Song Of The Day 2/21/2017: Eels – “Oh! What a Beautiful Morning”

The Final 37

Will Vamp for Food

There are lots of things I could have done the summer between my sophomore and junior years. I could gone camping, I could have gotten a job, I could have gone looking for love in all the wrong gutters. Instead I was caught by a crudely mimeographed flyer for something called "Musical Comedy Workshop."

This was a summer stock theater program for all high school kids in the San Juan Unified. The part that caught my eye was the call-out for a rehearsal pianist, who would receive actual compensation for their services in the form of cash. It was either $300 or $400. Either way it would be larger than any amount of money I ever stole from my parents’ dresser.

Do I remember how I got the job? Haven’t you been keeping up with this series? Of course I don’t. But I got the job. I don’t think I had any competition. I was still faking people out with my left-hand shenanigans.

It was an exciting opportunity. Everyone from the district was eligible, so I wouldn’t just be hanging with kids from Casa Roble. It meant I might meet people from far-off, exotic places like Carmichael. The program was at Mira Loma High School, out near the northeastern boundary of the City of Sacramento. Mike Sando, the NFL reporter who covers the NFC West for ESPN, went to Mira Loma. So did Sam J. Jones, who played Flash Gordon in the 1980 film of the same name. So did serial killer Richard Chase, aka “The Vampire of Sacramento.” It was a hotbed.

The program was overseen by an aging, male theater director. He wasn’t thrilled about doing it. I’m not sure if he came up with the whole idea in the first place. I remember his name, but I’ve been told people don’t like to read it. He did Shakespeare in the park, because he was an aging, male theater director.

MCW was planning two musicals that summer: the John-Ford-in-a-bonnet musical Oklahoma! and the first famous attempt to bridge Broadway and upstart rock and roll culture, Bye Bye Birdie.

Not to get all inflated about high school touchstones where hormonal people burst into song and dance, but MCW became the most significant turning point of my first 20 years in this rat trap.

Won't Dance for Anything

Like The Sound Of Music auditions, I just considered myself the piano player. I had no notion to try out myself. Mrs. Fisher hadn't cast me in a meaningful acting role yet at Casa Roble and frankly it wasn't something I particularly aspired to.

I didn’t think I was even allowed to audition at MCW. I was being paid $300 or $400 to play piano for everybody else. (By the way, that money would be the biggest lump sum I’d get for playing piano for the next twenty years.) I already had all the privileges I needed. I got paid, everybody got to know me, I got to hang out in the faculty room after rehearsals where everybody still smoked cigarettes including some of the kids. I wanted for nothing. I just wanted the free ride, the rarified aura of being someone kind of in charge of something, and I wanted to get paid so I could complete my Bowie collection at the end of the summer.

Then somebody let it slip that I was perfectly welcome to audition for one of the shows if I wanted to.

Well, fine, I’ll audition. It’ll be a nice experience and I’ll know where I stand.

I didn’t think I had a chance. This kind of event pulled from the absolute cream of the San Juan Unified crop of talented singers, dancers and actors.

All right. Here’s the thing. I can play the hell out of the piano. I can sing a bit. I’ve never considered myself a good actor—too stilted, can’t turn off the self-awareness.

But if there’s one art I have never been able to do with any degree of faculty whatsoever—if there’s one unholy activity the universe has been begging and screaming not to see me do lest the earth crack open and swallow every Arthur Murray studio from here to Manhattan—it’s dancing.

I can’t dance. For some reason that is my limitation. That and drawing. I can make a fool out of myself singing, that’s fine. I can act stupid on the piano, that’s fine. But actually moving around in time to music, with choreography and arm extensions and leggings and 5-6-7-8 and all that, I can’t do it, and what’s more I refuse to do it.

I’m not sure how I skated out of the dance audition. Maybe I tried and flailed. But I’m certain, whatever happened, I left everybody there with no doubt that I was not, by any stretch, a capable dancer. That was fine because I was perfectly aware of that boundary. Nobody wanted me stuck into the middle of a chorus line to mess the whole thing up. That would have been ridiculous.

So I guess that’s why they cast me in the lead role of Curly in Oklahoma!

They Like 'Em Big and... Not "Stupid," Let's Just Be Charitable and Say "Unformed"

Yeah. That was unexpected.

Curly was not only my first lead role, it was my first speaking role. Unless I’m missing whatever minor part I had in the previous Casa Roble musical where I might have muttered a line or two. I can’t even remember what show it was. I think it was Mame. If you can’t remember what show your high school did for their annual musical there’s about a 75% chance it was Mame.

I think it was that I was the closest MCW had to a male ingenue, which is basically what Curly is in Oklahoma! He’s the Everyman, and the Everyman is perilously close to the female ingenue archetype. At least the two are close in my mind, because one aspect about the Everyman is a sizable quotient of gullibility that seizes him until the middle of the third act, where he either rises above the situation and solves everything or gets shot.

So I guess it was that childlike nature, that somewhat regulated naiveté, that came back to define me. Only this time it was for something relatively good.

I might have let my sense of disbelief that I was even there get the better of me. I wasn’t the hardest worker, although I didn’t have to dance. I had a long way to go as an actor. I did that thing where you let one of your arms dangle to your side and have the opposite hand hold onto your dangling arm's elbow, the universal pose of people who have no idea what the hell to do next. I wasn’t comfortable at all.

But all this stuff is kind of beyond the point, because I never became an actor, and it wasn’t the key aspect of MCW or its sequels, and goddamn it I’m going to have to stretch this out into a two-day story.

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