“Let’s start from the very beginning
A very good place to start…”
I grew up on musical comedies. Songs from “Cabaret” to “A Chorus Line” to “All That Jazz” resonated throughout our house. The voices of Marni Nixon, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews and Paul Robeson poured from the speakers along with those awesome overtures that teased you with hints of the music to come. And Mom and I would belt out each song as it played. If a long car trip loomed ahead, Mom and I would play a singing alphabet game where you’d start with a song whose first letter began with “A” and then you’d work your way down to Z. For the record, “A” was always “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” from “Meet Me in St. Louis”. It became a tradition, if we were together, there was a good chance we’d burst into song. If you added my aunt and my cousin Kim to the mix, they’d usually join in and we might throw together an impromptu poorly choreographed dance routine (Viva Las Vegas springs to mind).
When I’d go to my summer daycare center around 2nd grade, the teachers would encourage us to bring records from home and I’d always show up with albums like “Oklahoma” or “Paint Your Wagon” while the other kids brought in the likes of Bobby Darrin’s “Splish Splash” or The Coaster’s “Charlie Brown” – music I didn’t know. The teachers would almost audibly groan when I’d get pushy about playing my album; I could be rather unrelenting when it came to show tunes. Dad tried his best to expose me to Pete Seeger, Buddy Holly, The Weavers and Arlo Guthrie, but they weren’t the songs that my Mom sang and personally I loved it best when Dad sang “Old Man River” in his best baritone (it’s beautiful) – although, I will say that Dad (who can yodel) also does an amazing Wemoweh.
Now before you get some crazy idea that I was completely isolated from pop music, I did have teenage aunts (babysitters) who adored the Beatles – and because of them, I loved them, too and still love them today (for the record, my favorite has always been George Harrison – because he was the best, take that McCartney fans). I may have gone through a Shaun Cassidy and Barry Manilow phase that I prefer not to talk about. And surely, “Grease” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” can count towards pop in some way, right?
By 9th grade I had decided that I needed to fit in more with my classmates (I was kind of a weird kid – totally surprising, I know), so I went out of my way to listen to pop music. I’d come home from school, do my homework and then flip on our local pop music station, K-98. It hurt my brain, but after a few weeks (and high song rotations) I learned to like The Police, Duran Duran, The Go-Go’s, The Fixx, Tears for Fears and Modern English. (Jay, if you burst into “every cake you bake and every snake you shake” or any other variation, I’ll beat you. That’s not how it goes!!!! You’ve been warned.) And over the years various friends and roommates further helped shape my tastes
Two days before Mom passed away, we were sitting in an emergency room trying to get her properly triaged and eventually admitted. At that time, we didn’t know she’d recently suffered a major heart attack. Several hours of sitting there and we were both kind of bored and punchy so I started singing the most annoying song I know to lift her spirits (you know, the way those annoying things always seem to cheer people up). I sang “Seasons of Love” from “Rent”, which was an awesome rendition, especially considering that I only know the one line, but in singing that one line, I discovered you can actually sing it over and over again to the entire tune until your mother threatens to kill you (then it’s probably best to move on to the next song or ask about Fred Astaire). When the funeral director asked which hymns I’d prefer to have played, I asked to play show tunes and handed him a CD. Mom’s music life revolved around musicals and it was only fitting that she should go out with those familiar strains filling the funeral home.
Recently, I was talking to April about all of this and after asking what my favorite musical was when I was a kid (“The King and I” – I even saw Yul Brenner perform the iconic role at the State Fair of Texas Music Hall, which was amazing), she suggested that we take Singing Improv 101.
… and that’s how I ended up unexpectedly taking an extra improv class.
I do it because I miss singing with Mom. I do it because I wish Mom had pursued her love of theater and musicals. I do it because I know she would say, “I think that’s neat”, which was how she expressed being deeply impressed with something, and I do it because she would never ever say, “I’m so surprised you’re doing this.” I miss her and for a couple of hours each week, I feel closer to her.
“Yesterday they told you would not go far
That night you open and there you are…”