Tag Archives: Podcasts

Hey, Old Friend…Whaddaya Say, Old Friend?

9 Nov

Dear Readers,

Are there any of you left out there? Have I been absent for so long that you’ve given up on me? On a day in which it seems there is little hope to hang onto, I choose to hope that at least one of you has stuck with me. I might even go so far as to say I hope that at least one of you has been looking forward to the day that I write something new. That might be pushing it a bit, but who said hopes had limits?

It’s been a trying few hours, friends. If I’m being completely honest with you – and what would be the purpose of this blog if I weren’t completely honest? – it’s been a trying few months.

It’s been so long since I wrote anything that I truly don’t even remember where I left off. But here’s where we are today: I am struggling to keep my hopes up right now, as many others are, as well. This election has taken its toll on all of us and the results have left me and so many others feeling unsure of our future – scared for it, even. I’ll not go into a political discussion here tonight because, quite frankly, I’m sick to death of politics and debriefings and analyses and pundits, but suffice it to say that my heart is heavy and I am scared. Perhaps a grown man shouldn’t declare that in a public forum, but it’s the truth.

On top of our nation’s current state of affairs, we in Florida, and particularly Orlando, have suffered through a lot this year. Between the shooting at Pulse earlier this year, which directly affected many of my friends and coworkers, and Hurricane Matthew, which thankfully turned out to be little more than a thunderstorm for many of us in Central Florida because of a fortuitous shift in wind, we’ve been through a great deal of stress these last few months.

And on a more personal note, I’ve recently been struggling with something that I never imagined would be an issue for me – my age. Next week I turn 40, and while I don’t think of myself as a 40-year old, my body has slowly started betraying me and has been not-so-gently reminding me through a series of ever-changing aches and pains that, while I may look 28, I am, in fact, not 28 anymore.

Then there’s the weight gain. After the Pulse shooting, I started comfort eating because…well, it’s what I do when I get stressed. Instead of turning to alcohol or drugs, I turn to cakes and cookies and pizza, and since mid-July, I have managed to gain back all 27 pounds that I worked so hard to lose earlier this year. Right now I feel so defeated that I have kind of given up on even trying to lose it again. And that makes me mad at myself and makes me want to tear into a box of Twinkies. I mean, I just want to destroy those snack cakes. It’s a vicious cycle and I wish I could just snap my fingers and have the metabolism I had 10 years ago and the willpower that I’ve always wished I had. And then I get frustrated at myself for complaining about having too much food when there are others who are less fortunate than me.

I’ve also been thinking about where I am professionally at 40 and I’m unhappy with it. I came here with a purpose and, just as in New York, I’ve become so focused on simply surviving that I’ve taken my eye off the prize and I’ve gotten stuck.

Things aren’t all as bad as all that, though. During the time of the Pulse shooting, I had the wonderful opportunity of performing in a production of Ragtime the Musical at the Dr. Phillips Center in Orlando. Through that show, I met some of the most wonderful people in Orlando, I laughed more than I think I have in a very long time, we cried – no, wept – together and we made some incredible music together. I couldn’t be more grateful for that experience and those people. I’m also performing on a semi-regular basis in the dinner theatre show at the Titanic Artifact Exhibition on International Drive in Orlando. I get to play J. Bruce Ismay and I absolutely love it. Once again, I’ve found a theatre family that I love and it helps bring in a bit more money every month, which is a great help these days. And my parents recently got to see me in the show, which was fun and pushed me out of my comfort zone, because there’s nothing much more terrifying to me than having to interact and improvise with my parents in a British accent and fake moustache. But I did it!

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A very sunburnt J. Bruce Ismay.

Even with those steps toward what I want here for myself, I often find myself wallowing down in the dumps lately, criticizing myself for living what I think is a pretty lackluster life. I sometimes find myself thinking that I haven’t done much with my life…that I’m pretty boring, even. And then every once in a while, people in the break room at work will be talking about Hamilton or New York or Japan and I’ll jump in and add something that, to me, seems insignificant – interesting, but insignificant – and it always surprises me to see the looks of disbelief on my coworkers’ faces. And then I’m reminded that I have, if nothing else, had an interesting life.

I’ve recently become slightly obsessed with storytelling podcasts (The Moth and Snap Judgment are my favorites), and I hear some of the stories people tell and I think, “I could do that!” I mean, isn’t that what I’ve been doing here for years now?

So here’s a story.

Just a few months after I moved to New York, it was announced that the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, would be producing a summer-long celebration of Stephen Sondheim. There would be six shows produced that summer, all featuring big-named theatre stars, running in repertory, meaning the first three shows would be presented on alternating nights for the first half of the summer, and then the second set of shows would follow suit for the last half of the summer. The lineup was incredible – Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Baranski in Sweeney Todd, Melissa Errico, Raúl Esparza and Florence Lacey in Sunday in the Park With George, Lynn Redgrave, Emily Skinner, Alice Ripley and John Barrowman (yes, that John Barrowman) in Company, Judy “Pocahontas” Kuhn, Michael Cerveris and Rebecca Luker in Passion, Raúl Esparza, Miriam Shor and Emily Skinner in Merrily We Roll Along and Randy Graff, Blair Brown and Kristen “Princess Anna” Bell in A Little Night Music. For a musical theatre nerd like me, this was heaven on Earth. The problem was – it was all the way down in Washington, DC.

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Luckily, I had a friend named David, who I’d met in the old Theater chat room on AOL, and he and I had become friends in real life. David was in the original Broadway company of Merrily We Roll Along and, naturally, was forever a Sondheim fan. David was going to see each and every one of those shows and had a spare set of tickets – I just had to get myself down to DC! So I did, of course – twice.

The first show we saw was Sweeney Todd, and honestly, the whole thing was a blur. I remember the sound being a huge issue – during the Joanna trio in the second act, Stokes’ mic went out and suddenly we heard Hugh Panaro backstage vocalizing, and as soon as Hugh stepped onstage, his mic went out and we could hear Celia Keenan Bolger singing scales backstage. And I remember going to dinner at the restaurant on the ground floor of the Watergate Hotel (yes, that Watergate Hotel) and sitting across from Brian Stokes Mitchell, which was a huge thrill for me. I had no idea what was coming next.

David’s friend, Annie, joined us for the second set of shows, which included Merrily. Annie was also an original cast member of the show – in fact, she was the leading lady, and she was sharing a hotel room with us. Ann Morrison is also one of the kindest, gentlest souls I’ve ever met in my life. On the train ride over to the theatre, I asked Annie if she would sing something from the show for me and, as we ascended the giant escalator out of the train station, she sang, “Charley…why can’t it be like it was? I liked it the way that it was, Charley – you and me…we were nicer then,” and my head nearly exploded. (Hear her sing it on the Original Broadway Cast Recording here at around 1:42).

But wait…there’s more.

As we entered the huge lobby of the Kennedy Center complex, we were making our way to the theatre doors when someone yelled out, “David!” We all turned to see who it was and, standing there in the flesh was Anthony Rapp. Yes, that Anthony Rapp. I couldn’t believe it. I had never been a Renthead per se, but I loved the show just as much as everyone else, and I had spent countless hours listening to him on the cast recording. And then, after the show, once again at the Watergate, he was sitting across from me and David and Annie, talking about how he’d just returned from opening Rent in Japan. And then he started singing “Seasons of Love” in Japanese! Right there at the table. Annie and I both couldn’t believe what we were experiencing as we shared a caesar salad with sirloin beef (she and I bonded very quickly), and as I went to bed that night, I simply could not wrap my head around everything that had happened that night. It was all so wonderful. I mean, the only way it could possibly get better would be if I actually got to meet Stephen Sondheim himself.

And then I met Stephen Sondheim.

That Sunday night, after the closing performance of A Little Night Music, which was also the closing night of the Celebration, David got us into the closing night party. Sadly, Annie had had to fly back home early that morning – she left us all lovely notes under our pillows before she left, because that’s the kind of woman she is – but because of his involvement with Merrily, David was able to get me and some friends into the party that night. A few minutes into the soiree, we turned a corner and there he was – basking in a halo of heavenly light (well…maybe not) – Stephen Sondheim! David walked up to him and said, “Hi, Steve!” They had kept in touch through the years and they greeted each other as old friends and then David turned and introduced all of us to Sondheim. I shook his hand and we all stood around nervously for a few minutes while he and David chatted a bit more and then someone else walked up to “Steve.” I’m not sure who he was, but “Steve” introduced him to David and then proceeded to introduce each and every one of us to this person. By name.

“And this is Jason…”

Whenever I feel like I’m a nobody…that I’ve led an uninteresting life…that my voice isn’t being heard…I need to remind myself of this:

For one brief, shining moment, Stephen Sondheim knew my name.

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I Always Feels Like Somebody’s Watching Me

11 Feb

Well…maybe I don’t always feel like somebody’s watching me, but sometimes it’s fun to give myself the creeps.

As I wrote in my last entry, I have started walking. A lot. I’m averaging about 3 miles a night now, not including the mileage I get just walking in everyday life, so I’m getting in anywhere from 5-9 miles a day now. It’s during those nightly walks that I really get in the steps, though, and to keep myself entertained while I’m walking, I’ll typically listen to whatever music pops up on my iPhone (SEE ALSO: Beyoncé, “Formation.”) But a couple of times a week, I get a special surprise when two of the podcasts that I’m following release new episodes.

I’m new to the world of podcasts, and I’ve recently discovered Fireside Mystery Theatre and Chilling Tales: The Podcast, and I gotta tell ya, guys…I’m hooked. Fireside Mystery Theatre is a storytelling podcast based in the tradition of radio dramas from the 30’s and 40’s. They perform their stories live from September to May at the Slipper Room in New York City’s Lower East Side and they have a whole slew of back episodes to choose from. Recently I listened to Episode 8 (April 10, 2015), which included three Irish ghost stories and I was completely taken in by them. The musical interludes between the stories were wonderful, too.

Chilling Tales is another storytelling podcast, but it has less of a “radio drama” feel about it and is more straightforward storytelling with actors voicing the characters or a single narrator. The first night I discovered the podcast, I was at home, cooking in the kitchen with only a couple of lights on in the house, and by the end of the second episode (Horror S’more-er: Chilling Tales Goes To Camp), I was checking the locks and windows in the house and turning on as many lights as possible.

It takes a lot to genuinely scare me. After living in New York City for as long as I did, there wasn’t much I hadn’t seen or experienced and, believe or not, after years of terror threats and heightened alerts and raids on your apartment by the FBI, one becomes desensitized to a lot of things. Or at least one tells oneself. After some time in the city, I became less worried about being blown up in the subway than I was about being blown away in a hurricane or bodies falling on me from the high-rises in Midtown. (This actually happened, by the way – not a body falling on me, but I happened upon a suicide scene on 6th Avenue one day on my way to work. The body had landed on the sidewalk just next to an outdoor café. The police had brought in city buses to park on each side of the corner to block off foot traffic and onlookers. It was not a pretty scene. And I would have expected my pastrami on rye to be comped.)

All that being said, one of my favorite things to do at one point in my time in New York, was to walk from work at the Metropolitan Opera House, where I used to work coat check, to the subway on 57th Street, while listening to a suite of music from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” You should try it sometime. It’ll really freak you out. So now, while I’m walking around my darkened neighborhood late at night, I listen to people telling spooky stories. And I find myself looking over my shoulder. A lot. Because the one thing that does scare me is people jumping out from behind things or sneaking up on me.

When I was in third grade, my next door neighbor’s dad took me and a few of the kids in the neighborhood to a radio station-sponsored haunted house. We were all far too young to get in, but Kevin Ray’s dad knew some people who let us in – or he convinced them that we were old enough…I don’t know – and we got into this place.

Looking back on it, I don’t really remember many of the specifics of the place – it felt like there were a hundred different rooms that we went through and I remember thinking we were never going to finally be done with it, though the reality is there may have been a dozen or so different rooms and scenes. But what I do remember still haunts me.

The first room I remember walking through was a large, open space, with a walkway on the left side of the room, and Satan pacing the floor on the right side of the room. Now, I know, that sounds kind of hokey, but I was maybe 9 years old and, in addition to Satan, there were also dozens of fallen angels behind bars, reaching out into the walkway, begging us to save them. As a kid who went to church regularly, this terrified me on so many levels. I may have cried…I can’t remember.

The next room I remember featured a doctor eating the guts out of a body on an operating table. Just, y’know, yanking them out and shoving the slimy, bloody entrails into his face. And then he sawed off their head. Duh.

And finally, the last room we came to was a huge space with just a coffin set up near the wall at the far end of the room, furthest away from the door. The tour guide told us to form a circle in the middle of the room, holding hands and closing our eyes, which immediately made me suspicious, but I closed my eyes, anyway, so that maybe I wouldn’t have to see what was inevitably about to happen. A few seconds later, there was a lot of screaming and I heard someone passing behind me, so I opened my eyes to find a mummy in the center of our circle, getting in everyone’s faces and making mummy-like sounds (I’m not even sure what those are), and Dracula, who had risen from his coffin, running around the outside of our circle, thrusting his head between us as if he were going for our throats.

Well, I was done. I bolted for what I thought was the door, only to find that I had accidentally run myself behind Dracula’s coffin, which set me into a panic. Kevin Ray’s dad came and rescued me and we proceeded to leave through a giant door that had black plastic hanging from it, like a meat locker. That’s the last time I’ve ever willingly set foot in a haunted house.

That night, perhaps in an attempt to apologize to all of us for subjecting us to that nightmare, Kevin Ray’s dad took us to Pizza Hut, where we all sat at a booth. We didn’t all fit, so we had to pull up a chair to the end of the table, which is where I had to sit, and as we were waiting for our pizzas to arrive, I remember hearing Hall & Oates “Private Eyes” playing over the PA system.

Private eyes (clap!)
They’re watching you! (clap! clap!)
They see your ev’ry move…

I’ve never been able to listen to 70’s soft rock the same way since. (If only I’d developed a similar aversion to pizza…) I was convinced that someone was behind me – Satan or perhaps that weird-sounding mummy. Convinced that they had followed us to Pizza Hut and were planning to finish me off before the pepperoni pan pizza had even arrived. That they were watching me (clap! clap!)…that they saw my ev’ry move. Like demons and mummies do. I think I maybe ate half a slice which, even at that age, was unheard of for me. I couldn’t be bothered to eat – I was on poltergeist patrol.

To this day, I have never wittingly stepped into a haunted house again. I’ve been that guy who holds people’s bags while they go through the house or runs down the hall with his eyes covered, screaming, “I’ll punch you! I swear, I will!” when the dorms decided it’d be fun to have a haunted floor. I flat out refused to go to Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights this year, even though I could have gotten in for free and all my co-workers begged me to go, but I am 99% certain I would have gotten myself fired for assaulting the first performer who jumped out at me with a chainsaw. Homie don’t play dat.

But I can creep myself out with ghost stories and Bernard Herrmann scores and that’s enough for me. Because I can turn it off whenever I want.

I still get a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach when I hear that song, though. And a craving for Pizza Hut pan pizza. Not today, Satan! Not today…