“If I cannot fly, let me sing.” — Stephen Sondheim
Whilst Loanne taught me how to play the piano, it was my mother who taught me how to sing.
As a small child, she would have me stand next to her and sing as she sat at the piano and played selected sheet music from The Carpenters, Barbra Streisand, John Denver, Johnny Mathis, Barry Manilow and others. I remember singing Broadway show tunes as well, such as “Memory” from Cats, “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, “Somewhere” from West Side Story, and “Where Is Love?” from Oliver!
And just like Loanne taught me how to play with expression, mum taught me how to sing with expression. One day she called me into the music room. She had a Barry Manilow record with the song “Could It Be Magic” on it and instructed me to stand in the middle of the room as she went to the record player to cue it up. The song started to play as she handed me the sheet music. I had heard the song as well as other songs by Barry Manilow several times because mum always played it whilst doing chores around the house. (She also played music from Barbra Streisand, Johhny Mathis, John Denver, and so on… her obvious favourites.)
Anyway, the song started and as Barry was singing, so was I right along with him. My mum stopped the song and said, “Willy,” (my parents always called me Willy). “You can’t smile when you sing this.” “Why not?”, I asked. She told me, “Because it’s a sad song. Barry is singing about his girlfriend, Melissa, who died in a car accident. He’s sad because he can’t be with her anymore and he misses her. So don’t smile.” I learned later that that was nonsense. When “Melissa” was mentioned, it was a reference to Melissa Manchester who, at this time, is still very much alive. But mum had that story in mind and, as a gullible kid who didn’t know any better, I believed her. She had a point to make. She wanted me to learn to not only show the expression of sadness on my face, but to let it be heard with my voice as I sang the song.
I would come to learn from that moment on and with a collection of several other songs that held within them a wide variety of feelings that if the listener can’t feel what I’m expressing emotionally as I sing, I’ll lose their interest. If the song was exciting and fired up, I needed to sound exciting and fired up. If the song was sad and mournful, I needed to sound sad and mournful. If the song was happy and hopeful, I needed to sound happy and hopeful.
It’s without saying that the expressions didn’t just stop with the sound of my voice or with the look on my face. Body movement was essential as well. She taught me how to show excitement whilst singing, but to not go overboard. She taught me that though a song might be sad, I still needed to be heard. There was a difference between projecting and blaring. It was about control. The volume of my voice, the sound of my voice, the expression on my face, the movement of my body and where to move to, when and why… it was all preparation for the inevitable: Musical Theater.
I won’t bore you with all the details of every theatre production I’ve been in as there have been many. But I will share with you bits of the most memorable. Oddly enough, with the exception of one performance in 1994, they mostly took place before I was 12 years old and after I was 40.
I was 8 years old when I had the lead role in a school play. It was “Rumpelstiltskin” of which I played the leading role. I remember wearing short green shorts with a square cut pattern one the cuff of the shorts and a red felt hat on my head with a yellow feather sticking out. A picture lost long ago showed me facing the audience with my right hand on my right hip and my left arm outstretched and finger pointing at a black girl with loosely braided pig tails laying on the floor as though she were in grief.
A year later my parents learned that children were wanted for a scene or two in Puccini’s “La Boheme” which would be performed with the Portland Metropolitan Opera in Portland, Oregon. I don’t remember if there were auditions or not. My parents simply took me where I needed to go, I showed up where I needed to be, and did what I was directed to do. The scene took place outdoors and my role was that of a child selling apples out of a basket for his parent vendors. There were at least twenty of us kids performing various roles as we all sang for a scene in Act 2 where we besiege a toy peddler named Parpignol. One day two men in suits belonging to the production (I assume one was the director) saw us performing the scene during a rehearsal and chose two of us to be in another scene. A black boy and I were the ones selected to bring firewood into the artist’s studio in Act 1. After the scenes of which I was in were finished, I was to wait backstage for my parents to come pick me up and take me home. For whatever reason, they never saw me perform my scenes.
Not long after that my mother heard that auditions were taking place for a high school production of “The Sound of Music” and that children were needed to play the roles of four of the six Von Trapp kids (two of the Von Trapp kids would have already been high school age). The audition song was to be “Do-Re-Mi” of which I already knew. My mother came up with the idea of certain gestures to do during the song. For example, pointing at myself with my thumb when singing, “Me, a name I call myself,” running in place for the “Far, a long, long way to run” bit, looking like I’m sewing for “Sew, a needle pulling thread,” and pantomiming drinking tea and spreading jam on bread whilst singing, “Tea, a drink with jam and bread.” During audition, those movement went so well that not only did I get the part of Kurt, but the movements my mother came up with were implemented in the show as we sang the song.
One last tidbit I’ll share about this memory… If you remember the movie version when the theme song, “The Sound of Music” is sung by the children rather solemnly, you’ll hear the children sing, “The hills are alive,” and then Liesl singing four high notes, going down just the four notes of a simple scale. Well, one day during music rehearsal as we were learning our parts for that song, I, without even thinking and possibly just kidding about, sang those four high notes. The music director, a well-dressed lady, halted everything and, with a sense of emergence in her voice, asked, “Who sang that?!” It felt like all eyes were on me as I, red in the face with embarrassment, raised my hand and said, “I did, ma’am.” I knew for sure I was in trouble. But then she replied, saying, “Well done! We’re keeping it!” I recall a few others around me congratulating me in their own way. Just now I got goosebumps recalling that memory.
Jump ahead to 1994. I was 26 years old when I was asked to play the role of Scrooge in the musical of the same name. It was to be a regular church production of Calvary Church in Richland, Washington. I was well into my ministry years, mainly music evangelism, and everyone in the church and in the surrounding area knew I was heavily involved with ministry. If you didn’t know already, Richland is part of the Tri-Cities there in Washington, the other two cities being Kennewick and Pasco which is where I lived. So, this “Scrooge” production would reach a lot of people, especially since Calvary Church could easily seat at least up to 350 people at a time. There were serious as well as a few comedic scenes to this musical, so I studied Scrooge performances from three different sources: Albert Finney’s portrayal in “Scrooge,” Sir Reginald Owen’s portrayal in “A Christmas Carol” from 1938 (my personal favorite version of the Christmas Carol story), and Michael Caine’s portrayal in “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” For some reason, the director opted out of having an intermission which meant I was pretty much onstage for the entire two-and-a-half-hour production. I think there were a total of 8 performances which drew in very large crowds. I can’t recollect whether or not we were completely sold out, but I do believe the sanctuary was, on most nights, 80% full, if not more. It was the role of a lifetime which, although I enjoyed tremendously, exhausted me and of which I never performed again.
Well over twenty years later, I’d return to the stage in Mount Vernon, Washington to play the roles of Sir in “Side Show,” Harry in “Mamma Mia,” of which I thoroughly enjoyed for several reasons, and the role of the Narrator and Satan for an original musical production titled, “Pray the Gay Away.” Being in “Pray the Gay Away” meant the world to me because it spoke to my very soul. The gist of the story was about a teenage boy who comes to understand that he might be gay. When his parents find out about it, they send him to attend gay conversion therapy sessions with a doctor who thinks he’s a specialist. The musical written by the amazingly talented Conrad Askland has humorous moments as it should because it deals with a very serious topic, but then the show gets very realistic as the audience not only sees the rivalry between the church and the LGBTQ community, but the traumatic toll gay conversion therapy can have on teenagers.
“Pray the Gay Away” was the last production I was in. I’ve been in many theatre productions and hope to be in some again someday as I still have dream roles I’d like to perform, one being the role of Fagin in “Oliver!” But “Pray the Gay Away”… it was as if Conrad was telling my story. You see, although I’d never been through gay conversion therapy myself, I knew since I was a little boy that I was “different” than other boys my age. Growing up in a strict Christian home and being told that being a homosexual was wrong and that it was a sin… that conflicting war in my heart, mind and soul went on day after day after day for many, many years.
Did my mother make me gay? Of course not. My mother made me a singer. God made me gay. Who knows… maybe, in a certain way, God used Barbra Streisand, Johnny Mathis and Barry Manilow as tools in my mother’s hands at just the right time to help nudge me in the direction of what would become a whirlwind of a life full of awakening, wonder, delight, fear, shame, rejection, and eventually bravery, pride, and, most importantly, sheer fabulousness and brilliance which would affect the lives, hearts, and souls of countless people who have come in and out of my life thus far.
Thanks, mum. And thank you, Heavenly Father. Cheers to ya both!