You’re Doin’ Fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma, O.K.! YEOW!

19 Jun

Being on the road is hard. Hotel beds can never compare to my memory foam mattress, which is wrapped in plastic and sitting in a storage unit in Queens. The towels are often scratchy and non-absorbent. The internet rarely works properly, and when it does, it’s typically so slow that it will take you 3 hours to watch the newest half-hour episode of Family Guy on Hulu+. And the search for food after a show generally ends with pizza delivery (and the subsequent 3 a.m. acid reflux) or, against one’s better judgement and at the detriment of one’s bank account, a $25 hamburger from room service. I’ve lived in the same clothes for the last six months – two suitcases are all we’re allowed, and they both have to stay under fifty pounds. Every time I go home to Kentucky to see my parents on layoffs, I leave about 10 pounds of “stuff” at their house. And somehow my suitcases are both dangerously close to being overweight again. A can of shaving cream or a bottle of Tylenol packed in the wrong case could mean a $75 fee. I’m living on the edge, man. I’m a renegade.

As difficult as it is, I love the tour life. I have been to so many amazing cities (and a few craptastic ones, as well… Wilmington, Delaware, I’m looking at you!) and I have seen so many things that have now been scratched off my bucket list – on our way to Phoenix, we flew over the Grand Canyon, which I’d never seen. I’ve been to Disneyland – twice! I just saw the Alamo for the first time on Tuesday. And I found the house that they used as the facade of Mary and Rhoda’s apartment in Minneapolis. That one wasn’t on the bucket list, but it was pretty freakin’ cool and it led to my new obsession with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

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My view of the Grand Canyon as we flew over it on the way to Phoenix.

I’ve also dubbed this tour the “What A Feeling! 2013 Reunion Tour,” because I have been reunited with so many wonderful people from my past. In almost every city on our itinerary, I’ve met up with or stayed with someone that I went to school with or worked with or grew up with. It’s been one of the most rewarding six months of my life because of the people with whom I’ve been able to reconnect. And, even though I didn’t think I knew anyone in San Antonio, the reunions just keep coming!

When a show’s been running for a while, the cast starts to change. People book new work, contracts end, people get injured, people get homesick and tired of the road…there could be a million reasons why someone might choose to leave. We have a pretty big changeover coming up in a couple of weeks, so the new cast members have joined us here in Texas so they can start rehearsing and watching the show so they’ll be ready to go into the show in Dallas or Kansas City. One of the new cast members is a guy with whom I went to graduate school in Oklahoma. He just recently closed the national tour of Memphis, which was choreographed by our show’s director and choreographer. Austin is gorgeous and has one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard, and he’s a genuinely sweet guy. I’m really glad he’s joined the company.

Beyond going to school together, Austin and I have worked together before. We worked one summer at Discoveryland! U.S.A.: The National Home of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! in Sand Springs, Oklahoma.

I auditioned for Disco-land in an elementary school choir room and I sang my go-to audition number, “If I Loved You.” I should have known something was up when they asked me to stay for the “dance” audition only to find out they just wanted me to do a step-touch and paddle turn. That was it. Where were the tour jetés and pirouettes? Didn’t they want to see my sauté leap? I’d brought my ballet slippers and everything! No. A simple step-touch and a paddle turn would suffice. All those pliés and port de bras in the hallway proved to be a waste of time and energy, but my ballet teacher would have been proud. Before I left the audition, they had offered me the role of Jud Fry, who was described in the script as a “bullet-colored growly man.” Even though I was 24 years old, I had a baby face and looked maybe 18, and considering I was proudly doing port de bras in the hallway, I wouldn’t exactly have called myself a “growly man.”

I was so excited to have booked my first professional gig. I was going to be paid $400 a week to play Jud and to also play Benjamin Pontipee in Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, which we would do twice a week in rep with Oklahoma!. The company would arrange housing for us in Tulsa, but, even though I was considered a principle, I would have to pay housing out of my salary. There was no per diem. As luck would have it, a friend of mine from OCU was going to be playing Curly, so we decided to room together and just get a 1-bedroom apartment. He would take the living room and I would take the bedroom. Everything seemed to be set. The day we moved into the apartment, it was pouring rain. That was just a omen of what was to come.

Rehearsals started at the outdoor pavilion – in the pouring rain. Several of the company members were returning from previous summers. Some would come back every other year…some would work there every summer for as long as they could. Oklahoma! is a big, complicated show with a lot of music and choreography, especially for the ensemble, so it was decided that the ensemble would learn all of their music first so they could start learning choreography. The principles would learn their material along the way. Jud really only has one song, “Lonely Room,” which happens midway through the first act, and apparently “along the way” meant two days later for me. I sat in my raincoat for two days waiting to get around to learning my song, which, of course, I had already done on my own.

When we finally got around to “Lonely Room,” I got to the end of the song and the director stopped me.

BILL: Jason – I know that what you just sang is what’s written, but here at Discoveryland, we have Jud sing a high G at the end of the song, so…if you could just do that…

ME: But…that’s not what’s written, and changing the note changes the chord, thereby changing the “feel” of the song. It’s not what Richard Rodgers intended. I don’t really feel comfortable doing that.

BILL: Yes, but…that’s how we do it here. Audiences like to hear high notes, and we give them what they want.

ME: Well, I don’t feel right doing that. It changes the song.

BILL: Well…you want this job, don’t you?

So, I sang the high note. In rehearsals. For the next three weeks, six nights a week, I conveniently “forgot” to sing the high G at the end of the song. Oops! Bill took me out back one night during intermission and flat out threatened to fire me and, in a rare moment of chutzpah, I wished him good luck with letting my understudy go on. My understudy was a 45-year old man who was roughly the shape of a cantaloupe who had never had a day of rehearsal and was about as butch as Barbra Streisand was in “Yentl.” He backed off after that and ultimately became so distracted with the other minor disasters that were happening around us that he forgot all about the high note.

As I said before, Discoveryland was in it’s 27th year, and from the looks of it, they were still using the original sets and costumes. The “set” consisted of three building facades – Jud’s smokehouse, Aunt Eller’s house and a barn. These facades were all full-sized, and they were only held up by ropes that were tied to trees behind them. The stage was huge, with the front half made of concrete on which our Will Parker and ensemble men had to tap dance in cowboy boots. The back half was just covered in loose gravel. We didn’t have body mics – just floor mics, which have a very limited range, so any time we spoke or sang, we had to make sure we were planted directly in front of one of those floor mics, which were spaced out about every 10 feet across the front of the stage. We didn’t have a live orchestra – it was all on CD – and from time to time, the CD would skip. Poor Ado Annie was jist a girl who co-co-co-couldn’t say n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-no. And the stage was surrounded by woods. Big, huge trees that not only held up our set, but also housed thousands of noisy crickets that would chirp throughout the show. Their chirping would be picked up by the floor mics and be amplified throughout the ampitheatre, leading many patrons to ask the sound board operator if they wouldn’t mind turning down the crickets because they couldn’t hear the show. We were all being upstaged by Jiminy Cricket as we made sure not to speak or sing in the dead spaces between the floor mics. This was some good theatre, y’all.

About a week – maybe two – after we opened Oklahoma!, we began rehearsals for Seven Hos For Seven Bros. We would rehearse during the day and perform Oklahoma! at night. Our apartment complex was in Tulsa, about 30 minutes from the theatre, so we’d have to leave at 8:30 to get to rehearsal by 9:00, and then we’d rehearse from 9:00 – 5:30, when we’d get a dinner break. We were due back at the theatre at 6:30 so the ensemble could get into costume for the Pre-Show, which started at 7:30, and then at 8:00 our sound operator would press PLAY and the magic that was Oklahoma! would begin. All three hours and fifteen minutes of it. We’d finish the show at 11:15 and then we were required to stay onstage for a meet-and-greet til 11:30, at which point we were free to go up to the dressing rooms and change out of costume and go home.

And then tech week started for 7B47B. Once tech began, we’d follow the same schedule, but then we’d change out of our Oklahoma! costumes and get dressed in our 7B47B costumes, ready to run the show starting at midnight. It was insane. We’d get home at 4 a.m. and have to be up at 8:30 to do it all over again the next day.

The day we learned the big barn raising dance, which is a 15-minute dance-off between the Brothers and the rival Suitors, we started rehearsals in an air conditioned dance studio about 10 minutes from the theatre. It was June in Oklahoma, so the heat was quite often near or above 100 degrees, so the air conditioning was a welcomed relief, especially since we were going to be dancing all day. At around 11:00, we were told that a ballet class was coming in and we had to relocate to the venue, which meant learning and running the dance on the concrete stage. We worked for about 2 hours in the heat, and any time we had to stop, it meant we had to start the dance from the beginning…because the music was all on one track on a CD. By the time we finished, several of us were literally dry-heaving in the woods behind the stage while others were splayed out on the concrete stage. Bill announced that he was going to take orders for cold drinks from Aunt Eller’s Ice Cream Parlor. We could have whatever we’d like – a lemonade, a soda, a water…anything! But we could only have one. If we needed anything else to drink, we were told there was a hose out back.

I was lucky that summer. I was considered a principle, so I didn’t have to do the Pre-Show, but the ensemble didn’t get off so easily. The Pre-Show was a 30-minute show choir-esque non-stop medley of old western cowboy and Americana songs. It included “Rawhide” and the Discoveryland theme song, which featured the lyrics, “At Discoveryland/We’re the best of the west out under the stars./At Discoveryland we have it aaaaaalllll!/Whether we’re singing ’bout “Home On The Range,”/Or when we’re all singin’, “Oooo-kla-homa!”…” You get the idea. The Pre-Show ended with Austin and our Gertie Cummings singing Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” At the end of the song, Michael Pasatopa – a Native American dancer who had entertained the audience earlier in the Pre-Show…and outside at the teepee (seriously) – rode out in full feathered headdress on the back of one of the show’s horses with a huge American flag in one hand and a shotgun in the other. On the final button of the song, Michael would fire the shotgun into the air, literally scaring the shit out of the horse, and it would run offstage as the American flag and feather headdress waved in the wind.

Curt, our horse wrangler, was responsible for scooping the poop off the stage before the overture would start. He was also our snake killer. Because the ampitheatre was outdoors, surrounded by woods, we had critter issues. Something – no one really knows what – died in the ceiling of the men’s dressing room and smelled so bad that we couldn’t get dressed in there. The dressing rooms were the only rooms on the grounds that were air conditioned, and I had to wear a lot of makeup to make me look bullet colored and growly, so I had to suck it up and hold my nose while I applied my layers and layers of Ben Nye Sallow Green and Texas Dirt. We had to shake out our boots every night before we put them on, just in case a rogue scorpion had taken up residence overnight. I would often notice the Farmers and the Cowmen morphing their choreography from a big circle to an amoeba-shaped loop, which often meant that there was either a tarantula or rattlesnake onstage. And for those moments, we relied on Curt, who would walk out onstage with a shovel, chop off the snake’s head and scoop it up and take it away. This was real living, friends.

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Me (on the right) as Jud Fry, the “bullet colored gravely” villain in “Oklahoma!” during my summer at Discoveryland! USA in Sand Springs, Oklahoma.

Curt eventually became our stage manager that summer because our first stage manager – a girl whose name I can’t remember – started abusing her position. She had a crush on at least four of our ensemble guys, and when none of them returned her affections (I think three of them turned out to be gay), she started taking out her frustrations on them. So Curt got bumped up and she got the boot. Our Curly ended up leaving the company because of personal matters he had to take care of, so our Adam Pontipee took over as Curly. He was tone deaf and terrified of horses, which was hilarious to those of us listening to him over the monitors backstage. To boost morale, Curt arranged for us to go paint balling as a group, which was great fun until our Dream Laurie slid behind a barricade and slammed her ribs into a set of concrete steps. She didn’t want to tell our producer because she knew he’d fire her, so she bravely/stupidly continued to do the show with her ribs wrapped. I was terrified of lifting her during the Dream Ballet, but I didn’t have much choice, and in trying to be gentle with her, I didn’t get enough lift in my knees and we both fell straight back onto the concrete floor. She was in so much pain that she just laid on top of me, and I was so horrified and embarrassed that I let her lay there while I belly laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation. We were finally able to stand up and walk offstage. She wasn’t fired, after all, but we had a new Dream Laurie the next night.

As physically, vocally and emotionally damaging as that summer was, it was also a lot of fun and I made a lot of great friends. A lot of them have gone on to do great things with their careers, too. One of our Dream Curlys/Brother Caleb ended up doing the national tour of Mamma Mia! for a couple of years. The other Dream Curly is a dancer in Las Vegas. Brother Ephraim and Gertie are in San Diego with their own band (http://yesteamgo.com). Austin played Leo Bloom in the national tour of The Producers and then went on to understudy the lead in the national tour of Memphis and now he’s out here with us. Our Ali Hakim made his Broadway debut in War Horse and our Will Parker was a winner on the TV show “Wipeout.” I’m incredibly proud of all of them. And I’m incredibly grateful to be a member of Actors’ Equity so I don’t ever have to live through that again!

I know this was a long entry, but I hope you got a kick out of it. And on your way out, please be sure to stop by Ado Annie’s Outpost and pick up a copy of Discoveryland! U.S.A.’s original Ado Annie’s gospel album, “I’m Just A Girl Who Cain’t Say No…To Jesus.” Yes, it was a real thing.

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3 Responses to “You’re Doin’ Fine, Oklahoma! Oklahoma, O.K.! YEOW!”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. A Hunk-a Hunk-a Burnin’ Love | Confessions of a Merch Whore - August 5, 2013

    […] Tale” and she showed me some choreography (step-touch, paddle turn – pretty much like my Discoveryland! audition) and she told me I was in! I didn’t really know what that meant, but I was […]

  2. Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life | Confessions of a Merch Whore - September 11, 2013

    […] I had just gotten my Masters degree in May, I had spent the summer doing summer stock in Tulsa and my plan was to return to Kentucky for a few months to save money so I could move to New York. […]

  3. Notafingah! | Confessions of a Merch Whore - January 19, 2014

    […] I was doing Oklahoma! at Discoveryland! USA, there came a night that Curt, our horse wrangling, snake killing, poop scooping stage manager was […]

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