Sonya Deanna Terry
Featured in The Grapple Annual 2014
Late last year I happened across an old theatre programme in a rarely sorted-through cupboard and immediately designated the booklet to a file labelled ‘Shows’. The file is ragged now and plump with mementos dating back to 1988.
The programme my recent clutter clearing unearthed was similar to the others: pages crammed with pics of performers, smiling or open-mouthed, gesticulating flamboyantly against backdrops of faux-marble staircases or painted cities.
Contrary to the other glossy booklets stacked beneath it, the singers in this evoked a feeling of having known them, until I remembered why.
It wasn't because they were household names – the 1990 production of Funny Girl was an amateur one held at The Canberra Theatre.
It was because I'd spent a crazy-fun teenage autumn season alongside them onstage, dancing and gesticulating, and looking startled, annoyed or delighted on cue.
Throughout the season I had marvelled at my fellow cast members' lithe and confident tunefulness while darting away from the shadowy prospect of my own voice being heard.
During my jittery dance audition, the panel had given me a solo because of my jazz-ballet and belly-dance background and suggested I try out for the role of showgirl/chorus singer.
As for a ‘reasonable voice’, well, let’s just say I have the angels to thank for the panel politely overlooking my flat ‘Happy Birthday’ rendition.
To my utmost surprise, I received a welcoming phonecall from the show's production assistant and found myself part of a project that focused on footwork, camaraderie, costume alterations, gruelling rehearsals and after-show cocktail events that brought out the show-off in all who showed up.
At first rehearsal, the director announced a solo belly-dance scene. The boys had shouted 'Woooooo-hoooo!' and I'd scanned the room for the dancer who'd pipped me at the post. My name was mentioned, I was spot-lit amongst our circle of seats, and I blushed the brightest shade of crimson as the socially vibrant uni-student cast clapped and hollered encouragingly.
The producers had decided on a sinuous Turkish routine for the 'concert-within-the-concert' part of Funny Girl for a dancer whose physical presence conjured the 1920s. Who would have thought the small mouth I resented would ever become an asset!
My 1890s-born grandmother had despaired of her own mouth when young. ‘Too broad,’ she’d said, shaking her blue-rinsed head.
I’d been amazed. ‘But big smiles are considered attractive,’ I’d told her.
She’d gazed beyond her dressing-table mirror with a wistful light in her eyes. ‘Now, perhaps. But not back then. In the twenties, we girls were expected to have small, dainty kewpie-doll mouths. It improved once the Second World War came around. Suddenly all the film actresses had victory rolls and enormous grins.’
The dancing part before an audience of 700-plus throughout my fifteen days of 'fame' was easy, a veritable soda; the singing part for the "showgirl" scenes, a source of untold shame.
The orchestra starting up was my self-imposed silence prompt. I would mouth each of the words as soulfully as I hoped was credible, flourishing my hands along with the rest of the cast and holding tightly to the philosophy that even pop stars lip-synched. True, they at least mimed their own voices, but my naive teen self chose to ignore that rather important detail.
On the programme's fourth page is a black & white photo of the Ziegfeld Girls, and I am one of them, a shy nineteen-year-old peering out from glittering plumage, wearing the nervous smile of a chorus member guilty of zero vocal ability, no doubt the same smile of an undetetected stowaway.
In hindsight I feel slightly vindicated. I'm now aware I wasn't the only pretend-vocalist at that point in time. Unbeknownst to its millions of fans, that dastardly duo known as Milli Vanilli was brazenly non-singing 'Blame It On the Rain' and 'Baby Don't Forget My Number.' Two years later their cover was blown, and they descended into joke-sparking infamy.
Thanks to Funny Girl I revisited the era of my
wide-mouthed grandmother’s youth. Atop the magic carpet
of costume, script and song, we each were transported to
the innocent optimism of 1914.
In my glittery showgirl role I marched to a military drumbeat for the ‘Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat’ scene down a mountainous staircase, in
towering golden heels...and then up again, facing the audience, in synch with the others. The brief twinge of stage fright pre-show
was nothing compared to the dread of stilettos getting
stuck in the stair-joins.
Lyricist Bob Merrill’s patriotic lines extolling the superior gunning abilities of American soldiers, and reassuring rightfully anxious mothers that the nation would look after their sons once returned, echoed the propaganda that enticed young men to enlist and had a discomforting effect on the cast.
Throughout high school Generation X had been exposed to horrifying doomsday documentaries that described nuclear devastation in detail and warned that this was where the Cold War might lead.
Some of us throughout our school years had sunk into future-fearing apathy.
Some had even taken their own lives.
Others had got active in fighting for nuclear disarmament, had roared unashamedly along to the spirited protest songs of that flailing-armed rock star activist whose wildest deeds in more
recent years, as our previous Minister for Education, involved shooting goals for Year 3 basketball teams.
Thanks to the threat of World War III and the 1987 AIDS campaigns, pessimism seeped into, and subtly tainted, the youthful dreams of Generation X.
Few of us could go tenpin bowling without battling images of the Grim Reaper treating all and sundry like skittles, the theme for a commercial that brought renown to Siimon Reynolds, a 21-year-old Aussie advertising exec with a typo for a first-name.
The initial hostility of his audiences, many of whom were parents of nightmare sufferers, did not impinge on Reynolds’ rising-star career. He went on to become the founder of a marketing and communications company now worth at least $500 million.
The theatre programme threw up one memory after another, the ‘casual shots’ page especially. Sipping Vienna coffees at Gus’. Lazing on tartan rugs by the tulip beds at Floriade's spring festival the day after bump-out. Cavorting through autumn leaves when rehearsals first began.
Ah, Canberra’s ruby-tinted autumn leaves! An event, six years prior to the time of the photo, faintly flitted back.
Age fourteen. Trudging alongside a friend through crunchy liquidambar leaves near the cinema. Chattering excitedly about the movie we’d just seen: Back to the Future starring Dolly Magazine pin-up boy, Michael J. Fox, who, throughout 116 spellbinding minutes in his role of time-travelling Marty McFly, transported us into the post-war hopefulness of the 1950s.
Fox had us biting our nails when he returned to 1985. A scary gang of gun-wielding Libyan nationalists were rocketing violently towards his lovably eccentric inventor pal, demanding the return of their nuclear fuel.
The first of two sequels was released in North America on the 20th of November 1989, with an Australian release soon after. Partly set in the year 2015, Back to the Future Part II featured those fantastical skateboards that never touch the ground. Since anything might happen in twenty-six years’ time, the idealistic among us refused to dismiss the idea of hoverboards.
We might even have portable shoe phones by then – like Agent 86 had in the 1960s sitcom Get Smart – kept in our pockets though, rather than beneath the sole of one foot, and quite possibly referred to as ‘Maxwell Smart’ phones.
And since we were no longer under the threat of Russia or America pushing the Big Red Button, chances were we would still be alive to enjoy our devices while skating over the clouds. That was if we didn’t fall victim to HIV first.
The HIV Virus, AIDS and other grim fears of Generation X were captured aptly in 1994 by the movie Reality Bites starring
Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke and a lesser-known Ben Stiller.
Resonating with many Generation X-ers was one of Hawke’s lines. Ryder’s character says: ‘I just don’t understand why things just can’t go back to normal at the end of the half hour like on
The Brady Bunch or something.’
And Hawke’s character replies: ‘Well, ’cause Mr Brady died of AIDS. Things don’t turn out like that.’
Robert Reed, the actor who had played the lovable flare-wearing dad of a sitcom favoured by many Generation X-ers throughout the 1970s, had passed away two years earlier.
A year after, the late Christopher Reeve (aka Superman) would sustain a cervical spine injury that would paralyse him from the neck down.
Back to the Future’s Michael J. Fox had already been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
On the screen, these actors were invincible. In real life, their humanness and their mortality had become despairingly apparent and proved to the young and the star-struck that reality did bite at times, with none of us far from its jaws.
I closed the theatre programme, pleased to allow my generation’s gloomy expectations to remain in the past and scribbled down a brief list of events in a place once called 'the future' in which you and I, and the rest of us, now reside:
1 – We’re still alive – and enjoying it.
2 – Michael J. Fox is enjoying being alive too, having recently starred in ‘The Michael J. Fox Show’, amongst other TV roles.
3 – Our nations are free of the potential perils of the Cold War
4 – We’re now only a year away from riding on hoverboards. Yee-ha!
5 – Advanced and interactive technologies - music, television, movies and Internet - allow us choices. We can emulate Marty McFly in journeying to the past because virtual entertainment affords us the luxury of zooming back to the 1950s or the 1920s, or pretty much anywhere in time... and minus any need for Libyan nuclear fuel.
Along with the woes of our immaturity and the raggedy pages of outworn uncertainties, history is dead, the red curtains have closed, and good riddance to all the dross!
But the rosy glow of hope and fond, funny memories have thankfully never left us.
They're as alive and as vital as we are.
Former Canberra resident Sonya Deanna Terry is a debut novelist, Communications student and rabid theatre-goer.
Details of her soon-to-be-released two-volume series Epiphany can be accessed after the 7th of December 2014 at:
Posted by Grapple Publishing.