you can ride shotgun in my 2007 silver Honda Civic!), and we have a meeting with Longue Vue. And needless to add, the soundtrack running through my mind each and every minute is my own voice repeating, “Don’t say anything stupid. Don’t say anything stupid. Don’t say anything stupid.”
So by Monday afternoon I’m in a pretty delicate emotional state, and it is only my seatbelt that keeps me from literally floating out of the car and up into the ether. But nothing, absolutely nothing, can prepare me for the Three Very Special Words he spoke and that I promised you at the beginning of this blog post.
As we’re driving from Longue Vue to a coffee shop for another meeting, with Karel Sloane-Boekbinder from JPAS, Larry casually asks me where I’m from, and I tell him, Allentown, Pennsylvania.
“Oh, I’ve been to Allentown,” he says.
“Really?” I reply awkwardly. Because, let’s face it, Allentown is not the world’s number-one tourist destination, despite our having a replica of the Liberty Bell. (Not the actual Liberty Bell, which is sixty miles away in Philadelphia. A replica.)
“Yes, I did a show there. It was a new musical that was in development, called Just So, based on the Rudyard Kipling stories.”
“Oh my god!” I gushed. “I SAW THAT! It must have been thirty years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Now he was the one to ask, “Really?”
“Yes! I remember it so well because I went to see it on a school trip, and after the performance, the actors came out and talked to us.” And then I proceeded to recount the story as I did above. As I have done dozens of times to dozens of people. Including, inevitably, all of my students, one at a time, most recently the night before this meeting when one of them asked me point-blank if I thought he could make a living as a musician. And I told Larry how my life was forever changed by the actor who told us that we shouldn’t go into the theater unless there was absolutely nothing else we could do.
And then Larry Marshall, a Very Special Person, said those three Very Special Words:
“That was me.”
Now I write this blog to help promote Freedom Ride. We have a lot of work to do in the next year, a lot of hurdles to overcome, and a lot of money to raise. And I write this blog because every once in a while I think I have a good story to tell, and I think that someone out there might enjoy reading it. But today I write this blog as a reminder to everyone, especially those of you who are parents, teachers, or artists, that children really do watch, listen, remember, and become influenced by you in ways that you might never dream possible. So be careful what you say to that little nine-year-old boy in the audience—he might just grow up to write you an opera about the Civil Rights Movement.
After almost passing out on the floor of Royal Blend, I bought two chocolate chip cookies for us (buy one, get one free!) and Larry told me not to worry, because he was on board with the project and was looking forward to directing it next year.
And it was so—just so—a little time ago—on the banks of the 17th Street Canal!