There’s A Sucker Born Every Minute
BY BILL ANSCHELL
"Okay, go" the stage manager would say, briskly tapping me on the shoulder. She was a former cast member, a singer/dancer, the usual skinny and irritable diet pill freak. "Pianist taking the stage," she'd bark into her walkie talkie, and I would commence the charade that was my nightly torment. Admittedly, I sometimes felt a small glow of self-importance–my whereabouts in time and space actually mattered to these theater professionals–-but it was far outweighed by my sense of the ludicrous.
First there was my outfit, an oversized circus special bequeathed me by the various bloated alcoholic burnouts who were my predecessors. The brightly-striped shirt billowed out around me and the broad-brimmed hat threatened to slide over my eyes and break my contact with reality. My stroll across the stage was pure self-consciousness, one foot after another as an aspiring jazz pianist whose one wish was to be heard rather than seen tried not to stumble in the blinding spotlight.
I would clumsily thread my way through the set's obstacle course, my sights set on the theater's decaying embarrassment to Steinway and Sons. The piano and bench were crowded onto a metal platform immediately abutting the stage. The platform extended up about sixteen feet from the orchestra pit below, to which it would slowly descend while I played. The back of the platform had a ridge about an inch high–the only barrier preventing the bench from toppling over backwards and sending me to a premature coda.
Reaching the piano, I'd grab its lid for balance and squeeze myself between the keys and the bench. Then, using the back of my legs, I'd push the bench until it was flush against the ridge. This would afford me just enough room to sit down and prop my feet against the pedals, the piano nearly in my lap.
It was from this position that I would tackle the Barnum Overture, an unpleasant work originally written for two pianos to be played by two classically trained pianists. Both of these artists, of course, would be accustomed to playing written music, and they'd also have certain enviable amenities: a stationary stage, sensible clothing, a minimum of one inch between their elbows and their ribs, and reasonable lighting. I had none of these advantages, but with the spotlight still blinding me and the hat threatening to surround me in complete darkness I'd await my cue to enter this ragtime nightmare. Taking a deep breath, I'd position my hands for their initial assault and attempt to ignore images of a dangerous and humiliating backflip before 500 witnesses.
The offstage, on-mike announcer would dig deep into the wellspring of artificial enthusiasm that was the theater community's collective unconscious. Dripping excitement and insincerity, his voice would sound the dreaded fanfare: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Grrreatest Show On Earth: P......T......Barrrrrnumm!"
Reluctantly I'd strike the first chord and liberate an internal voice that would guide me through the turbulence to follow. The ship's rocking left, it would note, that low B flat's gonna be a little closer than you think–might want to jab your elbow into your side a ways further. Or, Okay, you hit some clams, but these fools don't know Ragtime from Karaoke, just keep the rhythm going, it's cool. This incessant chatter was the flipside of internal concerti that were my perpetual distraction in everyday life.
About 30 seconds into the piece and accompanying banter, the metal platform would begin its motorized descent to the pit (You've never fallen off yet; keep your eye on the piano; remember this gig's just a stepping stone, the future's bright; you know I love you, baby). The motor was operated from below by the drummer, who considered the scenario–particularly my obvious will to survive–wholly amusing. He never said anything about my trauma, and I in exchange never said anything about his own lesser moments, which tended to be alcohol-induced.
At some point near the end of the Overture I would feel the platform hit ground and know that my life had once again been spared. This distraction, as often as not, would cause me to blow the ending, but at least I knew I was home free. My piece would finish, the actors would take the stage, and the spotlight would find more welcoming targets.
Then I'd gratefully join the drummer and bassist in accompanying a prerecorded 20-piece orchestra for the rest of the show. This orchestral illusion was initiated, as the audience filed in, by a tape of 20 musicians warming up, tuning, telling jokes, coughing, and laughing. The passengers, not known for their piercing intellect, bought it without exception. After the show three or four middle-aged couples in gaudy beachwear, faces still glowing red from the afternoon's sunshine and poolside drinks, would corner me and ask, "Is the orchestra under the stage?" or "Is that one of those pianos with the special buttons?"
Cheap headsets fed our ears with the orchestra, a clicking metronome, and an ornery voice that would count out loud during the tempo changes. Occasionally this taped voice would get passionate and start yelling "One, two, three, four" to the point of distortion, and we'd all simultaneously grab our headsets, yelping in pain. In the drummer's lesser moments, motor skills impaired, he'd lose track of the metronome and ignore the screaming man. Suddenly the orchestra and band would go their separate ways and on-stage choreography would turn to anarchy, diet pill addicts nervously flailing about. These were, in retrospect, the show's highlights.
That was the routine I'd come to know through three months of ship life, 13 laps around the Caribbean, and 78 dreaded performances, but this particular evening had its own special flavor. Earlier in the day I'd ignored my usual regimen, going onshore to St. Thomas with some friends rather than warming up. These friends were four of the ship's 45 musicians, so alcohol was to play a central role. We quickly found our way to an island bar and they began throwing down B-52s, the sickly sweet and potent drink that was in favor at the time. "Just along for the ride," I explained, turning down round after round, settling into my frequent role of observer and voice of reason.
It was absolutely unthinkable for me to tell them the truth–that I was trying to stay sober for the show. The high seas were the last refuge for hundreds of serious musicians with no viable way to make a living on land; the price they paid was the awful music they had to play. This twisted world had its own hardened philosophy and corresponding rules of conduct. Rule Number One was that the gig must be shown no respect whatsoever; Rule Number Two dictated that alcohol be the prescribed buffer between artist and heartbreaking reality. Here I was in violation on both counts, so I wisely kept my mouth shut. If I was lucky, they might think enough of me to assume I was hung over from the night before.
Unfortunately, the drunker they got, the more insistent they became. Rich, the Top 40 band's bassist, found my attitude completely reprehensible. He was a 250-pound bearded Canadian who looked disturbingly like one of the overstated bad guys on Big Time Wrestling. His objections and insults grew fiercer with each round I refused, until I finally succumbed. I figured they were all so drunk that this had to be their last round; maybe I could salvage my reputation by leaving them with the memory of me joining in. Not a bad tactic, but I had underestimated them considerably, and once I started there was no stopping. I was laughing as we staggered back toward the ship, but I knew that troubled times lay ahead.
In my cabin, I assessed the gravity of the situation. I was lying on my bed, counting down the two hours until show time. My bloated stomach was lolling starward and leeward with the ship, and the waters seemed to be growing rougher. I was dizzy, nauseous, and dull. It was apparent to me that my future hinged on my sobering up. But I couldn't drink coffee because it would make my hands sweat and slide around the keys, and I couldn't go to sleep because I might slumber through the alarm. Instead I unhappily passed time envisioning the worst and trying to will dexterity into my numbed fingers.
Fifteen minutes before the show I climbed into my shirt, grabbed my hat, and headed for the aptly-named Saga Theater. The ship was rolling pretty badly–-the weather had turned for the worse–but I noted with some hope that I seemed to be walking as well as anyone else. I tried reciting the alphabet backwards and made it to H. Under my breath, I attempted the Gettysburg Address in Pig Latin and got as far as my usual stopping point. I closed my eyes and tried to touch my nose with my index finger. When I made contact (left nostril–not bad), I opened my eyes to discover that I had somehow journeyed to the front of the ship, and the Theater was aft.
So now I was trying to keep my dignity intact on the run, panting heavily, circus shirt puffing out around me. I smiled at passengers as I slalomed dangerously through them, hoping no one would report me. Eventually I lumbered into the backstage entrance, thankful that this workout might at least have helped sober me up. The stage manager was waiting. "What are you doing, you clown?" she yelled. "Do you realize you're 15 minutes late?" I looked at her blankly. "We changed the time. It was posted on the musicians' board. Where were you? Never mind, just get out there." She pulled out her walkie talkie. "Pianist taking the stage." I hesitated briefly, trying to think if there might be some sensible alternative. "PUT YOUR DAMN HAT ON AND GET OUT THERE!"
I set the hat on my head and walked determinedly onto the stage, still breathing hard, still wondering how drunk I was. The spotlight shone hot on me as I followed my usual zagging course through the props. Suddenly my shirt, half untucked, caught on a wall of fake bricks and sent them tumbling. I froze momentarily and looked back at the rubble, uncertain whether I should fix the mess or keep going. There was scattered snickering from the audience as I moved on toward the piano.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the Grrreatest Show On Earth: P......T......Barrrrrnumm!" The ever-exhuberant announcer was trying to make up for lost time as I scampered onto the platform. I quickly squeezed in front of the bench, and in my haste nearly knocked it backwards off the ledge. Fortunately I was able to catch it, one hand on the piano for balance. I could feel my knees shaking as I sat down and took a deep breath. Full of fear and uncertainty, I hit the first chord of the dreaded Overture.
You did it, man, you're a star! My internal cheerleader kicked in immediately, supportive as ever. It's okay, the ship's rolling pretty hard, your reactions were good, they can't tell you've been drinking. Don't forget to pause after this next phrase, whoa boy, look out for that left hand jump, OUCH, that's okay, they don't hear it, you're doing good, just be careful with the melody, it's all th..OH NO, COVER IT UP, MAY DAY! Take a breath, you can do it, you've survived worse, what doesn't destroy you strengthens you, remember? I said COVER UP, DAMMIT, get it back, oh my God, THE MELODY, IT'S...IT'S...SORRY, PAL, I'M BAILING OUT! I'll call you.
I had totally lost it. I didn't know where I was in the piece, and under the heavy weight of failure my mind was spinning. My face was flushed and my stomach churned, but my hands were still moving; they at least looked like they were playing Ragtime. I didn't fight it; I gave myself a few measures to listen and calm down. As the platform began its humming descent I reasserted myself, improvising freely with my right hand while my left hand continued to provide the pulse.
I threw myself into this new creation with abandon. By the time the platform jerked to a halt, I had completely lost track of time. With a sigh of relief, I constructed an ending, not overly dramatic but definitely conclusive. I glanced over at the drummer to see how I'd done. He wasn't there.
He was, in fact, on the ground, and I was still about ten feet up in the air. I looked down and our eyes met. His were half-closed and he was smiling demonically. In one hand he held the control box that operated my platform, in the other was a pint of whiskey. He was totally drunk and I was utterly helpless.
"Jesus, Mike, what the hell, COME ON!" I hissed. Then I had to start playing again–the spotlight was still glaring at me and the audience's silence was ominous. I went back to the beginning of the Overture, knowing I wouldn't be off the hook until I hit the ground. Strangely, I was playing okay now. "Mike, please," I yelled, "GET ME DOWN!" The motor kicked in and my descent began. Then I jerked to a halt, hands flying off the keys. It happened again, and again. I looked frantically at Mike; he was in hysterics, playing with the buttons. I leaned over to yell at him, my hands still approximating the Overture. At the same time, the ship lurched heavily starward. Mike laughed, jerking the platform once more, and my hat tumbled off as I felt myself start to fall...
...I was back at my audition, which had taken place by phone. The ship's booking agent, Leonard, called me at the appointed time, and I tried to sound casual as we exchanged pleasantries. I was serious about getting this job, which would be my first long-term engagement as a professional musician. I had memorized my resume and intended to stress my versatility, having been warned that Leonard was not a big fan of jazz.
At a certain point our small-talk came to an end and there was a pause. I knew that the audition was about to begin in earnest. "Well, listen," Leonard said, "could you start on December 2? We'll need you for six months."
"No problem." I waited for his questions, and hearing none wondered if he expected me to just launch into my own sales pitch.
"Great," he said. "I'll send your plane ticket in a couple of weeks. I know you'll love it. You got my number if you need me."
This was too easy, and it didn't feel right. "Wait!" I blurted, "Don't you want to know anything about me?"
"Oh, yeah, sure. Listen. If I call 'Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree' in F, what are the first three chords?"
"If you start on the verse: F, A minor, and C minor. If you start at the chorus: F, A minor, and F seven."
"Awesome," he said. "Welcome aboard..."
Then I was onboard taking a guided tour from Buff, the ship's widely-despised bandleader. "Are you sure I couldn't have one of the dance jobs?" I asked. "I mean, you know, it's not like I can't pull off this show and all, but my real strength is, you know, improvising." I was mortified when they'd informed me I would be the show pianist. I'd never in my life had a job playing written music, and I felt totally unqualified. Of the six piano positions on the ship I had somehow been assigned the only one I couldn't handle.
Buff didn't hear a word. During my plea we had silently passed into the Club International–one of the ship's dance rooms–and Buff spontaneously became the feared Jazz Police. The bass player, posted on lookout, noted Buff's arrival and the band seamlessly segued into "In the Mood." Well-heeled couples quickly flooded the floor, and the band appeared to have escaped The Bust.
But Buff hadn't missed the last few powerful notes of a Coltrane tune as we entered, or the angry looks of seated passengers, all dressed up with no place to dance. "Tragically hip," he muttered to me, gesturing angrily at the band. We sat silently for more than 20 minutes, and I was thoroughly humiliated to be seen on the wrong side of the law. The band never stopped playing "In the Mood" until we left. Trailing behind Buff, nearly out of earshot, I smiled as I heard the faint opening chords of a Charlie Parker tune.
Sadly, these dance sets would not be my salvation. Denied reassignment, I began my regimen. Every night from one until four, I frantically practiced the show in one of the ship's elegant dining rooms. There were no witnesses at this time and place, so I was able to maintain an air of detached professionalism during the day, hanging out with the other musicians and dutifully voicing disrespect for my gig.
I had two weeks until rehearsals started and three weeks before opening night. My goal was to memorize the show–the one way I had of converting it into something other than a written music gig. Unfortunately, two weeks proved too short and I found myself scuffling badly at the group rehearsals. A misplaced rookie musician among professional theater people, I felt like the spotlight was focused on my every bad note. Inside my head P.T. Barnum's tuneless voice tortured me with the show's theme song, "There's a sucker born every minute." Yeah, I'd think, and half of them think they can play jazz for a living.
My secret evening practice sessions became more frenzied, as did my cover-up efforts. Each night at 1:00 a.m., in deference to Rule Number One, I would explain to my roommate that some particularly deviant opportunity lay in wait for me just around the corner. Then I'd follow a carefully charted route of hidden passageways into the dining/practice room and throw myself into the music I despised.
The first time I was ever able to play the Overture by memory–and the first time I came even close to playing it correctly–was at the dress rehearsal. This also happened to be the first time that Buff and various other musical dignitaries were in attendance. Buff pulled me aside afterwards, patted me on the back, and said "You know, man, the Musical Director was actually worried about you. I don't see it. Actually, I think you're the perfect cat for the job." My heart sank as I realized I would be forever miscast, a jazz pianist in theater clothing.
So it was showtime. Each evening held new surprises, my opening trauma being the only constant. The director had an endless arsenal of half-baked new ideas intended to keep things fresh. At one point he even gave me a line: "Jenny Lind? I know her. Used to work up on Tenth Street." Determined not to blow my first foray into acting, I made these twelve words a personal mantra during the week of their debut. But my timing was off and, steeped in jazz cool, I couldn't pitch the line with the requisite zeal. It wasn't long before the Director approached me, apology written all over his face.
"Listen," he said, "You did a great job with that line, but it really isn't what we thought it would be in a more global sense. It just doesn't quite work on all the different levels of interpretation we're shooting for, you know?"
I was flattered that he felt the need to obscure my incompetence in abstraction. "That's okay, I don't mind," I said. "I'm probably pretty much just a piano player."
"Yeah. Oh, and that reminds me. We're trying something different with the Overture."
My mind raced with the possibilities: a shortened version, a stationary version, an unspotlighted version, A TAPED VERSION! "What's that?" I asked, trying to hide my enthusiasm.
"When the platform starts to descend, you'll need to turn away from the piano. You can look out at the audience and smile or something..." He paused. "We're going to have some fireworks on stage, just some Roman Candles. They'll be kind of bright and the cinders might drift your way. But we already had one of the techies try sitting at the piano, and it's really not too bad. He said a few of the sparks landed on his fingers, but they just stung for a couple of seconds, maybe."
I looked at him in disbelief. "And I'm supposed to be playing while this is all going on?"
"Well, of course," he said. "It's just the Overture. You must be pretty comfortable with it by now."
Fortunately for me, the first time they tried this one of the Roman Candles fell over and sprayed out into the audience. Try as I might, I couldn't quite manage to stifle a fit of laughter, and I felt the bench teetering dangerously backwards...
...SNAP OUT OF IT! Yeah it's me. I'm back. I can't just let you die, man, and you are about to die, you know. It was my guardian angel, jarring me back to reality. Time had apparently stood still as my life on the ship had flashed before my eyes. Now I could see my hat gliding down toward the pit, and I could feel the bench sliding out from under me. In all probability I was about to pitch over backwards, fall 10 feet, and crack my head on the corner of the bass amplifier.
E FLAT MAJOR SEVEN, the voice said. NOW! This made no sense to me–the Overture was in A major–but I lunged for the keys in desperation. NOT ROOT POSITION, FOR GOD'S SAKE. THIRD INVERSION. BOTH HANDS. HARD!
I grabbed that unappealing chord and found my hands threaded between the black keys. The bench tumbled to destruction below, and I held on with all my might. Then I painfully pulled myself upright, still clutching the keys in a life-saving handshake. E flat major seven, third inversion, rang out through the theater. The chord that rescued me was pure vanilla, the Jazz Police anthem, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon" lite, Tony Orlando neutered. It was a sickly-sweet, ironic commentary on the unmusical Overture that had almost killed me.
The audience was hushed and confused. Probably out of compassion, two or three people clapped. Leaning against the piano, nowhere to sit, I nodded my thanks to them, a weak smile of gratitude on my face. That was the cue the other 498 people had been waiting for. In an instant the theater filled with applause, the audience's collective genius apparently divining that my death-defying acrobatics were a choreographed prelude to the circus act ahead.
I looked down at Mike, who seemed considerably sobered by his act of near-homicide. He dutifully lowered the platform while Zap, the bassist, cleared the fragmented bench from my landing area. When I reached the ground, Zap leaned over and grabbed my arm. An excitable guy under normal circumstances, he was beside himself. "Are you okay, man? That was incredible, man, you have no idea. I'd be, I mean you gotta be pissed off. I can't believe Mike, man, I wanted to kill him but there wasn't anything I could do, it happened so damn fast. You know it did, man, right? Are you doing okay? You want me to get Buff or anything? Let me give you my chair, man. I can stand, that's cool, really. Hey, here's your hat. You sure you're cool?"
My hands trembling and my knees rubbery, I sank into the chair. Remembering that the show must go on, and sensing that the orchestra would kick in any minute, I clamped on my headphones and covered them with the hat. Mike hadn't said a word to me yet, and I had no idea what to say to him. The whole incident seemed utterly beyond comprehension, a practical joke gone pathological. I turned to glare at him. His eyes were squeezed shut, his brow furrowed, his face red, his head shaking. When he finally looked up and caught my eye, he reached behind him and sheepishly offered me the whiskey bottle. He wasn't the type to apologize, but his gesture said it all: I didn't mean it, I was drunk, I shouldn't drink so much, will you forgive me and take a swig?
I considered the offering. I didn't want to let him off too easy, but it was obvious he was already suffering. I was a nervous wreck and possibly still drunk; while the booze might soothe me, it might also make me screw up the rest of the show. Plus, I was visible from the audience, which was likely to continue scrutinizing me for the next few minutes. But I wanted a drink. I couldn't make up my mind and we held our pose, Mike's arm extended toward me, my eyes fixed on his hand clasped around the bottle.
Suddenly an angry voice screamed, "One, two, three, four," and the tape was rolling. We grabbed for our ears in pain, eyes still fixed on one another. Mike threw his headphones to the ground and crushed them with his foot. Impulsively, I did the same. Then I took the bottle from him and drank the whiskey ravenously.
The diet pill poppers pranced into view for their opening number, stage smiles plastered falsely across their faces. I smiled back at them, closing my eyes. Reaching deep inside my artistic self, I prepared to join Mike in a new choreographic adventure. My ordeal was over, perhaps forever, and it was time for celebration.
LADIES AND GENTLEMAN! It was my subconscious savior begging for a curtain call, a well-earned privilege I wasn't about to deny. LADIES AND GENTLEMAN... It sounded almost like the ever-jubilant emcee, but with an unmistakable hint of irony and condescension. LADIES AND GENTLEMAN..."Go for it, already," I muttered, "there's work to be done here."
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: THE GRRREATEST SHOW ON EARTH! On cue, I leaned hard into a cluster of notes, one fist and one elbow combining to elicit a loud cry of anguish from the piano. An alarmed dancer twisted in mid-flight, came down on the wrong foot and plowed into the stage bricks. Mike orchestrated the fall with a thunderous kick to the bass drum and an ear-piercing cymbal crash. A scantily clad acrobat, running on stage for her opening cartwheels, stubbed her toe and slid into Barnum, who had positioned himself for the initial dialogue. Unable or unwilling to deliver his lines, he turned to glare at the band, the first time he'd ever acknowledged our existence. Zap waved his bow at him, then joyfully laid into a note that made the canned orchestra sound very, very wrong.
I pointed accusingly under the stage, where 20 taped musicians supposedly lived their cramped and molish lives. Then, it was back to the task at hand, for there really was work to be done: For two glorious hours, the audience would at last get the Freak Show it deserved.
Copyright 1991, Bill Anschell
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