Not Enough Boys to Sing & Dance

Nancy Grace and me in the 1971 JLO production of Oklahoma

Nancy Grace and me in the 1971 JLO production of Oklahoma

When I first got involved in theater (see “JLO”) I was focused on doing work backstage and despite a brief and reasonably successful experience in Junior High (see TBD), was still generally too shy to consider being onstage as well. But some of my latent desire and external circumstances led me on a path to put me under the lights in front of an audience by my junior year in high school.

Prior to that, my combination of timidity and low self esteem made me very reluctant to take the spotlight, though at some level I longed to be acknowledged as talented or at least capable. My work backstage in several theater productions with JLO and my high school’s drama club had given me some of that longed for acknowledgement of competence at least as a lighting and set designer and a person who could pound out some sort of stage adaption however limited or flawed (see “Lord of the Flies”) on my portable electric typewriter.

The composition of JLO, like most youth theater groups I have participated in or encountered, included way more young women than young men. This was in contrast to the fact that most plays, particularly most musicals, generally had more parts for men than women. Given this, those of us who were active in the company, of high-school age and of the male persuasion were always being pitched to take a crack at playing onstage roles in our robust slate of theatrical productions. I had given in to these requests only to the extent of doing very limited work onstage in crowd scenes with no lines of my own.

But two of my JLO comrades, sisters and very talented actors who attended my high school, had decided that they wanted to enter a high school district competition in forensics in the area of “multiple reading”, a performance of a written piece with voice but no staging. They had found a piece that they both liked, the climactic scene of the play “The Innocents”, based on Henry James classic gothic novel, “The Turn of the Screw”, but they needed someone to play the male part – Miles – the demon possessed youth who is exorcised by his governess in the play’s final scene. I think I was one of the few male type persons they know who attended our shared high school and was involved in theater. They must have figured that since I had no track record of playing a part onstage, I had no record of being bad on stage, so I was worth the risk.

They had me read thru the piece with them and decided to pitch me to participate, and given that they were two intelligent, capable, good looking young women that I admired, I maybe was to shy to say no. We rehearsed after school and with their constant encouragement I got into my part and was able to vocally portray a young boy fearfully coming to grips with my demonic possession, ending the dramatic final scene raising my voice and screaming out the name of my possessor before dying. It was an exciting piece, the kind of angsty and overwrought stuff that appealed to my teenage self. When we performed it in front of Forensic tournament audiences it was well received and I enjoyed the rush of putting on a show for the audience of this very disturbed young man loosing it completely. After coming in second place in the district competition and then again in the regional one, I was hooked.

After a brief cameo in the JLO production of “The Sound of Music” as the male half of the “Sengerbund of Herwegen” (one of the sisters I had done the multiple reading with playing the other half) in the music festival competition scene at the end of the play, I was prevailed on to try out for the second male lead part in our planned summer musical production, “Oklahoma”. Such was our dearth of high school males in our theater company that I and one other guy were the only two to try out for the part of Will Parker, for a show to be double-cast and thus needing two guys to play the role. Simple arithmetic had sealed my fate and I was committed to a path forward that would have me singing and dancing under the lights in front of a large audience of mostly strangers, two things that I was no way comfortable in doing. But… the show must go on!

Looking back, these two experiences I have shared so far were the first examples of an ongoing personal pattern of being usually overcome with shyness to try something new and personal parameter pushing, but occasionally throwing myself completely in the deep end. I was always in an internal tussle between being scared and wanting to protect myself and wanting to be some sort of a star.

So again, with much encouragement from my JLO comrades, I learned the part, including the songs and with greater difficulty the dances as well. My performance included my first on stage passionate lips-to-lips kiss made particularly freaky because I had never had an off-stage lips-to-lips kiss with anybody (see “Cooties” for more details). Scared by yet craving the spotlight, and fearing failure to the point of willing myself to somehow be good, I got through my rehearsals and did my two performances before an audience of several hundred people including my mom and my aunt.

From my theater comrades’ reviews and the audience’s applause, I felt like I had done a good job and my addiction to the stage spotlight continued to grow. I went on to play lead roles in several other musicals, coming to specialize in the bad guy type roles, including…

* The biblical “Snake” in the musical “The Diary of Adam and Eve” with a dramatic song where I lure Eve into taking a bite out of the forbidden fruit

* The egotistical yet bumbling “Wazir of Police” in the musical “Kismet”

* The maniacal marketing director “Orson” in the rock musical “Do Your Own Thing” based on Shakespeare’s “Tempest”

* The TBD older brother “Noah” in Harvey Jones and TBD’s musical version of the “Rainmaker”

* Finally, my favorite part and I think my best work, “Mr. Rich”, the mega-wealthy avatar for “The Man” – too old, filthy rich, bored, jaded, etc. – in the allegorical musical “Celebration” by Harvey Jones and TBD

So what does it mean for a shy kid like me to be able to play these loud, in your face, larger than life characters? It was a revelation of another side of my personality, a way I could learn to be even playing myself someday. It was a way to channel and release a lot of angst accumulated from suffering through my parents’ divorce and my mom’s depression and suicidal moments. It was a chance to be acknowledged by others (and myself) as a capable person and to build some badly needed self-esteem.

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4 replies on “Not Enough Boys to Sing & Dance”

  1. Peter Zale says:

    Not to be picky… But you were Peabody in “The Flahooley Incident” and Orson in “Your Own Thing”.

  2. Cooper Zale says:

    Peter… you are right… thanks for catching that… I was in fact “Orson” (Orsonio) in “Do Your Own Thing”… I corrected that.

  3. Michael Wallace says:

    Hey Cooper,

    We missed you at the JLO reunion and performance but had you there in spirit and our hearts.

  4. Cooper Zale says:

    Mike… that means a lot to me that you shared that. I miss all of you and that you unique thing we all had together. Nothing will ever be quite the same as that. Be well and maybe we can talk more soon.

    Coop

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