We were in the middle of a four-course epicurean dinner when the ship’s doctor approached the table and stood ominously still.
That night I was seated at a table of eight, including fellow performers Rebecca Luker, Marc Kudisch, and Marc's wife Shannon, on the beautiful Playbill Travel cruise down the Rhône River. I knew Bud McDowell, the ship’s doctor, from the night before when my mother and I had dined with passengers Jerry and Paula Zieselman. Jerry and Bud are longtime friends, and it was clear Jerry had been on many cruises before—though not as many as the doctor, who has been on all of them.
The Playbill cruises are that way. Friendships seem to bloom easily after days of shared excursions at chocolate factories, olive farms, and vineyards. People bring their families, sisters, parents, neighbors. The dinners in France were especially designed as cultural studies—a chance to taste a lot of amazing wine, with a sommelier guiding our meals and explaining how the Rhône valley wines being produced all around us should be enjoyed: how a Châteauneuf-du-Pape might best be paired with the quail dinner, or how a Côte-Rôtie would suit a plate of peppery filet.
We had a problem, Bud said quietly. Due to illness, that night's concert would be unable to go on.
I looked at my watch. It was 9:07. The show was due to begin at 9:30. On a Playbill cruise, there are concerts nearly every evening. The first evening on board had been a lengthy and delicious dinner with no performance after. The second evening was Rebecca’s beautiful solo concert. Now it was our third evening and passengers were ready to get into the momentum of a theatre cruise. They were ready for a show!
My mind started racing. I said to Marc and Rebecca, “Come on, we can pull something together! A Q&A at the very least!” They fully agreed—but they had yet to finish dinner so I went to investigate.
Playbill's Jolie Schaffzin, approached me and told me Michael Scheck, a passenger, could play the piano. I ran up the stairs as he was coming down the other stairs. Finally, I met him at the base and greeted him with, “Hi! So, you can play the piano? Great! What songs do you know?” By now people were heading to the theatre, looking forward to the performance.
A bit taken aback, Michael said, “Uh. ‘She’s the One?’” I looked encouragingly at him.
“It’s a song I wrote,” he said.
“Ah,” I said. “That’s so wonderful… but, gosh, we wouldn’t have time to learn it. What else do you know?”
Soon we had a set list of songs he thought he could play that I thought we might know:
“If I Loved You”
“Over the Rainbow”
“Autumn Leaves” (“Oh great!” I thought. “I know this in French! This will work out!”)
“What a Wonderful World”
“You Raise Me Up”
“Try To Remember”
Michael and I headed to the full theatre, where we hit the stage running. "Hi, everyone! So, you may have heard, we are doing this, we are just doing this!" I said. I introduced Michael. I explained that I met him three minutes ago. I brought my microphone over and asked him how long he had been playing the piano. “All night, “ he replied. The audience was with us. The room had the same excited-nervous feeling you get after a hurricane: people rallying, sharing food, with all the electricity out and only candles burning.
I started with “Over the Rainbow,” which soon became a wonderful singalong. “If I Loved You” was next. I looked at Rebecca on the stool beside me.
"Who is singing this in Carousel?"
“Julie and whatizname!” she answered.
“OK, I’ll be whatizname.”
“Billy Bigelow!” the audience yelled at us in unison.
We killed “If I Loved You.” And the next hour was as wild—and successful—a performance as I’ve known in 30 years. Volunteer singers from the audience joined us. I improvised giddy patter about everything that seemed relevant, including the French movies I had been watching and my love for Michel Legrand (so intense that an agent of mine had once ended our relationship by saying, “I love her music”). I always love to talk about Sondheim and Marc joined in with terrific Sondheim tales. “I’ve played every asshole Sondheim ever wrote," he confided to the audience.
We shared our worst audition stories—mine was getting dressed up as a cat for an audition of Cats, when every other girl was in a cocktail dress; Marc’s was being asked to audition in a Speedo for a superhero part: He had to kill a dragon in his undies with a plastic sword. “I went to drama school for this?” he asked himself.
I asked Marc what wisdom he had from years in the business, and he enthusiastically shared that he has come to realize that none of this is about the actors; it’s all about the audience. That’s true, I thought, as we ended the night with two huge singalongs: first “Try to Remember” and then “Do-Re-Mi,” Michael heroically playing away and everyone singing. Always about the audience—never truer than that night. We had made a show on a show boat. And Rebecca, being the warm and generous woman that she is, learned the truly lovely tune to “She’s the One,” and sang it to Michael and to his wife. She is the one.
So on our boat, we returned after that night to elegant and educated occasions, but always lit from beneath by that French abandon. By Wednesday we were singing a formal classical concert in Viviers at a 900-year-old cathedral where Rebecca Luker and I sang the famous soprano "The Flower Duet" from Lakme—both of us careful to avoid our usual concert décolletage—and Seth Rudetsky played “Rhapsody in Blue” on a brilliant piano. We met the mayor, and 200 French locals joined our audience and welcomed us. Marc sang Puccini and Lillias White moved us with a selection from Once On This Island. We did group numbers by Jacques Brel, and I at last sang Michel Legrand in French.
At the end of a week in France, on and off the boat—and with a steady stream of French musicals watched every night by my mom and me—I’ve come to feel that France has two faces. There’s the educated face, the systematic side: the epicurean meals, the formal gardens, the order, the elegance that education provides.
The other face of France promises us la vie boheme. The world of the can-can and the Moulin Rouge, where the artistes try to make us laugh and cry. The organ grinder on the street breaks our heart because he still sings the songs of Charles Trenet, with words that will outlast the poets and live on in people’s hearts. The poet may be forgotten but not the emotions and the sensuality the poet made.
The voyage came to an end; we all returned home. Why do we travel? To be transported, to have an experience—we want to go home changed or shifted in some way. This French pilgrimage along the river will leave us with the memory of two fields of sensation: the orderly and the bohemian. We will have felt the solitary moments of strolling along cobblestoned streets, and we will have joined together every night in a music hall of our own Broadway invention.