Thursday, February 17, 2011

Can You Feel the Love Tonight- Part 2

First, let me apologize for being somewhat MIA. I have been focusing on Momentum Rep's blog this month. Lily is dressing as a different musical every day. It's adorable. You can check it out at

But I had a rather extraordinary experience the other day, and it needed to be shared.

I saw "The Lion King." I know, I know, didn't we already do this a few months ago? Sitting in the audience, holding my breath, watching someone I care about and have helped nurture?

Yes, we did that. And you can read about the time we took Lily to see "The Lion King" on Broadway in my November post, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?"

But this time it wasn't my daughter I was watching, it was a student. And that student wasn't in the audience. She was onstage.

I met Syndee in the Fall of 2007 when I started teaching at Five Towns College. She was introduced to me by the head of the department. It was clear he was very proud of her- he told me all about how she had been a Knick's dancer. She presented herself with confidence. She knew what she wanted. And one of the things she wanted was for me to teach her voice lessons. Even though my studio was full, some phone calls were made, and soon we were all set. I was a little intimidated by the whole situation, truth be told.

We met a few days later in my obscenely small studio where I taught lessons. (and by "my" studio, I only mean that I was assigned there when I taught. It wasn't actually "mine.") I had to push my chair back into a corner so we could get far enough away from each other to have a conversation. And that's when Syndee told me that she was going to be Nala in "The Lion King." She told me she had cut out pictures from the show and tacked them to a bulletin board so she could see it every day. And I believed that she would do it. Someday, anyway.

Over the next few years, we worked on some subtleties of Syndee's voice. She was already fabulous, of course. And as someone close to her, I was privileged enough to watch her perform many times- including seeing her sing the National Anthem at a Knicks game. But she didn't want to be told she was fabulous. She wanted to be told what needed work. And I told her. And she worked. And she just kept getting better.

In the summer of 2008, my best friend and I started Momentum Repertory Company, producing our first full musical- "Godspell." I cast Syndee to sing the rip-roaring "Oh Bless the Lord, My Soul." This part was not a surprise to anyone. But what was a little surprising to many was the fact that I dressed her as a homeless woman. Because I knew the last thing she wanted to do was play another glamorous character. She wanted to work on her acting skills. And her portrayal of that homeless woman brought the audience to tears.

Back at Five Towns that fall, Syndee and I continued to work. And then one day, she was called in for Nala. We had work to do. Major work. Not just vocally- her skills there had improved incredibly over the past year. But real acting work. What could she bring to "Shadowland" that others hadn't brought? How could she make it about the story and character, and not just about her incredible voice? We grabbed Jenn Spears (now a Board member for MRC) and set to work picking the song apart. Making intense, difficult acting choices. And by the end of our lesson, when she sang it for the final time, I don't know how the walls of that flimsy little practice room were still standing.

I left Five Towns College to adopt. And adopt I did. And when Lily was just a few months old, I got a phone call. It was Syndee.

"Hey," she said casually. "Are you holding the baby?" I told her I wasn't. That I had put her down for a nap. "OK good. I didn't want you to drop her when I told you I was just cast as Nala in the National Tour."

Of course she was. I was thrilled for her. But I wasn't surprised.

Syndee came in for one more coaching before heading out. Lily was fussing a little, so Syndee held her while she sang "Shadowland" so I could play the piano. (Lily now thinks this is normal. Don't most toddlers hang out on Broadway and have Nala personally serenade them in their living rooms?) I gave her a few tips here and there, but honestly, there was little I could say. She was ready.

I looked at the tour schedule as soon as it was available, saw that the show would be in Providence on my Dad's birthday, and knew that's when we could go. It was difficult for us to afford the tickets, but nothing would keep me from seeing her in this show. So, this past Sunday, we all headed out to the Providence Performing Arts Center. (and by "all," I mean, Ryan and I, my Dad, and his friend Mary. Lily stayed with my Dad's neighbor. I made the decision that this day needed to be about Syndee, and if Lily was there, well, any event in which Lily is involved is about Lily.) I could hardly sit still as we ate our pizza before the show, I was even antsier as Ryan and I had a drink at the bar, and by the time we were in our seats I was ready to burst. I couldn't take it anymore.

"I know you don't care," I said to the total stranger sitting next to me, "but the woman playing Nala is my voice student." She understood what a very big deal this was, and we chatted until the show began.

I enjoyed the first act, but also just wanted it to hurry up, as the adult Nala doesn't appear until Act 2. And when she appeared, the entire audience was captivated. It had nothing to do with knowing her or nurturing her or being proud of her. This girl is brilliant. And after she sang "Shadowland," there was a brief hush, and then wild applause. Someone behind me even said "Oh my God!"

Watching her sing that song and seeing the choices she was making was completely surreal for me. We worked on it in a practice room so small she was singing directly to the wall. And here was that work, being shown for thousands.

I wanted to save my standing ovation for Syndee's bow, but everyone else jumped to their feet right away. It's a great show, I wasn't about to be that jerk who just sits there during a standing O. (although I've been known to be that jerk. I don't stand just because everyone else does.) So I stood, and I yelled and clapped my hands above my head when she came out. And so did everyone else. She looked out into the crowd and mouthed the words "stage door" while pointing to an exit. Hooray! That message was for me!

Backstage, I told Syndee how she was fabulous and brilliant. And I hugged her. And we got the tour. And I was so, so proud of her.

But as we left, it wasn't just the fact that I was proud of her that was staying with me. Syndee is an example of knowing what you want, saying it out loud, and going after it. You need the talent, of course. And a lot of luck. But sometimes, that drive. That clarity. THAT is what makes all the difference.

1 comment:

  1. Is the show coming to Denver? I'd love to take Jackson!