The last few days before a concert are always a little tricky to handle. I want to build confidence. I want to fix the little errors—notes, words, rhythms, dynamics—that seem to be repeat offenders. I also want to keep the cast reaching for the heights of expression from depths of their souls—while keeping their work simple, direct, and open. No navel-gazing allowed. As a result, I have to pick my shots: should I mention this incorrect lyric, which I have now heard five times but which isn’t important, or this other one, which I’ve heard twice and is important?
Friday we had a thorough work-through, and Saturday a dress rehearsal. We didn’t stop, except when one song went off the rails and needed to be restarted…and restarted again. I would have been happy to try and keep going, but the singer (whose identity I shall protect) said the fatal words “Oh, shit.” For me, that is like yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater, a clear signal of impending disaster. The third time was the charm and the song was a success, and (as I always say) it is better to have a colossal memory slip in rehearsal than in performance.
Everyone wore the shoes they were going to use in the show—a good idea for a concert where there is a bit of movement. It did give Alex a slightly bizarre look: he had on beige cargo shorts, patent leather shoes, and black dress socks. His exposed shins seemed to be in shock, naked in between his beachy clothes and his fancy feet.
We had some important visitors: Andy Smith, and Barbara and Lily Sacharow. They are people I have come to love. Andy is the son of the late Jane Smith, who used to produce these concerts—and indeed most of the musical events in Orient. Barbara and her daughter Lily were among Jane’s most intimate friends, practically family. Jane was also very dear to me, and her death last April after a long bout with cancer was a deep loss. She had fought her illness so hard and so long that I was able to persuade myself she would last forever. Andy’s sad email four and a half months ago hit me hard.
The program for “Killer B’s” had taken on an especially elegiac quality fifteen years ago when I did it in San Francisco a few months after my own mother’s death. In memory of Jane, I retained many of those songs for this edition: Bolcom’s “Never More Will the Wind,” Bowles’ “Once a Lady Was Here,” Bernstein’s “Spring Will Come Again,” and especially Burleigh’s beautiful ballad, “Jean.” I felt that the community here would appreciate a tribute to someone who had ornamented it for so many years. Above all, I was thinking about Jane’s family and the Sacharows when I put the program together.
My plan to serenade the Smiths and Sacharows got waylaid. It turned out that a high school up-island planned some kind of tribute to Jane at the exact same time as our performance, and they needed the three Smiths and the two Sacharows in attendance. They also asked Barbara to speak at the ceremony. Thus I lost the guests of honor for my show. But I still wanted them to hear the concert, and invited them to the dress rehearsal. Linda and Steve, the sister and older brother, couldn’t make it, but Andy, Barbara, and Lily were there.
Suddenly I was in a dilemma. I had been near tears every time I rehearsed the “Jane songs,” and I was afraid they might hit the family even harder. With no audience to serve as a buffer, the message of grief—so pure and piercing in the songs and in the cast’s performance of them—suddenly seemed like an emotional sledgehammer. Would it be cathartic, or just depressing?
In the end, I think all of them were grateful for the honest tribute to Jane. I believe they were moved by the songs, and the program has so many other colors—humor, brashness, romance, good cheer—that it places grief in the larger continuum of life. You mourn, you move on, you mourn some more, you confront another life issue….
“Killer B’s” doesn’t end with a snappy number, but with a eulogy and a gentle song of hope. We got done, and our little audience applauded us. Then Barbara said, through tears, “You…do have…an encore?” Well, of course we do. And it’s the silliest song of the afternoon, complete with the cast doing the pony. Never has Motown seemed more welcome.