Have you ever had a dream for the future that was so clear, sharp, and strong that you could’ve taken a pen and drawn exactly what it looked like?
When I was 24 years old, as a budding actor in New York, I had *two* such dreams, and I was already living one of them. That first dream was to perform in Bob Fosse’s musical “Pippin” on Broadway, the show that gave us (among other things) “jazz hands.” Eight times a week, I got to do exactly what I had hoped I’d be able to do. I was in heaven!
The second dream was to play the title role of Pippin, on Broadway. But the leap from being one of the players to doing the title role seemed way off.
I didn’t shelve that dream, though. And being the sponge I was, I often stood in the wings to watch Michael, who’d played Pippin for two years, as I tried to absorb all the nuances of the part.
Pippin is a fantastic role for an actor. You’re on stage for almost two hours, you have amazing songs, scenes, and laugh lines left and right. It’s a role to die for. It’s also a role that could kill you if you don’t have stamina, a high range, and vocal cords of steel.
I didn’t have the perfect voice to play Pippin. In fact, two pivotal people didn’t think I had a singing voice at all: the evil chorus teacher in sixth grade who humiliated me in front of my classmates, declaring I had a horrible voice and banishing me from his class; and the gruff musical director at Arizona State, where I was a theatre major, who once told someone he would never let my voice be heard on a stage.
But something drove me onward, both as an actor and a singer, and I obviously improved enough for Bob Fosse himself to cast me in the show. It is amazing what tenacity can achieve. And about a month after I started performing as one of the players in “Pippin,” a unique opportunity arose.
Every actor on Broadway is a member of Actors’ Equity Association, the union for actors. Among the rules the union has is that when you’re in a show for a long run, you get to take vacations. What a concept!
So a month into my run in “Pippin,” it was announced that Michael and Dean, his understudy, would each be taking a week’s vacation, starting with Dean.
Now, Michael was a beast and rarely missed a performance. In fact, the only time I saw Dean go on as Pippin was during the week that Michael was on vacation.
But you can’t be without some kind of backup. If the company didn’t have an understudy, and then Michael or Dean was hit by a bus while the other was on vacation, we’d have been screwed. But since this was only for two weeks, they decided to find somebody within the company who could be a temporary understudy. I mean, how likely was it that the backup would go on?
So they held an audition for just the guys in the show, and I got it! Okay, an unexpected step toward my dream. And, I was going to get an extra $50 a week for covering the part. Life was good.
And then it got better.
Dean went off on vacation and, that first Monday he was gone, Michael pulled me aside and said, “Hey, do you think you could go on on Friday?”
Whaaaaat?! My brain froze. I was being offered my dream on a silver platter. What were the chances? It took me a long moment to find my voice and say, “Ah, sure.”
“Good,” he said. “I’ve got tickets to an Eagles concert.”
So I was going on as Pippin in only four days, in front of 2000 people. I was excited beyond belief. And I spent every moment I could in the wings, memorizing minute details about the part and how Michael played it. I was amped, amped, amped.
I couldn’t tell anyone yet, though, because what Michael was doing wasn’t really allowed. The plan was that on Thursday, he would pretend to be coming down with a cold, and then he’d call in sick on Friday, at which time I would could call everyone I knew and say, “Come to the show tonight!”
As it happened, the stage manager held an “understudies rehearsal” on Thursday afternoon, so I had a chance to go through all the songs and run the lines with real people, not just in my head. They didn’t know that I was going on the next night, but I knew . . . And being as excited as I was, I gave a full-out performance. You could’ve put Bob Fosse in the audience that afternoon and I wouldn’t have played it any more fiercely or fully. This was my DREAM, and it was finally going to come true in just over 24 hours.
Of course, I still had to do my regular part that night so, despite being exhausted from the nearly two-hour performance I’d just done, I somehow managed to get through the show. And Michael did his part, coughing strategically throughout the evening, and downing ungodly amounts of hot tea.
And the next morning, just after 8 AM, my phone rang. It was the stage manager calling to tell me that Michael was sick and I would be going on as Pippin that night. I knew that, of course, but there was now something else to contend with . . .
I had no voice. I could barely even talk, let alone sing.
I had totally blown out my vocal cords the day before, between how hard I’d sung during the rehearsal and then doing my regular part that night. I had no clue at 8 AM how I could sing at 8 PM, let alone sing such a demanding role. I felt like someone had hit me in the head with a sledge hammer.
I managed to call my my girlfriend to ask her to spread the word — there was no way I was not going to do this. But throughout the day, I never felt like my voice was coming back.
I got to the theatre early, and they installed me in the star’s dressing room. A parade of flowers and castmates descended on the room to wish me well. They were sooo excited for me, and for the novelty of having someone new as Pippin to play against. The energy building up for this was huge. They all seemed to want to chat, while I was doing my damnedest to use as few words as possible. I was also drinking more tea than Michael had consumed the night before.
The only person who knew of my plight was my girlfriend. Otherwise, I was alone in this dilemma. And somewhere in the back of my head was a memory from six months before, in my first Broadway show, when I had one short line of a song that was just me singing alone. On opening night, I was fighting a cold and when it came to my one solo line, my voice cracked and I could barely get the words out.
That was a small moment in a forgettable show in front of maybe 100 people. This was the title role in “Pippin” in front of 2000 people. If my voice cracked, if I couldn’t maintain the power and range I needed, it would be a disaster.
And so the show started. I was standing in the wings waiting for the opening number to finish, trying not to focus on the sea of faces spread out in front of me. Then it was my moment to sneak onstage for Pippin’s big reveal.
In many shows, you get a chance to ease into things — establish your character, maybe get a few laughs under your belt and get the audience on your side before you break into song. That was not the case for an actor playing Pippin.
My first moment in the lights was being raised above a scrum of players, looking up from the book I was holding, and then smiling at the audience. Then they set me down, everyone moved back, and the intro for my first song started. It’s a really demanding piece, where you sustain a high G, seemingly forever, at the end of each of three choruses. If I was going to fail, it would be NOW.
I’m not sure exactly what happened next. I began singing, started connecting with the song and not with my fear, and when I climbed to that first high G — it was solid. So was the next one, and the next. And at that moment, I knew I would make it.
You know how elite athletes talk about being in the zone and having no sense of how they’re performing? That happened to me, where I was so connected to what I was doing and to the audience, and so out of my head, that it was all a blur.
But then, midway through the show, during the hardest song I had to sing, I felt my voice weakening a little. Oh, shit! Was this it? Was this going to be the moment I would fail? It was a weird space for my head to be in while pushing my vocal cords to the max. But in the midst of all that, a calmer voice inside said, “Just focus on your support” (i.e. the mechanics of how I sing). When I did that, the power came back and everything became a blur again.
Until about 20 minutes later when I jammed my thumb on a table in a dramatic moment. As pain yanked me out of the blur, my first thought was, “Is it broken?” I shook my hand slightly; no, it was throbbing, but it was okay. Back to the blur.
And then the show was over. When the curtain fell, the cast mobbed me, not only because it was one of their own who had stepped into a big moment, but because you rarely get to see someone emerging from obscurity, on short notice, to do a starring role. Shirley MacLaine’s rise to fame started with just such a moment in “The Pajama Game.”
The audience, too, was off the charts. Since I was such a short term understudy, there was no notice placed in each program to say that I would be going on for the title role. Instead, they all found out at the same moment when an announcement was made, “At this performance, the role of Pippin, usually played by …” I learned later there had been a very audible groan from the audience.
So with their expectations low and the cast being on fire, it turned out to be an electric performance from everybody. When the curtain rose for us to take bows, the audience shot to their feet.
And me? I was just kind of numb. As friends were pounding on me in their excitement, I kept looking around for who they were talking about.
I didn’t become the next Shirley MacLaine, however. No one came to whisk me off to Hollywood glory and riches galore. But that one night kept me going through many tough years as an actor, because I knew I could do it. I could hold a big stage and fill a demanding role.
I also learned that when I don’t give in to my fear, when I allow my body and my mind to do what they know how to do, great things can happen.
And dreams really can come true, even if they’re just a blur.
Meanwhile, I still need to send The Eagles a thank you note.