I’ll never forget kneeling down on the side of the twin bed with the white metal IKEA frame that had traveled with me from my very first post-college apartment in Chicago to my new apartment on Crescent Street in Astoria, Queens, right underneath the Triboro Bridge, where giant trucks that sounded like monsters rattled and zoomed by outside my bedroom window. My best friend Angie and I had just finished setting up our apartment and the overwhelming noise of the bridge alone was enough to terrify us two country girls from the upper reaches of New York State. She came into my room and kneeled next to me, elbows on the bed, both of us praying.
“Are you trying to cast the devil out of New York City like I am?” I asked Angie, knowing full well she was, because Angie was always praying. We were two small town Catholic girls in way over our heads, trying to deal with landlords who barely spoke English and who almost jipped us out of our apartment. “Yes,” she laughed, and we both just stayed there leaning against my bed, listening to backfiring 18-wheelers that sounded like death, hoping that somehow this insane place we’d moved to wouldn’t swallow us whole.
Angie and I came to New York in the fall of 2000 armed with musical theatre degrees, brunette pixie cuts and matching mocha lipstick leftover from the 90’s. (Those tubes were so long back then! They lasted forever!) We felt prepared the way the freshly graduated do to tackle the Great White Way and make our mark on the world. I got a job on Broadway almost immediately, as a temp at the worldwide headquarters of Morgan Stanley. Over the next several years, I learned there’s a specific melody to the mocking-yet-bragging tone used by mid-level Investment Banking administrators introducing a new temp with the phrase, “This is Carolyn. She’s an actress.” Being a performer in an office building makes you “the other,” so whoever is in charge of introducing you immediately brings you to meet any other performers who might happen to be in the building. “Oh, you’re an actress, huh? Elizabeth is an opera singer. She’s up on the 26th floor. Let me take you up there.” As if you’re only able to take instructions that are sung. “Cooooooommmmme! I’ll show you how to fiiiiiiiiiiiile!” Based on my personal experience with being “the other,” I can only imagine that at some point somewhere in America, a black CEO on his first day was ushered immediately down to the mailroom. “Well, Joe, we just wanted you to meet the people we feel you’d be most comfortable with. These guys are black, too! Would you like me to sing that? I know your people are very musical.”
After a year of improv, voice lessons and auditions, I got my first summer stock gig playing two crazy ladies: Louise in Alan Ayckbourn’s Joking Apart and Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd. I was used to doing character parts since I’d done them all throughout college, but my voice teacher in New York seemed to think I was an ingenue, and my next gig as the lead in a children’s theatre tour of Pippi Longstocking proved her right – I sure could play ‘em young! I was 24 portraying a 9-year-old. I had truly immense range. Pippi Longstocking is supposed to be “the strongest girl in the world,” but really she’s just a wig with the strongest curl in the world, and after two months on the road with no shampooing, it had the strongest smell in the world, too.
For eight weeks I was covered in braided sweat and the hands of 6-year-old little boys trying to cop a feel. After one show in Georgia, a little boy came up to me and said, “I really liked your movie Pippi,” and stuck his hands underneath my skirt. I was shocked. I could tell he knew what he was doing. He wanted a piece of Pippi’s Swedish pie! I took his hands out from underneath my skirt, but he continued to hug me, his head at my waist and his arms around my butt, for as long as he could. This is how players are made, parents. Hug your children. If you don’t, they’ll end up snorting crank at a strip club, shouting, “Do it again, Pippi!” I mean, that boy is 18 now. I bet every time he takes a girl to the movies he can’t wait to “tell her how much he liked it.” I just hope he isn’t thinking of looking up at me in that sweaty wig during the credits.
When the Pippi tour ended I landed a summer dinner theatre production of Grease. Growing up in the 80’s I was obsessed with the movie (duh), and playing the iconic Rizzo (executed so perfectly in the film by the brilliant Stockard Channing) was a dream come true. In truth, it was something I had never even dared to dream, since I didn’t really see myself as “tough girl” or leading lady material. I was getting closer and closer to playing age appropriate parts that weren’t garish old witches or a child with an absentee pirate parent who lives with animals. I started to feel like maybe I could actually be in Rent or Hairspray or god damn it Mamma Mia!
That summer in Ohio (as the Jason Robert Brown’s like to say) was one of lots of epiphanies for me, including the fact that I really wanted to do stand-up. Like really really. I guess prior to that point I hadn’t put two and two together, even though I’d done lots of funny banter in cabaret settings and was comfortable with crowd work before I even knew it had a name, but I’d always wanted to do stand-up. I remember being riveted by Rosie O’Donnell while she hosted VH1’s Stand-Up Spotlight and catching other comedy programs here and there during the 80’s boom when my parents weren’t making me watch Murder, She Wrote. I loved Bill Cosby’s Himself. I always made my friends laugh, but I thought of myself as such a serious actress. #robinwilliamsproblems
I got married that same summer, and I knew that I wanted my life on the road to end. I took an expensive class in the fall with a Broadway casting director who did not like me, and during our final “feedback” session he told me, “I just don’t see a future for you in musical theatre.” I told him, “Well, that’s okay, because I’m going to start doing comedy.” “That’s a good choice,” he said, snidely. “You are very entertaining.” And that was the end of my musical theatre career. Okay, I take that back. During the first year I started doing comedy, I did audition to play Liza Minelli in The Boy from Oz. I mean, I still had the pixie cut and the leftover brown lipstick. Why not?
Because I came from musical theatre and acting, I’ve always used lots of characters and music in my comedy. By some random twist of fate, I tried this joke early on as a stand-up where I parodied J-Lo’s “Jenny from the Block,” and people seemed to love it. Then, by an even more random twist of fate, I started freestyle rapping – first in the context of improv games, then with my good friend Adira Amram, who encouraged me to make that “my thing.” The people producing The White Rapper Show for VH1 heard about that and scouted me, and thus my television career, such that it is, began. But I’ve never forgotten about my big dreams of Broadway, and every time I hear of someone like Ana Gasteyer joining the cast of Wicked or something like that, I think, it may not be too late for me yet!
Well, yesterday my Broadway dream finally came true. Sort of, anyway. I was selected to be one of 200 New Yorkers singing on the New Broadway Cast Recording of the musical Pippin. Yes, the definitive cast recording. The one they will sell at the gift stand during intermission. The one scores of high school and college kids obsessed with musical theatre will buy so that they can sing along with the amazing voices of Matthew James Thomas, Patina Miller, Terrence Mann and so many more. Beloved comedienne Andrea Martin – who some of you may know from her film appearances in My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Hedwig and the Angry Inch and who your children will know from her amazing work on Sesame Street – was in attendance at the recording, along with legendary lyricist/composer (and Pippin scribe) Stephen Schwartz. (Even if you’re not a fan of Broadway, you know Schwartz’s work with Disney. His lyrics appear in Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted.) Several New York notables were there like Michael Musto and Seth Rudetsky, and I sat next to my friend Raven Snook – also a musical theatre gal turned mom and writer who gets her stage kicks now hosting Hot Mama Burlesque. Raven was part of an original workshop of Urinetown and while we were singing yesterday, she turned to me and said, “Your voice is great. You don’t sing anymore?” I said, “Your voice is great! You don’t sing anymore?” Then we chuckled and joked that every person in the room was someone who wanted to make it on Broadway, ready to show off their chops.
The recording took place at the beautiful Society for Ethical Culture Concert Hall near Lincoln Center, and as Martin looked around the room she told us in an aside, “I wish I was dating so I could get married here.” Martin was effervescent throughout the recording, engaging the crowd with witty jibes. As Musto noted in his column this morning, “After one of the takes went pretty flawlessly, Andrea Martin asked, ‘Are there any Mormons here? It sounds like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir!'” My favorite moment of hers though was when we got to the end of “No Time At All,” the big number we’re backing her up on, Schwartz was teaching us some harmonies. Martin interrupted and said, “Is this history in the making? Is Stephen Schwartz composing this for you all right now?” And he was!
Thanks to Time Out New York for having me, and to the Universe for making my performance career come full circle. If you’d like to see more photos and watch clips from the recording, check out the #pippininsession thread on Twitter.