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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

Urinetown by Anna H. '14

I blame my absence on musical theatre.

At the end of January (our Independent Activities Period) I made a promise to the rational, logic-based region of my brain: a promise that I would never, ever, perform in a musical during the semester.

Rational Part Of Brain: “You got your fix during IAP, in Hack Punt Tool! AND it was a musical that MIT students wrote. No musical will ever be more fun than that. Also, you can’t sing, so you won’t get a big part anyway. You got a decent part in Hack Punt Tool because it was about MIT students and you are, for whatever reason, really good at acting like an MIT student.”
Me: “But what about going to college and trying new things? Also, Hack Punt Tool was REALLY fun, and even though I can’t sing to save my life, I enjoy it.”
Rational Part Of Brain: “You like sleep way too much for a during-the-semester musical to be fun.”
Me: “Yeah, you’re right. I won’t audition.”

Auditions for the Spring musical rolled around in February – the Musical Theatre Guild was putting on “Urinetown“, which I had never heard of, and wasn’t particularly keen on hearing more about, given that title.

So, of course, my friend managed to persuade me to print some sheet music and go to auditions.

Rational Part Of Brain: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING”
Me: “It’s only an audition! It’s not like I’m committing to be in the musical. I haven’t even prepared anything to sing. I’ll just show up and sing something from a musical I know – just for fun! “
Rational Part Of Brain: “I call BS.”
Me: “No, really!”
I showed up, sang “You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun” from Annie Get Your Gun, and left.
On March 7, I got the callback e-mail.
“Hi Anna,
We would like to call you back for the role of Sally. You may also be called back for additional roles pending the results of the dance audition.”
Me: “Who’s Sally?”
Boyfriend: “LITTLE SALLY! You’d make a great Little Sally.”
Me: “Does Little Sally have to sing a lot?”
Boyfriend: “Not really…but she has a really big speaking part.”
Me: “Oh! Sweet.”
Rational Part Of Brain: “NO! Don’t tell her that! Now she’ll go to callbacks!”
I went to callbacks.
I also got the part of Little Sally, sent a sad “oops, I probably shouldn’t have done that – my semester is going to be horrible” e-mail to my very worried mother, and was badly chastised by Rational Part Of Brain. For good reason: rehearsal ran from 7-10pm every day except Friday and Saturday, and from 6-10:30pm or later EVERY DAY during the week before the show opened. I was still co-teaching a cosmology class for High School students on Saturday mornings, still managing the Ultimate Frisbee intramural leagues, still taking four and a half classes…it was by all objective measures a terrible idea.
But it was so much fun. The three sunrises in a row following prod week: not so much. The acting, though – the dancing, the singing, the company – I have a feeling that I’ll remember that a lot longer than I will those three sunrises.
Rewind a bit to music rehearsals, back in March. Shortly after accepting the part of Little Sally, I found out that by “doesn’t do a lot of singing” my boyfriend actually meant “one of the songs in the show is a duet between Little Sally and the main character, Billy.” No biggie. It’s okay to perform in a musical and sing a duet with a very talented singer when YOU CAN’T SING, right?
Rational Part Of Brain: “Told you so.”
One Wednesday in March, we were scheduled to rehearse the duet with the Vocal Director (Ashley, who works at MIT) and Music Director (Matt, an alum.) We were under a huge time crunch (everything at this school runs on a huge time crunch, and the Musical Theatre Guild is no exception) which basically meant that we had time to learn every song once. So, this was it.
I showed up at the MTG office to find out that my duet partner couldn’t make it. Cue nausea.
Ashley: “Okay! We can warm up with a couple of scales if you’d like.”
Me: “Um…sure.”
Matt: *starts playing a piano accompaniment*
Me: *silence*
Matt: ?
Me: “Sorry. Start again.”
Matt: *beautiful piano playing*
Me: *croak croak croak croak croak, croak croak, croak*
Ashley: “Have you ever received any kind of musical training?”
Me: “No. NO! None at all. Literally none. I actually don’t know how to sing, at all, and I’m really nervous.”
Ashley: “That’s okay!”
We started the song, Matt with the accompaniment…it sounded so different from how it did on Youtube. I still managed to come in at the right part, although once I started, my eyes snapped to the ceiling and my hands clenched into sweaty fists.
Tell her I love her…
Inhaled, nearly choked.
Tell her I’ll always be with her,
Couldn’t make the higher notes. Couldn’t really make any note, actually, since the whole thing just sounded TERRIBLE. Ashley stopped me, handed me an eraser, and lessons began.
She told me to sing the song while throwing the eraser up and catching it. Fortunately for the exercise, my throwing-and-catching skills are subpar, so all non-singing regions of my brain (and probably some singing regions too) were commandeered by my eyes and hands to ensure that the eraser didn’t fall and bounce somewhere inconvenient. I almost forgot I was singing – I was suddenly nowhere in particular, singing nothing in particular, and certainly with no audience.
Tell her I love her,
Tell her I’ll always be with her,
And I will see her in a better place, where hope is always new…
Ours was a short time,
Ours was a love that never bloomed,
Yet in that love *VOICEBREAK, IGNORE AND CONTINUE* there lives a brand new hope that’s calling out to you…
Its call is *BREAK, drop eraser*
Ashley: “GREAT! Great! That was so much better already!”
So, we started over. Every time I messed up, I would drop the eraser and that would be it. “Don’t strain your neck!” “Don’t worry about hitting the note – just put all your oomph into it!” “Don’t clench up!” “When you need to reach a high note, it’s easy to try and strain yourself to get it out – but actually, and this runs opposite to your intuition, you need to relax and open your throat more.
I remembered a hiking trip during High School, when the leader told us that to keep balance while contouring a steep slope, it was important to lean out and not in – contrary to my intuition, which was to lean as far into the mountain as physically possible. It was terrifying, and required utter faith in one’s body to run the balancing act without your brain.
Meanwhile, the eraser went up and down, up and down, as the song started again, and again, and again, and each time I was so sure that Matt would give up and throw the piano at me – but his face never revealed any trace of frustration or disgust.
His blank facial expression actually made a huge difference. He didn’t seem to mind at all that we were spending an hour on one short song.
Ashley also had me sing the song while swinging my arms in windmills and prancing around the room. I pranced, I yelled, I threw the eraser more, I pushed sound out and reached notes that I didn’t think I was physically capable of reaching, but there were still more that were out of reach…
Eventually, I stopped, and asked nobody in particular whether it was possible that I just physically could not sing those notes. Matt and Ashley responded with firm “no”s, and I was off, prancing around and throwing erasers again.
I sang the song while playing catch with Ashley, while storming around the room and emoting dramatically…eraser up, eraser down…
By the time I left, I had sung the song in a way that wasn’t totally humiliating.
I sprinted out of the Student Center (all the prancing and throwing and catching had my adrenalin pumping) and reached the river. It was dark out; I could see Boston reflected in the Charles, and my only company was passing cars. I sang the song over and over again. I pranced, emoted, gestured to Boston and to the sky and to the dorms along Memorial Drive, imploring every boat, building and car to tell her I love her. 
I did the same thing the next night, and the next. Every time a pedestrian came into view, I would pick up the script and work on memorizing my lines, so that they wouldn’t see me storm around singing about a love that never bloomed and think I was out of my mind. A week later, I was playing the pretend-you’re-not-actually-out-here-singing-because-you’re-too-embarrassed-to-let-people-hear-you when a woman and her husband approached me. As they passed –
Woman: “Studying??”
Me: “Um…no! I’m practicing for a performance.”
Woman: “Oh, WOW! You’re so studious!”
Me: “…no, I’m not-“
Woman: “Good luck!!!”
Me: “…thanks!”
They went on their merry way, and I returned to a brand new hope that’s calling out to you. 
Twenty minutes later, the couple was back. What followed was one of the most mortifying incidents I’ve had in a while.
Woman: “HELLO! I have a question…may I take a picture with you?”
Me: “Uhh…”
Woman: “Whenever we (gestures to husband) travel, we like to take pictures to show everyone back home what we did. You are SO studious! People at home are not very studious.”
Me: “But I’m not stu-“
Woman: “I want to show everyone at home what MIT students are like!!!!! Look at you. It is LATE. It is COLD, and it is DARK! But you! You are still outside, STUDYING!”
Me: “Wait, no, I’m not-“
Woman: “So could I take a picture with you?”
She looked so excited! I felt bad.
Me: “I…I guess. “
Woman: *looks absolutely thrilled*
Husband: *gets camera ready*
Me: *awkward smile, holds book shut against my chest*
Woman: “No no!” *grabs book, opens it, and has me pose as though I’m studying*
Me: *mortified facial expression*
Camera: *click*
Somewhere across the globe, children are cursing my face and the Urinetown script for forcing them to study harder. That was the last time I practiced my singing out there.
Opening night was April 27. The entire cast huddled in one dressing room, smearing foundation on our faces, stuffing food into our mouths before finally suiting up.
I’m the one who looks like she’s six years old. 
After what felt like an eternity, the stage manager called “PLACES!” and we shuffled backstage. Audience sounds. Audience sounds. Rational Part Of Brain laughed, and I shut it up.
Overture. We danced with each other in the dark, happy to find a physical way to freak out.
End overture. Lights up: cue for Carlos-the-brain-and-cog-sci-grad-student who played Officer Lockstock, to enter. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Urinetown, Little Sally and Officer Lockstock are buddy-buddy.
On stage:
Off stage:
Carlos and I exchanged a high five, the door swung open, he disappeared onstage – and the show started.
“Well, hello there!” I heard him say. “And welcome…to Urinetown.”
Something fabulous about performance in general: you don’t see us, and maybe you don’t think we exist offstage, but I assure you that we’re there, and supporting our fellow actors and actresses. You work together to put on a production. One person’s gaffe is everyone’s big failure. Similarly, we share every little success.
Something fabulous about musical theatre at MIT: people who are super-serious, going-professional about musical theatre don’t swarm here in droves. That leaves a lot of opportunity for those of us who have next-to-no musical theatre experience, but want to give it a shot. In particular, the Musical Theatre Guild (MTG) has (what I think is) an awesome rule that prioritizes MIT undergraduates students in casting. Sure, a local could walk in off the street and perform with us, but they won’t get a big role unless no MIT student could fill it well enough. Obviously, singing and acting ability is still taken into consideration (and you’re not going to get a part if you really can’t sing at all) but you don’t have to be the best of the best, or have lots of experience, to take part.
I like that priority system – it allows people who, like me, aren’t necessarily awesome singers but who love performing – to try something entirely new.
Anyway. Where were we? Yes – Carlos was onstage. “Welcome to Urinetown! Not the place, of course, the musical.” My cue. I pulled out a handful of coins from my pocket, which Little Sally was supposed to spend the first scene counting. One, two, three…one step up on stage, then another, four five, and I was onstage, raring to go, thinking about the eraser.
It was fun, despite the late nights. That said, I really should NOT do another musical in the fall. It would be a terrible idea. I don’t have time.