A Hunk-a Hunk-a Burnin’ Love

22 Jun

BARTENDER: What size do you have that shirt in?
ME: Large, Extra Large and Double X.
BARTENDER: So, do you have it in medium?
ME: I have Large, Extra Large and Double X.
BARTENDER (Clearly confused): Oh.

Today I am writing from my merch booth at the back of the Majestic Theatre in San Antonio. My booth is actually located inside the theatre, which is pretty common in smaller houses like the ones on Broadway. On tour, I’m usually set up in the main lobby of the venue, which feels like it’s miles away from the auditorium and my fellow company members. I often feel pretty isolated, but it’s the nature of what I do here.

I felt pretty “out there” in high school, too. I went to a school in Louisville that had developed a reputation for being kinda rough, and I was terrified to go there. My middle school had been on the border of two high schools’ bussing routes, so most of my friends went to J-Town High School and I ended up at Fern Creek, where I knew almost no one.

I made several friends – I’ve always been more comfortable with a small group of close friends than a large group of people I barely know – and we were all misfits in a way. My friend Natalie got me hooked on “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and we would sit in class and quote the movie rather than studying our algebra equations. My friend Amy and I would send each other notes, trying to make the other one laugh by quoting the song “I Touch Myself.” And then there was Mrs. Burton, who I thought looked just like Phylicia Rashad in her “Cosby Show” years and treated me like as her peer.

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Señora Burton in Mexico City.

Mrs. Burton was my Spanish 101 teacher, and when I started studying with her, she had just graduated with her Masters degree and had completed her certificate of fluency from the University of Mexico City. And she was Ms. Harris then. I had a huge intellectual crush on her – I wanted to know everything she did. And she was funny. For me, she will always be “that” teacher – the one who inspired you to always do better.

I don’t know why or how it came so easily to me, but I picked up Spanish very quickly and Mrs. Burton took me under her wing. Once every couple of weeks, we would have in-class Scrabble day, where we would pair off into teams and play Scrabble in Spanish. Because I had progressed so rapidly, the only person I could play against was Mrs. Burton. She pushed me. She encouraged me. She believed in me. I adored her.

My sophomore year, I ended up in Mrs. Schenck’s (pronounced SKANK) Spanish 102 class. I didn’t mean to be the know-it-all, but it became fairly evident that I was more advanced in the language than she was, which made us both very unhappy. I was sure to get back into Mrs. Burton’s 103 class the next year. By that point, I had gone with her, another teacher and a few other students to Mexico for a week and by that point I had decided that I was going to follow in her footsteps and get my Certificate of Fluency in Mexico before going on to be an interpreter. That would mean I’d have to learn a third language, at least. Two more if I wanted to interpret for the U.N.

Mrs. Burton had me reading novels in Spanish. She had me reading her college textbooks. In Spanish. She was giving me a college-level language education while simultaneously teaching high school Spanish 103 to the rest of the class. I was getting special treatment, but it was because she believed in me, and to be fair – I deserved it. I was that kid that would go home and literally study the Spanish-English dictionary to increase my vocabulary. I was a nerd, and she embraced that. I had found a kindred spirit!

Some time during my sophomore year, I got the name of a young man in Argentina with whom I would write for almost a year. He would let me practice my Spanish and I promised him I would help him learn English. We talked about Argentina, South America and, of course, the Peróns. It was such a joy to get letters from David. It was a challenge to read his letters, and I was happy to tackle it. I wore out my verb conjugation books and dictionaries trying to decipher his dialect. My brain was working at 110%, and I loved it.

During that time, my parents and their best friends, Paul and Carol, started a side job cleaning office buildings at night to make some extra cash. They would drag me and my brother along and we would vacuum and empty garbage cans and ash trays and we would get a little extra in our allowances at the end of the week. I actually enjoyed it because it allowed me to listen to my Magneto and Daniela Romo cassettes that I’d bought in Mexico City on my new Walkman (remember those?). And then one night I noticed Carol putting a tape into her Walkman, and on the cassette cover, among several other weird, colorful logos, was the face of a woman, surrounded by what looked like a sun, and underneath was written in big, uppercase letters: EVITA.

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The cover of the Daniela Romo cassette I bought in Mexico City. Her big hit was “Desnudo,” which means, “Naked.”

I remembered David writing to me about Evita, so I asked Carol what it was. She said, “Oh! You should listen to this song. It’s called, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” I think you’d find it to be really interesting because you love Spanish so much.” (Carol was an elementary school librarian, and was always ready with cross-curricular suggestions. I loved her dearly.) So she let me borrow her cassette. It was “The Premiere Collection: The Best of Andrew Lloyd Webber.”

The tape wasn’t cued up for “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” It had been rewound all the way to the beginning, and when I hit play, I heard something so strange and different and wonderful that I immediately fell in love. The sound of a huge pipe organ, a thumping bass line and synthesized drums hit my ears. Then an opera singer started singing, “In sleep he sang to me/In dreams he came…” What was this? I listened to the whole tape. Twice. “Memory” was on that tape. I didn’t know that Barbra Streisand song was in Cats! (Hers was the only version I had known until then). And I was shocked to learn that Carol, who went to church with our family, had been listening to music from Jesus Christ Superstar. Wasn’t that sacrilegious?

I became a man obsessed. As soon as I could save up the money, I asked my Dad to take me to the big record store (remember those?) on the corner of Hurstborne Lane so I could get the tape of Evita. I wanted to learn more about her, and that seemed to be the most logical place to start. I put the tape in as soon as I got home and sat in front of my stereo for the next 70 minutes and didn’t breathe. I had never heard singing like that before. Who was this woman singing “Buenos Aires?!” And what in the world was she saying?!? That was the first time I ever heard Patti LuPone sing. It was the first time I knew that Inigo Montoya (“You killed my father. Prepare to die.”) could sing. I must have listened to it all the way through at least 5 times that day. The next day, I asked Dad to take me to get the Phantom of the Opera cassette. We listened to that one in car on the way home because I couldn’t wait. We listened to the overture. About 10 times. My Dad must’ve thought I’d gone crazy, but for me, something had clicked.

The overture to Phantom made me want to learn to play piano. “The Music of the Night” made me want to sing. Patti LuPone made my head want to explode. I very quickly got in contact with my friend Jenny, who played piano very well, and had the Phantom of the Opera sheet music on her piano at home. My Mom found a used piano for sale. Pretty soon I was set. Jenny would come over after church every Sunday afternoon for our weekly lesson, and in the meantime, I would practice “Music of the Night” instead of scales. Sorry, Jenny.

One day, as I was riding somewhere with Jenny, she said to me, “You know…Phantom is coming to town next year. We should look into getting tickets. Or, we could just get tickets to the whole season!” I had no idea what she was talking about – which season? Spring? Fall? I don’t do summer. – but I was in! I loved Jenny. She was in college, but, like Mrs. Burton, she treated me as an equal – not as some idiot teenager, but as someone who had something worthwhile to say. And simply put – Jenny’s a sweetheart.

I talked to my parents and convinced them to buy me a subscription to the Broadway Series for my birthday and part of my Christmas. According to the advertisement, in order to secure tickets to Phantom for the ’93/’94 season, you needed to have a subscription for the ’92/’93 season. When you renewed your tickets for ’93/’94, you would be guaranteed your season seats for Phantom, which was coming to Louisville for the first time and was guaranteed to sell out all six weeks.

That first season was amazing. Guys and Dolls starring Lorna Luft, Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (was that also sacrilegious?), a play called Breaking Legs, The Secret Garden and Les Misérables. I was in deep, y’all.

When we lived in England, we had gone to the theatre a few times. We saw Topol in Fiddler on the Roof, Richard Harris in Camelot, and my Dad and I saw The Pirates of Penzance. I fell asleep during all three. And I was terrified of Fruma Sarah. For my birthday one year, Mom and Dad took me to see show in the West End called Bugsy Malone, which was directed by Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees. I remember sitting in my seat thinking, “Is this where Mickey sat?” The show featured a cast of pie- and egg-throwing kids – literally all of the cast were under the age of 16 – and starred a  young Catherine Zeta-Jones. (Years later, as I was selling her kids some Shrek ears at a performance of Shrek on Broadway, I told Ms. Zeta-Jones that I had seen her in Bugsy Malone. She smiled and said, “Oh, you were the one?!” and gave me a $20 tip. She will always be tops in my book.)

That summer, my family moved to Paducah, Kentucky, because my Dad got a new job. Jenny and I kept our season tickets even after my family moved to Paducah. That was part of the agreement of moving – my parents promised that they would get me up to Louisville for all the shows. They knew what moving the summer before my senior year meant – how hard that would be – and they kept their promise to try to keep me happy.

When I went to register for my new school, I had one class opening that needed to be filled. I had heard the school had a great choral program, so I signed up for Show Choir. I didn’t know you had to audition for it…I just assumed you signed up for it and you were in! I got to the choir room my first day and met a kooky, lovely woman named Donna Green, who told me that she only had one opening for a male voice that year and that I would need to audition to officially get in. She took me into a small room with a piano and had me sing through “Somewhere Out There” from “An American 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 excited.

I went back into the choir room and met the people who would become my family for the next year. In fact, I made so many friends in that one year of school because of the choir (and probably because I was fresh meat, too) that I didn’t even care that we’d moved. I missed my friends from Louisville, but being in Show Choir gave me some visibility and, believe it or not, street cred in the school, and being a new kid on the block (not the one with anxiety issues) who made it into Show Choir was kind of a big deal. I don’t think I ever let it go to my head – and if I did, I apologize to everyone at Reidland High School – but I finally felt like I fit in somewhere. The Show Choir kids were silly and talented and popular and I was a part of that. We made sequins look cool, y’all.

Show Choir was the first time I’d ever felt like part of a group. The whole gang slept over at my house one night. Some of us went to Graceland together. We had Jolt Cola parties (we were wild and crazy kids!) and we were there for each other when one of us needed support.

Our big end-of-the-year show was called “Collage: Celebrate the Victory!” I don’t remember what victory we were celebrating, exactly, but we celebrated it nonetheless. Each of the three choirs performed in the show – we would take turns being featured – and then there were the group numbers where all of us would sing together. We even did an entire Phantom of the Opera section of the show. I got to make my own mask for “Masquerade” (which was pre-tty fabulous, if I do say so myself) and I got to sing “All I Ask Of You” with my friend Shanna. The Concert Choir did a “Newsies” medley long before it ever became a stage musical, and they did lots of flips and turns and jumps, too. The ladies of the Show Choir did a “Sister Act” medley that was pretty spectacular. The men got to do “Little Darlin’,” and I got to do the spoken solo. (“My darlin’…I neeeeed you…”) I’d always find the oldest woman in the front row and take her hand and embarrass her. What? I was funny!

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Our program for Collage ’94

We also did a medley of Elvis tunes, with each of the guys dressed as Elvis in various stages of his career. I chose to be Elvis in his heavier jumpsuit-wearing days and I got it in my head that it would be funny if I snacked on something during the number. I cleared it with Ms. Green, and the first night of the show I showed up with a box of Twinkies (remember those? Too soon?). We snuck into the back of the house and as the horns started blaring “duh duh daaaaaaaaaaaah, duh duh duhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” all the Elvii ran up onstage and took various Elvis-like poses. I shoved an entire Twinkie in my face, making sure I smeared a little all over my mouth for effect, and I started tossing Twinkies into the audience. They were wrapped, of course. I specifically remember hitting one woman on the head with one. I hope she enjoyed it as a snack later.

As the number progressed, the masticated Twinkie in my mouth morphed into a big ball of sticky, doughy goop and I couldn’t swallow it. As everyone else sang, I chewed and chewed and chewed, but it just wouldn’t go down. All the while, I kept doing the choreography. My partner for the number, Stacey, knew something was up because I wasn’t singing, and she kept looking at me with a quizzical, “What the hell is wrong with you?” look on her face, but we kept going. I managed to swallow the big wad of cake, but it got lodged in my throat and I started choking. I’m not overdramatizing right now – I was really choking on a Twinkie in front of 1,000 people. But I kept dancing. At one point in the song, the choreography required that Stacey and I stand back to back, link arms, and I had to flip her over my head. That dance move saved my life. It basically replicated the Heimlich maneuver, dislodging the snack cake from my throat, allowing me to breath again. As if nothing had happened, I swallowed the cake with a big grin and sang my little blue face off. And no one was any the wiser. The show, as they say, must go on.

The choirs all sang at graduation, too. As I walked up to the front in my cap and gown, I got a huge lump in my throat – not of the Hostess kind – and as we turned to face Ms. Green and the music started, she mouthed, “I love you guys,” and I fell apart. Instead of going to hang out with my fellow graduates that night, or even my family, I went to a lock-in with some of my Show Choir friends, which just felt right.

A few months later, I’d be with my Show Choir family again, though in much sadder circumstances. One of the guys – Michael – had been killed in a car accident just a week or so after he got his driver’s license. It was the first time I’d ever known anyone who’d died other than my great-grandfathers who had both lived to be in their 90’s. It didn’t make sense. But we all came together and supported each other. That was the last time I saw most of that group, though several of us are still friends on Facebook. And I still keep in touch with Jennifer, my best friend from that high school, though not as often as I’d like. Twenty years on, though, I still consider her to be one of my nearest and dearest.

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My Show Choir

If you’d have asked me in 1993 what I thought moving to Paducah, Kentucky would mean for me, I would have answered, “It’s the worst thing that could ever happen to me.” I was so wrong! Ms. Green’s choir – and her encouragement – led me to pursue private voice lessons, which led to me getting a scholarship to Murray State University and got the ball rolling for a whole lot of great things. Some of that credit goes to Jenny, too. Mrs. Burton’s support and encouragement and her absolute belief in me gave me the invaluable life skill of speaking a second language, which has been more useful than I ever imagined, and she sparked my curiosity about travel and culture and customs. So to those two great ladies, I say a great big, ¡Gracias! Estoy tan agradecido á ambos.

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3 Responses to “A Hunk-a Hunk-a Burnin’ Love”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby | Confessions of a Merch Whore - July 3, 2013

    […] when I got into Show Choir my senior year of high school (SEE ALSO: Hunk-a Hunk-a Burnin’ Love https://jasonhbratton76.wordpress.com/2013/06/22/a-hunk-a-hunk-a-burnin-love/) and I had been bitten by the showbiz bug. My interest in language waned, but I knew my parents […]

  2. Ladies And Gentlemen: Elvis Has Left The Building. | Confessions of a Merch Whore - August 16, 2013

    […] at a kiosk in one of the strip malls. And, of course, as I’ve already written, we did a medley of Elvis music for our year-end choir show, which very nearly killed […]

  3. Walking In Memphis With My Feet 10 Feet Off Of Beale | Confessions of a Merch Whore - September 21, 2013

    […] at the Peabody – one of the finest hotels in the South – they sell tacky statuettes of Elvis in his jumpsuit days next to imported Chinese vases and Tiffany lamps. There’s a building on Union Avenue that […]

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