By Jeanne Charters
Once upon a time, I was a Broadway chorus girl. In my dreams. Almost.
I actually wanted to be a Rockette but was somewhat hindered by the fact that I was a lousy dancer. My one dance lesson happened when I was six. My parents sent me for a tap class. When I got home, they said, “Okay, show us what you got.”
Proudly, I demonstrated. “Shuffle, hop, a-slap, ball change.” On both feet. Slightly winded, I stood there, hands extended, awaiting their applause.
“That’s it?” my mother said. Clearly, they had expected a junior grade Ruby Keeler (don’t ask—I only remember the name) and were deeply disappointed with my terpsichorean progress.
In their defense, money was tight in our family, so if you weren’t a prodigy, forget about lessons. My dad owned a small grocery store. My mother was, of course, a housewife. Crammed into our little house with the three of us were my father’s mother, Annie, and her sister, Aunt Nell. Aunt Nell was a maiden lady who would have enlivened Stephen King’s horror novels.
Ah yes, I remember her well. Nell O’Neill—the harridan who shared my bedroom. She despised children with a venom that rivaled the Wicked Witch of the West, so you can imagine how she felt about sharing a bedroom with little Miss non-tapdancer.
I got even with her by turning on Let’s Pretend every Saturday morning at 9:00 am. She hated Let’s Pretend, probably because Cinderella always got the Prince while the evil stepmother always got banned from the castle. Aunt Nell would have been rooting for the evil stepmother.
Aunt Nell popped her glass eye out just before bed every night and plopped it into a shot glass of water, which resided on the table between our twin beds. I must say, there are good things about sharing a room with someone like Aunt Nell. I credit her for my profound sense of the macabre developed during those midnight hours of rolling that eyeball around and around until it stared at me. I was four.
So no, I never danced on Broadway.
But oh, how I loved it!
Early on, it was determined I could sing. Not good enough to warrant lessons, but good enough to get me the leads in our high school musicals. I sang Josephine in the senior operetta, HMS Pinafore. Have you ever seen HMS Pinafore? No? Lucky you.
I believe that show was the genesis of my profound dislike of opera and operettas, which has lasted to this day. Fortunately, my husband shares that dislike though we have tried often to love opera. Especially after I saw Julia Roberts in that scene from Pretty Woman.
As Richard Gere said, you either love it or hate it. I basically believe my dislike of opera is a blatant sign that I have no class, but I can’t help it.
But my adoration of all things Broadway has never waned. I do wish sometimes that another Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein III would come along so Broadway would be less packed with revivals.
There have been some shows nearly as good as South Pacific and Carousel, but not many. Unless you count Beauty and the Beast, Phantom of the Opera, Company, Pippin, L’Cage, and Mame. Oh, and I nearly forgot Wicked and The Producers.
We saw The Producers in New York just before we moved to North Carolina. It was in previews, so no reviews had been posted. I wasn’t excited about seeing this Broadway show because I wasn’t mad about Mel Brooks. Although I’d enjoyed Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles had seemed like a long fart joke to me. I suppose that’s why every man I’ve ever known still talks about it.
Anyway, I walked into The Producers with a slightly turned-up nose and a decidedly turned-off attitude.
That lasted until the old ladies danced on their walkers. Once I started laughing, I never stopped—even through the shudder-inducing “Springtime for Hitler” number with its chorus girls in Gestapo uniforms featuring pretzel-covered breasts and crotches adorned with beer steins. The huge rhinestone swastika glittering in the mirrored ceiling was so over the top it was almost uncomfortable. Until the audience realized no one could mistake the whole shtick for anything but brilliant satire.
Mel Brooks said later that the best way to demean a monster was to make him ridiculous. He was right. Hitler, mincing and prancing around that stage would have made the real demon turn over in his grave.
We are blessed in Western North Carolina with wonderful theater. I was worried about that when we moved here. Not any longer. We enjoy season tickets for North Carolina Stage productions downtown, one of the most innovative theaters I’ve ever experienced. Flat Rock produces musicals as good as New York. SART is an excellent Equity house, and HART in Waynesville redefines the term “amateur theater” nearly every time its curtain opens. Our own Asheville Community Theater offers sparkling and compelling plays and musicals on a regular basis.
So much so that I think all these local theaters would think my rendering of Stella in Albany’s Streetcar Named Desire pathetically amateur. That’s why I don’t act any more.
Funny, isn’t it? Not only did I not ever dance on Broadway. I don’t think I could even get a part here in Asheville. If I ever change my mind about that, you will be the first to know.
Jeanne Charters, a transplant from New York, is a writer living in Asheville with her husband, Matt Restivo. Her collection of columns, “Funny, isn’t it?” is available at Malaprops, Mountain Made in the Grove Arcade, or at jeannecharters.com.
She has written three novels and has acquired an agent for her young adult novel, “Shanty Gold.” Jeanne is working on edits, per that agent, and hopes to have a publisher this year. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.