Something I like to do in my existence is take classes. I love learning random new shit, and there are a lot of local cheap community classes around me. Last year, I took a great class on crochet that saved me some cash at Christmas time.
When I came across a musical theatre performance class in the local brochure, I decided to take a shot. I have a musical theatre background---in writing, not acting. Even though Musical Theatre broke my heart (okay, it didn’t really), some musicals do make me smile. About ten years ago, I took a singing class taught by a friend of a friend in New York. For six weeks, once a week, we all got together and sang. It was positive and fun.
I figured Musical Theatre Performance would be like my old singing class. I had visions of aging hippies, housewives, fabulous Barbra fans and myself coming together to sing 'Don’t Tell Mama' from Cabaret or 'It’s Too Darn Hot' from Kiss Me Kate. Maybe we could bring in songs that we wanted to sing. I could spend the next six weeks exploring the idiosyncrasies of Sally Bowles or Mama Rose (I always felt I had a bitchin’ Mama Rose deep in the guts of me). I could see the Andrew Lloyd Webber lovers squaring off against the Sondheim lovers in a battle like the rumble in West Side Story. Or maybe it would be like Waiting for Guffman without the Remains of the Day lunchboxes. I was excited about Musical Theatre class.
And then I went.
When I arrived in the band room of the local high school, there were several older ladies milling around and talking. Chairs were set up in a crescent two rows deep and there was an upright piano in the front of the room.
I took a seat near two actresses. I’ve gotten good at spotting actresses in LA. The actress look is trendy but not too trendy and most definitely not too out-there or quirky. Because they want to seem like they can play anything, they try not to look like anything too definite while looking professional at the same time.
I noticed that several students had binders with music, and I wondered if I should have brought a song with me. I was only able to sit for a minute because a young dowdy lady (who I will call Teacher’s Pet) informed us that we all have to sit in the front row. She had brown hair pulled back in a single pony tail and glasses. Wearing jeans and a T-shirt, she carried herself with absolutely no self-authority, but she knew everything about everything in musical theatre class.
‘She’s going to want you to move, so you might as well move now.’ Teacher’s Pet informed us, so those of us in the back shuffled off to the front. I ended up sitting off to the side. I noticed a woman with a blond bob, fierce eyebrows, and a tattoo on her ankle was settling in at the piano. Was she the mysterious instructor? She turned out to be the accompanist.
The instructor turned out to be a curly-haired bottle blonde wearing a poly-print top with a funky print that was in style about eight years ago. She was passing out music and cassette tapes. I put her in her late fifties, but her speaking voice was high as if she had had gone to the Henry Higgins school of proper American diction.
First, she had us stand around the piano and sing the Sondheim song ‘Anyone Can Whistle’ which has to be one of the most annoying Sondheim songs evarrrr--omg. It was written in the sixties before he could write character in his music, and it was chock full of annoying internal rhymes and word repetition.
Fine, I’m open minded. I’ll join in. Suddenly, everyone in the class was singing this song really high and really strange. No warm ups. No tuning to make sure everyone was on the same note. Just sing. I tried to follow the music, but I can’t sight read music. I decided to just sing what the lady next to me was singing, but she was in super high land.
The instructor waved for us to come in closer to the piano. She even grabbed my wrist to bring me closer, but I slapped her hand away. I don’t like it when people I don’t know grab me.
We all sat down. Apparently, there was a sign-up sheet which the Teacher’s Pet fetched off the wall and gave to the instructor. I could tell who the other new people in the class were. Like me, they had perplexed looks on their faces. Were we supposed to sign up? What’s going on? What are we doing?
One by one, each of the thirty students stood in front of the class, made a speech, then sang a song. This took the majority of class time. Yes, I sat for two hours and watched each and every member of the class get up and sing a song.
But wait! I have to tell you about the entrance. Each student had to enter while staring at a spot on a wall behind the audience, stand near the piano, and do the monologue and song while staring at the spot the whole time. Audience connection was not a big part of this class. Now yes, maybe a lot of people were taking this class to get over fears of performing in front of groups, but the audience is there, people are there. Look at them. You can look at them with distain. You can look at them with love. But the audience is there. Call me a purist, but isn’t performing in front of an audience, the point of the theatre part of musical theatre?
Each student entered, then each student performed a monologue which he or she had written---musical theatre writers tend not to put monologues before their songs, it’s bad form. Some of the monologues were a bit personal and had the eeek factor of a too personal blog. I guess they hadn’t covered the make-shit-up part of monologue writing.
Then each student performed a song accompanied by the accompanist. Some of the students had okay voices, but it’s community education, so I’m not looking for American Idol or legit singers. However, what I didn’t expect was how uniform the singing was. There was very little belting and a lot of head voice. Whenever, a student hit a difficult passage, the instructor sang along.
I noticed the actresses had looks of absolute horror on their faces through most of the class. Like the rest of the new people, they had to perform ‘Anyone Can Whistle’ which they knocked out of the park because they’re actresses and that’s what they do.
The performances were captured on audio tape for the students to take home and practice with. I wondered if some students would even be able to hear themselves on the tape. I could barely hear them over the piano.
Then it was my turn.
I had taken improv classes, so I knew I could perform without a script. I was surprised how much I liked improv. I recommend it to any writer. It’s very liberating. Maybe I’ll write a piece about improv although it’s kind of weird writing down something about something completely unscripted. Anyway, I digress. Back to Musical Theatre class.
Right before my entrance, I jumped up and down a few times to warm up, then I turned, found a nice picture on the back wall, looked at that, and walked out.
Hold it! Where are you looking? The instructor screeched.
At that nice picture on back wall. I said.
You’re not looking at the right place.
Apparently, I had to look not at the nice picture, but at the clock high up on the band room wall. Fine. Whatever. I went back to the start, jumped up and down a few more times, walked out while looking at the clock, then proceeded to improv the shit out of a monologue.
I had decided to do a variation on the English drawing room comedy where the maid opens a play by answering the telephone and giving the audience all the relevant information. Austin Pendleton did a great variation on this in his play, Orson’s Shadow, which I listen to in the car from time to time.
Jen’s office. No, Jen is not in right now. She’s at Musical Theatre Performance Class. Yes, I know she’s a writer, but she loves the musicals although I hope she doesn’t have to sing Sondheim. You know how she gets when she has to sing Sondheim. All that internal rhyming and word repetition. Yes. Yes. Yes.
Then suddenly, from right in front of me, I heard:
I kept going. I wasn’t supposed to look down, right? I was supposed to look at the wall. I heard it again.
When I told the story to my aunt, she found it interesting that the instructor said ‘hang up’ instead of just ‘you can stop now’. It was as if the phone conversation was real. My aunt also thought it was rude that the instructor had interrupted.
I kept the monologue going for another good thirty seconds with some minimalism:
Now I want you tell me something about yourself. The instructor said.
If I’m going to talk to you about myself, I have to look at all of you. I said and proceeded to look at the class as I talked about myself.
I sang the stupid song with all the belt I had in my diaphragm. It wasn’t pretty and it was definitely not on pitch. But it was loud. Maybe I should take rock-and-roll singing class. When I was finished, the Teacher’s Pet pointed out that I hadn’t put a cassette in the tape recorder to record myself. Damn! How did that happen?
The Teacher’s Pet showed me how to put my tape in the machine and that I had to press play and record at the same time. I then sang the whole damn song again. This time, I turned my back to the instructor and sang off the accompanist as I tried to hear the notes in the piano. The accompanist seemed to be happy that someone in the class was making eye contact.
After everyone had sang, the instructor said we all had really nice singing voices and that she will be bringing in new songs for some people next week. Wait. Whoah. Sure, I was already planning on never coming back, but students couldn’t pick their own songs?? What was the point of it then?
As we were all filing out, I asked the instructor if I could bring in a song I wanted to work on next week.
No, all the new people have to sing ‘Anyone Can Whistle’.
But I really hate that song. It brings back bad memories.
No, you have to work on that song next week. The instructor said with obvious strain, and I walked away.
The next day, I went to the registration office and dropped the class. The registration receptionist gave me a form to fill out. The form had two questions: What is your complaint? Why are you dropping the class? I wrote down two very succinct paragraphs which basically amounted to: this class was not what I thought it would be. I got a full refund minus a five dollar processing fee. The receptionist apologized and was quite nice. Maybe she should teach a class.
I take pride in my outside the mainstream take on things. I’ve been to sci fi conventions. I’ll try anything at least once. But this class was wayyy too freakazoid cult for me. Apparently, several students have been taking the class for years.
But wait. There’s an epilogue. Two days after I had dropped the class, the instructor called me. She was calling because she wanted me to drop the class. I could’ve let her go on and on, but life was too damn short. I stopped her blabbering and told her I had already dropped the class. There was a pause from her end. Yes, I had rejected her before she could reject me. She wished me luck and that was that.
But in the end, I am grateful to musical theatre class. I had forgotten that agonizing feeling of having an annoying Sondheim song stuck in my head for days after hearing it. I’m going back to improv. Maybe I could do Improv Musical Theatre.