Since I’ve told you two stories of people who loathe me – one here and one here – I thought I’d complete the trilogy with what is, perhaps, the most bizarre I-Hate-Stallion story ever. It’s also, fortunately, the one with the happiest ending, so I’ll put it down here for posterity and then start talking about non-hate crap for a little while.
In the year 2000, I was the Artistic Director at the Tuacahn Center for the Arts. Having just come off of Tuacahn’s most successful season ever, due in large part to the stunning success of their recent production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, I was the one primarily responsible for ensuring that the next season would equal or exceed the year before. (It didn’t, but that’s another story.) The shows on tap for the summer were Fiddler on the Roof and one of my all-time favorites, The Music Man.
If you’ve read this blog from the outset, you know I have some colorful history with that particular show. Yet the summer of 2000 ensured that Andrew Fogelson’s Magic Kiss would pale in comparison to my 21st century Music Man experience. (Yeah, I know. The year 2000 was technically the end of the 20th century. Do you want me to finish the story or not?)
There are two new characters who figure prominently in this story – a husband and wife I’ll dub Ozzie and Harriet. Ozzie worked for Tuacahn as a company manager, and that year he was given the assignment of casting director as well, which was the first mistake. The directors of the show ended up having the last word on the casting, anyway, so no matter how often Casting Director Ozzie crossed swords with these guys – and it was often, indeed – the directors always got their way in the end.
Harriet also worked for Tuacahn, too, albeit on a seasonal basis. She had just played the narrator in Joseph in 1999, and she was absolutely dynamite. She was very pretty, and she had a smoky, powerful voice that sounds great in both pop and legit pieces. She was also an accomplished dancer and choreographer, and after the success of ’99, the Tuacahn Board decreed that Harriet would be cast as Marian the Librarian, the lead of The Music Man, prior to any auditions or the hiring of any other staff.
That was mistake #2, and boy, was it a doozy.
I got to know Ozzie fairly well, since I worked with him on a daily basis. I quite liked him. Even through all the weirdness that I’m about to describe, we got along just fine. However, I was barely acquainted with his wife. To this day, I cannot recall a single interaction with her that lasted more than a sentence or two. (That’s important for later, so keep it in mind.)
The biggest casting challenge we faced was the role of Harold Hill, the titular “music man” from the play in question. Ozzie was insistent that an old friend and Tuacahn alumnus from the previous year be cast in the role. At the time, that idea didn’t bother me – the guy in question was, in fact, really good, and I cast him as Sitting Bull two years later when I directed Tuacahn’s production of Annie Get Your Gun. The director, however, didn’t want to go there. In his mind, Ozzie’s friend was wrong physically for the role, since he was short, stocky, and bald. This difference of opinion proved to be a huge sticking point throughout auditions, since we went through at least half a dozen different Harold Hill candidates, all of whom fell through for one reason or another. (One even got a contract and almost signed on the dotted line, but then he got a better gig and all was lost.)
Now during all this time, I must admit I had a secret, burning desire to get back up on stage again. I would have loved to play Harold Hill one more time, and doing so onstage at Tuacahn would have been a dream come true. I did not, however, raise this idea throughout auditions. I was a producer and an administrator now, and nobody even considered me as an acting possibility. But when auditions were over and Harold Hills kept dropping like flies, I foolishly decided to throw my name into the mix.
Ozzie was clearly nonplussed by the idea, but he asked me to audition for him, nevertheless. It was a terribly awkward experience to leave the office, walk a few yards to a nearby piano, and sing for this guy I saw every day and worked down the hall from. It didn’t go well, and he essentially told me, in polite but no uncertain terms, that I was out of my mind.
Yet time wore on, and we still didn’t have a Harold Hill. So, still secretly obsessed, I called the director. He asked me to audition, too.
That one went better. Not great, but better. “There’s a Harold Hill in there,” the director said, “but it’s clearly been a long time since you were on stage, and you’re a little rusty.” That was hard to hear, but it was an honest assessment. The last time I’d been in a show had been six years earlier, and it would be quite a risk to bet the success of an entire Tuacahn summer season on my performance.
But then fate intervened.
The director’s first choice for the role of Harold Hill was a prominent Salt Lake actor of some renown, who, alas, would not be available for the final two weeks of the summer. After my audition, the director decided that he could cast the Salt Lake guy as Harold Hill, and that I could step in to the role at the end of the season to finish out the run.
Ozzie didn’t like it, obviously, but the one who went ballistic, and who had never figured into the equation at all before this, was Harriet.
Harriet proceeded to unload to everyone who would listen about just how awful a performer I was, ignoring the fact that she had never seen me perform. She insisted that I’d schemed to make this happen from day one, which, given the history of the casting process, was demonstrably untrue. Still, she proclaimed that I was “unworthy” to be on the same stage with her. She also suggested, somewhat perversely, that one of the main reasons I wanted to play the role was so I could kiss her onstage.
I’m jumping ahead here, but I want to state, for the record, that kissing Harriet was unarguably the least erotic experience of my life. I’ve described it to some as the Opposite of an Affair. In a real affair, two people try to hide their mutual attraction as they secretly indulge their forbidden passions away from the prying eyes of the world. With Harriet and me, two people who were repelled by each other were forced to press lips together in full view of nearly 2,000 people per night. I can remember counting the seconds until I could end the faux embrace, and I always felt relieved when the fireworks in the background gave me the cue to release her so I could breathe again.
The thing that was so baffling about this experience was the depth of her animosity toward me. Some observers tried to describe this as Stallion v. Harriet, but the truth was I didn’t know Harriet. I had barely spoken to her. People say with regard to fights that it always takes two to tango, but I don’t believe that anymore. Harriet was very good – and very angry – dancing solo.
The problem got worse as the summer wore on and my debut drew closer. I was already suspect among the cast, since they were Labor and I was Upper Management. It didn’t help that Harriet spent the weeks and months leading up to those dreaded final performances tearing me down to all her fellow castmates. I don’t think I was imagining the icy resentment I felt every time I came in contact with one of the actors. They were convinced, in the absence of any evidence contrary to Harriet’s rants, that, because of me, their show was doomed.
My own apprehension began to grow over the summer, and if I could have found someone to take my place, I would have. Because despite how ill-used I felt, deep in my gut, part of me began to believe that Harriet was probably right.
In may seem trivial now, but at the time, I made the subject a matter of fervent prayer, and I asked my dad for a father’s blessing, in which he assured me that all would be well and I would feel calm and relaxed when the time came for me to perform my role.
Anyway, to cut to the chase: it was a smashing success. I wasn’t just adequate. I nailed it. To everyone’s surprise – especially mine – I hit it out of the park.
I’ve never had more fun in my life than I did the first night I went on stage. As I had arranged with the bandleader a few days earlier, I took the tempo of “Trouble,” the show’s signature piece, up several notches. Harriet stood in the wings in tears, saying over and over “He’s ruining the show! He’s ruining the show!” But the overwhelmingly positive audience reaction said otherwise. The trepidation of the cast melted away instantly, and I felt as calm and peaceful as I’d ever felt in my life. I did well that first night, and I did better with each performance. It was a thrill. It was also the last time I’ve ever performed on stage.
Perhaps the greatest accolade I received was from one of the young kids in the cast, who came up to me near the end of the run and asked, simply, “When do you suck?”
I told her I didn’t understand the question.
“When do you suck?” she said again. “Everyone said you were going to suck, but you didn’t. You’re really good. So when do you suck?”
High praise, indeed.
Still, throughout the run, Harriet refused to speak to me, even to say hello. We would come offstage after making moony eyes at each other, and then the brick wall would go up and she’d stalk off into the wings without looking at me. It was strange, but it was just something I had to accept, like the weather. Everyone else was exceptionally kind and generous, and I had a wonderful time.
Finally, on closing night, after all was said and done, I found myself alone with Ozzie, who, I note again, had been surprisingly pleasant throughout all of this. So I took the occasion to ask a question.
“Ozzie,” I said, “I didn’t want to say anything while we were going through this, but now that the show’s over, and all of this is behind us, I have to ask: what do I have to do to make peace with your wife?”
Ozzie’s face darkened. “I don’t know,” he said. “You two have a lot of $%^& to work out.”
I almost laughed. Fact is, I didn’t have anything to work out with Harriet. You work things out with people with whom you have relationships. I work things out with my wife, children, family and friends. I don’t work things out with brick walls I don’t know.
I think it was two years ago that I received a lengthy Christmas card from Harriet, in which she apologized for how she had acted and said some other nice things I don’t remember. Glad to see she worked it out. I hope things are going well for her.
But I’m left wondering: what is it about me that inspires this kind of stuff? Is it my dashing good looks? My love of fondue? My loose bowels? What?