Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby

3 Jul

After high school, I intended to go to college to be a foreign language major. I wanted to be an interpreter for the United Nations, which meant I not only needed to become fluent in Spanish and French, which I’d already been studying in high school, but I’d also need to learn a third language. My plans changed 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 would never pay for me to major in music or theatre.

I don’t remember why it happened, but I ended up going to a community college for my first year of college. I was just planning to get some of the basic courses out of the way while I figured out what I wanted to study and where. While I was at what was then known as Paducah Community College, I met a man named Jeff Jordan. He was the music teacher at the school and he also conducted the community chorus that rehearsed on the campus, which I joined with my friend Jennifer and her mom.

During that first semester it was announced that the chorus would be singing selections from Handel’s Messiah (as well as the Soulful Celebration version of the Hallelujah Chorus and “Joyful, Joyful” from the movie “Sister Act.”) Auditions were being held for solos and, being young and dumb, I went for it. I didn’t even know what Messiah was, really, other than the Hallelujah Chorus and I couldn’t read music very well, but I didn’t let that stop me. Nor the fact that I was quite literally 50 years younger than the other men who were auditioning with me. I listened at the door as each man sang through the music – partially because I wanted size up the competition, but mostly because I didn’t know the piece and needed to learn it.

Somehow, I managed to get the one male solo that Jeff included in our selections of the oratorio – “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” which is a bass-baritone aria with lots of melismas, which I’d never had to sing before. The night of the concert, we got to my solo, which was the only piece we were doing that required a horn. The trumpeter started playing the introduction to the aria and we all suddenly realized that his horn had gone out of tune because he’d been sitting for over an hour without keeping his instrument warmed up. I was on the back row of the risers, already trying to sing over a 15-piece chamber orchestra with the added challenge of a seriously out of tune trumpet blaring in front of me. It was not one of my finer moments onstage. But I was young and I didn’t really let it phase me. I was just happy to get through it. And I figured no one heard me over that horn, anyway.

After Messiah, Jeff let me know that the college would have a part-time voice teacher coming in the next semester if I wanted to register for private voice lessons. It was a great idea – I couldn’t afford private lessons, and my parents probably wouldn’t approve, but this way it would be paid for in my tuition and I’d get credit for it, so they couldn’t see it as a complete waste of time and money.

I started working with Norman Wurgler in the spring of 1995. After a few weeks of working together, he suggested that I consider auditioning for a voice scholarship to help pay my tuition in school. I could get a scholarship as a music minor and still major in Spanish and French. His wife, Pamela, was a full-time voice teacher at Murray State University, about 40 minutes south of Paducah, where they had a fantastic music program. Maybe I could get a scholarship there?

The community chorus was doing a joint concert with the Murray State choirs that spring and Mr. Wurgler and his wife were there. He introduced me to Dr. Bradley Almquist, the director of choral activities at MSU and I asked about scholarship auditions (why am I not this ballsy now?). Dr. Almquist gave me his number and told me to call him for an appointment, which I did. The next week I was in the Wurgler’s living room running through my audition. Mr. Wurgler’s wife, Dr. Wurgler, played and he coached me. They both seemed pretty pleased, so the next day I went in and sang for the voice faculty at MSU.

I don’t even remember being scared. That’s how young and stupid I was. I guess I felt I had nothing to lose, so I really wasn’t too worried about it. I don’t even know what I sang! “Caro Mio Ben,” maybe. Everyone starts with “Caro Mio Ben.” I think I sang two pieces and before I left the room, Dr. Almquist consulted with the voice faculty for a moment and then told me he would try to get me as much money as he could, but in order to accept any kind of scholarship from the music department, I would have to be a music major. Bend my arm, will ya? I didn’t tell my parents right away – I waited until I got the scholarship letter in the mail. I would receive the Clarence D. Walker Memorial Basso Scholarship for bass singers who majored in voice. Yes, I was a bass then. Or we all thought I was. The scholarship basically paid half of my tuition. I knew that would be hard for my parents to argue with. When I finally told them, they weren’t happy about it, but my mind was already made up, and I had the scholarship, so I had to have some kind of talent. Right?

From day one, I wanted to make sure the music faculty knew I wanted to be on Broadway. I didn’t want to be an opera singer – I wanted to sing musical theatre. None of the voice teachers seemed to be terribly thrilled about that, but Mr. Wurgler, who was also an adjunct voice teacher at MSU, indulged me from time to time. My second semester of what I officially call my freshman year (that first year at PCC didn’t count in my book), Mr. Wurgler left MSU for reasons that weren’t clear to me, so I was switched to his wife’s studio. Dr. Wurgler was starting to focus less on teaching studio voice and more on teaching music education, and from what I was told, it was a big deal that she took me on in her studio.

I loved the Wurglers. They were wonderful, compassionate, talented and intelligent people with kind hearts and infinite patience. Mr. Wurgler loved Gilbert & Sullivan and they both saw the value of musical theatre as an art form and would allow me to work theatre pieces into my repertoire. We claimed that singing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” in French counted as a French language piece and Gershwin and Styne and Lloyd Webber counted as English contemporary “art” songs. And somehow the music faculty bought it! I still studied Schubert and Brahms and Italian art songs and I fell in love with singing Fauré, but I also got my Broadway fix, which kept me happy. I also “crossed over” to the theatre department, which was sort of frowned upon in the music department – mostly because they were concerned that I wouldn’t be able to focus on my major if I spent too much time in rehearsals next door in the theatre department.

My first semester of school I took a stage makeup class as my elective. At the first class, we met in David Balthrop’s office. He was the director of the theatre program at MSU. I knew something was different about their program when I realized the entire class could fit in his office. Upstairs in the music department, we had at least 50 people in my classes.  There were maybe 10 of us in the makeup class, and I was the only non-theatre major. It was in that class that I met many of the people who would become some of my best friends in my four years at MSU.

There are so many stories I could tell about Murray State – and I will – but one came to mind tonight for some reason that was the whole point of me even writing this entry. By the end of my freshman year at Murray, I was unofficially a theatre minor. I had done three shows already – a student-run production of Guys & Dolls, a student director’s final project and a children’s theatre piece called The Arkansaw Bear, both of which were produced by the theatre department. I was commuting back and forth from Paducah every day, and rehearsals were at night after class, so I was burning my candle at both ends, but I loved every minute of it.

I had become such a familiar face in the theatre office that David invited me to come back to school in the fall a few days early to be part of a show for the incoming freshman class. I was honored to be asked, and I knew a lot of my friends would also be in it, so I said yes. No questions asked. Just yes.

My sophomore year, I moved into an apartment in Murray with another voice major. My commuting days were over so I had even more time for rehearsals and late night set painting sessions and costume finishing. It was also a place for me to stay when we came back to rehearse “the show” that we were going to perform for the incoming freshman class. The university’s entire incoming freshman class.

I think I got my script in the mail. Or maybe we got it the first day of rehearsal…I don’t remember. But I do remember my jaw hitting the floor when I read the title: Great Sexpectations. I was in a sex play! I grew up in a house where we never even said the word “sex,” let alone talked about the things that this play did – STDs, condoms, date rape, homosexuality, drugs, alcohol… I guess that was sort of the point: a lot of the incoming kids probably wouldn’t know much about these topics, either, or where to go for help if they needed it. The play was like a public service announcement, letting kids know that there were places like student health services where they could find condoms, doctors, mental health workers, etc. and who to call if they got into trouble. It was actually a really good idea, but I was mortified!

The rehearsal process was uncomfortably hilarious. At one point I had to rip a necklace off my best friend’s neck in a fit of jealous rage, and I couldn’t do it without laughing. I remember there being a lot of laughing during that time – mostly of the nervous sort. I lucked out and went to school with a bunch of really good people. We were all pretty naïve and innocent back then, and I think most of us had no idea what we were talking about, though none of us would ever admit it.

There was one scene in particular that comes to mind in which we stood in a line – boy, girl, boy, boy, girl, boy, girl, girl, boy – holding up a long sheet of fabric, as if we were all in bed together and, one by one, each of us would turn to the person on our right and admit that we had genital warts or crabs or genital herpes or gonorrhea and that we’d given it to them. Then we would turn to the audience and say something like, “I can’t believe I trusted him. He said I was his first! I wish we’d thought to use a dental dam.”

Great Sexpectations wasn’t Shakespeare. It wasn’t meant to be. I would do Shakespeare at MSU that same year – in quasi-drag while doing the Macarena in a Wild West production of The Comedy of Errors – and, at first, I understood that about as well as I did dental dam usage outside the dentist’s chair. But Great Sexpectations did serve a greater purpose. I vaguely remember at least one talkback, but I don’t remember answering any questions. I don’t remember MSU ever doing another show quite like it, which I think is a shame, but I’m glad I got to be a part of it. My only regret is that I didn’t keep the script if only to have proof that it actually happened. That…and I wish we’d thought to use a dental dam…

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