First let me explain, I am calling this a “colander list,” rather than a “bucket list,” because so many of the roles I will name would have fallen right through the holes, for one reason or another. Some, like the ever-necessary spaghetti noodles managed to stay within. Let’s drop this idiotic metaphor and move on, okay?
Let me give you the main reason why I will never get to play so many of the roles I found so interesting: it never occurred to me, until I was 44 years old, that I could even act, let alone sing. Any recreational dancing I had done was always somewhat undisciplined, so I had no expectation I could handle strict choreography either.
Fortunately, my first entry onto the stage was in a non-musical play, Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water. How I even got to that point was strictly an accident.
I was working for a small company that Honeywell would later buy out (And, I am somewhat proud to say that I was the last survivor from that smaller company, 60% of whom got the axe right away.), when my boss, Spanky (so named because of his close resemblance to Spanky McFarland), began approaching all the men in the office about being in a play.
It seems that Spanky had a brother who was active in community theater and who had recruited my boss into playing the role of the KGB-type bad guy in the Woody Allen play. It turned out not enough capable men had tried out, so they did not yet have a man to play the role of the American ambassador to the nameless iron curtain country that is the setting for the story.
Spanky first went to the most extroverted fellow in the office and asked him to be in the play. The guy, for all his clowning around, turned that famous whiter shade of pale and said, “I’d foul my pants,” except he didn’t say “foul.”
Now, keep in mind, Spanky was generally a fair-minded boss, who thought well of my work. Still, I figured, a little apple-polishing couldn’t hurt, as long as it didn’t involve too great a sacrifice. I looked at the script. The ambassador has a few lines in the first scene, then nothing at all to do until the next-to-last scene, where he has a scant few lines more. “I can handle this,” I confidently assured myself.
Instead, I ended up playing the lead. It’s a long story, but, the point is, it was enough to stick the needle into my arm. After that, I was hooked. A year later, I discovered I could sing and dance, and I was off to the races. That was all well and good, except that I had spent the entirety of my youth not even thinking about a number of great parts I could have tried out for, if only I weren’t such a dolt.
Let me break my colander list down into a number of categories. I will start with the roles that are not going to happen, no way, no how.
Roles I’ll Never Get Because They Wrote the Music Too Damn High
Okay, I am a baritone. There are a very small number of songs I can sing that are scored for a tenor, but, by far, most of them are out of my range. And, with a musical production, you cannot simply transpose the music to a lower key, because you have a number of different scores for an entire orchestra to keep track of. In fact, I have never, ever heard of a theater group transposing a score to suit the vocal range of one performer, no matter how much they may have wanted him or her for the role.
For the most part, I can accept that fact of life with equanimity, but there are a few roles I really hated to see were out of my range:
1) Marryin’Sam from Li’l Abner.
Sam, like almost all the other characters in the show, is taken from the comic strip of that name, drawn for many years by Al Capp. He is the local preacher and a shameless huckster, ever-eager to collect a fee for marrying the locals, hence the nickname. He has some excellent lines and all or part of the best songs in the score. The best one, which I could have sung, was his duet with Daisy Mae, “Past My Prime,” which is what the lady considers herself to be at the ancient age of seventeen. Sam’s other songs are too high, though. I have tried to sing them from the show’s score, and I cannot.
2) Nicely-Nicely Johnson from Guys and Dolls
Two things: Fugue for Tinhorns and Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat. Need I say more?
3) Adolfo Pirelli from Sweeney Todd
This regret stems not so much from any one song-actually the character has only a few sung lines in one production number-but for the opportunity to play such an unabashed scoundrel. What is more, Pirelli is an Irishman, posing as an Italian. Those are two the best accents I have in my repertoire.
4) The Boss, Sideshow
This one was the biggest disappointment of all. Compared to this guy, Adolfo Pirelli is a saint. The thing the boss is the boss of is a freak show, in the time of the Great Depression. His opening song (and the show’s), “Come Look at the Freaks,” will just blow you away. I can only imagine what a rush it would have been to perform it.
When I Grow Too Old to Dream…
Now we come to those roles I might have had a chance to play if I had been smart enough to take up this hobby when I was in my 20s or 30s. Of course, there is one consolation, I suppose, to having waited a while. Back then, I would have been fearless on stage, and, had I been involved in a production of Hair, I would have had no hesitation about taking it all off for art. These days, I would never inflict such a spectacle on an audience.
The plain fact of the matter is that I am 65 and, even if the arcane art of theatrical makeup could make me look appreciably younger, I just don’t have the zip I would need to play these high-energy roles. That is why I have sort of retired.
5) Professor Harold Hillfrom The Music Man
I consider this show the best of the “traditional” musicals, and this character the best leading role out of the bunch. If you have never seen the show on stage, rent the movie. You’ll see why.
6) Pseudolus from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
If Harold Hill is too energetic a role for me, these days, then Pseudolus is way too energetic. The conniving Roman slave, played so brilliantly by Zero Mostel, is one of the most comedic characters in the history of musical theater. Again, rent the movie if you haven’t seen the show. I think you’ll be in for a treat.
7) Charley Davenport from Annie Get Your Gun
Davenport is the slick front man for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Come to think of it, as I look over this list, I seem to have a liking for the hustlers and schemers of the musical stage. Well, as Pope Ye the sailor said, I yam what I yam.
Actually, I sort of played this role a number of years ago, when I was in an Irving Berlin revue titled, Say It With Music. I got to sing his duet at the start of the show, “Colonel Buffalo Bill,” which was a lot of fun, but, insofar as this was only a revue, I never had a chance to develop the character. Now, as with the other roles, above, it’s too late.
8) The Pirate King from Pirates of Penzance
I have been in two productions of this wonderful show, but never in this role. It is not as high-energy a proposition as the Roman slave, but it’s active enough that it’s pretty much out of my league. I’d be doing well to function as one of the pirates, although I think I could still pull off the role of Samuel, the PK’s assistant. After all, wasn’t Captain Hook’s right-hand man, Mr. Smee, an old duffer?
And Now a Little Positive Thinking
There are still a few roles I could yet play and for which I would gladly once again forsake my flimsy retirement.
10) Mayor Shinn from The Music Man
I once got a call-back audition for this role but, in the end, it was the absence of dice. Ordinarily, I would hate, loathe and despise having a non-singing role in a musical, but this character is such a well-written buffoon, it would be well-worth the sacrifice.
11) The Proprietor from Assassins
This character is age-indeterminate, which is helpful in my case, and does not have a particularly energetic role, in terms of stage acrobatics. On the other hand, he sings the show’s opening song, “Everybody’s Got the Right,” which is one of Stephen Sondheim’s greatest masterpieces. Go ahead, give it a listen.
12) Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
I always feel a dichotomy about this Tennessee Williams play. I do not think it is anywhere close to his best work, overall, but this one character, I find fascinating. His excellent monologue on the subject of mendacity is a classic and one I have used more than once as an audition piece.
Big Daddy is a fabulously wealthy southern planter, who is filled with both cancer and hatred throughout the play. Except for his alcoholic son, whom he loves, he despises all the rest of his family, and that includes himself…especially himself. The reason for his self-loathing is that Big Daddy is not “old money.” He started out as a field hand on a plantation owned by two single men, who, as it turned out, had a relationship.
In the setting of the play, such a relationship would have been absolutely intolerable, had it been known. Big Daddy worked his way from field worker to the couple’s major domo, then to their sole heir, because he was willing and able to countenance what he had been taught was abhorrent behavior, and keep his mouth shut about it. Today, we might admire such a person’s loyalty and discretion, but, in Big Daddy’s place and time, he could only feel like a complete moral reprobate, who had whored himself out in the worst way to get his wealth. Yeah, this is #1 on my wish-list.
But Wait, There is Some Good News
I do not ask for pity over these roles that I didn’t or couldn’t get. I have had an enjoyable run of over twenty years, and I have actually gotten some of the roles I coveted.
1) Hinezie in The Pajama Game
A thoroughgoing buffoon, he also happens to have two of the best songs in the show, in addition to getting to open it with the title song. That was one of my most enjoyable experiences of any kind, ever.
2) Man #1 in Kiss Me, Kate
With a name in the program like “Man #1,” you would think this was a character who stayed pretty much in the background. Not so. He and his partner, Man #2, are only called by those designations because their names are never mentioned throughout the show, which is fine. Who needs a name when you have such humorous lines and half of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” to sing?
3) The Reverend Jeremiah Brown in Inherit the Wind
This is the most singing I ever did in a “non-musical” play. As the town’s religious leader, my character ends up leading the faithful in renditions of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “Old-Time Religion” and “Amazing Grace.” (Note: the director decided to add more music than was written into the play).
But it was not for the singing that I wanted this part. Rev. Brown, though he is the pillar of respectability and morality, has a screw loose, and it finally becomes apparent when he delivers his sermon on the eve of the trial that is the main subject of the play.
I’m sure I would never have been considered for either of the two leads-the opposing attorneys-but that is fine. If given a choice among the protagonist, the antagonist or the twitch, I’ll take the twitch, every time.
4) Simon Stimson in Our Town
I said earlier that I would come out of my self-imposed retirement for the right role, and this is one instance where I did. First of all, I wanted to be in Our Town because it is one of the great works of American literature. Second, I wanted the seemingly-small role of Simon Stimson because my father said he had played it in his brief fling with amateur theatrics, long before I was born.
For those of you not familiar with the play, Simon is the town drunk. While I am not a drunk in real life, I play one on the stage, and quite well, if I do say so myself.
Finally, this essay is not so much about me as it is about some of the fine and challenging roles that are out there for any among you with the focus, the ambition and, least of all, the talent to play them. If you are a young man or have a young man in your family, do not do as I did and wait until middle age. Get started now. There is a whole wonderful world of make-believe waiting for you.
One last note
My ex-boss, Spanky, sad to say, did not go far in his own theatrical career. Typically, backstage there are separate dressing rooms for the boys and the girls, but not always. In fact, there were no separate facilities for that production of Don’t Drink the Water. When Mrs. Spanky found out that he would see and be seen by women in their and his foundation garments, she promptly informed him that, after this show, his acting career was over.