Here’s a thing I read last night at the fabulous Franklin Park reading series. I call it “Pantene and Melodrama”.
Say you’re a 12 year old girl growing up in the New Jersey suburbs in the 90s and you don’t particularly like to hang out at the mall. Say you’ve always felt a little bit different from your peers at junior high. Maybe you’re more intellectual, more sophisticated. Or maybe you simply feel more than the others do. If that’s the case, then there’s one composer who might really speak to you. Someone whose work is so complex, so profound, so authentic, that his music might make you feel as if someone else in the world could understand your pain and make it sound glorious. For me, that person was Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber.
Now mind you, the lurid kitty litter box that was Cats didn’t speak to me, nor did the garish roller rink schmaltz of Starlight Express. Phantom was too mainstream, of course. Who among my classmates hadn’t taken a family trip into the City to watch two annoying men with control issues hold a glorified pissing contest over a sad, orphaned soprano who couldn’t seem to make up her mind about anything? No, I went for a deeper cut—one that was more about music than stage design, more about the mundane triumphs and miseries of everyday life than about big production numbers or crashing chandeliers. There was a musical that felt like Sir Andrew had written entirely for a person of my emotional depth. I analyzed it, listened to the tape obsessively, memorized all of its songs, and even learned to cultivate a truly horrendous British accent to go with it.
The show was called Song & Dance. The first act was an all-singing, one-woman show starring my idol at the time, the curly-haired kewpie-doll goddess, Bernadette Peters. My beloved Bernadette played Emma, a young English woman who moves to New York City in the early 80s and has a string of disastrous relationships with four different American men. Each of Emma’s love affairs had its own set of songs that captured the trajectory of the relationship: the giddy thrill of those first honeymoon days with all their unbridled optimism, with picnics on the carpet of fried chicken and bottles of Chablis. And then came the paralyzing agony of being disappointed, yet again, when the hero of the moment turned out to be inconsiderate, self-involved, deceitful, adulterous.
Clearly, this was all shit that I could relate to. I was a bitter, middle-aged divorcee with a drinking problem trapped inside the body of a girl who was still too small to fit into the clothes at Contempo Casuals. I was Gap Kids on the outside, vodka and cigarettes and 34Cs and panic attacks on the inside.
I think I turned to these show tunes because, just like a certain kind of hormonally charged 12 year old girl, they’re ALL about unadulterated emotion. My post-adolescence was shaped by Liz Phair and Fiona Apple, and I listen to tons of mopey indie rock these days. I like to think I’m a connoisseur of the breakup ballad. But I have still never heard a more gut-wrenching breakup song than Bernadette’s second act knockout, Tell Me On a Sunday. Maybe I didn’t understand what true grownup heartache felt like at the time, but I did know how it felt to have this burning excess of passion inside. And how life-affirming it was to be able get some of it OUT, simply by singing the part of a character who has truly unfortunate taste in men. I found empowerment in the shower, belting out sad songs. Pantene and melodrama was a winning combination.
And if, at the end of the song part of Song & Dance, Emma decides that she has to stand on her own for a while and take care of herself, well, that was inspiration for me, too. At one point she sings to a flaky boyfriend, “A New York girl wouldn’t stand for this.” I often think about that New York girl, the one whose emotions don’t get in the way of her dignity, who doesn’t stand for bullshit because she’s too strong, too discerning. Thank you, Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber, you soulful genius, for giving 12 year old me in New Jersey an idea of the kind of woman I wanted to become.