(or How the High School Musical Cast List changed my life)
My middle daughter, Ava, tried out for Grease at Peekskill High School last week. She decided to go to Rizzo. She worked on all of her songs, she studied Stockard Channing in the movie for hours, she practiced being “tough”. She got a call back. She blew a note and yelled a curse word. She tortured herself for 24 hours after that. And then the cast list went up….and she is in the ensemble.
Feeling frustrated and sad, we got the text when she declared she may just “quit it all” and our response was “Don’t you dare”. I went on to explain all I knew to be true, “This is what being an actress is all about. This is what life is all about. This is what the Rolling Stones wrote a song about. You can’t always get what you want”.
And then I told her that story you tell you kids a thousand times in the hopes that one day they listen to you. Here’s what happened to me when I got cast as ensemble in 1994.
I was a junior at Cushing Academy. I was there on an academic scholarship and had to maintain a GPA while taking Pre-Cal, AP courses and Japanese. I was burning the candle from both ends, as I would the rest of my life. But one thing made all the stress go away. One time of the day made me the happiest and that was play rehearsal. Well, sometimes it was a play, other times it was the biggest of undertakings, it was the Winter Musical!!!
I was ready for it that year. I was taking voice, competing in jazz chorus, I’d done Shakespeare in the fall. This was it. The year I would get a “lead role”. And the play we were doing, “Three Penny Opera”, had several female leads. Surely, I would nail one of them. I auditioned. Then I waited. Then the cast list went up on the door of the auditorium.
I scanned the sheet for my name and found it at the bottom under the subhead “Whores” under the made-up name “Mariah”. I would be on-stage when “Pirate Jenny” was performed, but I was just another prostitute. I was devastated. But mainly, I was just angry.
(At this point is important to note that Cushing Academy, at that time, did some edgy shows. Over the course of my four years there, we did “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, “Godspell”, “Three Penny Opera” and finally “Cabaret”- which I did get a supporting role in. It is also important to note that I went to school with some amazingly talented people, who sang and were able to act far better than I ever could. On with our story.)
What I should have done, was to simply take the role and be in the show. The old phrase is “there are no small parts, only small actors”. But what I did instead would change the course of everything, so I don’t regret a thing.
I marched into the office of Whit Wales, our head of the drama department and one extremely smart man. And I said to him, “I deserved a better role in that show”.
And his response, as if he’d said it a million times, which he probably has was, “Vicki. There were so many talented students who auditioned this year. And yes, you are one of them. But this show doesn’t have the right role for you. But you’ll learn a lot about Brecht/Weil and I’m sure you’re going to love being a part of the team”.
And then I asked, “What else can I do?”, I can’t just sit in the background and wait around rehearsals.
“Oh, Vic. Seriously? Tell you what. Go write a play. And if you do that, you can cast it yourself and direct it in May. You’ll see how hard this is.”
“Ok”, I left his office. I cried. I bought a typewriter.
I wrote a comedy about two elderly people who feel rejected by the rest of the world and find comfort in each other. “Calvin and Adele” was performed at Cushing Academy in May. It helped me get into college where I was a Directing and Playwriting major. I now work on a Broadway for a non-profit that develops new musicals.
But wait…there’s one last thing.
While in college, I did have to take acting, even as a directing major. But the other thing I continued to do was study voice. It was there where I discovered that having a strength in vocal jazz also made me good at singing things like Sondheim. Where I stopped trying to be a soprano and owned my Mezzo range. And where, my sophomore year, I found out the Faculty production would be, you guessed it, “The Three Penny Opera”.
Suddenly I felt all the feelings. Should I try and audition? Should I just ask to assistant direct? And here’s where another teacher reminded me who I was. I told Ida Faiella the story of high school and the cast list and the subsequent rejection that lead to me even standing there. “You didn’t focus on the right role. When you look at a story, find your place in it. You’re tough and funny. Focus on Lucy. Start practicing now and you have a shot”.
And guess what, I worked my ass off. And I got it.
I loved working on that show. I loved studying Brecht even more. My last two years of college I finished my dual degree by focusing on political theater.
“Oh no, Mom! Not this story again”, Ava whined as I told it to her this week. But she took the ensemble role and she will get to hand jive this Spring. I’m going to pay for her to get private voice coaching. She also showed me the cover of her first EP, which will drop later this month on Spotify. It’s one cover and a couple of original songs that she wrote. So far, she’s handling the pain of rejection really, really well.
(A special note of thanks to both Whit Wales and Ida Faiella. It couldn’t have been easy to have had to be my teachers, but damn have they left a huge impact on me by simply serving me a challenge.)