The day I was cast as an understudy my not-even-remotely-a-stage-mother mother tried to talk me out of doing the show. You’ll have way more work to do than anyone else and there’s only the smallest chance that you’ll ever get to perform. I refused to let her rain on my parade. I’d managed to eclipse the bajillion scrawny fifth graders with their pitchy renditions of “The Way We Were” with my jazzed up performance of the infinitely-more-awkward-than-I-realized-at-the-time “Darktown Strutters Ball.”* Sure, it was a bummer that my dentist’s daughter got the title role, but hey, she had red hair. And I was all the girls’ understudy. That was like nine parts. That was like the biggest part of all!
My mother was skeptical. I just want you to really think about it. You know, it’s easier to walk away now than quit once you’re in there.
But I had no time for this kind of sane, compassionate logic, especially when it stood in the way of my obvious and imminent fame. I was ten. I had graduated from afterschool children’s theater to the big time—Community Theater. It was all part of a journey. A journey that started with the “Camelot” soundtrack and “Fame” reruns. A journey that would really take flight after my last ballet recital, an historic event at which I threw off the shackles of classical choreography and executed my best “Flashdance” to the Prelude from “Carmen,” while my classmates pliéd earnestly in their lacy mantillas and gipsy-themed tutus. My teacher pulled my mother aside afterwards and informed her I would be less-than-welcome to continue my study of ballet with her, but I clearly had an aptitude for drama. Alison might enjoy acting, she’d said. And here I was, one step closer Broadway . . . or, more accurately, about a block and a half off the street called Broadway in my hometown.
I made my grand entrance on the first night of rehearsals through a stage door with plenty of theatrical flair and jogged up the stairs to find a cast that didn’t really know what to do with me. I did what Annie did during readings. I stood on stage with the other orphans, learning their steps, never really being allowed to participate. To the adults in the cast, I was underfoot. To the other orphans, I was an interloper, not really one of them. This is for orphans only, not understudies, said the pageant orphan as she led the others in a chant about jellicle cats in the green room. Pageant oprhan told the other girls they wouldn’t understand, they couldn’t understand drama until they saw “Cats” on Broadway, On Broadway!
“I went for my tenth birthday. My parents understand that if you’re going to be a real actress you have to see real theater. “ Pageant orphan waved her hands around. “Not this amateur crap.”
Her acolytes nodded in agreement.
I cleared my throat. “My parents** feel the same way. That’s why they took me to London to see ‘Cats.’ I saw all the important plays with the all the real serious stars.” I tried to remember a single play other than “Cats,” but stalled. “I saw the Queen Elizabeth musical. It’s amazing. It’s going to win all the awards.”
“You’re lying,” she said.
Of course I was. I’d never been to London. I’d never even been to New York. I didn’t know what the fuck a jellicle cat was.*** And the Elizabeth musical? Well, it was more of a work in progress. I’d written one song about Divine Right that sounded sort of like “Material Girl.” I hummed a few bars.
“That sounds like ‘Material Girl’.” Pageant orphan gave me the sort of long, narrow, nostril-fluttering Begone Peasant! sniff I felt totally undermined her credibility as a Depression-era orphan, but clearly no one asked me to weigh in on casting choices. “I’m going to find out if you’re lying, liar”
I shrugged. I didn’t care. I slumped away to the basement where I sat in a prop throne and thought about how “Elizabeth!” would be a huge hit. I pictured my name on a playbill. I imagined winning a Tony. To all the Bitchy Orphans in the Community Theater production of “Annie”: This is what real talent looks like, losers.
I tried to talk to Annie about it. As I was her shadow, we spent lots of time together and I’d known her since preschool. Do you think some of the orphans are assholes? Do you notice that everyone is mean to me? Would you be interested in getting on the ground floor with my exciting new musical about Queen Elizabeth I? I think you’d be a really interesting choice for the lead, seeing as you’re a natural redhead. But Annie was very serious about being Annie and already very serious about her career. She didn’t have time for my shit.
After two weeks, I’d managed to befriend one orphan, a freckled eleven-year-old, who rasped like a pre-adolescent Kathleen Turner and projected an enviably adult level of blasé world-weariness. She would join me in the basement during our off hours and we’d poke around in costume and prop storage until we were yelled at by the stage crew or scared off by giant spider crickets. Freckles lived on the other side of town went to the Catholic School where I knew virtually no one, so I auditioned another round of bullshit on her.
Lying, I discovered, was a lot like acting, but you got to write your own script. In those days, my fabrications tended toward little kid wish fulfillment I have a secret uncle in England and he’s a Duke and one day when he dies, I’ll inherit his castles and I’ll sleep on a giant lily pad in an enormous indoor pond in the golden-domed grand ballroom or the more prosaic status-y stuff I have three lavender-dyed rabbit fur jackets and the fancy kind of Casio keyboard like Howard Jones and sixteen Swatches basically my whole wardrobe is Esprit or the frankly bizarre My parents have this giant all-white music room and in it is a shiny white grand piano**** that I play because I’m a total prodigy. My piano teacher says I’ll probably end up at Julliard, but I’m like, yeah, Ms. Adair, sorry, I’m An Actress.” Freckles didn’t ever try to call me out. She just sort gave me this wry you poor, dumb bastard smile and went about her business
Eventually I ended up hanging out in the costume shop, because I found rooms with a surplus of tulle crinolines friendly and extremely calming. The costumer chatted at me as she made orphan dresses, including one for me to wear, should the others fall ill.
“You’re bigger than the other girls,” said the costumer, which was both true and a friendlier version of pageant orphan’s No one would ever believe you’re an orphan because orphans aren’t fat. “What size do you wear again?”
I considered the withering shame I felt over the tag in my jeans and then gave her an imaginative number.
“Are you sure?” she asked, after I’d stated a size small enough to qualify as delusional
I feigned annoyance instead of hurt. “Of course, I’m sure. Are you calling me a liar?”
The director gave me a walk-on chorus part in one song, a big number about New York City, my spiritual home. The costume shop had neither a dress in stock nor time to make a costume for a walk-on. Thus, an inexpensive black party dress party dress was procured from the outlet mall. I looked exactly like the kind of thing I’d wear to a church in Asheville in 1986.
“Is this the sort of things girls would wear in New York in the 30s?” I asked the costumer at the fitting.
“I don’t think the audience will pay that much attention. You’re only on stage for a minute.” She tugged at the back of the dress. “This is way too small for you. I don’t think you told me the right size.”
I didn’t say anything. I just stood there listening to the orphans giggling on the other side of the rack as she sighed, frustrated, and muttered about the need for elastic panels and Velcro.
The show ran for three weeks. Annie and two of the orphans went on stage sick, despite high fevers and chills. I never got to duet with FDR***** or be fully dressed without a smile. I made it out for thirty-seconds of grapevine and curtain call per show. I was listed in the program as Chorus/Understudy.
On closing weekend, several teachers and a bunch of students from my elementary school came to a Saturday show. I spent that performance pretending to forget that Annie was a classmate and believing that all of those people were just there to see me. Afterwards, I stood in the lobby watching swarms around the orphans, around Annie, and I realized that it’s possible to be on stage in all the bright light, in front of all the people, even people that know you, and still feel absolutely invisible.
My mother let me go out with the cast on the night of the last performance. I rode with Miss Hannigan, and we went to what could best be described as the local version of a Bennigans/ O’Charley’s before they literally opened an O’Charley’s in the same parking lot a few years later. I was one of the only kids whose parents allowed her to go along that night. I sat at a long table in the bar with the grown-up and ate mozzarella sticks while they liberally quaffed from plastic pitchers of cheap beer and told the fantastical, self-aggrandizing tales that actors do, even when they are just small town amateur actors at a small town Community Theater. Wherever they were, I was right there with them. That suburban strip center bar might just as well have been Sardis and I a rising inguenue and our show a masterpiece.
They were nice to me, those older actors, nice and funny and tripping over their words in an effort to stay appropriate It’s fucking hard—sorry—it’s hard work to be a fucking—sorry—it’s hard work to be a—what the hell—it’s hard work to be a fucking understudy.
I blew bubbles into my Coke and smiled, gratified, feeling finally at home among these weird old people with their red noses and boring day jobs.
A waitress came by to see if we wanted refills. “What are you guys?” she asked. “Some kind of church group?”
“We were in a play,” said one of them ” ‘Annie’ at the community theater.”
“Oh I love that movie.” She smiled down at me. “And were you the star, young lady?”
I looked down at the table to see if any orphans were around. “Yes,” I said. “ Yes, I was.”
I think it t was a good lie.
At the very least, just that once, no one corrected me.
*I learned it from my preschool teacher and my parents were jazz fans.
** I would go to Broadway with my parents the following spring. To my great displeasure, they did not score “Cats” tickets, due to expense, timing and/or their disinterest in the material (my parents’ favorite musical was “Company”). We ended up seeing “Big River,” a down-home, y’all-ish Twain adaptation of full of New Yorkers pretending to be rednecks that twanged their way through ersatz bluegrass foot-stompers. I was a self-loathing southerner from birth, convinced that my greatest misfortune was having been born in East Tennessee and brought up in Appalachia. I could not have been more disappointed when I realized I’d come all the way to Manhattan to see people in overalls fail to enunciate their long-I’s” This is exactly like all the bullshit I hate back home, I said, though probably not in those terms exactly because I was eleven. I sobbed at intermissions and asked Mom why we couldn’t have seen anything else, seriously anything, even “Starlight Express.” My parents were tolerant, even sympathetic, to my brattiness. We’d spent the run-up to curtain sitting in the Algonquin lobby, where I’d had Shirley Temple and Dad had a martini and talked about Dorothy Parker and Elaine Stritch. They hadn’t enjoyed the show much either. “We probably just should have taken her to something classic. Something with sequins and tapdancing. Like 42nd Street,” said my mother, afterwards, on the way back to the hotel. “Or maybe we should have just seen the Rockettes and gone to Sardi’s.”Or maybe just “Cats,” I thought, as I gazed wistfully at the Winter Garden Theater through the cab window. Those giant green eyes promised answers to all of my deepest questions: Would middle school suck? Would I get a Nintendo ? Would I become a Broadway star? What the fuck is a jellicle cat?
***I would, actually go to London with my grandparents about two years later. I would, in fact, see “Cats.” I still don’t know what a jellicle cat is.
****This probably had something to do with watching “Imagine” video on VH-1.
*****People don’t realize this, but being a kind in the stage version of “Annie” can be very helpful years later when studying for the US History AP. Roosevelt’s cabinet? Still got it.