Friday, July 8, 2011

Get out your tap shoes, Frances! Julian Marsh is doing a show!

That's me in the teal hat on the risers behind the leads.
Don't I look happy?
Last Thursday, I picked up a copy of Artvoice, Buffalo’s independent newsweekly, and casually paged to the audition notices. Theatre hiring interns, show choir needs gospel singers, Christian production company seeks people who look like Jesus … wait, what’s this? The Kavinoky Theatre seeks strong tappers and singers for their fall production of 42nd Street? My heart fluttered, I started humming, and I began to salivate out of control while experiencing spontaneous IBS. It was that old familiar, extremely unpleasant, violently-ill feeling: The stage was calling!

I rushed home to call for an audition appointment, and left an eloquent message in my most theatrical voice (deep, throaty, irresistible). I got a call back not an hour later and found myself blithely telling the caller that yes, I was a tapper, and yes, I couldn’t wait to learn a combination! It was only after I’d hung up the phone that I realized the enormity of the exaggeration I’d just made.

Some backstory: As a child, I believed that I was the next Cyd Charisse. I taught myself the basic ballet positions from a book I got out of the school library. After watching Singin’ in the Rain, I nearly dislocated my shoulder attempting to swing my body gracefully around the maple tree in our front yard. In my aspirations toward Broadway greatness, I secretly considered myself a triple threat. The hitch was that by the time I reached high school I had exactly two years of formal dance lessons under my belt, both in beginner-level ballet.

With the announcement that the 1993 Orchard Park High School musical would be 42nd Street came the tandem announcement that Mr. Jack “Sir” Greenan, the legendary OPHS choreographer, would be holding free beginner tap classes in the auditorium for anyone who wanted to strap on Teletones and learn their time steps. “Bliss!” my heart cried. “Rapture!” my feet answered. “ Be careful to tastefully accessorize your leotard!” cautioned my brain.

Every day of Sir’s tap clinic, I’d struggle with fa-laps and chugs and the rest of the mysterious, complicated language of tap. Every evening, my sister Mary Claire and I would retreat to the basement for intense, sweaty practice that was, I am certain, music to absolutely nobody’s ears. And by the time auditions came around, I was ready. I executed my military time step and my Buffalo steps with enough aplomb to earn a slot as a general, all-purpose, background tapper. I, the top-secret successor to Debbie Reynolds, had pulled it off! My mom made me some fantastic tap shorts and a matching sailor collar, and the rest is glorious, back-row-second-from-the-left history.

And aside from a brief and beautiful detour through Mr. Joel Seger’s wonderful world of tap in 2006-2007 (at CCS Dance in Massachusetts, where I took ballet and tap with some hilarious, funny, fantastic women), that pretty much brings us to the present. A several-week tap clinic in 1993 and a handful of performances of 42nd Street formed the basis for my telephone claim to be a strong tapper. No one ever said I wasn’t confident.

At 5:30pm this past Tuesday, I drove up to the Mullen Sisters School of Dance in Snyder, NY with my tap shoes in my bag and my spirits high. I strode into the studio and handed my headshot to the Kavinoky’s choreographer, who smiled and asked me point-blank, “So, what’s your tap history?” I mumbled something about having tapped in high school, but not much for the past five years or so. I will point out, dear reader, that my statement was technically true.

Minutes later, the other auditioners and I were lined up in front of full-length mirrors learning the show’s opening combination. Within three steps, I was mind-boggling, dizzyingly out of my element. Wing time steps? Traveling what, now? I felt the fleeting desire to simply walk out the studio’s open front and never look back, but I was checked by my dad’s voice in the back of my head saying something like, “Quitter? I didn’t raise you to be a quitter.” (Though I’m pretty sure that philosophy was intended to apply to baseball games and math tests, not foolhardy musical auditions at age 34.)

I stuck it out, thinking it was bound to get better. It got worse. When I was called to perform the combination for the auditors, I mostly just smiled really big and made noise with my feet. On my way out the door, the choreographer’s “Thank you” had a note of pity in it. The accompanist hid his face in the music to avoid my eye. Someone said, “We have your contact information, so we’ll be in touch,” which means, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you,” which means, “PLEASE don’t call us.”

I retreated to the lobby and unbuckled my tap shoes. Considering that I was a patent failure, I was strangely happy. For a half hour, I had worked hard, sweating and straining over a really fun, if too difficult dance. And for that half hour, I had felt a little like a character in a musical. You know … the musical where the underdog tries out for a show and at first, no one sees her potential. Then something amazing happens and our heroine is plucked from obscurity to become a star!

I’ve got the obscurity part down. Now I'm just waiting for my big break.

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