Saturday, July 3, 2010
Prelude to a Memory
It's funny what people fall in love with. Over the years I've written songs, skits, short stories, plays, and poems. As a journalist I've covered major political races and penned award-winning investigative articles about natural and man-made disasters. For a laugh I've actually given readers the shirt off my back. But looking back over all the words I've organized it's safe to say that nothing has made the people around me happier than a short silly song I wrote called "Daddy Drinks Because You Cry."
"Daddy Drinks"-- the closest thing this honky tonk hobbyist has to a hit-- was the result of a deliberate writing exercise. I sat down one afternoon intending to pen a sincere country song that was at least as form-aware and funny as "Two Heads Are Better Than One,"or "Poor Tied Up Darlin" from The Robber Bridegroom, the only musical I performed in at Rhodes. Well, the only one that opened, anyway.
People who know my allegedly snobby tastes in theatre are usually surprised when I confess my love for The Robber Bridegroom. And truth be told, I probably don't love the show as much as the associated memories. My first encounters with Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk and the vast body of work produced by musicologist Alan Lomax came about while doing my actor's homework, gearing up to play Little Harp. The way I thought about and listened to music changed almost overnight and my old, relatively mainstream musical pursuits evolved into a lifelong obsession with American folk forms, global pop, and all manner of sonic esoterica.
What follows is a memory. That may explain the fiddle in the wings.
It was the fall of 1988. In Russia there was perestroika. In the U.S. there was only shouting over who would succeed Ronald Reagan as President and confusion as to whether or not the first amendment allowed Larry Flynt to hurt Jerry Falwell's feelings. As for me, I was too covered up in school work to care and too broke to buy the pair of black Levi's I needed to wear as Little Harp in The Robber Bridegroom, Eudora Welty's twisted adaptation of one of the Grimm Brothers darkest fairy tale. Then again I had plenty of money for beer and smokes and I was skinny enough to borrow jeans from my girlfriend so things weren't all bad. Well, until they were.
From the earliest rehearsals The Robber Bridegroom had the makings of a special show. Everybody clicked with their characters and with each other. It's apparent in the serious silliness written all over our faces in the production stills. On opening night Tony Garner called the cast together to listen to an answering machine message left by playwright Alfred Uhrey. "Don't put any straw in your teeth," Uhrey advised charging the actors to play things straight. Talk about unnecessary advice...
I don't know who it was who convinced Mississippi's own Laura Canon to step out of the lighting booth and into the spotlight but that person is a genius. Her performance as Salome--the most scheming lustful crone on the Natchez Trace--was on par with Carol Burnett at her scene-stealing best. I'd sneak onstage every night to watch "Marriage is Riches" and sympathize with poor Bennett Wood (Clement) who had to keep a straight face throughout while performing between Laura and a sassy freshman named Amy Matheny (Rosamund).
I've never liked musicals the way other theatre people like musicals because I don't like the way people sing in musicals. To me it always sounds fake. But when Amy Matheny strummed her autoharp she didn't sound like she was in a musical she sounded like she was auditioning for The Carter Family. Brad Shelton and Anjeanette (Ajay) Kittrell were hilarious as the rhythmically challenged Goat family, and multiple threat Greg Krosnes held everything together as Jamie Lockhart, The Bandit of the Woods. The chorus was also stocked with smart performers like Joe Tamborello, Stacy DeZutter, and Seth Herzog. In fact, when I think of the performances in this show the chorus's collective reaction to Salome's "famous cracker pie" is the first thing that comes to mind: "Woogah!"
In a recent note director & choreographer Barry Fuller described the cast as being among his favorites.
On the day The Robber Bridegroom was slated to open I awoke to the sound of a ringing telephone. It was too early in the morning to be good news. My grandfather was gone. Mom said some family friends would pick me up later in the evening and bring me home to Middle Tennessee for the funeral. When I got off the phone with her I called Barry and told him what had happened. He was incredibly supportive with one word of advice: "Go."
In 1987 The McCoy stopped producing its plays ad seriatim and became a repertory house with a minimum of two plays in rotation at all times. This was boot camp for student actors who became accustomed to learning several parts at once in addition to performing half-a-dozen other jobs around the theater. When I called Joe Tamborello to ask if he could skip a class or two and meet me in the theatre I had no doubt that he could learn the role of Little Harp in an afternoon. He was one of the most disciplined performers on the team and he'd been standing in for me already when I was away rehearsing All My Sons, which opened the following weekend. All we had to do was focus on the details.
A few weeks back Joe told me that his best memory from The Robber Bridegroom was his one night playing Little Harp. My best memory--towering high above Amy's rich voice, Laura's withering looks, and Ajay's irrepressible clowning-- is of that one terrible afternoon we spent working together.
The first show I ever saw at The McCoy was the epic eight-hour Nicholas Nickleby which means I had feelings of inadequacy throughout most of my college career. But I learned how to play the spoons for The Robber Bridegroom... what's not to love about that?