She was tall, blonde, thin, and impossibly beautiful.
I knew she was trouble the minute she walked in the door.
It might be that I, Allie Larimer, Queen of the Short and Cute, with a goofy smile, big nose and a personality to match, have a thing against women who are tall.
The blonde part doesn’t bother me, though. After all, peroxide is cheap.
* * *
She sashayed into rehearsals that first day acting as if she owned the place, shoulders back, breasts perched high and thrust forward in a Spanx-enhanced profile, mimicking the figurehead on an old-fashioned ship. Her enormous baby blue eyes, framed by spider-like false lashes flared open, looking ever so vacant; her blonde hair, which was cut shoulder-length in the absolute trendiest style, swung carefree as she walked, but landed perfectly back in place with every step she took. She wore very, very tight jeans, fashionably acid washed, which only magnified her already impossibly long legs. Her shirt was cut even tighter than the jeans to show off her perfectly round, symmetrical breasts. And on her feet? Designer stilettos, naturally. Was she really going to rehearse in those — what were they? Manolos? Jimmy Choos? Who knows. Fashion was clearly her forte, not mine.
She looked so perfect she resembled a guy in drag.
Within moments, the giddy chatter of the already assembled players plummeted to a hushed awe. A couple of the chorus boys sitting in the corner looked up and stared. And they didn’t even play for her team.
“Entitlement” would be the word.
As I stared full of wonder and envy, I heard someone sneak up behind me and whisper, “She certainly does demand attention.” I turned to look and there was this very handsome leading man, medium height, slim with darkish sandy hair, wearing a sly grin.
“Jamie!” I jumped up and threw my legs around his waist while still managing to hold my cream cheese-laden sesame bagel I was trying to scarf down out to the side.
“She certainly is… something,” — was my reply as Jamie released me to the ground and I took another bite of bagel. Free food is provided only on rare occasions — like the first day of rehearsal. Best indulge when you can.
“Jealous?” asked Jamie.
“Me? Jealous? Hah!” I said. I am, after all, the Queen of Short and Cute. How could I be jealous?
But it was hard to repress the green monster. Since adolescence, I had a palpable envy of skinny, tall women — especially ones in tight jeans, high-heeled expensive shoes and perfect hair, probably stemming from my mother’s regular mantra that a woman could never be too thin, too tall, or too rich. Having realized genetics meant I would never attain the first two requirements I overcame my bias and actually befriended a number of gangly Goddesses in college. But now, at only 24 years old and well on my way to failing at the third requirement, I was in my first honest-to-goodness original cast of a Big Musical heading to Broadway and coming face to face with someone who was quickly bringing out my instinctual bias. I eyed the gorgeous, confident blonde enviously and recalled, without much fondness, my first professional show, when I was right out of college, excited and eager to please but surrounded by worn out vicious Theatre Trolls who did their very best to drain me of my enthusiasm with their age-worn, gypsy cattiness. I would not stoop to that, I chided myself. I would be different. I was still young enough and green enough to retain my patina of wonder and magnanimity in this flea-bitten show biz world.
Even if she was a medically enhanced, peroxide-loving, entitled, pulchritudinous bitch.
OK. Maybe not a bitch. But really — it is possible to be that beautiful and still be nice?
She strutted over to us, swishing her hips, making a point of ignoring the lowly chorus boys. Why she came towards us, I have no idea. Maybe we looked as though we needed a taste of her glory. Or maybe we looked more important than we really were. Or just maybe, she didn’t know where else to go. My resolution faltered, even as I reminded myself that it wasn’t her fault she was cast over me. I was sure it was a height thing. After all, I’m only five foot, three, not six foot ten. Okay, she wasn’t that tall. And maybe, just maybe, she wasn’t even as superficial as she looked.
“Hello. I’m Catherine Silver — playing Selena.” She looked straight at Jamie, extending a paw, palm down, as though he should kiss her ring. “Are you Chaz?”
I looked sideways at Jamie who was making silly faces at me that made me choke on my bagel and nearly spew cream-cheese crusted sesame seeds everywhere. He looked at her hand, looking as though he were contemplating licking it. “Alas, I’m just Jamie — short for James, sort of. I understudy Chaz, though, short for Charles, I think.” His thick, ash-blonde eyebrows shot up, double pump, as he took her hand gallantly and kissed it gently.
Jamie always was an incurable flirt. Ah, if only he were straight.
“This is Allie,” he pointed to me, “Short for Allyson, right? And So-yeun, short for — what is So-yeun short for?”
“Sally,” said So-yeun.
Catherine was the only one who did not laugh.
“Who are you? You obviously can’t play a Roman.”
“So-yeun is the ASM,” I chirped in.
“I’m asking her. You do speak English, don’t you?”
So-yeun, a Harvard graduate, answered, “Me speak pretty English. Me no play Roman. And me no like your condescending attitude.” So-yeun leaned in, somewhat menacingly. “But if you really want to know, my parents are from Korea. I was born in Boston. And if you’re asking ‘whom I play,’ me no dumb actress. I’m the stage manager. ASM stands for ‘assistant stage manager.’”
“Stage manager? What do you do? Move furniture?”
. . . Catherine turned to me suddenly, blankly, blandly, belittling me with every flick of her long, luscious lashes, staring at me as though I had materialized out of thin air. “I’m sorry. Who are you?”
Be careful what you wish for, right?
“I’m Allyson Larimer. But . . . , as Jamie said, everyone calls me Allie.” I threw Catherine my best “aren’t I cute and non-threatening” smile and bit my lower lip as I added, “I’m your understudy.”
Understudy. I tried not to choke on the word. For two years, I had been moving up the ranks, from my first union job in the chorus, to small roles, to lead roles Off-Off-Off Broadway and then a small break as the secondary lead in a developmental reading of a new musical with promising talent, then two mini-concerts and another staged reading of said musical, and then, after finding a producer, another concert and an excerpt, and then a small workshop — all for little or no money. But now that that show was opening on Broadway, what happened? They recast the role and offered me the understudy job. Understudy. I felt as though I had somehow failed . . .
But then again, who knows? I would watch. And learn. And maybe, just maybe, I would get a chance to go on — unlike my friend who understudied in her first show and never went on. Not once. For the 18 months the show played on Broadway, she watched in the wings. But maybe I would get lucky. Maybe Catherine and I could become friends. Best friends. Maybe one day she might conspire with me so I could go on and invite my friends and family…
She glanced down at me, for the flick of an eyelash, and then turned back to So-yeun.
“So, Madam Assistant Stage Manager. What happens now? What exactly am I supposed to do? What are my responsibilities?” So-yeun and I exchanged a glance. Catherine had just been hired to play a lead role opposite a multiple Tony-Award winner in a major new show heading to Broadway and destined to be a huge hit, and she had no idea what her responsibilities were?
“Know your lines and show up on time,” Jamie quipped, quoting someone famous from the theater, though I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember who…
I kept thinking later, if she had only listened to that sage piece of advice…
“We’re opening doors, singing, “Here we are!” We’re filling up days on a dime. That faraway shore’s looking not too far. We’re following every star —”
— from “Merrily We Roll Along” by Stephen Sondheim
We were gathered in a spacious but somewhat dingy rehearsal hall in downtown New York City. Yes, this was a Big Broadway-Bound Musical we were rehearsing, but we wouldn’t see the stage for weeks. I had learned that rehearsing in the actual theater was a fantasy reserved solely for expensive movies made to glorify the theater. Instead, we rehearsed in a building with a barely working freight elevator, and an even less dependable toilet stuffed into a stall so small the door hit the loo when you tried to open it. The floor was uneven and the room, dank and dirty. There was a bank of small windows, but they were so high up they let in very little genuine sunlight. But theater people create their own sunshine, and this was a new show. I looked around the room at the incredible wealth of talent milling about — character actors whose faces were recognizable from dozens — no hundreds — of appearances on stage, television and film; theatre design veterans with myriads of Tony Awards gracing their mantels; and our own legendary composer and writers and directors and producers. I realized that many of my former colleagues from the readings and concerts were not here. They had not been cast — even in the chorus. I counted my blessings…
Yeah — this was freakin’ awesome.
Bagels and coffee and schmoozing ground to a halt as Moe called the room to order. People scrambled for chairs, jostling and shifting seats. Placement in the circle became of supreme importance. The chorus dancers — dressed in jazz pants and miniature tops and all manner of leg warmers and ripped tees with navels bared — sat on the floor, legs parted at 180 degrees — or more — angles. Several older, character men sat up front, looking dignified yet chummy. The principals waited to be introduced one by one and escorted to seats upfront. I scanned the crowd, looking for Madame Hélène Blanc — the great Broadway legend who was starring in The Fires of Bel. I had only see Hélène onstage once — from way back in the nosebleed section. But it didn’t matter. I barely remembered the show — but Hélène? She was magnificent.
I was dying to meet Ms. Blanc. I had been a fan ever since I could remember. I used to listen to her belt out great Broadway show-tunes blasted on my stereo when I was in college. I wanted to be Hélène Blanc. Her reputation as the embodiment of Mount Saint Hélène didn’t bother me; that’s probably what made her such a force on stage, the fact that you never knew when she was going to erupt.
I wondered where I should sit. As a stand-by, I was in limbo — between the stars and the chorus. . . Luckily, Jamie yanked me towards him and plopped me in the next seat next to his, behind the leads, apart from the corps.
A hush settled across the room as the director, Simon Jeffries, straight from the West End and Broadway’s latest Great White Hope, took the floor, his thinning, white-blonde hair, so common in London but rare in New York, gleamed under the florescent lights.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome,” he intoned in his Oxford-bred accent. “I am so glad you are all here. The Fires of Bel is a very special show, and I am thrilled to have such a brilliant and creative group of people in our cast and crew. So first, without further ado, let me introduce you to our stars.” Simon Jeffries turned and gestured as a short, unkempt woman emerged from behind. “My dear friend, the smashing Hélène Blanc.”
Everyone looked as Hélène entered the circle and graciously bowed, her hands clasped in prayer as she accepted our raucous applause. “She’s so tiny!” I blurted out before wishing my hands could catch the words and stuff them back into my mouth. Jamie kicked me under the chair, and three people in front of me turned and chuckled. Luckily, we were in the back and for once, my large, sonorous voice did not carry to the front of the room.
“Well, she is. She’s barely five feet tall,” I whispered to Jamie. “I’d tower over her. Me!”
When I’d seen Hélène onstage, I had thought she was HUGE, at least as tall — well, as tall as Catherine was. She had such a towering presence; her presence simply sucked out all the dead air and filled theater.
But today, in that gray, gloomy room, I was surprised by the figure that Hélène presented. I guess I expected clichéd, movie star greatness, red-carpet glamour. But Hélène Blanc sported no dark glasses, no long scarves, no dramatic hats. Instead, she wore a large, white, man’s button-down shirt left open over a black tee shirt with casual jeans. In an absolute refusal to concede to the fact that some might have considered her attitudinally challenged, she wore flat, worn-in, loafers. Her hair had been teased up in to some attempt at a ‘do’ — but from the side, anyone could see it was really a ‘don’t.’ Her one concession to makeup was lipstick. Glossy. Fire. Engine. RED. …surrounded by stark, black liner…
“Next, we are very pleased to welcome to the Broadway community, New York City’s reigning beauty queen, Catherine Silver.” Simon leered Catherine’s way as she stood, her innocent doe-eyes sparkling. She lifted her arm and waved graciously, elbow-elbow-wrist-wrist, looking every bit a movie star. I hated the comparison. How dare she play the star and upstage the Great Hélène Blanc?
“Actually, Simon,” Catherine said as she surveyed the crowd with a sweet yet sly smile, “…it’s Miss New York, the State.”
Oh, well, then. That changes everything. . .
An introduction to a veritable compendium of designers and assistants and assistants to assistants followed — more than fifty people in all — and that did not include the rest of the cast and chorus. I zoned in and out. After all, I’d probably never see most of these people ever again. Or, at least, not till opening night, when they’d descend upon the Opening Night Cast Party, schmooze and booze, and then disappear back into their studio hideaways. I felt my enthusiasm start to waver as a tinge of boredom set it.
After Moe gave us the rules about no cell phones, tweeting, posting and blogging, during rehearsals, Mr. Simon Jeffries took the “stage,” as it were, and launched into the obligatory lecture on his vision of this show.
“I know many of you are thinking: well, yes, he’s been brilliant when it comes to directing Shakespeare and other British fare, but musicals? After all, this isn’t Andrew Lloyd Webber. What makes him think he can direct a musical? And an American musical at that. But then again, Fires of Bel is no ordinary musical. It’s a musical about the most sacred of British mythology — the Druids…
* * *
Finally . . . chorus members took off for another room to learn choreography and choral arrangements. Moe and So-yeun started to set up the room, marking-off the important set pieces: metal chairs for the stone pillars, red tape for the bonfire; green tape for the edge of the turntable…. Hélène, Catherine, and Mr. Simon Jeffries huddled together to go through the blocking, the official ‘road-map’, for their first scene together.
And me? . . . I found an obscure spot in the corner, laid out my script and loaded up the voice recorder on my smart phone, ready to take notes and do my job.
It is sunset on the last day of April — the eve of May Day. Morgana, the High Priestess of the Druids, played by Hélène, enters to address her fellow Caledonians who are pressing for war with the Romans. Morgana, however, is secretly in love with the leader of the Roman warriors. She tries to sway them from war, and sings instead, a prayer to the Moon for peace and religious tolerance.
I hear the mutinous voices Voices crying out for war.
O, wake once more, Chaste Silver goddess.
Shroud us with your sparkling glow.
The music was haunting, a Celtic-inspired chant. While Hélène’s voice wasn’t what anyone would call “pretty,” her way with the poetry cast a suspended hush over the room.
Let our work be not in vain.
Lead us with your nobler strain.
And spread your peace to those below.
She moved away from the piano, working the room as she sang. When she looked your way, you felt as though she was reaching into your heart. Her small audience was mesmerized… …and then I registered something moving from the behind the door …
…and Hélène stopped. Dead. Silence. Frozen.
The only movement: the flaring of Mount St Helen’s nostrils.
That, and the spread of metaphorical black clouds gathering in the room. The dread of Mordor.
Finally, she spoke. Slowly. Painfully, terribly. Slowly.
“Who. Opened. The. Door?” Every head turned, as one, to the door at the side of the room that had been left ever so slightly ajar.
“Oh SHIT!” So-yeun tore over and slammed the door shut. “I’m so sorry. Oh my God!”
Hélène started shaking from head to toe. “NO OPEN DOORS! I told them over and over — NO. OPEN. DOORS!” She started to wave her hands, gathering — what? — and hugging to herself — gathering and hugging. Moe helped her to a chair. She added rocking to the gathering and hugging, all the while chanting, “No open doors! No open doors! No open doors! No open doors!” Meanwhile, So-yeun stood plastered to the door, her arms splayed wide, pleading
“I’m sorry, I’m so, so, sorry….”
I looked at Jamie, quizzically. What the hell was going on?
“Clear the room,” said Moe. “Now! Take ten. Quickly please…”
“So-yeun, go! Everyone! Just GO!
We quickly gathered our things and filed out of the room.
Once in the hall, I grabbed So-yeun, who was shaking.
“Oh my, God! Oh, my God! They’re going to fire me. My first day, and they’re going to fire me….”
“So-yeun, calm down. What are you talking about?”
“Oh, my God! I can’t believe I screwed up like this the first day. I had to go to the bathroom, and now they’re going to fire me …”
“…because you went to the bathroom?’
“No, because I didn’t close the door… All the way… I left it open…”
“They’re going to fire you because you left the door open? Be serious, So-yeun…This is a union job. How can they fire you?”
“Hélène doesn’t like open doors.”
“No, you don’t get it. It’s… “ So-yeon stopped, caught her breath, and led me by the arm, away from the crowd. “Allie. She’s afraid her soul will escape.”
“Her soul. Will — I don’t know — She insists that no one open doors while she’s rehearsing. It’s in her fucking contract. No open doors. She’s afraid her soul will fly out the door or something. Like ‘Wuthering Heights.’ You know. Only weirder.”
“I wish I were. They warned us in our first staff meeting. And when someone started to laugh…” So-yeun shook her head. “They were taking it incredibly seriously. Allie. Like I said, It’s in her contract.”
“So-yeun. They can’t fire you because you left a door open.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. She once fired an assistant for refusing to help her put on pantyhose.”
“She wanted someone to help her put on pantyhose?” I asked. How would one do that — help someone else put on panty hose? “I’m assuming you mean not just holding the hose open…to step into…”
“No, that’s normal. Almost. No — I mean — all the way up….”
The visual stuck in my brain. “Ew.”
“She didn’t want to ruin her manicure.”
“Oh… kay… Well. I guess that makes sense. Or at least more sense than being afraid your soul will escape.”
“You cannot tell anyone I told you. No tweets, posts… you have to swear…”
“I won’t tell… I swear,” I started to giggle. “Really? Is she scared of windows?”
“They didn’t say anything about windows.”
“But, if her soul can escape through a door, one would think…”
The door to the rehearsal room opened and Moe stuck out his head. “OK. We’re back.
Everyone in the room, please. We’re ready to rehearse.”
I gave So-yeun a quick hug. “All better… see? Crisis over.”
Jamie, So-yeun, and I filed back through the door with the other principals. The scene that greeted us filled me with a certain dread: center stage stood Catherine, in a cozy tête-à-tête with Hélène, comforting her, protecting her, helping her sip from a glass of water.
“Alright then,” said Mr. Jeffries. “So. We had a little scare, but everyone’s settled down now, yes? Doors closed? Yes?”
“Do they need to be here, Simon,” asked Catherine. “Hélène would like to continue in private.”
I turned from Catherine to look Mr. Jeffries — who was always Mr. Jeffries and was never — and would never — be ‘Simon.’ Yet somehow, in no more than fifteen minutes, Catherine was on a first name basis.
“Right. Of course, Catherine, dear. No understudies,” said Mr. Jeffries.
“Her, too” said Catherine. She pointed directly at So-yeun.
My heart skipped the proverbial beat. Hélène stared as though she had been mortally aggrieved, a wounded swallow. Catherine, her protective She-bear, towered over her, daring anyone to intercede. I could see So-yeun’s eyes grow wide, feel her pulse quicken as her hands started to flutter helplessly, chasing away invisible moths.
“Actually, So-yeun, I have a few things I need you to take care of,” said Moe, as he took her aside, attenuating the awkward moment.” Then Mr. Jeffries turned to Catherine and Hélène and started speaking to them in hushed tones.
Jamie and I just stood there, afraid to attract Catherine’s accusatory finger or Hélène’s condemnatory stare.
“But…. What about us?” I whispered, to no one in particular. I turned to Jamie. “How are we supposed to learn the staging?
“There’ll be time later.”
“Does this mean we’re released from rehearsal?”
“I don’t know.”
“So — do we just hang in the hallway?”
“I don’t know.”
Jamie and I sidled over to the door. In the background, I heard music as the pianist once again played the haunting intro to Hélène’s opening number.
“Are they going to fire So-yeun? Please tell me they’re not going to fire her…” I whispered as I reached the door, wanting desperately to be on the other side, out in the hall, away from the insanity, away from the numbing, creeping sensation that human sacrifice might not beyond the pale.
I was almost there. Safety. Rationality. I reached for the knob and was about to turn it, open it, slip out of the room as silently as possible when Jamie’s hand shot forth and grabbed my hand harshly, preventing the knob from turning, barring even the slightest escape to the room beyond, holding the door shut.
Hélène’s voice filled the room as Jamie whispered, “No open doors.”
Lorraine Goodman graduated from Princeton in 1983 and pursued a career in theater, where she appeared on Broadway in three Tony Award-winning musicals, soloed in Carnegie Hall, and starred in “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera” abroad. Her greatest claim to Broadway fame was with Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” where she covered the role originally played by six-time Tony-award winner Audra McDonald and performed the role more than 100 times. In 2011 Goodman received her Masters in Performing Arts Administration at NYU. In 2016 she moved back to Princeton to join Princeton AlumniCorps as its development officer.