You Gotta Have Heart! Miles And Miles And Miles Of Heart

1 Jul

I’ve just returned to the hotel from a truly wonderful going away party/company roast (think Comedy Central roasts Bob Saget…not Sunday dinner) and, even though I have to be up in seven hours to drive to Oklahoma City, here I am…writing.

Tonight was a celebration – not only of those six company members that played their last performance tonight, but also of the six new actors who are joining the family. It was  a celebration for those of us who have been here since we opened the show exactly six months ago today in Pittsburgh. It was a celebration for the company, as well, for getting through an incredibly difficult week of learning new material during the day and actually doing it at night. We were due for a celebration.

After our musical director’s brilliant roast which, somehow, I was lucky enough to evade, we sat around talking, laughing, and eating. Some danced. Most drank. I was talking with one of our cast members, Ariela, who is a staunch supporter of me writing this blog, and our show’s executive producer. We were talking about the blog and what direction I wanted to take it and how I planned to get it out to a wider audience. And finding a niche. Dani, our producer, asked me what I considered to be my niche. After a couple of seconds, the only answer I could come up with was “Heart.”

I suppose that there are many things that we, as actors and singers, hope to be known for in our careers… He’s funny. She’s “fierce” and can “belt her face off.” So-and-so has a lovely legit voice. I guess I’ve always wanted to hear someone tell me my voice was “sick” or “stupid good” or whatever, but one of the kindest – and enigmatic – compliments I’ve ever received came to me from a very dear friend while I was singing in Japan.

In 2011 I was fortunate enough to be chosen to go to Japan for three months to sing a concert tour of Disney music with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. It was the most life-changing thing I’ve ever done, and it almost led me to quit the business because I figured nothing could ever be so good again. It was such a wonderful experience that it deserves its own blog entry – or four.

Our show’s director/my cast mate/my dear friend Tony and his partner Rob and I had worked together in New York selling merchandise, and I had heard them talk about this concert tour that they did in Japan, but I was so incredibly intimidated by them both (now I realize I was intimidated by their résumés, which certainly do not make a man) that I never dreamed of asking them to audition. My friend Michael did the tour in 2010 with Tony and, even though he denies it, I think he suggested to Tony that I be seen for the 2011 cast. Tony and Rob had never heard me sing. Come to think of it, neither had Michael. I was desperate to make a good impression on them both because they were sticking their necks out for me by bringing me in.

Tony walked me out of the first audition, gently laying his hand on my shoulder, and when we got out into the hallway he hugged me tightly and said, “I had no idea you could do that.” It was one of the few times in my adult life when I felt like it was OK to be proud of myself (which makes me think I need to explore this further in another entry). I hadn’t made Tony look like a fool in front of the Japanese producer and I felt really good about the work I had just done. I mean, I had just sung 5 songs in my first audition, ranging from Sebastian in “The Little Mermaid” to singing high Ds in “So Close” from “Enchanted” without even flinching. And I made the Japanese guy with the big hair in the back of the room dance. (I would later find out that his name was Francesco Sasaki, and he would become one of my favorite people on the planet). The callbacks were the next day, and when I got the call that night that I’d been chosen to go to Japan, I wept in my room. And then I started telling everyone I knew.

I was so excited and grateful to have booked a job, but there was more to my excitement. Just a few days before our auditions in New York, the great East Japan earthquake and tsunami destroyed a huge chunk of northeastern Japan’s coastline, wiping out entire cities and towns and causing some serious problems at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. I was surprised that they even had the auditions, but as it turned out, the Japanese contingency had already flown into the States to meet with the show’s conductor in L.A., so they were able to make it to New York. Whether the U.S. government would allow us to go into Japan with the threat of nuclear fallout, though, was anybody’s guess. After seeing the devastation on the news, I wanted to do anything I could to help, but I had no money to send. I had nothing of any material value to offer as aid. But I had my voice and my heart, and I was being given a chance to hopefully help, even if it just meant making someone forget their troubles for a few minutes by singing a song.

Rob came to visit us in Japan in November. Knowing Robbie was in the house watching us made me a nervous wreck. Not only would he be out there judging us on our musicality and voices like everyone else, but he was also one of the only people in the house who actually understood the words we were singing. One of the things I love (and fear) about him is that he will tell you exactly what he thinks – no sugar-coating. So when he came backstage during intermission his first night seeing the show, I was terrified. And I had to know what he thought. Immediately.

I happened to be in the hallway with Tony when Rob started toward us, and when he saw my face, he opened his arms, wrapped himself around me and said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone with so much heart as you have onstage. Every moment is sincere.” The insecure actor-y part of me at first thought, “Is that the best compliment you could come up with? Am I that awful?,” but then the saner part of me stopped for a moment and realized that Rob’s was one of the best compliments I could have possibly received.

Two weeks before the tour ended, I started having meltdowns at rehearsal and soundcheck. I’d get choked up at soundcheck, people! I specifically remember the orchestra running the Princess section of Fantasmic!, and as I heard the strings and crashing cymbals swell and swirl into a frenzy, as I watched the 72 people who had somehow, unimaginably become my dear, dear friends despite language and cultural barriers, I turned to my friend Katie and buried my face into her shoulder and sobbed. In front of everyone. I quickly became known in the orchestra as a crybaby. At our final soundcheck, it was suggested that as a surprise to the orchestra, we – the singers – should run the opening number facing them as opposed to facing out into the house as we would in performance. It was an opportunity for the orchestra to actually see the number as the audience would, instead of just the backs of our heads. The Japanese love surprises, and to see their faces light up as we made our entrance – and to see tears coming down some of their faces – turned me into a blubbering mess and I couldn’t sing a note.

Backstage, we exchanged gifts and notes. I somehow managed to keep it together after I got over my initial soundcheck breakdown, but I knew there was a whole ocean of tears waiting to be let loose. I also knew once they started, those tears would not stop. Tony and I had been friends before Japan, but he and I had really bonded while we were there along with our youngest cast member, Joey. I have been part of shows before where I’ve become close with people, and despite the promises to keep in touch and call and write and email and Facebook and tweet and Instagram and everything else we promise to do, it’s inevitable that you will never have the relationship in real life that you had on tour with your cast mates. People go home to their lives, their families, other gigs and, try as you may, you lose touch. I knew this going into our final show. I knew this could happen with Tony. I knew it would most likely happen with the rest of the cast. I knew it’d be almost impossible to keep in touch with my new Japanese friends from the other side of the world, and I knew there was a good chance I’d never see those new friends again.

In our dressing room, Tony gathered us up and started handing out closing night gifts to us. As he presented them to us, he said a few words about each of us, and when he got to me, he got a little choked up and said that in the five years he’d worked as part of that concert tour he’d never met anyone with as much heart as me. That’s all he had to say and I went into the ugly cry. I’m talking the hideously ugly cry. It was coming to an end and there was nothing I could do to stop it. My heart was broken.

Throughout my life, my heart has been a recurring theme. Not the actual organ, mind you. That is, as far as I know, and in spite of the food that I eat, still in good working condition, but my heart isn’t always working as well. “Sensitive,” “emotional,” “tender-hearted,” “weak,” “sappy,” “sentimental,” “soft”…they’ve all been used to describe me. I used to think that was a detriment to my character. “Real men” aren’t supposed to be sensitive or emotional. New Yorkers are tough – they don’t cry. Just suck it up. Toughen up. Be a man.

The truth is…I liked myself better in Japan. I liked feeling things again. I’ve done the tough New Yorker thing for almost 12 years and honestly, it doesn’t work for me. In the song “Tennessee Homesick Blues,” Dolly Parton sang “It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world.” Preach it, Dolly. How can I be the performer or writer I want to be if I close off my emotional well just to survive in a city that doesn’t give a damn about me? Would I ever have a performing job that would be as emotionally and artistically fulfilling as the one I’d just had? Should I just quit while I was ahead? These questions plagued me for the months following my return to the States. Honestly, they’ve haunted me until just a few weeks ago when I made the decision to leave New York. I thought it would be a gut-wrenching decision. Actually, I never thought I’d choose to leave New York, but I’m following my heart rather than continuing to be stubborn because I think that’s what I’m supposed to do. Clearly other people can see that my heart is one of my greatest assets, so I’m going to trust them and in doing so, trust myself. That I have had no second thoughts about leaving since I made the decision just proves to me that I’m making the right choice.

Tonight’s going away party was a lot less emotional for me than it would have been if I were a cast member. As the merch guy, I don’t get to spend a whole lot of time with the performers in the show. There are full weeks that have gone by without me seeing even one of them, even though we stay in the same hotel and work in the same building. It’s the nature of the job, I suppose. That being said, I will miss each of them. I myself will be leaving the tour in two weeks, so another round of goodbyes is in short order. In six weeks, I’ll meet another cast and I’ll open another show in another city. And that’s showbiz, kid.

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5 Responses to “You Gotta Have Heart! Miles And Miles And Miles Of Heart”

  1. Nina Anderson July 2, 2013 at 1:52 am #

    Your heart is too sweet for NYC.

  2. jasonhbratton76 April 1, 2016 at 1:53 am #

    Reblogged this on Confessions of a Merch Whore and commented:

    I’ve recently started to really focus on self improvement and self fulfillment and what I need to do to make my life what I want it to be. Tonight I was listening to Tony Robbins (yeah…I know…) speak and he said something that reminded me of this blog entry I wrote 3 years ago. (I can’t even believe it’s been that long!) But he said, “Heart. That’s how you become outstanding. If you got enough heart and enough vision and enough reasons, there is nothing you dream about you can’t turn into reality. So with that kind of vision and with the skills to be able to plan it and organize it, there’s *nothing* you can’t achieve. But you gotta have the heart.” I think there’s hope for me yet…

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Confessions of a Merch Whore - July 19, 2013

    […] mentioned in “You Gotta Have Heart! Miles and Miles and Miles of Heart,” I went to Japan in September of 2011, just six months after that devastating earthquake and tsunami, […]

  2. What A Difference A Year Can Make | Confessions of a Merch Whore - September 18, 2013

    […] written a lot about my experience performing in Japan and how meaningful it was to me, and I’m sorry to tell you that I’m sure I will write […]

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