It was the Spring of 1970, my junior year in college. I was spending a year “a broad” at Sarah Lawrence – one of a handful of guys at what was then a women’s school. I was an aspiring opera singer. My training was “old school”. Instead of studying voice with a teacher at the college, I would trek down from Yonkers to Manhattan and the Ansonia Hotel. The Ansonia, of course, is legendary as the home of great opera singers – ever since Caruso was in residence. With her heavily accented Slavic voice, my primary teacher, Madam D., would greet you in colorful flowing, floor length dresses. She would take you by the arm and usher you into her living room, always reminding you what a great opera singer she once was.
While I may have had some promising talent as a singer, I had absolutely no stage experience - except for playing bassoon in my high school band and orchestra.
So somewhere along the way it was suggested that I should try summer stock. In the 1970’s that meant picking up a copy of Show Business, available at every corner newspaper stall on the streets of Manhattan. Thumb through the thin newsprint to the back pages. There you would find the classified ads for summer stock openings. I would circle those ads for “open calls”.
And yes, the “calls” were right out of every movie one has seen about breaking into Broadway. Walking up dark, narrow staircases to the rehearsal studios. Only to be greeted by throngs of 20 to 40 somethings – all clinging to their headshot/resumes. I didn’t have one. “Cattle calls” meant being shepherded in en-masse, twenty at a time, lined up in a row, and given the opportunity to sing one scale before being asked to leave.
The better auditions allowed you a brief chance to show your stuff. A studio with neon lights, a tired pianist at an upright. Hand him your sheet music “Man of La Mancha.” Me - skinny as a reed, thick horned rimmed glasses sliding down my nose, my legs shaking making my baggy pants quiver. After one stanza of “The Impossible Dream”: Thank you, if interested you will be hearing from us.
No word ever came. Maybe the dream was impossible. But I don’t think I felt much sense of rejection, just relieved that I didn’t have to face any more of those audition trials. Then one day a young soprano at school – maybe I had been telling her my tale – said she was going to an audition for a new summer stock company that was doing light opera. Maybe I could tag along. A few days later we were in an apartment on Riverside Drive. We met a tall, elegant, and bearded man, who wore horned-rimmed glasses just like me. He introduced himself as “Donald Tull.” After a bit of small talk, he sat down at the piano and invited my friend to sing. When she finished, he turned to me and asked if I would like to sing. Now this was more my style, just like all the lessons I was doing almost daily in New York - quiet and peaceful in an apartment in the Upper West Side. I think I sang my version of “Old Man River’. He thanked us and we left.
A few weeks later a letter arrived. As destiny would have it, I was invited to join The College Light Opera Company in Falmouth on Cape Cod. My friend was not.
Even then I had few delusions why I got in. There was a mismatch of the numbers of talented women applying to CLOC versus the numbers of men. And the men that did apply were primarily musical theater types with limited vocal training. I had a big resonant bass baritone voice. I was also an accomplished wind-player – bassoonist. That meant I could read music, had a good sense of line, and had the mechanics of breath support down. I doubt Maestro Tull envisioned me as a leading man. However, they did need at least a few troupers who could help carry the chorus.
A few days later, my friend took me aside. She sat me down. With her hand on my arm, she warned me about the “scenes” I would encounter there. She had been in summer stock and she knew about these things. “You will be in the ‘minority’.” I had only the vaguest of ideas of what she was talking about.
A few weeks later I was on the road, my belongings including my bassoon, stuffed in the back seat of my ailing Ford Cortina, heading toward Cape Cod. Using a tattered paper roadmap as navigation, I eventually found my way to a small road off Route 28. I turned right and slowly drove up the lane to a clearing. There was a grey clapboarded structure with a sign announcing that it was a theater. A rickety looking barn. And a stately, but rather weather-worn old inn. My first impression? Maybe haunted.
I had arrived at Highfield.
I parked in front of the inn, walked up the questionable steps to the landing. Taking a breath, I opened the screen door and entered.
A whirlwind. What do I remember of those first few days?
Auditions: Standing on the stage – still wearing my glasses – holding a script, paired with a blonde ingénue. Somewhere off in the blackness from the audience side of the proscenium, a voice: “Please begin.” Abruptly the ingénue falls to her knees, tosses the script on to the stage floor, throws her arms around my waist, and beseeches me about my reckless love and other such matters. I pause and look down at her totally confused. She glares back at me, muttering, “Say your lines.” I look back at my script and stammer through the words.
First dance class: All the guys lined up in a row. The wild-haired choreographer hands out to each of us our first dance belt. “Put what, where?”
Cooking in the kitchen – army mess style – sort of fun and communal.
Part assignments. I am consigned to the chorus with a few solo lines to sing. Frankly, I am relieved. Learn an entire role in a week?
Rehearsals. There is a director, staging, sectionals. Mostly a blur as far as my memory is concerned.
Costumes. “Don’t my legs look kinda skinny in these tights?” Struggling to put into my eyes my first pair of hard contact lenses. The elders of the troupe showing me how to apply makeup. Greasepaint really does have a unique smell.
And in a blink of an eye it’s opening night. Victor Herbert’s “The Student Prince.” Backstage I hear for the first time about a curse - not saying the name of a play. What does Macbeth have to do with The Student Prince? I feel a draft and quickly turn around. Maybe Highfield really is haunted? The audience is streaming into the theater. The stage manager calls us into the wings. We take our places on the stage. Now the orchestra is playing the overture. And with a pounding final chord from the pit, the curtain opens. Stage fright? There is no time to even think about it.
Right off the bat, I have a solo line or two to sing and then blend into the chorus for the rest of the evening. From offstage I watch the merriment, as far more experienced players carry the show. And then the curtain closes. Applause and ovations. We stumble off the stage. Learn now how to take off the make up, get dressed back into our civilian duds, and walk into the summer balmy night. We congratulate each other – as a team, a newly forged tribe. I even get a compliment from the assistant director on my singing. I have passed through the fire. I have performed on stage as a singer.
We are performing every night, learning a new show during the day. It is a breathless schedule. In general, I am relegated to the chorus with a few more solo lines here and there. I am quite content though, as I don’t feel I am quite ready for leading man status, not like the group of seasoned veterans, who already seem to me to be Broadway-bound stars.
We settle into a rhythm. Outside of rehearsals and performances, there is a life. Sharing in the communal routine of upkeep, food prep and eating. There is even some free time – in the afternoons and after the show. We do Christmas in July. It was my first Christmas ever, so the disparity of decorating a pine tree in balmy 80 degree weather didn’t seem odd at all.
Oh, and the “scene” of which I was warned. Remember, this was 1970. The cultural revolutions had just begun. The “Summer of Love”, Woodstock, and Stonewall riots were all very recent events. My hopes for the sexual part of the revolution were pretty simple - theoretically increasing my chances for one day of actually having a girlfriend. This was my introduction to an open and empowered gay society. It was fun and refreshingly open. Everyone accepting whoever you were – regardless of orientation or “secrets” you may be hiding. An inclusiveness that made us all family.
Drugs? Well, singers tend to be a sober group in general – protecting their instrument. But the crews, of course, are legendary. I still harbor a few hallucinogenic visions from that summer. Was it a contact high, or is The Inn truly filled with spirits hiding in every closet?
Social life? Well there were rumors about everywhere - relationships that were merging and disappearing, changing alliances. I for one kept to myself.
Audience. You quickly learn that behind the inky blackness of the proscenium, there is another part of the theatrical organism – a living breathing being that responds differently to each performance. Wednesday matinees were the sleepiest. Banks of grey and blue haired ladies tottering in. Barely a reaction – no laughs, a smattering of applause. Occasional you could hear a snore. In contrast, Saturday nights were the most vibrant. Cheers, roars of laughter, applause and ovations. You flow back and forth with them. The audience is your instrument – both as soloist and as an ensemble.
One afternoon after rehearsals, I was walking about the grounds. There, just behind the barn was an opening into the woods. Gingerly, I crossed the threshold. It was a path into the woods. I had found my own secret world. Endless miles of trails through the Cape Cod forests. It was a peaceful place, where I could talk to myself, gesticulate, and dream. Almost every afternoon, I would vanish into the woods. One day my wanderings led to a lake. Waters sparking under a brilliant summer sun. Next day I brought my bathing suit and swam. No one was there. Did anyone else know of it? I enquired. Some did, but over the entire summer I saw only an occasional person on the far shore. At some point, I must have found or borrowed a rubber raft. I remember floating out onto the lake. It was my hermitage.
One afternoon on my way back to Highfield, I came upon a snake lying across the path. Giant by my standards. Seven of eight feet I would say. It was still, splayed in front of me. Half way through the body was a large, extended lump – its last meal, I presumed. Fascinated, I thought that if I got a long stick, I could nudge it, and see if it was alive. I stepped into woods to get a tree branch. Found one. When I returned, the path was starkly empty – my prey was gone. I looked around and wondered now as to who was prey and who was predator. I scampered off.
Back on the campus, show after show came and went. Over the course of summer, I must have improved. I began to get a few complements, including that I was “good-looking” and “sexy.” Finally, I got a real role – Arvide in “Guys and Dolls.”
However, there was a dawning realization. As I looked at my fellow actors and singers on stage, I realized they had a passion and intensity about getting those starring roles - of being in the spotlight. Or maybe it was just ego and a need for approval. But it was something that I simply lacked. Getting a role was fine, but my world didn’t depend on it. The smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd was nice, but hardly compelling for me. Frankly. I preferred the solitude of my walks through the woods.
In time I began to longingly look down at the pit, where the orchestra players churned away on their music. So when the last week approached, I knocked on the paneled door where Don Tull worked. I heard his voice, “Yes, come in.” He was looking down at a pad, scribbling notes on it. He looked up. I asked if I could play in the orchestra for the last week. With barely a pause, he said, “Sure, why not.” He went back to work and I left.
So much for my stage presence. But I immediately ran off and found Bill Boswell, our indefatigable arranger and pianist. Asked him to make sure to include a bassoon part in his orchestration for “The Merry Widow.” And the following week, I wasn’t in makeup or costume. I was back in a more familiar role – in the dark at the back of the pit, playing bassoon. And quite content.
Fond farewells. Well, the day after the last performance, I had a wedding to attend in upstate New York. It meant travelling through the night to get there in time. So I had my car crammed with my belongings and ready to go. Immediately after the performance, Saturday night, I packed my bassoon. And without a chance to say goodbye or bid farewell, got in my car and drove down the winding road to Route 28. I left Highfield forever without even saying goodbye. (Ultimately, about 2 AM, my car broke down on the Mass Turnpike and I never made it to the wedding. Furthering my suspicions that the Highfield spirits were a spiteful crew.)
A few weeks later, I returned to my all-male college in the suburbs of Philadelphia. For a month or so, I took the train into Philadelphia for voice lessons at The Academy of Vocal Arts. But my world had changed. Campuses were in ferment - the Vietnam War, the draft, social injustices. After a few weeks of trekking downtown for my lessons, I simply stopped. Pursuing a career in opera was no longer on the agenda.
So, is that what I got from my CLOC experiment? Losing my interest in stage and music?
Not quite. Something quite magical was forever etched into my psyche as I ran about the stage night after night.
It was on that Highfield stage that I first entered the linguistic and labyrinthine mazes of Gilbert and Sullivan – a topsy-turvy world where words tangle in upon themselves. This particularly rapid, unintelligible patter isn't generally heard, and if it is it doesn't matter, matter, matter, matter.
Has there ever been a more perfect matching of words to melody in any form than Rodgers and Hammerstein’s? A deceptive simplicity, where lyrics, imagery and music merge to reveal universal insights into the human condition. Do I love you because you're beautiful? Or are you beautiful because I love you?
And did the singing and moving to Frank Loesser’s Fugue for Tinhorns from the opening of Guys and Dolls finally teach me, from the inside-out, what all those music theory exercises were really all about.
And then there was the Yeomen of the Guard. Glorious choral music rising in triumph, acknowledging Elsie’s reunion with Fairfax, as Jack Point falls senseless at her feet to die of a broken heart. Was it here that I first learned how the counterpoint of emotions can tear open the heart to reveal those brief moments of transcendence? He sipped no sup, and he craved no crumb, as he sighed for the love of a ladye!
Was it on the stage at Highfield that I learned my true passion? Not on the stage, not even in the pit, but behind the scenes altogether. From now on, I would focus on writing the music, the words, the librettos. That was my dream.
Just a few years later, I ran into Bill Boswell in New York. He helped me mount my first opera, Master of the Astral Plane. Thank you. Bill. Samantha is in a giant cauldron being cooked. Demons wearing bibs, and holding knives and forks dance wildly about. Our diva sings her grand aria bemoaning her fate that she is to be “an evening stew for this wretched crew.”
Then there was Cockroach Cabaret, a children’s opera in which the ancient entomological prophecy that “the cockroaches will inherit the earth” comes to pass. Watching the artifacts of your own imagination come to life and to sing and dance on a stage is a wondrous experience.
(A little side note here: Our cast for “Cockroach” were 11 and 12 year olds. We were performing at PS.122 in the East Village. Our young performers, decked out in brown leotards and wearing antenna-festooned crash helmets, had been rehearsed to enter stage left. At the performance space, they could only enter stage right. The chorographer told the kids, “Okay, you enter from the other side and do the routine.” So in the short dress rehearsal we had, the kids ran out from stage right and then performed an exact mirror image of the entire show – substituting right foot for left. Absolutely perfect. Every adult in the room looked on staggered – a neurological miracle that was unfathomable – unless I guess if you are pre-adolescent. In the actual performance they nailed it. Again in perfect symmetry.)
And oh, that notion that I was not meant to be a performer. That idea collapsed once I traded in my bassoon for a Lyricon, the first electronic wind synthesizer. I have been playing solo concerts ever since, as part of my ensemble Electric Diamond. I don’t doubt my onstage fearlessness comes from the endless summer nights on the Highfield stage.
Of course, there is one question one should always ask: Did I ever make it to Broadway? Well, that’s another story for another time. I can only say that Mel Brooks’ The Producers is not as far-fetched as it may seem.
And a few years ago, I made my debut as an actor in my own play, The Dark Lady Reflections - the story of Shakespeare’s one true and lost love.
Today, as I retell a bit of my tale that spans back over 49 of CLOC’s 50 year history, I am taken with the understanding of just how much I was influenced by those 9 weeks in Falmouth. What began as a lark, a seemingly incidental invitation to an audition for a new company that I knew nothing about, changed my life in more ways than I can count.
I still remember looking up at cloudless summer night skies over Cape Cod. But only now, do I realize that the stars and starlets high above were indeed shaping destinies and fates in ways none of us players could envision. So at long last, I doff my hat and bow – as one would do at any curtain call - to finally say to the Spirits of Highfield, “Thank you.”