Saturday, March 23, 2013

"My singing voice is somewhere between a drunken apology and a plumbing problem."

   I’m not saying I grew up in a one-horse town, but when I was sixteen a force of change moved to Omaha and everyone in the theatre community (of which I was a peripheral part) seemed to know about it. Her name was Jolene Radish and she was famous in ten minutes, just like in a movie Western when a new horseman rides into town.

   Jolene came from Texas and was really proud about it. She was the first person I ever knew to sport a “Don’t Mess With Texas” bumper sticker. As common as those stickers may be in California and the southern states, they’re virtually nonexistent in Nebraska. Or at least they were at that time. She drove a tiny, yellow pickup truck and had pretty lips and her hair was as big as the state of Texas. She seemed to always have lots and lots of things to say and places to be. 
Dr. Radish also had a huge rack.

   Seemingly within months, she was the musical director of this and the star of that play. My friend Cari started taking voice lessons with her and suggested that I do the same. I was obsessed with musical theatre at the time (still am, if you want to know) and my parents agreed, so I signed up as soon as I could.

   Soon I was making a weekly Friday trek to North Omaha to a little Lutheran church to learn the standards as taught by Dr. Jolene, who was extra important because she had her PhD in music or singing or something like that. I thought the whole thing was very impressive, but I also thought that it would look really good on my acting resume that I’d studied voice with a real voice doctor.

   Okay, so I can carry a tune and I’ve never been shy about performing, so I grew up singing at Church and in plays. This wasn’t because I was talented, but because I was willing. My voice, at its very best, is only decent. And I can imitate different singing styles (especially if you’re hungry for an Ethel Merman impersonation without the power or style), but I’ve never really been good at singing. But I didn’t really know that when I was 16. At that age, I thought I had it all going on and couldn’t understand why I was never cast as the soprano lead in the musicals. If you want to know, I’m an alto, and no amount of falsetto has ever managed to get me cast as Maria in West Side Story. (And I guess I’m a little too pale to play Puerto Rican. And I can't dance.) BUT ANYWAY.

   Dr. Jolene Radish’s voice lessons were conducted in a tiny room in the basement of this Lutheran Church. She had a really cute accompanist named Debbie who was probably 45 or 50 and sweet as could be. Debbie would pound out “The Glory of Love” or the tunes from State Fair and I would warble along to them, attempting to affect a vibrato and sound more like how I imagined the Broadway ladies sounded. I kept trying to get Dr. Radish to let me perform something from Cabaret or Gypsy, but she seemed to think that I should learn to walk (or at least crawl) before I could fly. I often resented this, as I figured she was holding me back, but let’s be real: I smoked cigarettes to and from my voice lessons, so it’s not like I was taking my singing career super seriously to begin with. But she was nice and kind of supportive and told good jokes, and we spent the vast majority of the lessons gossiping and laughing. And she usually spent a good portion of my lessons demonstrating how the song was SUPPOSED to sound, so that filled up some time, too. But it was fun. She had a pretty awesome voice--especially compared to me.
I got carried away with my radish drawing and tried out some stuff. Fun!

   Sometime in the fall, after I’d been going to lessons for a month or two, Jolene was cast as the lead in the Omaha Community Playhouse production of Anything Goes (one of my all-time favorite musicals). Cast alongside her was my past boyfriend and present good friend Mark. Jolene was playing Reno and Mark was playing the seventh sailor from the left on the cruise ship (don’t you love shows that take place on boats? I sure do). Before long, he was telling me stories of raucous cast parties where everyone would get wasted and crazy together. And, after the play went up, he told me that at one of those cast parties, Jolene made out with him. The way he described it, it sounded like she’d drunkenly mauled him at some cast member’s house. He thought it was funny. I thought it was kind of funny, but also kind of gross. I mean, after all, she had to have been at least 32 or 33 at the time, and he was 19 or 20. I guess it was all legal, so no big deal. But when I think of myself now, at 30, making out with a 19-year-old, I throw up a little bit in my mouth.

   At my next lesson after hearing about the make out party, I mentioned to Jolene that Mark from the play was my ex-boyfriend. I did not mention the making out. But it seemed sort of obvious that she knew I knew. Her demeanor seemed to change instantaneously. She smirked knowingly and said, “Oh I know that. He mentioned that you two were friends.”

   The lessons had officially become awkward.

   Gone were the jokes and the fun times and in their place was actual singing, and since I was actually having to sing through each lesson, it became increasingly clear that I wasn’t practicing my singing between lessons and also that I wasn’t very talented.

   I started getting anxious about going to voice lessons and began to have performance anxiety around Dr. Jolene. Things were becoming progressively less pleasant. They became even more unpleasant when Mark told me that the two of them had again made out—this time backstage during a performance. I didn’t have romantic feelings for Mark anymore, but I felt like Dr. Jolene wanted me to know that she’d made out with my ex-boyfriend. I don’t know why making out with a 19-year-old made her feel superior to a 16-year-old, but I guess you can never tell what’s going to float a person’s boat. Especially a theatre person's boat--and in this case there actually was a boat, if only on the stage.

   One Friday night, a few weeks into the soap opera that my working relationship with Dr. Jolene had become, I showed up 5 minutes early for my lesson. I walked into the little practice room in the basement and Dr. Jolene was teaching some other kid.

   “Lacey, didn’t you get my message? Your lesson was cancelled for today.” She was kind of snappy, and no, when I’d left my house 20 minutes before, there’d been no message.

   “Well, that’s just completely unacceptable! I quit!” I was joking. I was being theatrical. Seriously. But I stomped out of the room, and walked back in LITERALLY 3 seconds later and said, “Ok, no big deal. See you next week!”

   Debbie laughed weekly, but Dr. Jolene looked like she was going to kick my ass.

   “No, you don’t need to bother to come back. Ever.” Her voice was steel and her eyes were cold and angry. The other student just looked uncomfortable and confused.

   “Um, okay,” I muttered. I was somewhat baffled. I HAD been joking after all, and it was her fault I was at my "cancelled" lesson in the first place. I had a nervous stomach and sweaty hands all the way home. I wasn’t sure what had just happened, but I knew that Dr. Radish of a month ago would’ve laughed at my little faux-dramatic outburst and thought no more about it.

   When I got home my mom told me that Dr. Jolene had called and discontinued my lessons because I was “disrespectful” to her. I explained to my mom what had happened and she asked if I wanted her to call Dr. Jolene and explain. I said thanks but not to bother.

   Dr. Jolene reentered my life the next year as the musical director of our senior play. We managed to function with each other quite cordially, mostly because I only had one song in the play: more proof that I wasn’t the hardcore singing sensation I’d always hoped I’d be. But she was complimentary of my performance and we got along okay.

   Dr. Jolene and Mark did not end up together. I later heard that she married a guy that was widely considered among the theatre scene to be a homosexual, but maybe things worked out for them. At least, if he was gay, there was sure to be plenty of drunken make-outs in their future.

   As for my vocal career, now the only time I sing is on karaoke night when the entire audience is drunk.
*The truly amazing quote above is from the brilliant, talented, and incredibly handsome Colin Firth. 

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