I grew up singing. From pre-school, I was in choirs, and I loved it.
Throughout the chaos and confusion that is childhood, middle and high school, chorus was my lifeline. It was where I found my people. It was what helped me stay as connected to myself as I could be given the trauma of my early life. It saved what sanity I had.
I auditioned for musicals, playing mainly chorus roles. (Except for the role of The Ghost of Christmas Past, which was awesome!)
In college, chorus continued play a crucial role, but I also got more deeply into theatre, which was like finally finding my true “home.”
I had my first lead in a musical, and then a drama. That was it. I was forever hooked.
So after college, I moved to NYC to pursue acting. I trained heartily, and I began to pursue.
And in the course of my training, which required me to delve deeply into my young and perhaps fragile psyche, I found and opened a Pandora’s Box within. And my whole life changed course.
And in the course of that change, I lost my singing voice.
Or perhaps, it was that for awhile, I could not use it.
I would miss singing and try to go back to it, but when I began to sing, my throat would close off and I would feel choked. I would feel overwhelmed with emotion, and I literally could not make sound.
It was terrifying. For something that had always been so central to me to feel unavailable was horrifying.
I entered into therapy, and in time, that was happening to me began to make sense. I was moving through the early trauma and there were memories in my body having to do with holding things in, “not telling anyone” and so forth. I was re-living a time when I literally felt choked.
Later, I came to understand that singing connected me to my breath in such an intimate way and allowed for the expression of my internal experience in such a direct way that while I was moving through that time of awakening and healing, it felt dangerous to my body system to communicate that way.
At a certain point, I once again decided I would try to sing again, as I had tried many times, to no avail.
In a way that I will forever consider miraculous, I found a singing school, in what seemed a fairly random way, in the way that often things of incredible significance can appear to be randomly found.
I had seen a school advertised over and over again in the acting trade paper Backstage called The Singer’s Forum, and one day I finally went in and spontaneously committed to a group class.
That action, which took tremendous courage for me, turned out to be perhaps one of the most important actions of my life.
With that action, again, the course of my life changed.
With the help of several incredible voice teachers and a very supportive environment, with tons of patience and love, I found my singing voice again.
There were many tears. I would feel overwhelmed when I sang. But at the encouragement of one teacher in particular, I learned to accept and relax into it instead of judging, fighting or being afraid of it. And eventually, the tears lessoned. I felt other things. And eventually I felt incredible joy, and I was “home” again.
Then, at this same school, I found miracle number two. I found a mentor, Mr. Johnny King.
Johnny had been a very successful singer and dancer in the 50’s – 80’s. At the time I met him, he had been retired for years but loved nurturing talent and passing along his decades of experience as an entertainer.
I started taking his Get Your Act Together class, and I fell in love. With him, with the art of cabaret, with the Great American Songbook.
He taught me so many things, and he became my biggest fan. He took me under his wing, and he helped me learn who I was as a singer, what gifts I brought to the stage. My own presence. How to be on stage. Phrasing. How to tell my stories through the song.
He changed my life in innumerable ways. He was incredibly generous. He became a kind of surrogate father, and through the way he loved me, I came to understand a healthy male authority figure love.
And I was not the only one! There were a slew of us. We were “Johnny’s kids,” all talented singers whom he took under his wing and gave all he had to so that we could fly as performers. His wing had no limit or shortage. We all felt special under his tutelage.
One of the many things he did as a director and teacher was to suggest songs, and one song he gave me in particular became one of my “signature” songs for a time. A signature is a song that audiences come to identify as “yours” because of a strong connection you have with it so that over time it “becomes” yours in a way. Not every song is like that. When you find them, it is an amazing experience.
I believe songs find me for a reason. When I begin to sing a song, to live it, it changes me, it deepens and expands my life. It is a kind if a marriage, the union between singer and song. And this one was such a special gift.
It was a song called “Mr. Snow” from the musical Carousel, by Rogers and Hart.
I loved singing it. Like any well written song, it was a beautiful journey, a story I got to live each time in a new way.
I sang it hundreds of times.
It’s the story of a woman who ends up falling in love with a fisherman, a man whom some might not consider an obvious catch, but whom she has come to know and love for all his unique ways.
Johnny was an incredible teacher and director, but as we all are, he had his flaws. He could be tough. He was a bit of a gossip. Occasionally, he’d talk out of both sides of his mouth.
One of his flaws was not taking as great care of himself as he took of us. He became sick after ignoring a kidney issue, and never recovered. We never knew how old he was, so I am not sure at what age this happened. He was at least in his 80’s. It was hard to see such a force of the stage in a hospital. He never lost his sassy edge throughout the tribulations of kidney failure and dialysis.
The last time I sang “Mr. Snow” was at Johnny’s memorial service. It had a whole other significance, singing it on that day. He was my Mr. Snow after all, in a way. He taught me how to love a father figure, flaws and all.
As it happens, today when he is so on my mind, I took a break from writing this about him. And I happened to read of the loss of one of the great singers of all time, Barbara Cook. Johnny was a huge fan of hers, and often referred to her performances as teaching points.
I was also a fan, and went to see her as much as possible at Carnegie Hall, at the Met and The Carlyle.
Barbara starred as the character Carrie who sings “Mr. Snow” in Carousel in 1957 on Broadway. She was a true master of the stage, and she will always represent the very best of what the art of cabaret brings to the music world (or to the world at large, really.)
Thank you Johnny King. Thank you Barbara Cook.
You are both in me every time I sing and perform.
I continue to lovingly charge myself to bring all that you’ve taught me and given me to all I do and to give back and share all that you taught me whenever I can.
I leave you, reader, with Barbara’s incredible rendition, later in life, of “Mr. Snow.”
His name is Mister Snow and an up-standed man is he
He comes home every night in his round-bottomed boat
With a net full of herring from the sea
An almost perfect beau, as refined as a girl could wish
But he spends so much time in his round-bottomed boat
That he can’t seem to loose the smell of fish
The first time he kissed me the whiff of his clothes
Knocked me flat on the floor of the room
But now that I love him, my heart’s in my nose
And fish is my favorite perfume
Last night he spoke quite low and a fair-spoken man is he
And he said, “Miss Pipperidge
I’d like it fine if I could be wed with a wife
And indeed, Miss Pipperidge, if you’ll be mine
I’ll be yours for the rest of my life”
Next moment we were promised
And now my mind’s in a maze
For all it can do is look forward to
That wonderful day of days
When I marry Mister Snow
The flowers’ll be buzzin’ with the hum of bees
The birds’ll make a racket in the church yard trees
When I marry Mister Snow
Then it’s off to home we’ll go
And both of us’ll look a little dreamy-eyed
A driving to a cottage by the Oceanside
Where the salty breezes blow
He’ll carry me across the threshold
And I’ll be as meek as a lamb
Then he’ll set me on my feet
And I’ll say kinda sweet
“Well, Mister Snow, here I am”
Then I’ll kiss him so he’ll know
That evry’thin’ll be as right as right can be
A living in a cottage by the sea with me
For I love that Mister Snow
That young sea-faring bold and daring
Big bewhiskered, overbearing, darling Mister Snow