You know the first scene in the film Bye Bye Birdie? Where Ann Margaret opens the story twirling her perfect Swedish body and curling her weird emotive lips? The way she sang in to the camera captivated and disarmed me as a child and I will never forget deciding how beautiful and ugly she looked simultaneously. She moved through the scenes desperately and it was thrilling to watch. As a kid I sat on the floor of my childhood home confused and in awe, trying to make sense of how any person could throw us every bit of coy and power at the same time. This was the moment that I felt the weird shift of "magical hope” slap me hard in the face. Now…try to stay with me here. I’m talking about the weird shift in hope and angst for a life that only so few of us are both so lucky and unfortunate to experience. Equal parts activating and ominous, a special kind of electric hope that you feel as a performer or artist before you ever once perform or make art. That feeling you get when you know you are doomed for a life of this kind of wishing.
My father, out of pure panic that I would make a less than comfortable life for myself pretending to be Ann Margaret, took the role of main auditor of my hopeful future. He died four years ago from pancreatic cancer. I flew home to Pittsburgh from Chicago, he declined over a span of four days from the day that my Aunt Dee Dee told me he may be dying and it changed me forever. Obviously. I do like to think that he is with me every minute, whether I believe in God or heaven or angels or whatever they tell us to believe in or not, because it makes living without him and for the sake of this story, wishing for things, feel better, or make more sense? I would be lying if I said that this blind sense of stability didn't get me out of bed in the morning.
Or, maybe I do this because he was my harshest critic and biggest fan. He was totally terrified of my insatiable “magical hope-shift”. He didn’t know what to do with my wishing. We never had much money so the thought of me tap dancing around to support myself made him cringe. I’m sure he just saw me as his shy, sweet, round little daughter in her prepubescent and frizzy haired, elastic waist jean wearing glory singing bye bye to Birdie with a song in her heart and a fat chance ahead. He was at least 300 pounds, 6 foot 3 inches tall of Italian American with a chip on his shoulder and a golden pinky ring. There was lots of golden jewelry. He grew up in to a spiritual and creative weirdo of a man with a thirst for travel and experience but he never committed to much other than his family- which, don’t get me wrong is no small feat, but he reeked of dissatisfaction bouncing from job to job. He also, most importantly, had the most misplaced yet sweet bari-tenor singing voice with a noteworthy falsetto.
I remember the way he sang to me, goofily quivering his neck when he hit high notes as if it affected the sound coming out. He was a ham. It's clear now that he was so scared of my wishes because they were his wishes too, and they were really big. He used to duet with me like we were success stories who escaped. I’m not sure that he thought success could happen to normal, average people. Despite all of this, he told me I was beautiful and smart every day and I believed him.
Every Spring sprinkled across Columbia college’s downtown campus there is a week long event called “Manifest” where different pockets of the campus showcase performances, galleries and salon type of exhibits honoring a specific department’s work for the semester. My sophomore year I was a part of one of the Main Stage musicals chosen to perform, totally satisfied and bright eyed to even be a part of the small but fierce ensemble. The show was called The House of Bernard Alba. This was a solely female cast, a musical written by Michael John LaChiusa based on the Federica Garcia Lorca play. Now if the grand title and romantic three word full names I just spat at you didn't explain enough, this shit was epic and the music is hard y’all and the material was dark and scary for me and in retrospect probably a little advanced for my Sound Of Music lovin' palate.
The ingénue role played by a fresh and strong senior named Jenny Oakley could not attend the manifest performance. She played the role of Adela who had one of the most beautiful songs in the show that we just had to perform concert style because it was too intoxicating to exclude from the festivities. The song was titled the character's name, Adela. She was the youngest and prettiest of the sisters in the story. That is literally a lyric in the prologue; “Adela: the youngest and prettiest”. So when Kory, (an upperclassman and music director of the show) out of the blue asked me to sing it in Jenny’s place, I laughed in his face. He stared at me with questioning eyes and I remember not backing down. I was confused and defiant. I had to protect myself.
I did not sing songs of that caliber or category. I’m the round, frizzy haired, elastic waist jean-wearing beltress Ann Margaret, ugly and pretty / weird and disarming- remember? As a Theatre major the people shaping me in study expected me to sing songs that I wouldn’t be able to honestly perform for twenty years, most of which requiring me to pretend as if I had anything remotely close to a low singing range, learning how to speak-sing “with sass” with every new character assignment.
Oh and what the fuck was this ‘mix’ voice that all the skinny girls were talking about after their voice lesson every week? On the daily, I was asked to prepare to age myself and Kory was asking me to do the opposite, even if it was just for a silly little show and tell Spring concert. There was the hope, filled with electricity again. Today Kory and I are close friends and he still brainstorms my capabilities like this.
Looking back, adult me is recognizing how special it is to have a creative partner that believes in your talent reaching to places you never think to look. I will always be thankful for him, and this story along with a lot of the success in my life would not be happening without him.
Anyway, this isn’t a fucking Jeff Award acceptance speech - I ended up trusting him and was totally honored that he thought I was good enough for this and we decided that we would add the song in to the showcase and I would take Jenny’s track. I noticed that some girl in the cast was confused by this choice when we discussed it, but discovering that didn’t upset me. Discovering that made me float victoriously above her. This was my chance to show everyone that I was a beautiful, weird, fat and frizzy Italian girl who COULD have a career before the age of forty. This big haired bitch would be pretty and ugly like Anne Margaret and everyone would effortlessly fall in love with her desperation.
The afternoon of our Manifest performance arrived and I wasn’t even nervous. None of us were, we knew the show so well that we didn’t run much of the music before the performance. "You know, like the pro’s do," I thought.
We start the concert style show and it's going beautifully. The girls are singing like angels, everyone is hooting and hollering our praises because the show was a hit that semester and we feel like rock stars. I see that it is almost my time to go up to the solo mic and my mother and father are sitting in the front row, wiping their brows and drinking water and dripping sweat, just like their daughter. So sweet.
I walk up to the front as Kory begins to play and I’m off to a good start. I see some friends in the audience look excited and confused as I begin, asking where Jenny is but still all at the edge of their seats. I start to butcher the words (this is a normal thing for me, forgetting lyrics... ask Kory) but then I seem to catch myself and recover. The score is intricate and floral. It is complex. The music in this song is written to rise and fall, climb and drop to every part of one's voice, and up until this point I had never performed anything requiring such stamina. I’m pretty sure I just screlted (what I hear the kids call scream-belting these days) my way to the end. It’s over in a flash and before I know it I hear clapping. I did it. It was very anticlimactic and I’m not sure how I actually sounded or looked seeing as I blacked out, but people clapped and at least I didn’t fall, I thought.
We pack the car the next morning to make the drive back to Pittsburgh for the summer and my mom is discussing how exciting it was to see me sing a song by myself, alone… the star. I talk about how weird it felt, how I wasn’t sure if I placed it right vocally and how I wish I would have practiced a little more. Overall, I was neutral. And then, so coolly and nonchalant it seemed, my dad chimes in his reply with a curt, “Well, yeah…but I think you know that it really wasn’t your best performance.”
What a self-assured comment. He wasn’t worried about telling me how badly I had performed because he assumed I already knew. That’s how bad it was? Cool. I dodged a bullet. There is a thick silence in the car that my mom quickly fills with a shrill and high pitched “what the fuck are you talking about?”
I can feel the quiver in her voice as she restrains herself. It all happened very fast. My mother is also full Italian American, short and powerful, aggressive and achingly compassionate. I’m sure that she can feel my stomach drop from the front seat when she makes sure that the conversation that follows is short. I remember feeling defeated and shocked in the reality of my father not reminding me of how beautiful and smart I was.
For weeks I was sick to my stomach, maddened by the thought of imperfection. The electric hope was activated by this challenge and my hungry, wishing heart was beginning to be satiated! All of this Ann Margaret bad-bitch progress slamming to a screeching halt with my father’s confident opinion of my lameness. Barely an open or constructive opinion, really, because apparently I was so lame that he thought I already must have known. So lame, it was hard to miss. I was tormented, but also, my ego couldn't fit through the damn door. It was a song that maybe twenty people watched. Seriously- it was hot outside and the last day of the semester, not that many people came. Ask Kory.
I would like to think that this story means so much to me because now my father is gone and I can't help but to think about how okay I’m doing. I do feel like Ann Margaret some times when I’m feeling weird and powerful, and I wish I could show him that. (Now don't get me wrong, I am poor and the idea of supporting myself with my vocal chords gets more and more hilarious with every birthday - so you got it right there dad, but I am also hopeful. And that is mine.)
When my father used to sing to me, he would talk about how hard it would be for me, how I would have to train to be much better than him some day if I wanted to make a life for myself (like he knew anything about vocal training). We talked all the time about making it "big time", whatever that means. Buying a big house by some mystical body of water and swimming and singing and eating all day, probably. He sang mostly an eclectic range of Earth Wind and Fire, 80's rock power ballad's or old school doo-wop with me, usually just stuff with a really nice falsetto line so he could show off. We made these plans and we would blast the radio on all road trips, whether they were 20 minutes or 10 hours long, it was always just an excuse to sing like we were somewhere else. Now, when I am feeling less than extraordinary, I sing for him.