We were at the end of a three-month run, not the longest of stands in Broadway history, but for a season that saw the quick and nasty deaths of more heralded and more expensive productions, not bad; everyone agreed that it was the worst season in memory, as last season had been the worst, and the one before that, and the one before that. In other words it was a season like any other, and the passing of a struggling revival of Brigadoon would go largely unremarked and unlamented, save by the hundred-odd actors, singers, dancers, and technicians who had labored for close to four months to bring it to life.
There is something about acting in a musical unlike any other kind of theatrical experience; it’s what we all got into this business for, the feeling we used to imagine when we sat in the audience, watching. When you’re in a straight dramatic play you’re always conscious of yourself, your character, your “moments”; in a comedy you work toward your laugh lines, you measure the audience response from show to show, try different inflections to milk the laugh. But in a musical …
In a musical you stand in the wings, listening, as the orchestra strikes up the overture, as a brassy vibrato brings a shiver of anticipation, and in the pause between movements it feels almost as if your heart is beating in time to the music. In the space of a few minutes all the separate themes and songs of the play are compressed into a single prelude, each one flowing seamlessly into the next … and that’s what it’s all about, really.
Because you’re not alone up there. It’s not just you and the words, it’s you, and the words, and the music, and the dancers, and a hundred unseen hands: the composer, the librettist, the choreographer who has to seem invisible, has to make our movements seem spontaneous, unrehearsed. The first time I saw myself on film, I thought: That’s not just me up there, I can’t take all the credit; it’s the script, the camera, the cutting, the underscore, all working together, creating something more than the sum of its parts. It’s that way in a musical. For as long as it lasts, you’re all part of a greater whole; and no matter how many years later, if you’re in an airport or a taxi and you hear that song you sang, or that theme you danced to, you’re a part of it again.
Outside the Gershwin there was a line of people queued up at the box office, their breath fogging as they waited to buy tickets for that night’s performance; a banner added to the show poster announced bleakly, FINAL PERFORMANCE—JAN. 28. I passed the line of shivering people and thought, somewhat bitterly, Where the hell were you when we needed you?—a silly thought, since the dozen or two customers who had decided to see the show before it died would hardly have extended our run by much more than twenty seconds. I turned up the collar on my jacket as I passed, but one of them recognized me and stepped out of line, instantly burrowing in the pockets of her coat. “Mr. Cochrane? Could I—?”
I stopped, smiled awkwardly, and took the piece of paper and stubby pencil she offered me. I always felt self-conscious about this; who was I, anyway, to be signing autographs? That was for stars like Pacino, not some pisher like me. Two years on a soap opera had done more for my public recognition than the dozen-some plays I’d done over the last decade, but when people like this woman asked me for my autograph I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I was cheating them—that I’d turn around to find Frank Langella standing behind me, clearing his throat and saying, gently, “Ah … I think she was talking to me, old man, do you mind…?”
Besides, I could never think of what to write. The woman was watching as I stood there blankly, groping for something clever or personal, distinctive in any damn way. “Ah … what’s your name?” I asked. Barbara, she replied, Barbara Kovacks. I quickly scribbled: To Barbara—All the best, Richard Cochrane. Lord, what stunning originality. What epic imagination. She didn’t seem to mind; she took the paper, thanked me, and I said, No, thank you for coming, because no actor likes to close to an empty house. And of course the moment I said it I knew that was what I should have written, but it was too late; she scurried back into line, and I into the theater.
On stage, on screen, you hit your marks, you pick up your cues; in life, unfortunately, everything is always a little too late, the right words coming too slowly, the moment passing too soon. I thought of Libby and wondered if she’d show up at tonight’s performance. No reason why she should.
Backstage, every dressing table was piled high with photos and résumés. The phones were in constant use, and I thought suddenly of a Gahan Wilson cartoon I’d seen years ago: a bedraggled, bearded doomsayer carrying a placard reading, Death means never having to call your agent. I stopped for a moment behind Sally Marsden, who’d been the last-minute replacement for the second female lead, the promiscuous Scottish lass Meg Brockie, when Tess Canton came down with bronchitis. Sally was brushing out her hair, usually pulled back in a tight chignon but now falling freely in a style more appropriate to the play and the period; on the table beside her were half a dozen of her composites, each 8 × 10 page broken into four separate head shots. One had her as a Baby Doll coquette, another as a businesswoman in a gray suit, a third as a country girl in a plaid halter top, and the fourth, a nun. I nodded appreciatively. “If they ever make Sybil into a weekly series, I think you’ve got a lock on it.”
She smiled, shaking out her long blonde hair. “I was thinking of dumping the nun. I mean, unless they’re casting Agnes of God, what’s the point?”
“You ever play a nun?”
“No, amateur novitiate night at Regine’s. Of course professionally, what else?”
Sally swiveled round to face me, a mischievous glint in her eyes. “You ever hear of a game called ‘The Abbess and the Penitent’?” she asked.
Sally was well cast. I cleared my throat, smiled wanly, and started toward my own dressing table. She called after me, “Richard, you’re no fun at all,” and I suppose she was right. Thirteen years as an actor in New York and I was woefully deficient in the prerequisites of my profession: I had never (a) engaged in a homosexual affair, (b) slept with anyone to advance my career, though I still harbored hopes, or (c) cultivated a taste for cocaine, alcohol, or amyl nitrite. What can I say? I was clearly a failure in my chosen lifestyle.
I sat down at my table and began applying the hated spirit gum to my face; at first the beard had seemed a nice touch, a subtle way of contemporizing my character, but after a hundred and six performances, a hundred and six times of applying and removing the makeup, its novelty had waned. It might’ve been easier to grow the thing myself, but the few times I’d tried it came out bristly, scratchy, and a bit too curly; I always looked like I should be starring in Maciste at the Gates of Hell. And Libby said it was like making love to a Brillo pad, though by the last few weeks of our relationship a Brillo pad might’ve fared better than I. I began applying the beard, piece by piece, mustache first, then sideburns.
“Evening, Richard,” came a voice to my right, a voice I recognized at once as belonging to John Danker, the sixtyish actor playing the pompous Andrew MacLaren. I turned in my seat to greet him—
And started. I expected to see John, with his kindly face and graying hair, sitting down beside me—but suddenly, instead, I was staring at a blank wall; suddenly I seemed to be somewhere else entirely. I turned round quickly in my seat, startled to find myself not at my makeup table, but sitting at a desk in some small cubicle, in a room filled with other desks and other cubicles, and with the sudden clatter of keyboards and ringing phones. I jerked back, frightened and disoriented—
And I was back at the dressing table again, staring into the worried eyes of John Danker, seated right next to me.
“Richard?” he said. “You all right?”
I waited to see if the episode would recur, but the moment, whatever it had been, had passed; I was exactly where I should have been, the noise and cross-talk reassuringly normal. I tried to dismiss it as just a particularly vivid daydream. “Yeah, fine. Closing night jitters, I guess.”
He nodded, starting to apply his own makeup; like me, he was already in costume, but while my character’s dress was contemporary, his was period—full Scottish Highlander regalia, circa eighteenth century. “I knew one fellow,” he said, “this wonderful old British character actor, who hated closings so much he’d get himself sick the night before, forcing his understudy to close out the run for him. Wasn’t faking it, mind you, he just hated taking that final bow, worked himself into a case of spastic colitis every time.”
I laughed, but halfheartedly, beginning to feel depressed—reminded that this was the last time I would sit here among these people I had grown to like so much; the last time I might exchange stories with John, listening to tales from a career three times as long, and five times as interesting, as mine. I’d grown quite fond of John in the past four months; he had built a career on playing stolid father figures and arch villains, but in real life he was a very fey, very sweet old man with a trunkload of wonderful anecdotes.
“It’s all over tonight, isn’t it?” I said.
He patted me on the shoulder. “Now look here, my boy, I know what you’re thinking and it’s not true. Everyone in this business feels the same way at the end of a job: you feel like you’ll never work again, it’s all over, pack me up and scatter the ashes.” I laughed, started to protest, but John leaned in, urgent and sincere: “Well, it’s not over. Something always turns up. God’s sake, look at this—” He handed me his résumé, an imposing document with credits ranging back forty years and more. “And after every show, every part, for at least the first twenty years, I thought, well, that’s it, they’ve found me out; can’t act my way out of a clamshell; might as well go into roofing, or aluminum siding.”
I smiled, shook my head. “No, really, that’s not it. You’re right, something always turns up. If not a part, then a residual check.” I paused, not quite knowing how to explain what I was feeling, finally deciding not to try. “I just get depressed at the end of a run, that’s all.”
Soon enough, I was standing in the wings as the overture swelled for the last time; as the wistful, plaintive strains of “Brigadoon” segued into the happy, raucous melody of “Down on MacConnachy Square,” and then the bright romanticism of “Almost Like Being in Love,” and on through the rest, coming full circle to the main theme, to “Brigadoon.” The curtain rose, in the darkness an unseen chorus sang the prelude, “Once in the Highlands,” the house lights came up, and we were on.
* * *
The nice thing about a long run—and three months, relatively speaking, is a long run—is that it gives you time to concentrate on the nuances. The first few weeks you’re so caught up in the broad strokes—your physical moves, the demanding routine of being exactly where you’re supposed to be at any given moment, to say nothing of simply getting your lines down—that you hardly have time to address the finer points of your performance. Once the broad strokes are down pat, you’re free to concentrate on the smaller bits of business, free to play with them from show to show, changing them slightly to keep your interest in the part fresh; finding exactly which ones work best for the role. I always try to make my closing performance the distillation of everything I learned during the run … try to make it as perfect as I can. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
Act One went well—in fact, more than well; the whole cast, I think, shared my desire to make this last performance the best. And my favorite scene, in which my character, Tommy Albright, admits his love for Fiona MacLaren, started out well enough. I don’t have a world-class singing voice by any means, but I’ve had training, I can carry a tune, and of all the songs in the play this one touched me most, and I sang it well and strong because in many ways I was singing about myself:
I saw a man walking by the sea
Alone with the tide was he.
I looked and I thought as I watched him go by:
There but for you go I.
Lonely men around me,
Trying not to cry,
Till the day you found me
There among them was I …
I was the singer, and I was the one being sung about; of such dichotomies are an actor’s life made. I finished the song to scattered applause, we went on with the scene. I held Fiona—Meredith, actually, Meredith Holt—and said, “I love you, Fiona. I guess that’s all there is to it.”
“I’ve wanted to hear ye say it,” she answered, on cue, “even though it be at the last minute like this.”
At this point I was supposed to hold her away from me, alarmed, and say fearfully, The last minute?—but just as I began to push her away, I heard, in the great vast silence of the theater, a voice—a man’s voice, with a slight New England twang, his tone sharp and filled with contempt—saying:
“For Christ’s sake, Cochrane, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Instinctively, I spun around. My first, panicky thought was that I had blown a cue or a line, or that my fly was unzipped, or any of a hundred actor’s nightmares. But only half a second later I realized that even if that were the case, no one—cast or crew—would ever shout something like that out loud, call me by my real name, while I was on stage, for God’s sake.
I stood there a moment, bewildered and confused. I heard Meredith’s voice behind me, nervous, but keeping in character: “Tommy…?”
I turned round again. She was looking at me with alarm, and for the life of me I could not recall what the hell my next line was. Meredith saw this in an instant and quickly covered for me: “Aye, Tommy, ’tis true. Soon now ’tis the end of our day…”
I remembered where I was and the next line came out without hesitation, as did the next, and the next; but the damage had been done. Whoever the hell that joker was, he had thrown me off. I never fully recovered from it, never shook off the fear that it might happen again, and as a result what I had hoped would be my definitive performance turned out to be one I might have managed with a mild case of the flu.
I was so angry with myself, and with whoever had shouted at me, that I barely heard the applause at curtain call. I took my bows mechanically, feeling that I didn’t deserve them, not even allowing myself to think of it as approbation for three months of good work rather than a single performance. The curtains came down and my usual closing-night depression turned sour and mean.
I harangued the crew, trying to find out who had thrown me for a loop in Act Two … but to my dawning amazement no one seemed to know what I was talking about. The stagehands, the cast, even Meredith, who’d been the only other actor onstage with me … none of them had heard the voice.
My anger dissipated and I began to wonder if the voice had been all in my mind—a self-critical part of me castigating myself for not doing better. I’d never actually heard one of those inner voices speak out loud before, but they were there, to be sure, driving me, whipping me, urging me on. I suppose all creative people have them; but all creative people certainly don’t hear them, on stage, in the middle of the second act.
I finally succeeded, with the aid of a half liter of wine, to put it and the odd daydream at my makeup table out of my mind; there was a raucous and pleasant closing-night party at the theater, and I was having too good a time to dwell on it. (Opening-night parties are usually held at Sardi’s, when both the money and the optimism are flowing more freely; for closing parties, tables and chairs are set up on the stage itself, kegs of beer and bottles of wine scattered about the still-standing set, and the festivities held right then and there—except for me it’s always felt uncomfortably like dancing on the grave of the fallen show.) It wasn’t until the end of the evening that my depression crept back as I sat surrounded by these friends I had made over the past four months. I might work with some of them again, in other shows … but that special chemistry that makes a good ensemble, that happy confluence of the right people, the right material, the right time, would never come again in just this way: lightning could not be caught in a bottle twice.
John Danker looked at me as though he knew exactly what was going through my mind. He leaned in, his voice low amid the laughter around us. “You know what it is, my boy? We make a home for ourselves, every time we work on something: actors, writers, singers, building these little nests in our gypsy souls, in place of the ones we so seldom seem to make in our own lives. And then suddenly it’s over, and we have to start again. But you know, Richard, we do always start again.”
I looked at him, at the sad glow in his eyes, and I knew that this show had probably meant more to him than to any of us. While we were still in rehearsals, John’s companion for the past ten years, Howard, had died of AIDS; though he’d never said as much, we all quietly assumed that John was living in the shadow of the same disease. For a while we had thought he might drop out of the show, but after a week off he was back at rehearsals, and he was there opening night and every night since then. I looked at him now—at the time-worn face that had borne many kinds of sadness—and I felt ashamed. My own troubles—failed marriage, failed relationships—hardly seemed so important in comparison. And yet I still couldn’t help but wonder: “John? What is it about us … all of us in this business … that makes it so damn hard? Do we ever”—I hesitated, embarrassed even before I’d voiced the thought—“do we ever really go home?”
John laughed a small, gentle laugh. “Dear boy,” he said. “Dear, dear boy.” But he didn’t answer, just patted me on the shoulder and poured me another drink, as the party flickered out around us and we all soon scattered, amid kisses and promises to stay in touch, into the night—as the lightning was let loose from the bottle, tracing bright, lonely arcs through the streets before returning to the dark storm clouds at the heart of our lives.
* * *
My co-op, a big, two-level townhouse on Riverside Drive, faced west; through its floor-to-ceiling windows I could see the twin towers of the George Washington Bridge straddling the Hudson, at night a crescent of blue-white lights strung between them like a necklace of stars. I first saw the bridge thirteen years ago, at the end of a long car trip from New Hampshire, as I ascended the small incline to Fort Lee, New Jersey. There in front of me was the bridge’s eastern tower, a latticework of exposed girders standing ten stories high, the New York City skyline visible through its graceful steel arch. It was breathtaking; magnificent. It was the rainbow bridge, the yellow brick road, it was every magic portal to every grand and glorious kingdom I had ever imagined.
Thirteen years later, the bridge was still magical to me, but the destinations had somehow reversed themselves. New York seemed neither Oz nor Asgard to me now, and when I looked at the cars crossing westward over the Hudson, I had the nagging suspicion that it was they who were entering a better world—a world I had left behind years before, never realizing its true worth.
In the weeks that followed I made the usual rounds—plays, TV shows, commercials. As an actor you learn early to expect only one out of every dozen auditions to pan out, but you never quite get used to the numbing tedium of the responses, all invariably alike. You sit outside the office, reading and rereading the “sides,” the script scenes selected for the audition, sometimes mouthing them aloud along with ten or twelve other actors; you go in, read the lines with the casting director or an associate; if the show’s director is there he may ask you to read the line a little differently, “Bring it down a few notches,” “Crank it up a level,” and you do it; and when it’s over they all smile, and stand, and shake your hand and say:
“Very nice, thank you,” or,
“Very nice, thanks for coming,” or simply,
“Very nice, very nice,” and you go on to the next reading, and you only hear from them again if you got the part. There was a time when all this was exciting to me, but lately it was wearing thin. I felt more and more like I wasn’t really living a life, I was just auditioning for life. In my grimmer moments I imagined that when I died there would be this great black void, and then a deep, sepulchral voice would say, “Very nice, thank you, thank you for coming,” and I’d have to start all over, without the sides.
The odd, disoriented feelings I’d experienced at the Gershwin abated for a while—only to return, in force, on my birthday. My friends had thrown a party for me; Ray and Melissa were there, Donna, Gary, Tom, even Libby had come—she’d bought me a leather datebook, pecked me on the cheek and smiled warmly, but we were still a bit awkward around one another and she hung back throughout most of the party, keeping a certain distance. She was pretty, dark-haired, in her early thirties, a songwriter and sometimes librettist; we’d dated for the better part of a year and a half before moving in together, and a relationship which had seemed to be thriving suddenly began to erode inside of six months, as had too many of my live-in relationships before this. At thirty-five, I suppose, I had become fairly set in my ways, used to living alone and, worse yet, liking it; there must be easier men in the world to live with.
I opened my presents as Tom Giani carried in the birthday cake and the rest of the group began to sing:
“Happy birthday to you … happy birthday to you…”
Embarrassed, I was only half-listening to the song, but I swear that when they got to the next bar I heard, clear and sharp and unmistakably, the sound of a little girl’s voice:
“Happy birthday, dear Daddy—”
I spun round, just as I had on stage that night, searching for the voice. But it was clearly a child’s, and there were none in the room; the couples I knew with children had had them fairly recently, and the babies were at home with sitters.
The group urged me to blow out the candles; distractedly, I blew out three or four on the first breath, then finished the rest with a second. Libby alone saw the worry in my eyes as I continued to gaze around the room, searching for something that could not be; she put a hand to my shoulder, her voice low.
“Richard? Are you all right?”
I wanted to say: No. I’m not. Something’s happening to me, honey, and I don’t know what, and I’m scared. I wanted to hold her, and fall asleep in her arms. But I said only:
“Sure. I’m fine,” and then they were cutting the cake, and handed me the first piece. But it was the damnedest thing. Perhaps it was just worry and distraction; perhaps I wasn’t really paying much attention to what I was eating. But as I took a bite of what was clearly an angel-food cake, I could almost swear it tasted like … chocolate.
* * *
It seemed clear, even to me, what was happening: the stress of breaking up with Libby, of the end of a run, of sudden unemployment, was taking its toll. I debated, for several days, going back to see my therapist, whom I’d stopped seeing over a year before out of sheer attrition; but before I had the chance to call the rest of my world fell in on me.
The phone rang at six o’clock on a Tuesday morning. There are certain times, certain moments, when you know exactly what is about to happen, what you are about to hear. You know that it is not your agent calling about an audition; you know it is not an early call to a film shoot; you know it is not a wrong number. How you know these things, I have no idea; but you do. I picked up the phone and heard the harsh whisper of long-distance static, and my heart started racing, my fears crystallizing. No voice had to get on the line; I knew what was coming.
I took a breath. “Speaking.”
“This is Parkland Medical Center, in Derry, New Hampshire.”
I shut my eyes. Oh God. Oh God, no …
“My mother,” I said. “What’s wrong?”
There was a brief pause, then, soft above the hiss of the connection: “I’m afraid your mother … passed away last night, Mr. Cochrane. I’m very sorry.”
I listened, numbly, to the details: how she had been having chest pains the night before; how she had apparently taken three nitroglycerin tablets over the course of an hour, and then, when the pains had not gone away as they always had before, she called the paramedics; how the hospital had sent a mobile ICU to her home, but by the time they got her to the hospital there were no vital signs. I listened, and said something, what, I can’t recall, and I hung up, my mind whirling with all the things I would have to do, the people I would have to call: the mortuary, my aunt and uncle in Connecticut, the airline. It was exactly what my mother had done, I later realized, when my father died—I had still been too stunned to do anything but wander the house in a daze, but she’d automatically begun making the necessary calls, as she had done so many times, for so many other relatives, over the years. And now it was my turn, to do for her what she had done for all of us—shouldering the pain and responsibility and the burden of thinking clearly and rationally when all you really wanted to do was mourn. I sat down on the edge of my bed and began to cry, and all I could think was, Mama, my poor mama. I had not called her that since I was a little boy, but now it was the only thing I could think of to call her; Mama, my poor mama, I’m coming, I’ll be there. And I only hoped I could do half as well for her as she had done for all the loved ones she had buried, all those sad long years.
Copyright © 1990, 2011 by Alan Brennert