Archive | September, 2013

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: I’m Gonna Twerk That Man Right Outta My Hair

21 Sep

In the lobby of the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee, is a Steinway baby grand player piano. It can be programmed online to play a variety of music, which is pretty cool, but unfortunately they program it to run through the same three medleys every night and I “get” to listen to it for an hour before every show. The rotation varies, but it’s always the same three medleys: Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The Phantom of the Opera.

Tonight during walk-in, I noticed a small-framed man in his early- to mid-50’s with a ponytail and a cane. He vaguely resembled Rick Moranis and he was standing very still looking at an artist’s rendering of the soon-to-be-built Orpheum Centre for Performing Arts and Leadership. A nicely-dressed woman looked on with him, though they didn’t appear to be together.

The South Pacific medley plowed through overly-ornate Richard Chamberlain-esque arrangements of “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Bali Ha’i.” As it transitioned from “I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy” into “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” the Moranis wannabe began bouncing, bouncing, bouncing along with the music until he reached what I assume to be his best full-out twerk. If any Broadway score screams, “Twerk!,” it’s South Pacific. I couldn’t tear my eyes away, though no one else seemed to notice, including the woman standing next to him. She took notice, however, when he reached over and began to massage her scalp as if he was washing her hair.

I sure hope she was his wife.

Walking In Memphis With My Feet 10 Feet Off Of Beale

21 Sep

New Orleans. Savannah. Gettysburg. Boston. There are many cities in the U.S. that claim to be the “most haunted city in America,” but this week in Memphis has made me suspect that those other cities might be a touch overzealous in their advertising. Yes, New Orleans and Savannah have a creepy vibe about them, and I must admit that I’ve regrettably never been to Gettysburg, but Memphis feels like a city that just isn’t ready to let go of its ghosts. In his 1991 song, “Walking In Memphis,” Marc Cohn sings:

Saw the ghost of Elvis on Union Avenue.
Followed him up to the gates of Graceland,
Then I watched him walk right through.
Now, security, they did not see him,
They just hovered ’round his tomb.
But there’s a pretty little thing
Waiting for the King
Down in the Jungle Room.

I don’t know if I believe in the paranormal – I’ve never had a ghost encounter of my own – but there’s something about this town that makes me “get” what Cohn was singing about. No, I haven’t seen a literal ghost of Elvis on Union Avenue (but wouldn’t that be cool!?), but I do feel that downtown Memphis is, for better or worse, perpetually stuck in the mid-60’s and that any moment you should expect to see Elvis coming out of the Peabody Hotel. There are billboards on every corner advertising Graceland with huge images of Elvis and the tagline, “Elvis Lives.” In the gift shops 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 advertises in big lettering, “Elvis Souvenirs and Airport Limo Service.” Lansky Brothers, the “Clothiers to the King,” have a store in the Peabody where they continue to sell the same clothes that they dressed Elvis in 50 years ago. Need blue suede shoes? That’s the place to get them. It’s both kitschy and cool at the same time. In my first few hours in town, I saw four men with jet black pompadours and giant sideburns. The city has an entire week dedicated to Elvis during the anniversary week of his death that draws thousands of fans for concerts and candlelight vigils at his grave at Graceland. I passed a sports bar the other day that had a neon Elvis sign in the window and there’s a statue of the King on the corner of Beale and Main Street. You cannot be in this town without being aware of Elvis’ influence. Thirty-six years after his death, his music, his legacy and his house are still a huge industry for the city of Memphis. It’s estimated that 600,000 people visit Graceland annually, contributing more than $150 million in annual revenue to the city.

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The statue of Elvis Presley at the corner of Beale and Main Streets in downtown Memphis, Tennessee.

Beyond Graceland, however, Elvis’ influence can be felt at Sun Studio, where he made his first record and recorded his first hit, “That’s All Right.” The tour at Sun Studio starts upstairs in the adjoining building, where a tour guide describes the beginnings of the studio and it’s owner, Sam Phillips, and eventually gets around to talking about the various artists who recorded there. There are artifacts and memorabilia to look at, but the full impact of the studio’s history and import doesn’t hit you until you’re standing in the room where Elvis recorded “That’s All Right. ” The same room where Jerry Lee Lewis recorded “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On;” where Johnny Cash recorded “Walk the Line” and Carl Perkins recorded the original “Blue Suede Shoes.” As ridiculous as it may sound, you can feel the importance of the room as you enter it. It is the birthplace of Rock ‘N Roll as we know it. It’s the studio where the famous Million Dollar Quartet jam session happened. It is, for musicians and fans, hallowed ground. To be in that room, listening to Elvis singing a song in the very room where that recording was made was so overwhelming that I was nearly moved to tears. Greatness was created in that room, and that sense that something very important happened there carries throughout the city of Memphis. Big things happened here, and not just in the music scene.

Sun Studio, Memphis, TN

Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee

Beyond the constant awareness of the music that was crafted here and the overwhelming presence of a man who has been gone for three decades, I have also been very aware that we are in the hot seat of the civil rights movement in the city where our country lost one of its greatest leaders to an assassin’s bullet. Visiting the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot, was an eery reminder of how far we as a nation have come, but also how incredibly far we have to go. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around what had happened in the very spot where I was standing. To a lesser extent, I felt the same way standing on the 6th floor of the old Texas Book Depository in Dallas where Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy. But the 6th Floor Museum, as it’s called now, has changed through the years. It’s been renovated and renamed and, with the exception of two corners of the 6th floor that have been staged to look like they did on the day of his assassination, the building looks modern with a trendy, industrial feel, as if it were a loft apartment that just happened to be where an assassin shot a president. The Lorraine Motel, however, has been preserved to look just as it did in 1968, including Dr. King’s room and that of his brother, just two doors down. A large wreath hangs on the balcony where Dr. King was gunned down and visitors are allowed access to the very spot where he was standing when his life was cut short as a recording of the great Mahalia Jackson singing at Dr. King’s funeral is pumped through a sound system – one of the few modern additions to the building. History of another sort was made there.

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The balcony of the Lorraine Motel (now part of the National Civil Rights Museum) where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot in Memphis, Tennessee.

The charm and quaintness of the city is at the same time a sad indicator of its depressed economic health. It’s a great place to visit, but I’m not sure it’s a city in which I’d like to live. The neighborhood surrounding the Civil Rights Museum is a poor one. The buildings throughout downtown look very much like I would expect they did around the time that Dr. King and “The King” were both in Memphis, though many of the storefronts are now bare. The trolleys that run up and down Main Street are a throwback to an older time, and sitting in those cars with their wooden benches and no air conditioning must be hell mid-August. Much has changed here, but much has remained the same. These are the ghosts of Memphis, and they are everywhere.

What A Difference A Year Can Make

18 Sep

I’ve 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 about it more. It was, up to this point, the most perfect experience I’ve ever had in my life. So perfect, in fact, that I actually considered quitting “the Business” because I could not conceive that any other job or life experience could be so fulfilling.

That’s a lot of weight to put on one three-and-a-half month chunk of a person’s life.

Today I learned that the 2013 cast of Disney On Classic, the show that I was a part of in 2011, made that grueling, seemingly endless 14-hour flight to Tokyo to begin their tour experience. Fourteen hours in a cramped seat, trying to sleep, wondering what will be waiting for you when you step off the plane. Fourteen hours of nerves and excitement and reviewing your music and replaying those last few hours you spent with the people who mean the most to you before you essentially moved to the other side of the world. Watching the flight tracker on the monitor in front of you, realizing that there is nothing below you but the Pacific Ocean and that there’s still 5 hours to go, you study your basic Japanese phrases, marveling at how many syllables there are in hajimemashite. Looking back at it, it was the most thrilling, exciting and daunting flight I’ve ever taken, and I’d gladly do it again.

Now imagine the flight back. The night before, you’ve given an emotional final performance to an audience of 5000 people with a 74-piece orchestra full of friends you may never see again in your life. You and the cast pile into someone’s room for a final kampai and to watch surprise video compilations that somehow manage to cram the 4 best months of your life into 10 minute music videos. Holding Katie’s hand as you sob, remembering and reliving each wonderful moment, wondering if anything will ever be that good again. You rush back to your room to finish shoving all the souvenirs you’ve bought for your friends and family and all the little gifts you’ve been given into your already overstuffed suitcases and take a few minutes to say your goodbyes to the hotel that’s become your home-away-from-home. You take one last look out the window at the view that you’ve fallen in love with, remembering those first few days in Shinjuku when you went out to explore the new neighborhood and that first night that you all went out as a group for your first meal of oudon and tempura. Suddenly it’s time to drag your suitcases downstairs and check out of the hotel for the final time and take that long bus drive to the airport before boarding a plane to take you home, though you would rather stay.

Your flight leaves Tokyo at 11:30am on Tuesday. You arrive in Chicago at 10:40am on Tuesday. How is that possible? After 14 hours of alternately grieving and sleeping, you step off the plane and are greeted by security guards yelling directions at you and fat, sloppily-dressed Americans shoving McDonald’s into their faces and leaving their garbage behind in the seats next to them. You suddenly become painfully aware that you are not in Japan anymore and you gain some insight into what foreign travelers must think about us when they first arrive in America. What day is it again? You yourself go to the nearest McDonald’s because sadly, that’s the healthiest option the airport terminal has to offer for breakfast. Where are the immaculately dressed employees in their perfectly pressed Disney World-esque uniforms? Where is the chorus of “Irasshaimase!?” The girl behind the counter has barely even acknowledged your existence, let alone welcomed you to her store. You have culture shock in your own country. You want to go back. Now.

Returning home, you hope your roommates and family will greet you with arms wide open. That they’ll sit down with you and look through all of the wonderful pictures you took to document your trip. That they’ll want to listen to you relay every minute detail of your trip: how wonderful C.C. Lemon is; the time you ate a seaweed-flavored donut; the night in Utsunomiya that you and Tony and Joey ran out of Tony’s room, screaming like little girls because a giant bug flew in the window; how incredible it was to sing for the orphans in Kuji; about your friend Sasaki-san, who dressed like an anime character and spent his days off in Sendai helping with the disaster relief; about Magical Georgie and his rubber band trick; about how much you miss your friends. They listen for a while, but not as attentively as you’d like. No one wants to drop everything to listen to your CD. No one wants to look through thousands of pictures. No one cares as much as you want them to because no one knows how wonderful it was except the people who experienced it with you.

The jet lag sets in. You fall asleep by 5pm. You start getting text messages at 4am from your cast mates, but that’s OK because you were awake, too, and hearing from them makes you feel less lonely – makes you still feel connected to the experience. But soon those texts stop as you realize that people have gone back to the lives that they were living before Japan. But you don’t want to go back to before Japan, because before Japan you were working three jobs to make ends meet. You were lonely, you were broke and you didn’t have much to look forward to. Who would want to go back to that? So you go back to New York, you file for unemployment and you audition more than you ever did before – sometimes three times a day if you can manage it. You make sure you get to the Tokyo Disney auditions, hoping that’s your way back, but no one behind the table even acknowledges that amazing new credit at the top of your résumé. You’re in the best vocal shape of your life, but not one callback. Not one booking. The confidence you gained is depleting, as is your savings account balance. Things are not going well.

Two months after you get back from an experience you would give anything to relive, you get an email from your show’s director…one of your dearest friends. The casting notice for the 2012 tour is about to go up – auditions are happening in March and he wants recommendations from former cast members. You aren’t ready for that yet and it’s a punch to the gut, but you try to get past your own sadness and you try to silence the voices in your head and heart that are whispering, “Maybe they’ll ask you to go again,” because you know they won’t, and you submit a couple of names of friends, trying to pay it forward. Even though your brain knows it won’t happen, your heart still holds onto the idea that they might not find anyone and ask you back. But that doesn’t happen. A cast has been chosen and you’re not part of it. Everyone seems to be moving on, moving forward, but you can’t. And you’re gaining weight.

You make it through the summer, filling your time with work and moving apartments and suddenly it’s September. The new cast is in rehearsal and you’re back to working two jobs, which are barely paying your bills. You haven’t auditioned since April. You haven’t had a voice lesson or even wanted to sing since June. Everyone else in your cast has booked work and the seed of doubt is blossoming in your mind about your talent. And then the day comes – the day the cast posts on Facebook that they’re flying to Tokyo. In an attempt to be gracious and supportive, you post a nice boy voyage message for the group, but offline you’re heartbroken. Your grandmother happens to call that day and when she asks if anything is wrong, you have a full-blown breakdown over the phone, incomprehensibly mumbling things about Tokyo and flying and hating New York through hot tears and an embarrassing amount of snot. If you drank, you’d be smashed by now, but instead you order a pizza. Did I mention you’re gaining weight?

Two days later, your friends in Japan start posting photos on Facebook with signs that say, “We miss you, Jason!” Even though they bring on another wave of emotions, the pictures help reassure you that you’ve not been forgotten. Soon enough you become distracted with all the things you’ve been ignoring while you’ve been in your Japanofunk and you become less aware – it hurts less. Before you know it, you’re on another tour – not performing, but seeing the country on another adventure, constantly being reminded that you’re neither alone nor forgotten as you reunite with friends and family all across the country. And then the next September you read that it’s the cast’s travel day to Tokyo and you’re OK. No tears, no heartbreak – just the appreciation of how lucky you were to have such a unique, wonderful experience.

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I miss you, too, Keiko-san and Sasaki-san!

To the 2013 cast of Disney On Classic, I wish happy and safe travels and a marvelous tour experience. Ganbatte ne!

Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life

11 Sep

As I scrolled through my Facebook and Twitter feeds today, I was reminded with nearly every post and Tweet that today is the 12th anniversary of 9/11. I was, of course, already quite aware of that before everyone started posting their stories and memories and tributes – I don’t think any of us will ever forget it. I debated on whether or not to write an entry today about that day because the stories I read tend to be maudlin and sad. Don’t take that to mean that it’s not a sombre day to remember and I certainly mean no disrespect, but out of all that horror and sadness I do believe there came some good, which is what I’d prefer to think about today.

On September 11, 2001, I was living with my parents in Louisville. 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. The week I got home from Oklahoma, I went to a temp agency to find some work. My first assignment was to do general office work for a credit card collections company – stuffing envelopes, answering phones, making copies, etc. I showed up on my first day – Tuesday, September 11 – and within two hours, the entire office had been sent home because planes had been flown into the towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. The reason we were sent home had something to do with Fort Knox being a potential target, though Fort Knox is a good 50 minutes from Louisville.

I remember being incredibly confused by what was going on and didn’t quite grasp the import of what had just happened. I was just concerned at that point about whether I’d be paid for the full day or not. During the short 20 minute drive home I kept looking up at the sky, looking for planes, though there were none. I don’t know what I expected to see up there exactly, but I kept looking. It wasn’t until I got home and turned on the television that I really had a concept of the hugeness of what was happening. During my drive home, the towers had fallen. As most of you will remember, though, we had plenty of opportunities to see them fall over the next few hours, days and weeks, whether we wanted to or not.

No one was home when I got in from work. The house was empty – just me and the TV and the sudden, worried voices in my head, wondering about my friends from graduate school who had just moved to New York over the summer. I didn’t know the geography of Manhattan yet, so I didn’t realize how far Midtown actually was from the Financial District. I knew that most of my friends there were also working for temp agencies, and for all I knew, they were temping in the one of the towers and the news was telling us that there was no cell phone service in New York, so I had no way of reaching anyone. All I could do was watch and hope that they were all alright.

My parents were out at work when everything happened. My Mom has owned and operated her own residential cleaning company for the last 20+ years and on that day she had a particularly heavy workload, so she asked my grandparents and my great aunt and uncle to come down from Lexington to help her. They came home not too long after I did and, from what I remember, they weren’t really aware of everything that had happened. As they came in and settled down to watch the news, the phone rang and I answered it. It was my second cousin, Derek – my great aunt and uncle’s son. He is a researcher for the Army Research Labs not too far from Washington, DC, and he was calling to let his parents know that he was alright.

I didn’t recognize Derek’s voice when he called. We hadn’t seen or talked to each other in probably 15 years, so why should I? Derek had been one of my favorite cousins growing up. He’s a few years older than me, so I guess it’s normal for a middle schooler to look up to his cousin who is in college. As a kid, all I heard were comparisons between Derek and me – particularly about how smart we both were and how much we were alike in personality. What’s funny is, Derek is adopted, so it’s not genetic. And I remember Derek could juggle, and that fascinated me. There was one Christmas or Thanksgiving that he tried to teach me to juggle in our Aunt Bibby’s gigantic driveway and I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I think that was also the last time I saw him. Derek went off to college in Michigan and a year or two later it came out amongst the family that he was gay and had met someone. From that point on, we didn’t see Derek at family functions and he wasn’t really talked about around “the children.” I didn’t understand where he went or why we didn’t talk about him – I just knew I missed my cousin. The same thing had happened when our older cousin, Mark, came out a couple of years before Derek. I didn’t get in touch with him until last year – close to 25 years after the last time I’d seen him.

Derek gave me his phone number and email address before I handed the phone over to my aunt and I made sure to keep in touch with him. When I finally moved to New York five months later, Derek let me know that he was coming to Long Island for a meeting and we decided to meet and catch up. It was one of the happiest reunions of my life. I was on Cloud 9 for days. In the months that would follow, I would meet Derek’s partner, Pete, who is, as far as I’m concerned, as much my cousin as Derek. They drove up to Pennsylvania to see me in The Scarlet Pimpernel with their friends Nicole, Brian and Andy, who, along with their former roommate, Josh, have all become very dear friends. They’ve shared their home with me on multiple occasions. Pete played tour guide for me when I was in Baltimore with Flashdance and they hauled me back and forth from the theatre to their house every night after work. They even treated me to a very delicious brunch when we all happened to be in Denver at the same time a few weeks ago. In the wake of such a terrible event, something wonderful happened – my family grew, and I will always be grateful for that.

It’s easy to let “September 11” the Event overshadow September 11 the Day. We should never forget the people who lost their lives, but it’s important to remember to celebrate the living, as well. In addition to celebrating the fact that the Event brought me closer to some long-lost family, I also want to acknowledge my friends Sierra and Brendan today.  Twelve years ago, one of the most important days of a young person’s life stopped being about them and became “September 11.” I think they deserve a special shout-out today because it’s their birthday. I love you both and I am so happy you were born!

Be good to each other.

A New Argentina

8 Sep

Greetings from Providence, Rhode Island, where tonight we begin previews of the first national tour of Evita! Yep…that’s right…I’m opening another show. After Peter and the Starcatcher closed in Denver, I flew back to New York for four days to get things together for this tour with my coworkers in the office. That meant pulling merchandise from the storage unit, making sure we had all the pieces for the booths (there are TWO!) and stocking up on office supplies. It also meant loading all that stuff into the booths and wrapping them and then getting them into a moving truck so the freight company could get them up here. There’s nothing more terrifying than trying to get a 900 lb. cabinet across 43rd Street in midday traffic. If it had tipped over or if the wheels had broken off, we’d still be out there picking up t-shirts off the street.

The wheels didn’t break off, though. Well…not until later, anyway. We headed up to Providence on Friday morning and set straight to work meeting company management, meeting the venue’s operation’s manager, placing the booths, counting inventory, folding inventory (we folded approximately 362 shirts), displaying the merchandise and arranging space to maximize storage. It’s quite an operation and took us the better part of two days. In fact, we finished everything just moments before the doors opened last night for the invited dress rehearsal, which I got to watch from the mezzanine. Depending on how busy I am out in the lobby, it may be the only opportunity I get to see the show!

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The back booth unit – before.

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The front booth unit – before.

Today we have our first preview performance at 1:00 and the second at 6:30. It’s going to be a long day, but I’m really looking forward to getting to work. I haven’t sold at a booth in over three weeks – I’m ready to go! It’s going to be an exciting day, I think. So…here we go!!

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The completed Evita setup. All ready to go!