Backstage at “110 In the Shade.” The house is open and there are fifteen minutes until the cast gathers in the green room. Usually at this time I’m playing my guitar to relax—also to warm up a little because I play it in the show (except that in the show I play a raunchy tune that’s called “Raunchy” and backstage about now I’m usually playing a twangy finger-picking version of “We Thank Thee, Oh God, For a Prophet.” Unless the music director, Dave Zabriskie, is around. He likes to hear me play “The Minstrel Boy To the War Is Gone.” I should just lend him my cell phone, because “Minstrel Boy” is the ringtone.
(You’re wanting to know why I have the unmitigated cheek to call this column “Audra McDonald and Me.” Well, just hold the heck on.)
I play the harmonica, too, in the show. How the instruments got in (they’re not in the script) is that we were rehearsing a happy picnic scene and I lamented aloud that nobody had brought a banjo to the affair. Dave Tinney, our masterful director, has these eyes that often light up and they did. So the next time we ran through the scene, my guitar was in it. The harmonica is because I couldn’t figure out the chords for the dance break. It’s an “exploit the resources” thing. If I’d been a cellist, or a whiz on the bassoon, it’d be there on stage instead. Only these instruments are not often associated with depression-era cowboys. Too bad, really.
So they asked me to play the harmonica that plaintively opens the show and summons up a withering sunrise. But this choice melody has in it both a G-sharp and a G-natural. These two notes do not reside together on any of my fourteen cheap Marine Band harps, so I had to fork out $163 for a chromatic harmonica. Now I’m committed to play it for something in my life besides this 16 bars of “110.” But then, that would require me actually having to learn to play it. (My ward music chairman came to the show and has already asked me to play a hymn on a Sunday morning in November—I’m not sure that will be time enough. Providing there isn’t a rule against it, anyway.
((When I was seventeen, Bob Dylan played a battered Gibson guitar and a harmonica simultaneously—the harmonica was on a little rack that rested around his neck. I thought that was cool, so before a three-hour drive up the interior of California to see a girl I liked, I bought a rack and a harp and just drove and blew until my lips were blistered and I pretty much had the thing licked. Playing a Marine Band harp is kind of intuitive after an hour or so, and reasonable sounds can pretty much occur as a matter of instinct. This is not true of chromatic harmonicas. They are more responsive, somehow, to the workings of the left brain. So on about the fourth performance of “110,” when my confidence sagged for an instant and I fell back on instinct, the plaintive melody ended on a quick succession of three notes, none of which were anywhere near close to correct. I liked to believe that it sort of set up a feeling of suspense that would be brought to a satisfying resolution by the character arc of Audra McDonald (((this is not why I named this column “Audra McDonald and Me))), but mainly it had the effect that any stumbling through several wrong notes would have. Mercifully, nobody left the theatre.)) )
Depression-era cowboys often played resonator guitars. These are guitars that have a big pie-plate sort of apparatus right in the middle of their body and sound like the player is making kind of a bad musical joke. I had bought one online a couple years ago for a couple hundred dollars and was delighted when Mr. Tinney gave me a chance to use it. Trouble is, depression-era cowboys wouldn’t have played a resonator guitar that was as gleaming and pristine as mine was. So I came early to rehearsal one night with some 160-grit sandpaper and steel wool and a buffing wheel on my DeWalt hand drill and aged it by several decades. I found some dull gold spray paint in the scene shop that allowed me to violate the chrome tuners and other fittings pretty satisfyingly. Some brown gaffer’s tape nicely concealed the hole where a period-inappropriate strap button had been installed, and also hid the jack where you plug a cable into an electronic pickup.
Meagan the stage manager thought I was nuts, but the guitar actually has lots more mojo now. (I have guitars I won’t do that to. Mostly because they’re in hock.
((But here’s the weird thing: You can buy brand-new Fender and Gibson electric guitars that are “relic” models. They look totally old and hammered and rusted, but the abuse is all performed at the factory instead of in bars and stadiums around the country and the Hale scene shop, and the process adds several hundred dollars onto the price tag. And the abuse from guitar to guitar is perfectly identical. My son owns one, a telecaster, and it looks uncannily like itself. (((Once I ordered a hamburger at Dairy Queen and was delighted to find that the patty was irregular in shape—not perfectly circular or rectangular, but kind of jagged and rough, not unlike the coast of Norway. It reminded me of the fare at family Memorial Day barbecues, and evoked the aromas of Off and Lidocane. I took this irregularity as evidence that the patty had been formed by loving human hands, the hands of a culinary artist, or artisan, or at least a caring craftsperson, instead of by a patty-stamping press in Argentina. Then I noticed the burger of the lady with whom I was sharing my DQ experience. Her patty, too, was irregular. IN EXACTLY THE SAME WAY! Was there ever a more apt place for the word “sheesh”? ((((The inclusion of Audra McDonald in the naming of this column has nothing to do with hamburger. Or Argentina.)))) ))) )) )
In “110 In the Shade” my daughter Lizzie, played by ________ Mc___________ (you guess), chooses a husband at the end (I won’t tell you who she chooses) but they don’t get married in the show. The other night I dreamed about the wedding. The only two details I remember are that the Queen of England showed up and also that I got in trouble for playing my stratocaster too loud. I shared this dream with the cast (we’re a very close and tolerant cast) in the pre-show green room meeting, where we hear notes from the stage manager and have a prayer and then count three and shout a word—a different word every night. Like on the Fourth of July weekend we shouted “Freedom!” and on the last night that Will Swenson and Audra McDonald (the one in the title of this column) were with us, which is tonight, we shouted, since we are by tradition restricted to a single word and “Will and Audra” is three words, “Waudra!” On the night of my dream, the word was “Stratocaster!”
(On a recent evening, the word was “Olive!” This is not a consequence of anyone’s dietary proclivities, but because the wife of the actor who plays the sheriff in this story ((Vanessa and Kevin Goertzen, respectively)) has been with us in the green room all evening for about three weeks, because since the beginning of rehearsals she’s been about eleven months pregnant, and she finally had the baby. Olive.
Sheriff Kevin acted with me when he was sixteen in a production of “Shenandoah,” in which he played Union Soldier Number Nine, and now he’s singing duets with the reigning queen of Broadway. But mostly he and his wife have the new-found capacity for creating stunningly beautiful babies.
The night Olive was born, from my journal:
7 July 2010
“Vanessa’s doctor had tickets for the show tonight and had planned to induce labor tomorrow. But the folks at the hospital mistakenly called her in the morning and started the procedure.
“She was moving toward a late night delivery and Kevin showed up at the theatre in a sweat and with a hospital wrist band on, all ready to do a show. But the production crew, with the encouragement of the cast, sent him back to the hospital.
“His understudy, with whom I, for one, had never rehearsed, went on. His name is Ben Hess, a perfectly unassuming and brilliant guy who flat delivered the goods. It was a real triumph… Audra” (this would be McDonald) “was extraordinarily gracious. In the curtain call where she usually gestures for all the cast to join her in a final bow, she singled him out especially.
“Olive is probably born by now. The doctor told Ben after the show that he’d report to the expectant father on his understudy’s success.”
8 July 2010
“After the show Laurie and I went to visit little Olive, twenty-three-and-a-half hours old.
Beautiful, beautiful baby. It was just the sweetest, holiest privilege. We felt honored.”)
Tonight, because it’s the last night with our New York friends, the ladies in the company who are double-cast and aren’t playing tonight are in the audience. Having them there is just the sweetest, holiest privilege. I feel as honored to play for them as to play for anyone who may come and pay the hundred and fifty bucks.
Still with me? Okay, here’s the Audra part: She and I have worked so-o-o-o closely together. The clearest consequence of this creative intimacy is that I now spell her name correctly, whereas in last month’s Backstage Graffiti column and last week’s ward monthly newsletter and the last couple of months of my personal journal, I was wrong thirteen out of thirteen times. In this column I’m right seven for seven (so far), and you, who have most likely worked with Audra McDonald (that’s eight) nary a lick, can fill in the blank about ten paragraphs ago with perfect confidence. If you trust me.
Things I know about Audra McDonald (nine) that you probably don’t:
- She wears this pretty scrumptious gardenia perfume.
- She’s, ummm… well, maybe that’s about it. But I bet you didn’t know about the gardenias.
“110 In the Shade” is about a dried-up town in the American dust bowl in 1936 where gardenias do not grow. The place needs rain more than it needs anything. And it’s about the drought of romantic love in the life of a particular woman who’s on a collision course with spinsterhood, played by You-Know-Who (no, not Voldemort, for crying out loud—this is a faith-based magazine). What I play in the show is the resonator guitar, two harmonicas, and her father.
(She hugs Pop and Pop hugs her and she pushes Pop around and Pop pushes her around and they clasp hands and she blows pretend cigar smoke into Pop’s face, and in every moment on stage, I can’t discern even a shadow of gardenias, whereas backstage it hangs like a shimmering Polynesian curtain. This is how good of an actress this lady is.)
The rain becomes a powerful symbol for hope, love, and fulfillment. At the end of the show, an instant after Audra’s character is virtually pelted with love and hope from all sides, there is a musical suggestion of thunder, then the sound of real thunder, then a few flashes of distant lightning, then a few drops of rain…
(This whole “a few drops of rain” thing is problematical, because during the course of the drought-stricken story every night at least three distinct raindrops fall from the overhead apparatus, usually at inopportune moments—like the night when Will Swenson, playing the rainmaker, trumpets that he will take some sodium chloride and “pitch it high” and right behind his head a fat raindrop fell “plip.” A couple of audience members chuckled just a little, but Will brought with him to Orem this pretty intimidating presence left over from just now starring in Broadway’s “Hair” and so they tried hard not to be heard. ((On the subject of tiny things in groups of three, every night we have three flies hovering in the air between us on stage. They’re pretty much improvising, but certainly adding to the atmosphere of dust bowl Texas. (((Perhaps this observation should have been included in the “understudy” paragraph earlier, because, given the life-span of flies, we’re on about our fourteenth layer of understudies.”))) )) )
…fall. Then a few more, then raindrops by the hatful on our upturned faces. It’s my favorite moment in the show. It’s all hocus-pocus, of course, but it’s real water and feels sweet, miraculous, joyful, generous, merciful, and strong.
Last night when we stepped out of the theatre, there was a sharp ionic change in the air, then a suggestion of thunder, then a few forks of lightning in the southern sky, then rain, drop by drop, not enough to have dampened the seats in my old VW convertible. So I hauled up the top, and by the time I got to Pleasant Grove rainwater was pounding the windshield and splashing up from my wheels and the ordinance we’d performed in the theatre an hour earlier had blossomed into liquid truth—sweet, miraculous, joyful, generous, merciful, and strong.
And this would be Audra McDonald (ten)—sweet, miraculous, joyful, generous, merciful, and strong. And I will remember dancing with her under the Texas rain.