There is no business like show business.
Not even for The Drama Queens.
TBB called tonight. She had the privilege of having her family around her as her son graduated from her alma mater, and took up his commission in the Navy. It was a great time, but it put her out of synch with her ship’s sailing schedule, so she is doing two weeks on another ship as a fill-in, meeting her ship next week.
It’s been a tough week there. The old chief is leaving the boat, the new chief is a fill in, the juniors want to show off, and the ship was in port, with most of the crew going home every night.
Usually, TBB just has to prove four things to get over the scuttlebutt that a transsexual is coming aboard. She just has to prove that she is competent, excellent, human and charming. That’s usually not hard for her. What’s the old Bella Abzug mashup?
“To get ahead, a woman has to prove she is twice as good as a man. Luckily, that’s rarely a problem. The feminist revolution isn’t about making sure that a female Einstein is recognized as easily a male Einstein, it’s about making sure that a female schlemiel has the same opportunities as a male schlemiel.”
But when there is lots of other drama going around, it’s tough for TBB to get standing to show her stuff. The girls see her as old, the boys are trying to show who has the biggest member, and everyone is apprehensive about change. Things change this week when they are on a cruise, and everyone is locked in the same big floating tin can. As an extrovert, TBB really needs company, not like me locked in this basement, and so an audience will be life blood to her.
TBB is being seen as other, not one of us, without standing to perform at her best. Why is she other? Because she is new, because she is short-time, because she is a woman, because she is a transsexual, because she is older, or some other reason? The answer is, of course, that all those reasons are in play. But I got to talk about all the stuff I wrote this week about the experience of otherness, and it all resonated with her.
Just understanding otherness isn’t enough. The challenge is how to get past it. Regular readers of this blog (both of you) will know the answer I was working with this week.
Performance is performance. When you’re hot, you’re hot, as Jerry Reed sang. And part of the job when talking to TBB is to bring back that heat, get her laughing and performing, so she feels the energy surge through her, the energy that is so easy to be buried.
“If they offered to have you do a one person show at SCC,” I asked her, “what songs would you have in your act?”
She had to think about this. On Karaoke nights, TBB often does Sinatra, but he’s not really a perfect fit. Ol’ Blue Eyes is a very cool performer, but TBB is a very warm performer, wanting to touch the audience. She’s much happier with some Jerry Herman, like her performance of Hello Dolly!, a performance I had to channel in my mother’s last week to get her into the shower.
We thought about Sophie Tucker, maybe, The Last Of The Red-Hot Mamas, but she wasn’t it.
No, the answer to unlocking the energy was simpler than that. It’s unlocking your inner Merman. Ethel, that is.
In a story on Theatre Talk, a friend of hers talks about seeing her at curtain call for Gypsy when she was going through her third divorce. She looked down, with maybe the saddest face ever, until she stepped out into that spotlight, and then she blazed with the light of a thousand suns, filling the theatre with her energy.
Ethel Merman was not always Ethel Merman. But when she was hot, well, she was blazing.
Bert Lahr used to tell the story of when he and Ray Bolger and Jack Haley used to goof around between shots for The Wizard Of Oz, and director Victor Fleming would get upset that they lost focus. But Fleming was used to Hollywood stars, not vaudeville troupers, so when he called action, the energy level soared instantly. Bang.
The experience of being the other, and the experience of being in the deep freeze where nobody supports your inner Merman.
There is a little bit of Merman in every one of us. That may not actually be true, but if there is one thing The Drama Queens believe, it’s when you say something potentially stupid, you gotta commit, dammnit. Go big or go home.
Stay hot, babe. The world needs your Merman.