Those of you too young to recollect the 1970s, or for the unschooled in the Broadway musical scene, you may not recognize my paraphrased title. It’s from A CHORUS LINE, and a huge moment in the second act, when Cassie, the lead character, performs a desperate show-stopping solo song and dance. She’s a diva, looking for a second chance in her career. She sings “God I’m a dancer–a dancer dances”. Of all the things I am or once was in my life, dancer was never anywhere in my expertise. Although unbelievably not once, but twice, I danced in an abbreviated version of THE NUTCRACKER, as the mysterious Uncle who gifts Clara with the magic wooden toy.
My ballet debut came as a favor to a friend who taught in a large dance studio in our area. Liz and I met in a community theatre group I became involved with when I first moved to New England. She did the choreography for a production of MUSIC MAN I directed. In payment, I would be in her NUTCRACKER, as she had no male students in ballet, and needed a guy to lift her prima ballerina in one scene, then make it snow in the second act and lift her some more. I’ve seen Liz work miracles with young tykes, non-graceful teens and adults with two left feet. What she’d need to do with this woeful klutz was far beyond even Liz’s talents.
So the lifting stuff was easy. All I needed to do was secure the lithe twelve-year-old artfully around her tiny waist and ‘lift’. The kid did all the rest. Clara looked glorious up there in the air where I’d lift her several times during each performance. A few times it was necessary to carry her in the air, taking several steps to the right or left. That I could also manage, and come off looking relatively competent. But the hitch was, I needed to first sweep in, disrupting the merriment of the party scene, just as the adult guests finished a bright gavotte. I was to achieve this air of mystery in a black floor-length cloak. Liz assured me the cape would miraculously cause me to ‘swoop’ onto stage, frightening guests and the audience at the same time. It would take more than a hunk of tacky satin for me to pull that off.
Liz and I rehearsed my entrance literally for hours. After the girls were all home and asleep in their beds, I would still be attempting to swoop gracefully from upstage left to downstage center. We’re talking maybe less than twenty steps maximum. But lonnnng, sweeeeeping and graceful steps–which was my problem. I looked like I was executing my choreography with a load of shit in my tights, the cape only serving to conceal my huge pile of caca from view. And in the second act, when I needed to make it snow, I had the same horrible, swooping entrance–only this time I entered from upstage right, attempting it backwards. Liz was so kind, so patient, and I was so very bad. A few nights before final dress, I spent half of our private post-rehearsal rehearsal, trying to persuade Liz to bind her breasts, shove her hair under a top hat and perform the role of Drosselmeyer herself. But she had faith I could do it. Poor deluded Liz!
They taped the final dress rehearsal and made the mistake of having me watch it while the kids changed to go home. I studied my entrance like Nijinsky might have looked upon his first Rite of Spring. I did not swoop in as I’d feared, with a load in my tights. I galloped in, as though the turds had already worked their way down both legs, ready to plop out onstage if I wasn’t careful. It was embarrassing, but far too late to do anything about.
Once out there, Clara made me look great. I lifted her higher than high. When I presented her with the nutcracker, my broad mime gestures were brilliant. When I made it snow, even I bought into the theatrical magic. It was such great fun, I consented to do it again the following Christmas with a second, even younger Clara. I just never watched another video of me doing it again. It was too painful for my un-dancey ego to bear.
There were times when my lack of dancing ability did not yield this same happy ending. Such is the story of my audition for GREASE on Broadway. In 1972, when I arrived in New York, GREASE had only been running a few months. By the summer of 1975, there were national tours and many cast changes. They’d announced open auditions for both Broadway and tour replacements. The show was at the Royale Theatre on West 45th Street. One of my favorites, I’d seen it at least three times. As incredible as the movie is, there was something wonderfully simple about the original stage version. You were caught up in the fun the cast was obviously having, sitting there in your seat, watching the show happen at you. It was a dreamer’s dream to get a chance to be a part of it.
You needed to have a ballad and an up-tempo song ready. The ad instructed NOT to sing a song from the show, nor dress 1950-ish. Several of my friends didn’t even get through the first interview (which was presenting your eight-by-ten picture and resume to one of about six people sitting at long tables who looked at you, then looked at your picture and either said “thank-you-we’ll-call-you” and put the picture on one pile, or said “do you have sheet music–have a seat” and put yours in another). I’d heard stories many actors only got through just a few bars of their first song before they were told “thank-you-we’ll-call-you”…and of course, they never were.
My friend Dennis was a talented performer and musician. He came to NYC just a few months before me–is still there–and never once has he needed to take a job other than in theatre or music. I called and begged him to help me find two songs for my audition. He had stacks of sheet music of obscure tunes. We decided on To Know, Know, Know Her, a really cheesy 50s ballad he was sure no one else would dare to sing, and Jingle Bell Rock as my up-tempo choice. Mind you, it’s August, during a heat wave, so we’re certain none of my competition would think to choose this one either. We rehearsed both songs the night before for several hours, and I was ready for B’way.
Audition day I arrived at The Royale, greeted by an ocean of actors. You believe you are this totally unique individual who somebody’s dying to discover–until you see two dozen people show up, all who look like they could be your first cousin. Instantly this puts you right in your place. Working my way through the crowd I make it up to the table and hand an attractive woman my picture and resume. She studies my face in the photo, looking up briefly to check if it at all resembles the guy who gave it to her. She smiles. I smile back while my heart is thumping so loudly I am certain she hears it too. “Have a seat over there in the corner with the boys. You have your music? It shouldn’t be too long”. I float over to the metal folding chairs and sit down quickly, before she has a chance to change her mind. I’ve made the first cut.
In about a half an hour, they bring our group of guys backstage. The stage is in partial view from the wings, as we listen to our competition singing to an invisible piano hammering out the tunes. It is like every movie I’ve ever seen about show business. Soon a disembodied voice calls my name. As I begin my walk onstage I’m beyond nervous. I am petrified with fright–yet so pumped. There is a tall stand to my left with a long panel of a dozen bright lights, blindingly illuminating me as I take my mark center stage. A guy appears from behind them and asks for my music, handing it to the accompanist in the pit. You can barely see a thing in the blackened theatre. A voice comes from somewhere midway in the center of the orchestra seats. I stupidly force a fake smile in that direction. All I can make out is a yellow legal pad. “Hi there”, he says. “Why don’t you sing your ballad for us.”
The piano begins and so do I. My nerves have dissipated somewhat, but as the words come out, I immediately realize this was a dumb choice. Why did we pick this boring song, anyway?
“To know-know-know her, is to love-love-love her. Just to see her smile, makes my whole life worth while. Yes-yes to know her is to love-love-love …”
“Matthew, do you have ANYTHING else you can sing?” he breaks in quickly as the piano trails off and I stop mid-song. I know this cannot be a good sign. Have I blown my big chance, I worry? Dammit, am I going home already?
“Why don’t you give us your up-tempo” he adds, brightly. A second chance–I breathe again and really smile his way this time. I begin thinking–while the piano player below rearranges the sheet music–Matthew, there are very few second chances. There won’t be another. Sing this song like your life depends on it. Your life does depend on this, so don’t blow it!
With that, the christmasy intro to Jingle Bell Rock begins, and I am singing my little heart out. The spirit of the 50s overtakes me, as I rock-and-roll my way through this tune like I’m Bobby Darin, complete with the finger-snapping. My hips have taken on a life of their own, while I work the stage like it’s all mine. I know it sounds impossible, but as I sing, I am at the same time marveling at where I am and what I’m doing. Me–onstage at The Royale Theatre on fucking B R O A D W A Y , singing Jingle Bell Rock like it’s my hit song, and as if the empty theatre is filled with enthralled fans who’ve come just to hear me sing. And I wish there was a video, because for sure, this was the performance of my life–two minutes of pure Mattie-perfection. He lets me sing the entire bloody song to the very end. Just before my performance is over, a woman’s head appears behind the dark legal-padded man. They are talking as I finish singing with a genuine shit-eating grin, now for just the two of them: “That’s the jingle bell, that’s the jingle bell, tha-att’s the jingle bell-el raah-ock!”
Once I’m done he says, “Nice to have that early Christmas present. We’d like you to stay and read for the part of Sonny. The stage manager will give you the script.” I nearly pass out, but quickly revive when the same guy who took my sheet music appears from behind the lights again, to escort me offstage. I’d been too nervous earlier to notice how hot this guy is. I quietly chastise myself for jeopardizing my moment of glory by even contemplating picking up the stage manager. I follow him to a small room where we run lines together.
The scene is only about a twelve line exchange. Handsome Hottie will be reading with me. He’s really sweet and gives me some pointers on how to play the scene–like I’m a real actor, or something. He works with me for maybe five minutes, then is called back onstage. He leaves me in the room and only then do I have a moment to sense what’s all come down in less than two hours at the theatre. I feel so good about myself and my abilities. I don’t want to jump the gun and spoil everything, but a wave of confidence over-takes me. Maybe I can do this. Maybe my dream of theatre isn’t just a dream.
An intercom voice breaks my reverie. “Matthew Schuster onstage please”. How long have I waited to hear those words? I bolt for the door, probably tripping my way back onstage. There is Handsome, who leads me to my mark and we begin. The scene is over before I even have time to worry about it. “Do you want to hear it again?” Handsome calls out to Mr. Legal Pad.
“Yes, please. This time Matthew, could you give us a little more accent and a little more stupid?” I know exactly what he means. I was playing the part of Sonny—who is talking about flunking freshman English for like a second or third time–quasi-Shakespearean. This reading, I give him what I remember from seeing the show. “Great”, he says. “we’d like you to come back this afternoon for the dance audition, Matthew. The stage manager will give you the times.”
The DANCE audition? I freeze in my tracks as the blood drains from my body. I follow Handsome again, but this time with trepidation. My appointment is a few hours later. Once outside in the sunshine and heat, I look for somewhere to sit down and simply breath. In the theatre district, this means a coffee shop. I grab a booth by a window, order a cup and light up a smoke (perfect dancer preparation) and continue my inner dialogue. Nobody I’d spoken to ever mentioned a dance audition. What’s that about? I can’t dance. Well what did you expect, asshole–it’s a musical–of course you’ve gotta’ dance.
Drinking my coffee I realize this time I’m on my own. There’s no friend to call for a two-hour crash course in Broadway hoofing. They are going to throw some complicated combination at us in two minutes and expect us to BobFossee our way through it. Of course I shall make a total fool of myself and be laughed off the stage in humiliation. I need another cigarette. So goes the next hour–berating myself, smoking a cigarette, worrying I’ll trip or worse fall on my face, literally, then smoking another cigarette until the pack is empty and it’s time to dance.
Back at the theatre I am now in a small dance studio. There are a couple dozen of us, male and female. Three of the guys amazingly resemble me in height, weight and ethnic look i.e. big-nosed ItaloGreekJew. A young woman, who I’ve not yet seen today, is in charge. She looks friendly enough, but we sense she’s out to get us all with some intricate choreography, designed to ruin our chances at getting a part. She splits us into two groups and begins teaching us the “simple combination”. Luckily I’m in the first group, so I’m able to watch her teach it twice. As she breaks it down, none of the steps looks too difficult so far.
Next we put it together and then she goes and adds arms/upper body stuff to the mix, and my palms and pits start to get sweaty. There are people already looking like dancers here, yet I am not one of them. A few of us are stumbling, asking for her help with certain steps. We drop back behind the second group, and I attempt rehearsing while at the same time watching her instructions again. Maybe I will get through this and come off looking half decent. Think Jingle Bell Rock, Matthew. We will have no music to move to, only her incessant counting in eights.
Within minutes we are broken down into groups of six. Three in front, three in back. Luckily I am tall enough to be in the back row. Maybe I can hide from obvious view. I’m not in the first group of six, so I have a chance to watch and walk through the combination yet again. It is very fast and over quickly. I can do this. Jingle Bell Rock.
My group is up. “And five…six…seven…eight” she calls and off we dance. Watching the feet of the woman in front of me, I hope I’ll be safe. Oh no, my arms are over my head when they should be crossed against my chest. Is it left foot stomp or right? I forget to swivel and turn and just stand there for several counts like a ninny. I get through it without falling on my ass, but not much more could be said about my performance than that. We drop back to make way for the next group.
Once the final six finishes, she tells us “Thank you for your time today. They will be making calls in the next few days. Good luck everybody.” I leave almost numb. Overall it was a good day. I sang really well. I did a good job with my scene. Mr. Yellow Legal Pad liked me a lot. The choreographer chick–not so much. But maybe the dance part didn’t count too much. I throw in this last part, hoping to take the sting away and make me feel better.
So I check in with my phone service every two hours for the next three days. By the weekend I am losing hope. By Sunday night at midnight, I pretty well figure it out. I will not be playing the role of Sonny in GREASE at The Royale Theatre on 45th Street, or in any of the national tours. But I will be able to say, I once sang Jingle Bell Rock–one hot August afternoon on Broadway–and totally wowed my audience.