Tag Archives: Musical Theatre

Episode VI: Return of the Merch Whore

3 Feb

Greeting and salutations, Dear Reader. I’m so glad you’ve decided to stick with me, despite my lengthy absence. So much has happened in the last year and I’m anxious to tell you all about it.

In last year’s big cliffhanger (OK…it was more of a series finale with the possibility of a spinoff), I was about to leave the Kinky Boots national tour and move to Orlando, Florida to pursue my dream of performing at Walt Disney World. You’ll recall that I was quite anxious about the move and the return to the “real world” after being on the road for so long, and those fears and anxieties were for good reason, and unfortunately, many of those fears have become reality.

Now, I don’t mean to start this reboot on a negative note. Let me first start off by saying that I did, in fact, get myself a job at Walt Disney World, but not as a performer. Within a month of moving, I was hired as an Attractions Host at Magic Kingdom, working at Big Thunder Mountain – the wildest ride in the wilderness! I spent nearly 10 months at Old Man Thunder before I was transferred to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, where I am now an Attractions Host at the new Star Wars Launch Bay. I enjoy my job at Disney very much, though it is not by any means where I want to be in my career. Performing in the parks is still the goal, and I’ve been auditioning as often as I can, time and health allowing, for Voices of Liberty, the Dapper Dans, Finding Nemo: The Musical and other shows around the parks. More on those auditions later.

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Me on my last day at Big Thunder Mountain.

In addition to working at Walt Disney World, I also landed a job selling merchandise – surprise, surprise! – at Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which admittedly I knew nothing about when I interviewed for the job. Many would agree that I still don’t, but I do a very good job of faking it. I still can’t tell you what the horcruxes are. I’m not even sure that I spelled “horcruxes” correctly. Don’t you judge me!

Adjusting to life in the real world has been difficult. Money is, as always, a constant struggle for me, which was one of my greatest fears of delving back into reality. My money management skills are pretty much non-existent. Of course, I had to have a car, so I got a cute little green Kia Soul and named him Elliott (SEE ALSO: Pete’s Dragon), and then I realized that 90% of Kia Souls on the road are also Elliott Green, but I still love him. I nearly had a heart attack when I found out how much my car payment was going to be, though. I hadn’t had a car in 14 years and had just quit my job and had no prospects on the horizon. It was no exaggeration when I dramatically exclaimed to my Dad, “It’s fine! I’ll just get a third non-existent job to pay for it!” Even though I work nearly 55 hours a week between the two jobs, it still isn’t enough to cover all my expenses. I’ve fallen way behind on my student loan payments – again – but on the bright side, one of my credit cards is nearly paid off thanks to the credit consolidation plan I started before I went out on the road. Once that’s paid off, I can start applying that money to my loans. So there’s that.

There’s also my health. I would like to go on record to state that I never missed one show while I was on the road. Not one in two years. I was healthy as a horse. But here in Florida, I have been sick with something almost from the day I got here. Allergies, colds, bronchitis, sinus infections, ear infections, strep throat, the flu…you name it, I’ve had it since I moved here. I’m sick now, in fact, getting over some sort of malady that laid me out at home for two days. But I can’t afford to call out of work, so I plow ahead, shortening my lifespan by a few years with each mucus-filled shift. I know that most of this illness stems from the other thing that has been difficult to adjust to: the weather.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, Floridians…we live in the Devil’s Armpit. It’s hot, moist and, frankly, sometimes smelly down here. I’ve never lived in a place where a summer rain shower (and by “shower,” I mean “deluge”) actually makes the temperature hotter than before. I have accepted Swamp Ass into my life and should just go ahead and buy stock in Gold Bond powder to foolishly attempt stop the chub rub and chaffing between my thighs. Here’s the truth: It doesn’t work. It’s a fool’s errand to try to soak up all the moisture, so just accept the Swamp Ass and move on with your day.

It took me about three weeks to accept that every time I stood up from my seat on the shuttle bus from the parking lot or from a chair in the break room, I would leave a stamp of sweat behind. Sure, you can try to slide out of the seat to wipe some of it away, but after a while, you just give up. It’s a sad, sick, disgusting part of life down here and I hate it. I worked a parade shift once in August in which I sweat so much that I was sent back to change clothes because it looked like I’d wet myself.

I miss the snow! I miss the cold! I miss the air!

“But what about the good things,” you ask? “Surely something makes it worth being there!”

Yes. The people I’ve met down here make it worth it. I’ve made wonderful friends at both of my jobs. Getting to go to Disney World pretty much whenever I want to makes it worth it. Mickey and I are very tight, and I get to talk about Star Wars all day long. I even run into Darth Vader – sometimes, quite literally, run into him – backstage and he scares the bejesus out of me, because I get to be an 8 year old again. At work. And that’s awesome. I’ve met some of the most incredible Guests and made Magical Moments for people and

Me and Neil

That’s me behind Neil Patrick Harris.

have gotten choked up over meeting the coolest little kids on the planet in their cute Princess gowns and their little Darth Vader costumes. I’ve seen people weep over being chosen by a wand. I even got to perform at Epcot this Christmas as part of the Candlelight Processional, finally singing again and getting to do it behind people like Neil Patrick Harris and Daniel Dae Kim. And one of my best friends in the world, Brance, moved down here this summer and we’ve played mini golf and watched movies and played in the parks and shopped for Star Wars t-shirts and I’ve loved getting to spend that time with him. I’ve hung out in the parks with my college friend, Sara, and her wonderful husband and totally amazing daughter, Nora. I’ve seen old friends from all aspects of my life when they’ve come to the parks on vacation and I get to see my Mom and Dad more often than I did when I lived in New York because my Dad works in Tampa for a few days every month, and we meet up for dinner when he’s near.

So things aren’t all bad, and part of the reason that I’m rebooting the blog is to remind myself of that. Don’t get me wrong, y’all – the struggle is real – but I’m not alone in this. And I’m still pursuing my dreams. I’ve started taking better care of myself and taking control of the enormous amount of weight that I have gained over the last 3 years. Oprah and I are doing WeightWatchers and I’m making excellent use of my new FitBit Surge, walking an average of about 14,000 steps a day. More, if I’m able. It turned out to be one of the best Christmas gifts I could have asked for. And I’ve lost 11 pounds in the last month.

FitBit Report

Almost every night, I take a screenshot of my FitBit summary and post it to Instagram (jasonb1976) and Facebook, mostly to keep myself accountable and excited about going out to exercise, but hopefully to also encourage others to do the same. Tonight, a friend of mine from the Evita tour sent me a message on Facebook to let me know that she was inspired by my FitBit posts and that she’s about to embark on a 28 day fitness challenge that’s making her a bit nervous. She wrote, “Long story short..it’s going to be hard for me but I was thinking about your posts and they just put a smile on my face and made me excited to work toward a healthier me.” Guys. Pick me up off the floor. I don’t even know how to respond to something like that. I have inspired someone to work toward being healthier!?! That’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever told me. If I can inspire her, maybe I can inspire someone else on here, too. And then I can inspire the world! Or at least take over the entire tri-state area!

Next month I’m moving into a new living situation that I think will be better for me both financially and emotionally and, as you can see, I’m writing again, which excites and scares me. I’m under very strict guidelines regarding what I can and cannot write about with both of my jobs, so please understand if I don’t mention work very often. You won’t get any secrets out of me. Nor will you get free tickets, but that’s another entry for another day.

So there it is, folks! Episode VI: Return of the Merch Whore. I look forward to seeing you again very soon. May the merch be with you.

 

 

Back To Broadway

24 Jul

Greetings from my sublet room in Brooklyn, New York. It’s about 1:15 in the morning. I’ve just gotten home from working at Pippin on Broadway, and I have to be up tomorrow to turn around and go right back to the theatre. I miss being on tour, and I miss our tour schedule. 

I haven’t written in a while because, well…I’m home in New York and that means I’ve been hustling since I got here to make money. ‘Cause that’s typically how it works here. For me, at least. I’ve spent the last week or so working days in our office, looping thousands of gold tassels into bookmarks that are to be sent out to Chicago to promote the upcoming tour of Peter and the Starcatcher and I’ve been either working in the theatres at night or out trying to have some semblance of a life. Or I’ve just been avoiding the commute and shirt-drenching walk home to the apartment in Brooklyn. I miss Astoria, where I know where everything is and how late it stays open. Thursday night I went to Chelsea Cinemas to see “Murder on the Orient Express.” I dozed off midway through the film. I may have even woken myself with a snore or two. Sorry. Friday night I had dinner with a new friend, which was lovely. Sunday night I went to see “The Conjuring,” which gave me goosebumps almost from the moment the movie started. I highly recommend seeing it.

Now that my work in the office is done, it’s back to working the shows. It’s such a joy to work at Pippin, though it’s never been one of my favorite shows. This production, though, is thrilling and scary and dark and funny and touching. And Andrea Martin gets a standing ovation midway through the show almost every night. How many times have you seen someone literally stop the show?? Watching her number, I have caught myself so overwhelmed by joy and wonder at what she’s doing up there that I get tears in my eyes and I have to laugh. It’s truly remarkable.

Later this week, I’m working at Peter and the Starcatcher for the first time since it transferred back to off-Broadway. It’ll be good to work it and see the show again – and to familiarize myself with the merchandise and the prices again considering I’m opening the tour in Denver in a few weeks. I’ll be there for two weeks, as far as I can tell, setting up and opening the show and then training the regular merchandise manager during the second week of the run. From there I’ll come back to New York for a week and then I’ll head to Providence, Rhode Island to open the Evita tour. Then I’ll go to Memphis the next week to meet up with Flashdance again for two weeks and then I’m off to St. Louis, Missouri to meet up with Evita again and I’ll stay with that show until who knows when. Confused? Me, too. I better be getting a lot of frequent flier miles for this. That’s the plan for now, anyway. It could all change tomorrow. And that’s showbiz, kids.

Anyway. It’s late and I have a show tomorrow. I should hit the hay. 

 

Off The Road Again…

16 Jul

Greetings from my temporary home in Brooklyn, New York. Sunday night was our last night of Flashdance in Kansas City and was, as best I can tell, my last night with the show. My boss tells me there’s a chance I may be going back to it at some point in September for a week or two, but that’s all still up in the air. I’d like to say that it was hard to say goodbye to the show and the cast and crew, but it wasn’t really anything for me. It was hard to be sad knowing there’s the possibility that I’ll be going back, even if just for a short while, but I was also acutely aware that it could be the last time I saw them. It was very strange for me to not know exactly how to feel. Regardless of what happens in September, I’m going to miss them all very much and I wish them all the best.

Yesterday we had what amounted to an almost 12 hour travel day. We had a 2-hour delay in Dallas, so I got to my sublet in Brooklyn at around 11:30 last night. It was a long day. And it’s hot here. According to my phone, it was 86° at 11:15 last night. According to the thermostat on my taxi driver’s dashboard it was 91°. Is it autumn yet?

So, here I am, back in New York. I slept in today, enjoying the air conditioning and putting off the 15-minute walk to the subway. I need to go into the office today to drop off paperwork and sort of debrief…talk about the future…all that fun stuff. And I’m working tonight. No rest for the weary. Thank goodness I’m working – I can’t afford to be here for three weeks and not work. Honestly, I couldn’t afford to be here for three days without working! I’m already looking forward to going back into the bubble that is touring, where I don’t have to worry about making my bed or buying toilet paper or paying electric bills or rent. I can’t wait, actually. I guess there’s nothing to do but go out and face this hateful city, though, and try to make amends with her. I better get moving…

Get Me Aboard, Call Out My Name! I Must Get Off That Ship!

5 Jul

In the summer of 2003, I booked a summer stock job at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania. BCP had, at one time, been a theatre where many Broadway shows were tried out, including Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park starring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley. Dick Van Dyke, Liza Minnelli, Tyne Daly, Grace Kelly, Walter Mathau and Angela Lansbury had all performed there. Audra McDonald had played Aldonza in Man of La Mancha there. It had been a big deal.

By the time I was hired to work there, it was a non-Equity theatre that did summer stock. It was owned and operated by a man named Ralph Miller, who also owned three other theatres – The Falmouth Playhouse in Falmouth, Massachusetts, the Pocono Playhouse in Mountainhome, PA, and the Woodstock Playhouse in Woodstock, NY. The Woodstock Playhouse mysteriously burned to the ground in 1988 and the Falmouth Playhouse, which had been insured at $1.5 million, also burned to the ground in 1994. See a pattern?

I had been hired to do Maury Yeston’s Titanic and Frank Wildhorn’s The Scarlet Pimpernel at both the Bucks County Playhouse and the Pocono Playhouse. There was another group of actors – the Dancer Company, we called them – who would perform Fiddler on the Roof and Lil Abner (I think) – in one theatre while we were in the other and then we’d switch. And the Singer Company would have a three week hiatus mid-season, so I could go home to New York for a bit. That also meant I wouldn’t be able to sublet my apartment. I had to pay rent. I don’t remember how much I was being paid – $250 a week, maybe? That sounds a little high… My rent at the time was $550 a month for one room with no kitchen and a shared bathroom in the hallway. Needless to say, I wasn’t making any money off this gig.

I had to take a bus out to Mountainhome to start rehearsals at the Pocono Playhouse. Our stage manager, Grey, picked me up and drove me to our company housing, which turned out to be an old, run-down summer camp – very Camp Crystal Lake. The rooms stunk of mildew, the mattresses were about 3/4” thick and there were mushrooms growing out of the floor in the bathroom. The dorm buildings were situated about a quarter mile back from the main road down a dirt road that cut through the woods with no lighting whatsoever. There was a rec room/commons building on the corner of the main road, which is where the TV and kitchen were. And a chipmunk that lived in the garbage can. It would jump out at you like that squirrel in the Christmas tree in “Christmas Vacation.” I was terrified to go in there. There was a bathroom in the commons building, too, but someone pooped in there before realizing the toilet didn’t flush. That turd, which stuck around for weeks, should have been a warning…a sign of things to come.

The next day, we all went to the Pocono Playhouse to start rehearsals for Titanic. I was so excited to do that show – it was one of my favorite scores, and I had always had a strange connection to the story of the Titanic’s sinking. It fascinated and horrified me. I looked forward to getting to wear fantastic costumes and I was really, really curious to know what the sets were going to look like.

The first few days of rehearsal were just about learning the music. That score is tough. It’s practically an opera. It sits high in the voice and there’s a lot of it. The harmonies are very tight. And did I mention there’s a lot of it? Our cast was comprised of a lot of folks with varying levels of musical knowledge. A few of us had degrees in voice, some had acting degrees, some were just folks who dabbled in community theatre. It was a challenge even for those of us who could read music and had a good ear. But we sounded good! I was very excited to see where this was going to go.

Once we got the show on its feet, I started putting a few things together that didn’t quite add up. Our stage manager was also playing Mr. Strauss. How was he going to call the show and work the fly rail and move set pieces and then come out and sing a love song to his wife? Where was the tech crew? And where was the orchestra? Surely they must be rehearsing off-site somewhere and we’d have a sitzprobe later… Right?

The set was a huge, billion-pound mass of 2×4’s and plywood. We had huge ramps that would serve as the loading ramp for the passengers at the top of the show and, when flipped around the other direction, would be the sinking ship, and then there were a bunch of other platforms that would serve as other acting spaces. As it turned out, we – the actors – were also the crew and we had to move those giant pieces while Grey would run around in his tailcoat and heavily drawn-on age lines, flying in drops and then sprinting back out to do his scenes. During one of our last rehearsals before opening, it still hadn’t been decided how, exactly, we were going to hit an iceberg, and it became clear that there was to be no orchestra. We were going to be singing to a track, and it sounded like it had been recorded on one of those tiny Casio keyboards from the early 90’s. *plink plink…plink plink…plink plink…plink plink…* It was horrible.

I don’t remember if it was final tech or opening night – I’ll call it opening night for dramatic effect – but I remember standing in the wings just before curtain. The lights went down and suddenly this glorious, huge orchestral overture started. Had Ralph spent the money to have the tracks recorded with an orchestra?! Our answer came about 2 minutes into the overture, when the track switched back to the *plink plink…plink plink* of the Casio. Ralph hadn’t paid for new tracks – he’d just taken the overture from the Original Broadway Cast Recording and tacked it onto the beginning of our show! Surely that wasn’t legal, not to mention how deceiving it would be for the audience. My friends Matt and Don (who had to come out and sing the first song over that awful track) and I couldn’t believe it. It was just so…wrong. Still, the show must go on.

I got through my first scene as Mr. Pitman (“First class passengers, proceed at once to the gangway!”) and had a 30-second costume change to Mr. Henry Etches before I had to run up the steps to the top platform for my next scene. We didn’t have dressers, so I had pre-set my Etches jacket and vest, draped over a support beam of one of the giant ramps upstage right. As I was making my change, I felt as if I were stepping on something, but I wasn’t sure what it was because it was completely dark back there. I made the change, got up the stairs (barely) and served Captain Smith his coffee. A few minutes later I was onstage for something else and I started noticing silver splotches on the black floor. Then I noticed them on my tux pants. I had no clue what it was until I noticed my suede-soled Capezio character shoes were sticking to the floor. I had stepped in a puddle of silver paint that had been spilled right where my quick change was. Rather than clean it up, someone had just thrown some newspaper over it and left it there. By the end of that performance, there was silver paint everywhere and my $200 character shoes were ruined. I was never reimbursed for those…

By the end of the first act, the actors in the show still weren’t sure how we were going to hit an iceberg. The scene involves lots of vignettes of various passengers interacting with one another, so we were staged in couples and groups and we were awash in a pale blue light. We heard, “Iceberg! Right ahead!” and suddenly a white scrim – a piece of fabric which is opaque when lit from the front and transparent when lit from behind – flew in downstage and we saw a beautiful video of the Titanic sailing along the Atlantic and suddenly hitting an iceberg…while a tiny computer-generated Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio dodged falling pieces of ice. Now, I knew this was illegal – we’d just used part of James Cameron’s multiple Oscar-winning film as part of our show. I couldn’t believe it. Neither could anyone else.

We opened Titanic at the Bucks County Playhouse and played there for three weeks. During the third week of the run, we started rehearsals for The Scarlet Pimpernel. We were so happy to be working on new material that few of us seemed to notice how exhausted we actually were. We learned that show in a week. For this show, we had wigs and tights and gigantic period costumes made out of upholstery fabric you would typically use to cover a large sofa. By this time, it was late June and it was hot in Pennsylvania, even with the air conditioning running in the theatre. We didn’t have air conditioning at the cast house in New Hope, which was a large farm house out in the middle of nowhere, where we had three or four people to a room. I was so looking forward to going home to my dumpy apartment in New York. I couldn’t wait.

Pimpernel ran for two weeks at Bucks County and then we had a three week hiatus before we opened at the Poconos Playhouse, where we had rehearsed Titanic earlier in the summer. We got to the theatre after our break to find out that we would be doing two weeks of Pimpernel and one week of Titanic in the Poconos, which was flipped from what we’d been told we would be doing when we signed our contracts. We only had three weeks to go, and it wasn’t as if they were canceling anything, so it wasn’t a big deal.

What was a big deal, however, was our first brush-up rehearsal before opening night. When we arrived at the theatre, we were told to search through the various big black garbage bags in the dressing rooms for our costume pieces. I assumed the costumes had been dry cleaned and put into the bags for storage, but no…they had been taken off the hangers and shoved into the bags – wigs and all – soaking wet with sweat, and sent up to the Poconos to stew for three weeks in tied up garbage bags. They smelled terrible and they were still wet with month-old sweat, and we were being asked to put them on and do our show. Bottles of Febreeze had been provided in each dressing room to help with the smell, but we were told that there wasn’t enough money in the costume budget to get the sofa coats cleaned. And we were told that there was no air conditioning in the Poconos Playhouse – onstage or off. Two weeks later we found our Titanic costumes in a similar condition, having steamed in our various juices for over six weeks in those big black bags. The life vests seemed to smell the worst, but nothing there smelled good.

I have kept in touch with many of my cast mates from that season. They’re scattered all over the world doing all sorts of amazing things. I’m incredibly proud of all of them. As miserable as parts of that summer were, I remember standing next to Liz Asti during the finale of Titanic and just sobbing – both of us. But I was also ready to be done with that experience. It wasn’t for me.

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The Pocono Playhouse after the fire in 2009.

In 2009, several of my BCP friends sent me messages on Facebook to let me know that the Pocono Playhouse had “mysteriously” burnt down. None of us were terribly shocked and we all came to the same conclusion as to who was responsible. Bucks County Playhouse was bought in 2010 by several big New York theatre people and it’s been revamped into a legitimate Equity house again. But I will never, ever forget that summer of 2003, wearing a wet, limp wig on my head, a soggy sofa on my back and silver character shoes with some of the coolest kids I’d ever met. Gosh, I wish I’d taken some pictures…

There’s Bobby and J.R. and Jock and Ellie and Ray and Pammy and Lucy and Sue Ellen Who Drinks and Drinks and Drinks…

29 Jun

ME: Thank you so much. I hope you enjoy the show!
PATRON: Thank you. Be safe.
ME: …??

Greetings from the front lobby of the Music Hall at Fair Park in Dallas, TX. The show started about 40 minutes ago – yes, they have 1:30 matinees here (can someone explain that to me?) – and I’m waiting for the next episode of “Dallas” to download on my iTunes. I’m already on Season 2. I won’t spoil anything for you by telling you what happened in case you decide you want to start watching a 35-year old television show, but I will say this: That J.R. Ewing is a slimy bastard. It was no joke when that character became known as “the man that everyone loves to hate.”

But enough about “Dallas.” Let’s talk about Dallas.

There have been cities on this tour that I have absolutely loved and a few that I’ve loathed. Sometimes it’s the people that I can’t stand. Sometimes it’s just the city itself. For example, being stuck in a downtown hotel that’s surrounded by businesses and restaurants that close at 6:00 every night. Or – worse – being stuck in a downtown hotel where, inexplicably, there are no restaurants to be found.

Unless you have a bottomless expense account, which I do not, a steadfast rule of life on the road is to avoid eating at the hotel restaurant when possible. If the hotel’s is the only restaurant in the area, they can – and will – charge whatever they want because…well…people have to eat. If your only food options are in the hotel, at least be sure to get loyalty rewards points for the money you spend.

Our hotel in Dallas is situated downtown on the east side of Main Street, and there are lots of restaurants in the area. Unfortunately, none of them are open after the show. So last night I ventured out of my comfort zone – meaning I chose not to go to the McDonald’s across the street from the theatre again – and found a Taco Bueno a few miles from our hotel. I hadn’t had Taco Bueno since I was in graduate school in Oklahoma City, and a taco sounded really good, so I followed the directions that were barked at me by my Google Maps guide (why does she always sound pissed off?) and got my dinner and started back.

I ended up driving through the Gayborhood in Dallas which, on the heels of this week’s Supreme Court rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8, was a hub of celebration and just crawling with people. Driving at night – especially in a new town – freaks me out and pedestrians just add to the stress. Pedestrians…and a ton of construction. I found myself yelling back at Google Maps Girl, “I CAN’T turn left there!” and “Where the hell is the road?!?!” but she never answered me back. And I swear…if she told me to make a U-turn one more time… If I didn’t love my iPhone so much, she’d be out on the side of I-30 somewhere in North Texas.

I made it back to the hotel safely. Back to the most confusing parking garage I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s very Escherian – one moment you’re on the level marked 5 Red and before you know it, you’re on level 7 Blue. Where did 6 go? And…was it purple? One day I was parked on level 3 Red, so I got on the elevator and pressed 3. When I stepped off the elevator, I was on level 4 Blue. The first day we were here, a couple of the ladies in the cast and I went to see a movie. When we went to the garage to get my car, I couldn’t find it. Like, sweaty pits “I-think-someone’s-stolen-my-rental-car” couldn’t find it. We finally found it on one of those hidden floors. I feel a bit less embarrassed now because our conductor had the same problem. Yesterday he posted a picture on Facebook of himself sitting in the lap of a cast member as they drove him around the parking garage looking for his car as he just kept hitting the PANIC button over and over again, hoping it would start honking at him. I think the assassination of John F. Kennedy is not the only conspiracy in Dallas.

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A copy of the original blueprints of the parking garage across the street from our hotel in Dallas, TX.

I’ve spent time in the suburbs of Dallas before. I’ve even been in this theatre before. Several of my friends and I came here to see our friend Julie make her debut in The Phantom of Opera here in 2000. She learned the show in Albuquerque and Dallas was her first performance city. She would go on to do Phantom on the road and on Broadway for over 6 years, I think, as Christine, as the understudy, the alternate and full-time Christine. I’ll never forget the day she called me from New York, where she was having her costume and wig fittings, and she told me she would be wearing shoes worn by Sarah Brightman – the original Christine in London and New York. By my estimation, that made her just about the coolest person I knew. I still think she’s pretty cool, but not because of the shoes or the show. She’s just a great person, and now she’s playing an even more impressive and important role – she’s a mom.

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A display at the Music Hall in Fair Park, Dallas, TX, made by company members of “The Phantom of the Opera,” including my friend Julie, who made her “Phantom” debut here.

I also remember coming to Dallas for an audition at SMU, though I can’t remember what the audition was. To work at Disney World, perhaps? All I really remember about it was driving down with a couple of friends and two days later having full-on strep throat, which had been spreading through the School of Music. One of the passengers in my car had it and didn’t tell us, and so suddenly I had it, too. On opening night of Street Scene which, as I recall, was also my birthday. In Street Scene I was playing Daniel Buchanan, a young Irishman who had just become a father for the first time. He has a arietta in the first act called “When A Woman Has A Baby” that goes up to an A or A-flat above middle C, which for me at the time seemed impossibly high. I still considered myself a baritone and singing anything over an F# seemed high. To have to sing the highest note I’d ever sung in public in front of 1,100 people was daunting enough, but to have to do it with strep throat (we didn’t have understudies) was terrifying. I somehow got through it, but I don’t remember any of the rest of the show. I just sat up in my window, holding my plastic baby, watching the rest of the company do their show through steroid-crazed eyes.

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My friend Jennifer and I backstage during “Street Scene.”

I do remember, just before curtain, our conductor for that show, a small man with absolutely no sense of humor, came down to my dressing room to give me some notes about watching him for cues. I don’t know if it was the fever or the meds or the fear or a combination of all three, but I remember turning to him and saying, “Considering I have strep throat, you’ll be lucky if the notes come out of my mouth on your cue or not.” I immediately regretted saying it, and I would never behave that way now, but to be honest – it kinda felt good. He took a step back – either out of shock or because he was afraid he’d be infected – and just said, “Oh. Well then, have a good show” and walked out. I’d like to think I gained a little bit of his respect for even going on, let alone actually pulling those notes out of my ass while my throat felt like I’d swallowed glass shards, but I also recognize that I had had a diva fit, and that wasn’t cool. Lesson learned.

How did I get so far off topic? Dallas. Back to Dallas…

It’s hard to imagine we have another week here. Yesterday the temperature reached 106 in the city. It’s supposed to cool down to the high 80’s by Monday or Tuesday, so hopefully I’ll be able to actually get out and see a few things without dying of heat stroke. I still have to make it to the zoo and I’d really love to go to Six Flags Over Texas. And I have friends in town I need to see! So much to do, so little time…

Monday I’m driving up to Oklahoma City for the first time in 12 years. Time to face the demons so I can let them go. More on that later…

Take your passion and make it happen!

On The Road Again…

27 Jun

(This entry was originally started on Saturday, June 22, 2013). Greetings again from the back of the auditorium at the Majestic Theatre in downtown San Antonio, where apparently the end of the world is at hand because I’ve sold out of magnets. I’ve also already been told that the flashlight that I have to grip between my teeth as I attempt to count money and fold shirts in total darkness is distracting. Distracting to whom, I’d like to know? The only people who could possibly see it are the volunteer ushers – meaning they get to see the show for free in exchange for showing up and putting people in the wrong seats. Sorry folks, I have a job to do.

Speaking of jobs, I figured I would give you a little more of a behind-the-scenes look at tour life. So many people ask what it’s like, and so few people understand it, I thought it might be a good idea to write about it.

Mounting a show to go on tour is no easy task. The sets and lighting must be built and rigged to be strong enough to stand up to 8 shows a week and the rigors of traveling, but they must also be built to break down and fit into a semi truck. Our show started with 6 semis, I think, but to reduce costs, our producers found set pieces that could be cut from the show, which eliminated one of those semis. On those trucks are the set, lights, wigs, wardrobe, props, my merch booth and storage hamper, stage and company management office consoles, company trunks (one storage bin for each cast, crew and staff member – except me), the “deck,” or stage floor that is specific to our show that is laid down on top of the existing stage floor and a whole host of other things that I don’t know anything about.

Side note: Back in the day, when the original tours of Phantom of the Opera were still out, the show’s set was so large and complicated that they had two decks – one that would be used in whatever city the show was in and one that would travel ahead to the next city so it could be installed and ready when the rest of the set arrived for load-in.

On Monday, our 5 semis will roll into a new town and pull up to the theatre’s loading dock(s). I don’t know this for sure, but I imagine the trucks are numbered in a certain order so they know which one gets unloaded first, second, third, etc. Once the trucks are unloaded, I have no idea where they go. In Tempe, AZ, they were sent to a parking lot about 20 miles away, where they sat for the week, baking in the desert heat.

Once the trucks are unloaded, the crew starts actually putting everything in its place. In our company, as with most, we have a Head Carpenter, Head Props man, Wardrobe Supervisor, Head Audio man, Wig and Makeup Supervisor and Head Electrician. In addition to the department heads, we also have three carpenters, two electricians, one assistant sound person and one assistant wardrobe supervisor and our wonderful stage management crew of three that travel with us. In each city, we also have the local crew who fill out the tech crew. That means that all of the people who travel with us, in addition to loading in the show and making sure everything goes where it should, have to teach their locals what their jobs will be in the show. “You go here and move this,” “You stand here and hand her this,” “You go here and change so-and-so into this dress and these shoes,” “You follow her and put his wig on her,” “You follow so-and-so with your spotlight.” And they do all of this typically in less than 18 hours, just in time for the cast and band to arrive to start sound check on Tuesday afternoon. Our crew works incredibly hard.

While all of that is happening, the cast, the band, company management and I are traveling. Depending on what the company has voted on, some shows may have Mondays off and travel on Tuesday, arriving to the hotel only to turn around and go to the theatre to do sound check and the first show of the week. We did that for the first three weeks of this tour, and it was rough. So the cast voted to travel on Monday instead, allowing us to have the majority of Tuesday free to rest until it was time to go to work. So now we travel on our day off, which, to me, isn’t a day off at all. Depending on how far we’re traveling, we might fly or take a chartered motor coach to our next destination. Flying might sound like the easiest or most comfortable option, but I assure you – I look forward to bus days. When we fly, we have to leave the hotel at least two hours before our flight. We have to be sure that our suitcases are each less than 50 pounds. Depending on the airline, we may have to pay for our luggage, which is reimbursed to us, but…like I say about writing things off on your taxes – you have to have the money to pay for it up front before you can get money back. There have been weeks that I’ve spent $120 on luggage fees alone.

And then there’s security. Getting checked in and through security is always a challenge with this many people. Company members have the ability to opt out of the company flight if they choose to, which means the company will give them the amount of what their ticket would have cost. The company member must then book his or her own travel to the next city, making sure that he or she gets there in time to get to work. We generally have to commit to company travel three or four weeks before the actual travel date, so our company management is always thinking three, four or even five cities ahead.

Also, according to Actors’ Equity Association contractual rules, if we are housed more than a mile (it might be a mile and a half) from the performance venue, the company is required to provide transportation…usually in the form of a rental car which must be shared by four company members per car. Because I am not technically part of the company, my employer must secure a rental car and insurance for me in each of these cities. Even though our Company Manager is pretty great at getting me parking passes for discounted or, in some cases, free parking, I typically end up paying $8-$10 a day in parking. And then there’s the cost of gas… See how it all adds up very quickly? This is in addition to paying my salary, my per diem, buying my airline tickets, buying the shirts on which our merchandise is printed, the actual printing of those shirts, shipping that stuff to me every week (sometimes from coast to coast), paying the office and support staff back in New York… And then royalties and “cuts” have to be paid out to the producers and the venue, which usually takes between 15%-25% of our gross sales. Is it any wonder a sweatshirt costs $50?? This is not a cheap business to be in.

(I’m now writing to you from the lobby of the Music Hall in Fair Park in downtown Dallas, TX. It is Wednesday, June 26, 2013). Tuesdays for me generally involve coming into the theatre three hours before curtain (typically around 4:30pm) to unpack and set up. Merchandise for this show travels with a rolling booth, or “road case,” that is specifically built to stand up to months of traveling. I also have a road hamper, which is exactly what it sounds like – a big hamper with a wooden top that locks. That’s where I store all the mannequins and lights for my display, and I use it for storage of back stock (T-shirts, leg warmers, sweatshirts, etc.). Essentially, it’s my traveling stock room. I also have four steel grid panels back with steel diamond plate sheets. These four panels are tied together with plastic cable ties and they serve as a backdrop for my booth. Think back to your 7th grade science fair project display board, only bigger, shinier and much heavier.

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My booth setup in Dallas.

I set those up first. Once they’re in place and tied together, they stay where they are because they’re too heavy to move, so I always check in with the local venue’s facility manager to confirm where I’m supposed to be set up. Then I decorate the grids with hanging mannequins dressed in our merchandise, add the lights, roll the road case in front and voilà! I’m ready to work. Kind of.

At least once a week I receive a delivery of merchandise to the theatre. Depending on how many boxes, where they’re coming from, how they’re shipped or how desperate I am for stuff to sell, I might get three or four deliveries – all on different days. Every item in the boxes that are sent to me must be hand counted to confirm the inventory count. That means every magnet…every keychain…every poster (they come in boxes of 250-300 pieces) must be counted by hand. I like to bundle the magnets and keychains in fives to make the inventory count at the end of the week easier. I also learned a great technique for dividing the posters into groups of 20 back when I worked at Avenue Q (we had four different posters, so every week I was counting between 750-1,000 posters!). Anything to make inventory easier at the end of a long week.

During the week, I basically have my days free to explore each city or stay in my hotel room, if that’s what I want to do. I generally choose to go sightseeing. My road life is much easier by far than anyone else involved in this show. Understudies have rehearsal once a week. We have 9 new cast members learning the show here in Dallas, so they’re in rehearsal all week and watching the show or “shadowing” backstage at night. Stage management and our conductor are at all of those rehearsals, as well. Soon they will have a “put-in” for the new folks, meaning they get one full run of the show with the rest of the cast, costumes, sets, etc. before they start performing the show regularly. The crew is always busy doing something – repairing things, tweaking things, painting things, washing and repairing wardrobe, setting wigs… And things are still changing. This is a pre-Broadway tour, so even after being on the road for nearly 7 months, the entire cast is in rehearsal this week learning new dialogue, blocking, choreography, lyrics… I cannot imagine having to relearn entire chunks of the show after doing it for that long. Muscle memory is so much stronger than you would think – it takes incredible concentration to change things this late in the game.

Sunday, being the last performance day of the week, is inventory day for me. I have to go in and count every piece of merchandise that wasn’t sold to balance my numbers at the end of the week. I typically do this between shows on Sunday, although in San Antonio, I was so busy that I actually had to go back and do the inventory count during the evening show, which is never easy to do in the dark. Once those numbers are entered into the computer, I deal with money. I’m a bit anal retentive when it comes to cash – I like it to be “faced,” meaning all facing the same direction. I find it’s easier to count that way, and the bank typically likes it, too, when I go in for a deposit. Once the money is taken care of, I have to pack up and have my stuff ready to go by the time our Props Master sends crew guys out to roll my booth, hamper and panels away and put them on the truck. Monday morning, if I’m able, I find a bank, deposit the money, get change if I need it, and then drop off all my paperwork at a FedEx dropbox to go back to the office in New York all before traveling to the next city.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Dallas is the 20th city on our tour. That means I have been through this process 20 times. The first time I had to my end-of-week paperwork and strike my booth in Pittsburgh, it took me roughly an hour and 20 minutes. I have it down to 45 minutes now. Load-in takes half an hour. I can count in a delivery of 7 boxes in half an hour. I found out in San Antonio that I can fold 84 shirts in a little over an hour. Some days I feel like Mary Poppins cleaning up the Banks kids’ nursery – sometimes it’s just easy peasy. Other days it seems nothing is going right. I guess that’s true of any job, though.

Anyway…that’s a look at how a show travels and, specifically, how my job works. Hope you found it to be somewhat interesting. They’ve just done the water drop. That’s my cue.

And That Spells Dallas! My Darlin’, Darlin’ Dallas!

25 Jun

The last two days have been incredibly busy. Sunday was our last performance day in San Antonio, and we had two shows. Between shows I had to count in my inventory and then after the evening show I had to tear down (the theatrical term is “strike”) my display, pack up my booth and make sure everything was secure enough to be packed onto the trucks and moved to Dallas.

Yesterday we travelled from San Antonio to Dallas by bus. Traveling by bus is much easier than flying, in my opinion, but it’s far less comfortable. In terms of time, though, it was the logical choice. The drive was a little over 4 hours. Had we flown, it would have been a 5 hour ordeal getting 50 people to the airport, checked in, through security, etc. And I’m sure it was a lot cheaper, too.

We’re in Dallas for the next two weeks, so we don’t have to worry about traveling again until the 8th, when we’ll fly up to Kansas City, which will be my last city with this tour. I’ll go back to New York for a few weeks, probably spend a week at home with my family in Kentucky, and then I’ll be back out on the road with another show. It makes my head spin to even think about it.

I have to run to the bank before I go to the theatre to set up for tonight’s opening. I’m also going to try to make it to the Sixth Floor Museum (formerly the Texas Book Depository – a.k.a. where Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly shot President Kennedy. Or did he…?) this afternoon. It’s only a few blocks away, so I hope I can fit it in before I have to go to work. If I’m going to to do that, I have to run. Have a good one, y’all!

The Oldest Established Permanent Floating Crap Game In New York!

20 Jun

“I have a colostomy bag. I’ll show you if you don’t believe me! It’s full and about to burst and if you don’t let me go in there, you’re about to have a mess all over your floor!”

– Inappropriate Avenue Q Patron upon being told that the bar and merch staff would not stop men from going into their own restroom so she could avoid the line for the ladies’ room.

Today I have decided to fill you in on some of the lesser-known, less delicate stories of working on Broadway. Now, I will preface this post by warning you that some of these stories are not appropriate for those of you with a weak stomach. Frankly, some of them are pretty darn gross.

I have a long history with vomit. When I was five years old, my family moved to a suburb of London, England, for my Dad’s job with KFC. Yes, the chicken. And yes, I met the Colonel. Just once, but I did meet The Man. I started school in England and, having been born a nerd, I loved it. I was reading at a fifth grade level by the time I left second grade. We wore uniforms and slip-on shoes call “plimsoles.” We had an annual Donkey Derby Day, which was exactly what it sounds like: donkey races. It was a grand affair on the school’s great lawn, complete with face painting booths and carnival games and Punch and Judy shows. It was a great deal of fun. Very civilized. Very British.

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One thing I never cared for at Eastwick First School was the food. And apparently it didn’t care for me, either. In fact, I spent the better part of two years vomiting my way across Europe in the back seat of my parents’ car, in the deli section of the local grocery store, in my uncle’s lap just after we’d picked him up from the airport. You name it, I probably threw up there. It was not civilized, and most certainly not British. We finally figured out that the cause of my malaise was the sausages they were feeding me at school on Friday afternoons. Bangers and mash, they called it, because they were served with mashed potatoes. Once we figured out what the problem was, the vomiting stopped.

Fast forward twenty-five years.

My first assistant management job doing merchandise was at How The Grinch Stole Christmas! at the Hilton (now Foxwoods) Theatre on 42nd Street. The schedule was grueling – 12 shows a week – and we had a ridiculous amount of merchandise to inventory, fold and sell. Lather, rinse, repeat. We had a built-in store in the lobby of the theatre, just off the main rotunda that led to the orchestra level seating. At the back of the lobby were stairs that led up to the mezzanine and down to the basement, where the restrooms were.

The concessions company who supplied snacks and drinks for the show saw it as a cash cow and made every kind of candy and soda available to the hoards of kids coming to see the Grinch. Green cotton candy, jelly beans, popcorn, lollipops, Skittles…you name it, they had it. And the kids ate it.

The show was about 85 minutes long and, almost like clockwork, you could tell when we’d hit the 60-minute mark because, without fail, the doors would swing open and four or five kids would run out, their parents with crazed looks on their faces running behind them, and soon, with a Seuss-ian SPLAT!, the marble floor in the rotunda would be covered in lime green cotton candy vomit. Or, sometimes, they’d make it to the stairs, just to hurl all over the carpet, leaving a trail behind them all the way to the bathroom.

Often, when a show offers a CD or souvenir program, a merchandiser will be assigned to walk the lobby before and after with a bag full of programs and CDs strapped across their chest. A “bag shift,” we call it. With Grinch, the bag shift at walk-out often involved straddling puddles of green puke to keep patrons from walking through it, all the while trying to be pleasant and sell programs. For some of us, it also meant trying to keep our breakfasts down and ignoring the smell.

Once Grinch closed, I was sent over to be a replacement manager at Avenue Q at the Golden Theatre. I remember thinking, “Oh, thank goodness! No more kids puking all over the floor!”

My booth at Avenue Q was downstairs in the lounge, directly across from the men’s room. The ladies’ room was so small and had so few stalls that often, about 5 or 10 minutes before the show would start, the theatre security guard would invite any women who felt comfortable doing it to use the two stalls in the men’s room with the understanding that the men could still come in and use the urinals. It was a constant issue for the 9 months I managed there.

On my first night managing, the show started and I started counting my inventory. The cast had barely started singing the opening number and I heard it. Coming from the men’s room across from my booth were the most horrific sounds, reverberating off the tile walls and floor. We had a puker. And he puked for the entire first act. His friend finally came to get him (shouldn’t he have checked on him earlier?) and they left. “Well, that was a fluke,” I thought, and I got back to work.

Two weeks later, during the second act, a woman ran to the back of the orchestra and tossed her cookies into the garbage can at the top of the steps. Not long after that, a man sitting in the mezzanine vomited his way down the stairs just before the end of the show, making it necessary to rope off that entire stairwell. Floors, walls, handrails…you name it, he hit it, and the smell that wafted downstairs was enough to make anyone’s gag reflex trigger.

I started to realize that Avenue Q was a drinker’s show, and therefore it was a puker’s show. After 9 months at the Q, I was transferred to the manager’s position at A Chorus Line, in a theatre where I was far enough removed from the public that I never had to know if anyone was sick.

After A Chorus Line closed several months later, I floated around from theatre to theatre, selling at whatever show I could, including Mamma Mia! at the Winter Garden Theatre. We had a small booth out in the tiny inner lobby of the theatre, and just around the corner was the wheelchair accessible restroom, which we all favored because it was a private toilet. During one Sunday matinee I came down to open the booth for walk-out and I stopped short in my tracks. There was an overwhelming smell of bleach with a hint of shit thrown in for good measure. My nose burned as I asked one of the ushers what had happened. Apparently, a very nicely-dressed woman went in and did her business and came back out to watch the show’s finale. Nothing seemed off until someone went in to find that she had projectile pooped all over the walls of the bathroom. It was so bad that the only way to clean it in time for walk-out was to mop the walls down with bleach. And she went back in to watch the finale!? One had to wonder – if the walls looked that bad, what did her clothes look like?

After a few months of floating around at various shows, I was given the assistant manager position at Shrek: The Musical at the Broadway Theatre. It wasn’t long before we had a little girl who, stuffed with candy and scared to death of Shrek, puked all over the back of the head of the woman sitting in front of her. One day I was working the bag shift and I looked over to see my co-worker Rachel working my regular booth. She was shrinking away from a woman in a wheelchair who had her head buried in a trash can at the end of Rachel’s booth. The pukers were following me. Was this punishment for the countless times my parents had to hose me down in the bathtub after another disastrous night of food poisoning?

Almost a year later, I was sent to manage four shows at once. “Satellite shows,” we called them. I would manage from one location, and the employees at the other three shows would check in with me at the end of the night. One of the shows I was managing was Love, Loss and What I Wore at the West Side Theatre on 43rd Street and 9th Avenue. The West Side is an old church that’s been converted into two separate theatre spaces – one upstairs and one downstairs. Love, Loss and What I Wore was in the theatre on the first floor.

The show was written by Nora and Delia Ephron. You probably would know Nora for her movies: “Sleepless In Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail” and “Julie & Julia,” for example. In other words, Nora Ephron was a big deal, and so she was able to get pretty much any cast she wanted. The plan for Love, Loss… was to have a rotating company – every month and a half or so a new group of actresses would come in, and boy, did Nora get some actresses. Tyne Daly and Rosie O’Donnell were in the original cast. Kristin Chenoweth, Jane Lynch, Rhea Perlman, Rita Wilson, Carole Kane, Janeane Garofalo, Fran Drescher, Melissa Joan Hart, Brooke Shields, Loretta Swit and Marla Maples all eventually swung through the cast, as well. It was kind of a big deal for a 250-seat venue.

According to the story I heard, one night Rosie O’Donnell came offstage after the first curtain call and told stage management, “Someone has shit themselves.” Around that time, the doors swung open to let the audience out, and a smell like nothing I’ve ever smelled before came through the lobby and made my eyes sting. The crowd rushed out of the building as if the place were on fire, but a small crowd remained in the theatre. This was nothing new – people always waited there if they were on the list to go backstage – but something seemed off about it that night.

See, what had happened was…there was a woman sitting in the front row whose colostomy bag had come loose and had leaked down the leg of the woman sitting next to her. It also leaked into the nooks and crannies of the seat in which she was sitting, and a whole section of seats eventually had to be removed and thrown out because they couldn’t clean it out sufficiently to get rid of the smell. It was awful. I can’t imagine what either of those women must have been feeling. On the one hand, you have the woman who unwittingly shit all over another woman’s leg due to a mechanical failure, and on the other hand, you have the woman who’s been shit upon. I mean, it just brings up so many questions. How do you bring it up? “Um, excuse me, but I think you’ve leaked shit down my leg…?” What do you do with that?! How did she get home that night? What did she wear? Did she wear the shitty pants, or did she send someone out for a clean pair of jeggings? And if she did wear the shitty pants, what kind of woman is she?!? Did she burn them when she got home?? Will she ever go to the theatre again?? Will you ever go to the theatre again after reading this?

Aren’t you glad you started reading my blog?

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.