(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
In the previous post, I wrote about the snake left on my doorstep. I was sure my grandfather-in-spirit had placed it there. I realized that one of the songs he’d “channeled” to me, the fourth song in the cycle about puberty, mentioned snakes:
…We moved to the desert
I don’t like it here
I fear the presence of snakes
I know they’re out there
Got a boyfriend who’s fourteen like me
And his name is John Luke
And if a snake up and bit him on the other arm
He’d lose that one too…
(You can listen to it here.)
Called “Mister Sloane,” this was the song that Carrie Fisher sang for Joe Papp as her audition for the lead in my musical “Sleeparound Town.” She gave a killer rendition; Joe was very excited to have her in the show.
Unfortunately, as rehearsals progressed, I discovered that Carrie was unfamiliar with the theater work ethic. The prospect of a month of rehearsals must have triggered a fit of overpowering laziness, such that you might feel standing at the base of Everest and looking up.
If I’d had any sense, I would have felt the same, too. But in those days I had a mania for placing myself on the path to possible disaster. I had spent the first 18 years of my life in the sleep of suburbs. I was a writer with no suffering to write about. If failure overtook me, then I could make use of the pain in my writing. If I risked too much and went too far, and actually died, then I would have my posthumous publication to look forward to.
And so it came to pass that I charged ahead to write and direct an Off-Broadway musical with a fiercely ambivalent star.
Soon after the start of rehearsals, Carrie started dating Paul Simon. She was out on the town most nights and, in short order, her focus swung away from the show, she got bronchitis, and missed the first run-through for Joe and the theater staff. We presumed she was home recuperating, but a cast member got word she’d been spotted the night before at a late-night party at the Odeon, in an allegedly altered state.
I had to confront Carrie when she finally showed up for work. She denied everything and hotly protested being spied on; she then complained that it was hard having the show resting on her shoulders. I blew up: “Hard?! I have to rehearse all day, then spend the night rewriting, doing music sheets, and then I don’t have you around to learn the new material. You think you have it hard?”
Carrie shot back, “This is not the suffering sweepstakes.” This is one of those classic one-liners she’s known for, and I had to laugh. (To this day we still use that line around my house.)
The rest of the cast was angry at her for missing the run-through, which hadn’t gone very well. To be fair, Carrie didn’t deserve the blame. The show itself was proving to be shapeless. I didn’t really know how to construct a story to bind all these disparate songs together. I had a vague idea that these five characters, on the verge of adolescence, were collectively dreaming a place called Sleeparound Town, where they would all undergo puberty together. There was no spoken dialogue; the whole thing was sung through. The audience didn’t get what was happening, although they enjoyed the individual songs. I don’t know. It just refused to work.
Joe suggested that I make things clearer by writing dialogue; make it all Carrie’s dream and have her narrate. If the change didn’t work, he would have to cancel the production rather than subject a badly flawed piece to the critics. That meant the fate of the show now rested on my ability to write a lengthy narration pronto and Carrie’s ability to memorize it quickly and sell it.
I set to work in a panic, typing into the night and feeding drafts to my married lover, who was also a writer. He took the risk of staying out late, enlisting friends to validate his cover stories to his wife.
The night I finished, he took me out for a drink to calm me down. (Because he was fond of booze, I’d started drinking again, although this time I had it under control.) We were sitting at a table in a darkened bar where he wouldn’t run into anybody he knew. Sipping bad whiskey, I started talking about Grandpa’s vastly superior swill in the liquor collection he’d left behind. Then I found myself unraveling the whole story about my grandfather’s ghost. I’d never told him before, for fear he’d write me off as nuts.
When I ended, there was a bleak pause. I could tell he didn’t believe me. Sure enough, he asked, “Do you think there might be some other, scientific explanation for what happened?”
I sighed. “Probably. Let’s try schizophrenia first.”
Suddenly we heard a loud crack. We looked down at the table. The glass ashtray between us had split down the middle and broken neatly in half.
I said, “There he goes again.”
My lover was rattled, to say the least. But then his rational nature rode to the rescue, and he decided that the ashtray was placed too close to the candle on the table; the heat cracked the glass.
Before he went home, he made me promise to call him with a report after Joe Papp had seen the show with the new changes.
Meanwhile Debbie Reynolds had flown to New York to work with her daughter in private, help her to learn handfuls of pages of speeches, and have Carrie ready for the run-through with Joe. She sat in the audience while Carrie delivered the narration and songs with perfect professionalism. But it was too late. Joe’s idea didn’t work, and I was out of gas. Two weeks before previews, he pulled the plug.
I apologized to a devastated cast. Desperate to cry on my lover’s shoulder, I called him. And called and called. After a week, he finally got back to me. It was a brief conversation. He sounded shell-shocked, as if he was calling from the front. One of his friends had forgotten to cover for him, and his wife found out that he wasn’t where he said he was on the night he was with me. She was waiting for him when he got home. The red phone was in her hand and the nukes were launched.
He told me, “You have no idea what hell it’s been. All we do is drink and yell at each other.”
“Then get out of there. Come be with me.”
“I can’t,” he stammered.
“Even for a few minutes. Please! I have to see you.”
“I can’t. I promised her.”
I got it then.
The night the ashtray broke was the last time I would see him for three years.
(To be continued.)
Causes Sarah Kernochan Supports