Once upon a time, I was a chorus line member in a Montreal production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd. With two years experience singing in a choir I thought it would be an easy transition. Especially since I believed chorus line members never had to deal with the stress of singing solo, I thought it would be fun to experience being in a musical, without the stress of being in the spotlight all by myself. Rehearsals were very much the same as my experiences in the choir: Learning the words and notes, coming in at the right time, etc. Then the madness that is rehearsing a musical really started.
Not only did we have to know all the notes and lyrics, we also had to remember all of our blocking. That is, you have to be in the right place at the right time as you are singing. For each scene the director marked our places on the stage, and indicated the general direction we had to move as we sang. There was one memorable scene where the chorus line sang about wanting “more hot pies”, as we all mingled and generally walked around in circles faster and faster. It’s about as difficult as walking, chewing bubble gum, and juggling cats all at the same time.
Then, with only a few weeks to go, I was informed by the director that I would perform a brief solo, and sing the first two lines of the musical. “This is not what I signed up for; I’ve never sung a solo before!” I squawked, “I would feel much more comfortable supporting my fellow chorus line members than sticking my neck out during a solo!” In fact, although I had been involved with performing music since I was thirteen years old, I had never played or sang a solo before. When I was younger, I even tried to get of rid this particular fear by performing a few songs by myself. The result had been a disaster: I froze completely, and had to apologize to my audience. Not a pleasant memory and not something I ever wanted to repeat.
“Oh don’t worry, you’ll do fine”, replied the director.
Then, in the last few weeks before our live performances, the director had another bright idea. Before the music began, I would play the part of a policeman leading a convict up to a grave site. My job was to make sure the prisoner dug a grave. Once the pretend grave was completed, the lights would go down. Then, the prisoner and I, would remove our costume “extras”, and revert back to our normal characters: He, Sweeney Todd, and me, a plain chorus line member. Then, the rest of the musical would begin. As well, the director had decided the chorus line would dress up all in black, and wear these horribly uncomfortable plaster masks held on by elastic bands. I had imagined that I would have plenty of time to prepare mentally to sing my simple two lines. Boy was I wrong.
Just as my “prisoner” finished his task of digging, the stage lights were turned off, and we were plummeted into darkness. “Sweeney Todd” climbed into a coffin that was onstage, as we started our costume change. The lights were about to be turned on again, but my policeman’s hat kept getting caught in my plaster mask. In one last desperate attempt, I yanked my cap forward, which got caught in my mask, and stretched it by about three inches away from my. The helmet finally disentangled, and my mask snapped painfully back with only seconds to spare. I then tossed my helmet to Sweeney, who hid it in the coffin, as he lay down and closed the lid.
There I was, face still stinging, and now I’m being blinded as the spotlight is turned on again. Not exactly how I wanted my solo debut to start. Still, the notes and words came out of my mouth, on key and on time. Three nights of performances, and each time, the helmet became tangled, and that darn mask slapped me hard in the face just as the spotlight turned on. But, it did not matter, the audience never noticed my wardrobe malfunction, and not once did I fail to sing my lines. The audience was impressed with our efforts, and we all received many congratulations after each performance. The whole experience was so positive, that years down the road, I had the confidence to perform many more solos at various music festivals and other venues. I even joined a rock band for a time. But those are stories for another day!