11am. Yes, it's late for normal human beings to roll out of bed so close to noon on a Tuesday, but it's early for Melody Thespianne Hooferman. Noon-ish is just about right for this newly minted musical theater performer. Since work for MT (that’s what her friends call her) ends around midnight, there's no rolling out of bed for this artiste till 11am, if then. MT needs her beauty rest.
12pm. It's breakfast—or lunch, to civilians (that's what theater folks call normal people). Mega cheese omelet doused in ketchup and extra-strong French roast coffee hit the spot. It's lucky that MT isn't singing tonight. She knows, knows that caffeine turns vocal chords to dust. Cheese makes the mucus flow. Ketchup courts heartburn that scorches the esophagus.
She's playing "dead" tonight, "so let's live a little," she says to herself, feeling a tiny bit guilty as she slurps the last of two cups of coffee. "It's back to herb tea, tofu, and salad tomorrow," MT assures herself. Definitely tomorrow.
1pm. MT shows up at the theater that happens to occupy half the interior of a deconsecrated church. "How cool is that?" MT thinks. The musical that pays her paltry paycheck is: Non, Nein, No, Babette, a low-budget spoof of All That Jazz set in a modern acute care hospital. MT is the swinger, which means she covers all the female roles in the show. All 10 of them. One at a time, of course. Nine roles are song-and-dance vehicles with a bit of personality thrown in. The 10th? MT plays a nearly dead patient who doesn’t move a muscle for two acts. That's Bertha, stretched out, supine, etherized upon a table. Tomorrow’s role? That’s another story. MT's a little worried. That's one tough role. She's playing Polly, the physical therapist. Polly sings over a two-octave range in 12-tone as she tangos from patient to patient, singing: "You’ve got to be carefully taught...to exercise." (The composer, MT reflects, really, really liked South Pacific.). All this means vocalizing for one hour straight. Talk about working hard for the money.
The money? Two hundred bucks a week, plus a lot of free pizza. Non-equity. You gotta start somewhere, even if it's for a pittance in Buffalo, N.Y. Regional theater. Whose theater base is in a deconsecrated church.
What's next—The Exorcist—the Musical?
MT finds herself thinking like this a bit too often for her own good.
"Gotta think positive, girl," MT says to herself. "Next stop—Broadway."
1:30pm. Rehearsal time is at 2, and MT is cutting it close. She rushes down the aisles past the pews to the dressing room, where the more punctual crew members are milling around, chattering their lines, parsing dance steps, or doing that "vocal rest" thing—not talking. MT remembers to sign her name on the board by the backstage door. This bit of business is the sign-in sheet, a master list that shows that all the actors have arrived. The lead guy who plays Tom, the Devil masquerading as surgical resident, is checking his email and ignoring his cast underlings. MT can't stand him, either as the Devil or the real-life jerk of an actor who plays him.
It's a busy day. Rehearsal. Dinner breaks. Sign in. Performance. MT sneaks a look at Anne Todd, the Type-A dance captain who also understudies a few roles. Anne's singing Let Me Live to Die Another Day while she does splits. And more splits. "Drat, she's good," MT thinks. She pays attention because she's playing that role the next night.
MT dives into a split, and pain socks her almost senseless. Oh no. Not again. An old tap-dance injury back from the dead. MT reaches down to massage her thigh 'till it tingles. Could she cough up the bucks to check out a sleazy chiropractor who gives performers his "casting couch" discount?
She has standards, well, at least at this point in her career.
The full-tech rehearsal starts: lights, tech, full band. The director, production stage manager, music director line up in the front pew, pen and notebooks in hand. MT stretches out on the hospital bed. By the end, the directors and manager will have amassed 30 pages of notes on stuff. Miscues. Flubbed dance moves. Lead forgot his lines. That kind of stuff.
Break time. Yes! MT does a little yoga to keep her vessel limber.
Second-act rehearsal revs up. Lead guy has bowed out. He lost his voice. Understudy to the rescue. His Devil is 6 inches shorter and 20 pounds heavier, but at least his voice is in working order. MT can live with that. More songs. More production notes, including one where the music director chastises MT for snoring against the beat. Oops!
After a couple of hours off, MT is back in the dressing room. Dew Drop Mason, the assistant head of wardrobe, is distributing the costumes to actors’ dressing rooms. MT grabs hers. It’s a lavender-pink cotton shroud with a pale green face mask, and little polka dot booties. "Shoot the costume designer," MT thinks— for wardrobe malpractice. On it goes.
She dabs on pale beige makeup and thin red lines to simulate trickles of blood. Rufus, the makeup man, dabs a touch of gray powder to complete the nearly-a-corpse look. “Honey,” says Rufus, admiring his macabre handiwork, "break a leg."
"Gong" goes the five-minute bell.
Actors warm up. Each one has a routine. Lead understudy is doing low-throated "eeeeee's" and "oooooo's." MT is deep into her three-part breathing.
Break a leg.
The band starts. The musical entourage for this production includes one oboe, one piano and five clarinets.
The curtain rises, and the performance begins. MT lies supine on the bed. The choristers, nine actors dressed in doctors’ scrubs, prance to the melancholy notes of the oboe, high kicks matching the low woodwind notes. MT says to herself: "And for this I went to four years of conservatory?"
Curtain closes. Let the intermission begin. MT goes backstage, collapses.
Curtain up. Performance resumes. MT is back to her bed. The performers swirl around her. The conga line is her favorite: The "nurses" frog-march to a two-four beat to a clarinet counterpoint.
"Cool," MT thinks, judging from what little she could see from the nether regions of stage right.
Show ends. MT notices that the audience applause is anemic, at best.
MT cabs it home ("Okay, okay, tomorrow I’ll take the subway," she tells herself). MT rolls into bed, and in a nanosecond falls into R.E.M. sleep, snoring—but, this time, to a beat.