Monday, February 27, 2012

I AM GRIZABELLA

Some time ago, I promised my friend, Harry, that I would tell him the story of me as Grizabella.  With my usual humility, I am thinking that my other reader might like to hear the story, as well.

It is well-known to everyone who knows me that I cannot sing.  I do not use the word "cannot" lightly.  I have tried.  I nearly drove 3 voice teachers to suicide with my attempts before I decided to give the music world a break, and took up playing the guitar while others sang.

When a small group of us decided we wanted to do the musical, Cats, there were some difficulties,  the first being that this was in 1983 and Cats  was relatively new, which caused two problems.

  1. There was no script available to us
  2. The copyright was jealously guarded
The first wasn't too difficult.  Since it was all sung, we simply got the original Broadway  recording which - HALLELUJAH! - included all the lyrics.   The second simply couldn't be overcome, so we did what any good Jellicle cats would do and became what today would be called "pirates."   No big deal, really, as we intended only a single private performance.

Those two difficulties overcome, we next turned to casting.  I assumed I would work on props and run around as a stray extra Jellicle cat.  [To learn about Jellicle cats, go here.  Or if you prefer the German version, here]  After all, almost all of the spoken lines are sung.   And I couldn't carry a tune if the fate of the universe hung on my doing so.







Mais non!   It was almost unanimously (I abstained) decided that I absolutely must be Grizabella.  I pointed out that the climax of the whole play was when Grizabella sings - emphasize SINGS - Memory , then  demonstrated by "singing" the opening bars...

Memory
All alone in the moooooonlight

video

After the company removed their hands from their ears, they still insisted we'd have to find a way.  I refused lip-synching, that is more dishonest than pirating.  Anyway, that would be funny and this is a very serious, moving moment, one of the most poignant scenes in all of theatre.  

We did sort of work it out.  It was decided that I would recite the words with the instrumental version playing in the background.  As a compromise, not to let our audience down, we would do an encore of Memory sung by the whole cast, while I pantomimed Grizabella's part.  I suppose that I should have steadfastly refused a part I was clearly incompetent to play, but this was Grizabella in Cats, the leading role in a Broadway smash hit.  Our production was a bit off-Broadway, of course, and only a chosen few would ever even know it was ever done, but still, how could I possibly find the necessary humility to turn it down?  I really didn't try too hard.  I had my own ideas about Grizabella and grabbed the opportunity to try them out.

  This is how Grizabella was played in London and on Broadway. 

Like a flower as the dawn is breaking
The memory is fading.”

Grizabella has fallen to the ground, seemingly defeated; she struggles to her feet, stands up, and sings the final lines of Memory :

 Touch me
It's so easy to leave me
All alone with the memory of my days in the sun.
If you touch me, you'll understand what happiness is
Look, a new day has begun 
 
Grizabella belts out "Touch me" with everything she can muster, then considers her present situation and makes a promise to the other cats. For her and perhaps for all the Jellicles, it's a new day.




Then she extends her arm behind her, not daring to look at the other cats, desperately hoping that at least one of them will overcome their distaste and actually touch her. Of course, one of them does, then another and another, and she is welcomed back into the Jellicle community, sort of. She is then chosen by the Patriarch of the Jellicles to be reborn and “come back to a different Jellicle life.” All cheer as she rises up past the Heaviside layer. It has always been unclear to me whether the other cats are happy that she has another chance or are just relieved to be rid of her.

Now the stage has been set and we get to the meat of the story.

During rehearsals, I more or less portrayed her the usual way, but I had my own idea about how I thought she ought to be played, which I saved as a surprise to all, including my fellow thespians. I performed exactly as we had rehearsed until it came time to humbly extend my hand behind me. Instead, I turned and glared directly at the other cats and extended my hand for a handshake. The other cats were all in total confusion and I waited until the one who was supposed to gingerly touch me slowly and with great hesitation approached me. When she was almost there, I saw the lightbulb go on in her eyes. She understood exactly what I was doing, who my Grizabella represented.   She stuck out her hand, and we heartily shook hands.   Except for Old Deuteronomy, the other cats, still a bit mystified, approached me rather gingerly – and only after shaking Grizabella's (my) hand did they understand what happiness is.   At the end Old Deuteronomy, played by my husband, approached me and when I held out my hand to him, fell  at my feet. Now there's a man who knows what happiness is.   Of course, me being me, I made a kicking motion at him and he scrambled to his feet. Old Deuteronomy (him) put his arm around Grizabella (me) and led her to the place where she could go up, up, up to be reborn.  (Of course, my  Grizabella - and all the Jellicles along with her - had already been reborn without any mystical nonsense, but even so, the show must go on.)     

 
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[The first video won't play in "my country," so I am adding in this performance by a group of high school actors.  They don't have the fancy props and all, so they need to rely only on talent and preparation.   They do one helluva good job.]
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Not a dry eye in the house, including his and mine.


Of course, we didn't have a huge tire or a crane to lift me up. He led me to a ladder draped with silk chunnis and nicely decorated with glitter stars and encouraged me to climb it. At that point, it was unclear to both of us whether it was Grizabella and Old Deuteronomy , or my husband and myself. I managed to climb it and stand triumphant at the top, looking less like a cat and more like a statue of Nike the goddess of victory. At least that is how I felt.

The Goddess of Victory
The mystical divinity of unashamed felinity
Round the cathedral rang 'Vivat'
Life to the everlasting cat



Tuesday, February 14, 2012

GRIZABELLA and THE DEATH OF A SHAHEED

(He would have been 41 today.)

Brilliant!  Brilliant!  Brilliant!!  I have read many comparisons and opinions about Elaine Paige's interpretation of Grizabella  and that of Betty Buckley as Grizabella.

First, please listen to Ms. Paige's performance.


Elaine's Grizabella is sad, bedraggled, defeated, completely down and out.  I feel pity for her and her plight.  Her singing is exquisite and moving in its beauty. I cannot but feel very sorry for her pathetic Grizabella, the poor, down-trodden former glamour cat.   I am happy to see her lifted out of her tragic existence and chosen to be reborn.  It is a stellar performance.


Now, please listen to Betty Buckley as Grizabella the Glamour Cat.




Betty  Buckley's Grizabella, the second performance you just listened to,  inevitably moves me to tears. She is feeling, living, every emotion, all the pain, the despair that she refuses to give in to, clinging to that last hope, that last bit of dignity. I feel no pity for her Grizabella.  Compassion, perhaps, or empathy.  This Grizabella is down about as low as it is possible to go and yet she retains her pride and dignity as a cat must; she is not defeated. I don't know who is the better singer, but this performance is Grizabella to me.  This is the embodiment of artistic integrity.




 I have known a very few people like this in my days as a social activist.  These are the people I most respect and admire, the ones who have every logical reason to give up, to accept whatever crap life hands them, to lose all hope and curl up in a sad, little, pathetic ball and die...but are somehow able to reach inside and pull out that strength and dignity  to demand - not beg -

"Touch me!"

You can turn away if you choose, but there is a promise here that is often overlooked or misunderstood:

"If you touch me, you'll understand what happiness is."

I have expressed my admiration of the potential greatness of our species many times.  I don't get that admiration from looking at the easy, showy, obvious achievements that others seem to so much admire.  Yes, the big buildings and spaceships and the superhighways are all impressive, but that is not where our true greatness lies.

Our true greatness comes from overcoming adversity, refusing to accept others' negative judgments of us, having the strength and courage  to stand up and scream to the whole social structure:

"Go to bloody hell, you cannot keep me down.  
You can kill me, but you cannot defeat me. "

My admiration is of these generally unsung, unknown valiant souls who keep their integrity and their dignity in the face of all adversity and mistreatment.  Not humiliation.  Such people cannot be humiliated, since only those who consent can be humiliated.  These will never consent. I pray that I am someday found worthy to be included in their number. They are my examples.  They are my heroes.  They are my teachers.

People who know me and know of my life have often asked me  where I got the strength and inspiration to keep going after the horrendous things that I have been through.  Now you know.

"Look!  A new day has begun..."