In our new advice column, "Hey, Johnny!" (as in: stage door Johnny), an anonymous Broadway veteran answers the burning questions that might just be keeping your theatre-loving soul up at night. Previous columns have covered everything from how to tell your parents you want to major in theatre to whether you need a "Broadway body" to make it big.
Got a question? Ask it here.
I, like nearly everyone who writes into you, really love theatre. Which is my problem. I'm not very good at it. I can't sing or dance well enough to get me anywhere, and I'm a mediocre actor.
But whenever I think about it, all I want to do is be onstage in a musical. How do I make peace with knowing I will never be what I've always wanted?
Dear Stage Left:
I was eight years old when my parents took me and my older brother to see the national tour of Cats, and it was all downhill from there. At one point during the first act, Victoria the White Cat crawled into the orchestra section of the audience, and when she nuzzled up to my leg (my parents had splurged for good seats), rather than feeling any kind of attraction to Victoria the White Cat instead I wanted to BE Victoria the White Cat.
It took me many years (and even more basement productions of Cats, in which I played EVERY role), to realize I'd never get cast as Victoria — or Grizabella, for that matter. But in my teens, it dawned on me that Mungojerrie would be a role I'd be okay "settling" for. I figured: he's short and I'm short. He has a limited vocal range, ditto. Also, I could do cartwheels. It was settled, then! I would be making my Broadway debut in Cats — just as soon as I auditioned for it.
I'd been a terrible student in high school and nothing suggested that would change, so in lieu of college, I packed three bucks, two bags, and one me, and moved into an apartment that was just thirty tantalizing blocks from the Winter Garden Theatre.
Well, guess which show closed the week I moved to New York? (Hint: it was going to run both "Now" and also "Forever.")
"At least the tour is still running!" I remember consoling myself. And sure enough, weeks after Cats closed on Broadway, a Mungojerrie spot opened on the road. This was it. I made the first cut, and I meowed my heart out in the singing element of the competition, and then! Well, I got neutered.
"Mungojerrie also has to understudy Mistofolees," the polite creative team said to me. "So can you stick around to do some ballet?"
Hiss. Ballet was my Achilles heel. Kind of literally. I could fake-tap with the best of them, and was a solid jazz dancer. But ballet, man. How do you say "My turnout sucks" in French? I didn't get through the next round, let alone anywhere near Mungojerrie's tights and tail. In all my years spent casting myself in Cats, I'd simply never imagined that my dream job would include such hidden talent requirements — and that sounds a bit like the predicament you're in, Stage Left.
Your dreams say one thing, but your reality says another.
Frankly, your letter is refreshing. Most people write to me wanting to know if they're "good enough" for Broadway, which I couldn't answer even if I heard them sing. Nobody could, because not every character has been written (let alone cast) yet.
And yet, your unusually unsentimental assessment of your own talents should be held onto like a precious stone. You seem neither delusional nor overly pessimistic. You seem, rather, like somebody whose head may be center stage but whose feet are planted in the wings. Any maybe for good reason.
Not everybody belongs onstage.
*braces for hate-mail*
So let's discuss options. If you can tolerate being NEAR the footlights, there's stage management (the people who make the mechanics of the show happen smoothly, and serve as actor-therapists), company management (the people who give you your paycheck, and serve as actor-therapists), and there's all sorts of designers (the people who make a show LOOK like a show, and serve as director-therapists).
But if those potential paths make your heart sigh, then you might need to be slightly more creative than your born-for-it-and-born-WITH-it actor contemporaries. You may need to take an improv class and find your way back onstage as an unlikely, savvy, witty entertainer – appearing nightly, as herself. A goodtime gal who neither sings nor dances and doesn't need to act so much as react. You may need to try standup comedy. Or maybe you're more serious than that, in which case you may need to attempt "Moth"-like storytelling. You may need to become so cultured and savvy and expert at SOMETHING that someday you host an NPR radio show, which inspires you to write a book, which inspires you to go on the road to promote said book -- which gets you back onstage and makes everybody ooh and aah over the rare author who can actually get up and speak without crying.
In other words, your version of standing in the spotlight may be different than Sierra Boggess', but that doesn't mean you shouldn't find your spotlight.
This will require you to attempt big ideas. Small ideas won't get you anywhere, because you'll lose steam when you're halfway out the door. Big ideas — a big dream show, or big dream role — will get you both out the door and also hopping toward the light, even if once you get there, your dream show closes and your dream role wasn't even right for you to begin with. Even if you'll never play Mungojerrie or Rum Tum Tugger or even any of the gender-appropriate Jellicles, because you're meant for something different, if not greater.
Like a cat, a theatre person must remain nimble, watchful, and forever bolstered by the idea that if plans a, b, and even f fall through, there are still many lives ahead to figure out the next move.
Break a leg,
Johnny will be back next week with answers to your questions. Got one? Ask here. Need to catch up? All his past columns are here.