I’m playing a show. It’s a Catholic high school production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods. There’s a total of ten of us in the orchestra, a budget version of the Broadway pit orchestra. I play the first keyboard, covering the parts of the orchestra that are missing. Some violin cues, harp, celeste, and xylophone. I remember seeing this show on Broadway at the St. James Theater, back in the 80’s. I thought it was clever how Sondheim’s irony made fractured fairy tales out of Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. Jack and the giant…
It’s the last show, the Sunday matinee, and some of the kids are hoarse from the week of rehearsals and performances. Cinderella’s fairy Godmother steps out from behind a tree marking her grave. Her voice is wispy and she strains to reach her note. It’s a tough show for kids – lots of words and hard to count. You don’t always come in where you think you should. And Sondheim always throws some funky note in the chord to keep things spiced up.
We’re near the end of the first act. Here comes that triplet run that the clarinetist always screws up. I have to tune her out, even though she sits just behind my left shoulder, because if I listen to her, I’ll try to follow. That’s the accompanist in me, the musical co-dependent trained to follow second-rate opera singers, divas who drop measures and then expect their pianists to make it right. Trudy is her name. She’s an older woman, thin and probably getting close to sixty. She’s got short brown hair and watery blue eyes with bits of droopy skin hanging behind wire-rimmed glasses.
Red Riding Hood is played by a fat girl with alabaster skin. Having been rescued from the wolf’s stomach, she now sports a fur stole with his head at the end of it. It gets a big laugh. She swings the sharp pocket knife that her grandmother gave her for protection.
I want the orchestra to sound good. We’re the band. We keep the show going. The kids depend on us for timing and rhythm. I was nervous at the first rehearsal because I didn’t take this job for the money, I took it to prove that I can still do this and be good at. I got my part beforehand and I practiced, I really practiced. I didn’t want to be the one to hold the group back, the one who trails just behind the beat when the triplets come. I want to be in the pocket. Tight. My triplets rock.
On opening night, the Baker’s Wife missed her entrance on a song. It wasn’t a big deal. We caught her a few bars later. The next night before the show, she came out to the edge of the stage and bent down to speak to the conductor. She stood there in costume, rubbing her hands over each other as she apologized for having missed her cue the night before. There was something so adorable about her sincerity, her innocence…her need to account for herself before the next show.
The music builds now and the stage fills up with fairy tale people. The first act ends with the characters getting what they want. Cinderella marries the prince. Jack fells the giant. Rapunzel is rescued from the tower. Things look …perfect. Hold the fermata and….off. House lights up.
Trudy worried me from the first rehearsal. The simplest stuff seemed to trip her up. The conductor’s been a longtime friend of mine so I felt okay saying something at our first run-through.
“It’s sounding good.” I offered. Sounding – meaning we both realize its got a ways to go. He agreed with a shrug of his shoulders. I felt safe enough with him – and myself – to say this next thing.
“I’m worried about the clarinetist…”
He acknowledged what I said and reminded me that he’s worked with Trudy on these shows before. She’s his accountant. He mentioned that earlier that day, he was talking to her when he noticed for the first time the small flesh-colored device in her right ear. “She probably shouldn’t be playing,” he said, “but I’m not gonna be the one to put her out to pasture.” I regretted mentioning it. But back then, it was Tuesday and I thought if she just puts some time in on her part she’ll have it by Thursday. I thought it was just a matter of practice. The thing with music is, if you think that a passage is hard, it always will be, no matter how well you’ve gotten your fingers around it. When I feel nervous, the first thing I do is push down the soft pedal. I start to hide. And if my fingers twitch and flutter from the adrenalin, I dig in harder. I try to anchor them by holding on. This makes stuff like triplets harder to play, because you’ve got to stay loose. It becomes a battle between your fingers and your mind. I don’t know what Trudy thinks about when she plays. I don’t know if she can hear the beat. I just know her triplets never happen.
A nun corners me at the coffee urn. Talking to nuns has always made me uneasy and I feel like she’s gonna offer to say a rosary for the orchestra. Instead she tells me how wonderful we sound and what a terrific job the children are doing. There’s a bit of reprehensible behavior coming up in the second act and I feel like I should prepare her, but instead I nod in agreement as she goes on about the importance of the “Humanities…”
Soft pedal or not, if a mistake is made quietly, it’s still a mistake. I’m the real accountant here, keeping a subconscious balance sheet on how well we’re all doing. Did I nail that last cue? And how many triplets does Trudy owe?
Lights up. Music. The second act opens with happily ever after not being so happy. Rapunzel cradles two squealing brats and the prince who married Cinderella is already philandering. The wife of the deceased giant is furious and she’s terrorizing them all. Even the witch is afraid. There’s quite of bit of carnage in the second act and while some of the characters want to appease the giant’s wife, others devise a plan to kill her. The group becomes divided as they search for a solution. They argue about the rightness and wrongness of things. They struggle with their fear and powerlessness.
Trudy lifts the clarinet to her mouth for a solo. I watch the conductor’s face.
I think about mistakes. The ones that go by quickly and the ones that linger. Somewhere along the way, I was taught that life is going to be difficult. You’ve got to be prepared, you’ve got to practice. And if you can’t feel the triplets, you haven’t done your homework. I think about the seven-hundred bucks I’m being paid. On the nights that we haven’t played the greatest, I feel like I should return part of the money. But there are players in this pit who just sit down and play. Sometimes they hit their note, sometimes they don’t. But they still take their checks and go home.
Cinderella cries by the fallen tree that marks her god-mother’s grave. Her tears seem real to me and I almost forget she’s a kid acting in a school play. Later, she sings the ballad show-stopper, No One is Alone.
Applause. Bows and Exit music. One by one, the stage fills up with people. They fan out in a wide circle and press their hands forward, clapping for themselves and for each other. On the second repeat, I look up to see the Baker’s Wife pause to wipe away some tears. I scan the line of kids and I realize others are crying too. It’s the emotion of this last performance. These kids have worked on this thing for four months, while going to class and applying to college. As they bid good-bye to childhood, this is their swan song to freedom. Now they all join hands and sweep to the front of the stage. The audience roars and rises to it’s feet. Flowers appear. Another bow. Now…an acknowledgement of the orchestra.
Twenty years after I first saw it, this show seems more topical than ever, with so many uncanny allusions to fear and terrorism. There’s no more irony here, only pointed truth. And whatever mistakes are made, the beat goes on. For a moment, I can hear myself, there inside the orchestra, somewhere between the cheering on stage and Trudy’s triplets.