In the starring role of my dreams

It’s five minutes till curtain: Can I learn the song lyrics in time? Wait a minute – I can’t sing!

Linda Bleck

I have an odd and recurring dream in which I am assigned a lead role in a major musical production and gamely agree to take it on – knowing I can’t sing or act my way out of a paper bag, and knowing I’d rather be anywhere but front and center onstage. 

I’d never – in my wildest dreams – pull that off.

The dream always ends before the production starts, to the benefit of my self-respect, the hapless director’s reputation, and my potential audience – who no doubt would have fled at the first note.

I chalk it up to my one and only experience in such things, my high school’s production of “South Pacific,” a musical I’d so loved as a teen I could not resist auditioning – not for a major role, but as one of the chorus of island women raising our arms in the darkened background of the “Bali Ha’i” number. As part of that chorus I needed only a basic grasp of the simple tune, and with a dozen or more stronger voices surrounding me I felt at ease contributing.

I was cast immediately, a fact I attribute to my olive skin and (then) long black hair, which overcame any misgivings the director might have had about my voice. I could pass as an islander. Not only that, but my mother sewed a sarong for me, a beautiful, vividly colored, and artful feat of seamstressing. The director begged me to give it to my classmate, who’d won the role of Liat, Bloody Mary’s daughter. (Her mother apparently could not sew herself into a paper bag.) After turning it over, I asked Mom to whip up another. She was not amused, but came through for me.

Opening night was a triumph for all: from those of us beyond the limelight, faces obscured, arms waving in synchrony, to the leads, all of whom could sing and dance effortlessly. A standout in a secondary role was Elliott. His effervescent talent, ample frame, and coconut-shell bra brought the house down in the sailor’s dance accompanying “Honey Bun.” It was a memorable performance. But I haven’t set foot on a stage again.

In his elementary school years, my grandson took a shine to attending live theater with me. But he emphatically demurred when I suggested he audition for local children’s productions. “It’s not me,” he declared, even as one of his close friends went from a local stage production to a Broadway role. I had to respect that. It wasn’t me, either, though I hadn’t disgraced myself in “South Pacific.”

But the source of these dreams, decades later, still baffles me. For all the angst they provoke, they also pique something in me that wants to rise to the occasion, and shine. 

Perhaps the dreams represent an unrealized yearning – not a yearning to be a star of stage or screen, but to have the pipes and dramatic flair to at least audition for such a part. The dreams never give me a hint of why I’d been chosen for a starring role (once in an Italian opera!) without having any singing or acting talent or even an audition, or why I’d decided to go for it, knowing I was completely unequipped and unprepared. (Lyrics? Could I learn them in the five minutes before curtain?) I suspect these dreams will get me as close to such a reality as I’ll ever be. 

For now, I only hope I keep waking up before I have to try an opening note.

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