There is Nothing like a Dame
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Copyright© 2017 & 2018 Bronwen Welsh
A sequel to 'The Might-Have-Been Girl' and 'All the World's a Stage'
Chapter 37 Auditioning for a musical
'Punctuality is the politeness of kings', a saying attributed to LouisXVIII, is one of my favourites and I'm sure I've mentioned it before. It's unfortunate that some 'stars' of stage and screen have the attitude that things can't start before they arrive, and that it somehow enhances their importance to keep people waiting. It does nothing for their popularity, but perhaps they don't care.
At fifteen minutes to ten o'clock, I parked 'Bluebird' outside the Lyric Theatre in Warwick. This gave me enough time to check my makeup and walk through the ornate wooden and glass doors of the theatre and into the foyer at five minutes to the hour. A rather fey young man was standing there, obviously waiting for me.
“Miss Stow? I'm Ken Williams, the ASM. It's so good of you to come and see us. I saw you in 'Romeo and Juliet' about a month ago; you were brilliant!”
I smiled. “I started my theatrical career as Assistant Stage Manager. Not everyone appreciates how important a job it is, until something goes wrong.”
He beamed. “You are so right, Miss Stow. This way please, the director, casting director and the WTS president are waiting for you in the auditorium. I can't tell you what a drama it's been since Elspeth got in the family way, poor love.”
Elspeth! That was a familiar name and there couldn't be too many of them. We walked down the aisle and there she was.
“Harriet!” she cried and rushing up to me we embraced. I could distinctly feel her small baby bump.
“Well, you've been a busy girl since we last met,” I said. Elspeth had been my understudy in London a few years previously.
She smiled ruefully: “Yes I have; marriage and now a baby, but my timing wasn't the best.”
“There's never a bad time to bring new life into the world,” I said, and I could see she was tearing up. “Well, I'm here now, and if I can help, I will.”
“I'm sorry, it's the hormones,” she said. “I must introduce you to our director, Stephen Wright.”
“Miss Stow,” he said, shaking my hand. “Your reputation preceeds you. It's so good of you to come along to see if you can help us. May I introduce Basil Fox, the President of WTS, and Marion Hood, our Casting Director?”
I shook Basil's and Marion's hands too. They all seemed slightly in awe of having a real professional actress in their midst.
“I hope I can help, but please note that I'm not a singer who acts, but an actor who sings a bit, so I'm happy to let you hear what I sound like and then you can make up your mind if I will be suitable for your production. I've brought along music for three songs.”
Stephen smiled. “Our 'répétiteur' Marie is here to accompany you if you would like to sing for us when you are ready? As for your acting skills, we are in no doubt about those. ”
I looked up at the stage where a pretty young woman was standing beside the upright piano, and Stephen gave me a hand to walk up the steps.
“Good morning Miss Stow,” Marie said with a charming French accent.
“Call me Harriet, please. I have some music with me. My singing teacher Madame Mussorgsky has transposed some songs as I am a 'mezzo' and find it a bit hard to reach the highest notes.”
“Of course; that is not a problem,” Marie said.
I started off with 'I Loved You Once in Silence' which is sung by Guinevere and Lancelot in 'Camelot', and followed it up with 'If I Loved You' from 'Carousel'. They seemed to go down well; at least they hadn't stopped me after the first song.
“You mentioned three songs?” said Stephen.
“Well, it's not from a musical, it's just an old Irish folk song called 'Wee Hughie', which I've been practising with my music teacher,” I replied.
I nodded to Marie and she started to play the introduction. The song is about a little boy going off to school for the first time and his mother's reaction. Though most people would say it's a song to be sung by a woman, my favourite interpretation is by the peerless Kenneth McKellar. He invests it with so much emotion that I get a lump in my throat every time I hear it. I did my best to interpret it as well as he did. When I finished, much to my surprise, after a moment's silence, applause broke out from all around me as the cast and crew who had been standing in the wings out of my sight, walked onto the stage. I turned around, embarrassed, said 'hello' and thanked them all. I didn't know what else to say, after all, I wasn't yet part of the cast.
I walked over to the piano to thank Marie for her wonderful accompaniment and collect my music. Then I walked down the steps to the the auditorium to speak to Stephen, Marion and Basil. I noticed that Elspeth was still dabbing her eyes. Perhaps it was a tactless song to sing in front of a pregnant woman with her hormones in turmoil.
“Thank you very much. I know you'll want to have a discussion, so I'll wait to hear from you,” I said. As I turned to walk out of the theatre, Stephen called me back.
“One moment, Miss Stow. Would you mind waiting while we have a brief discussion?”
I sat down out of earshot and waited. I suspected they wanted me but were worried that they couldn't afford me. It was for that reason that I had already spoken to Richard, my agent.
“They probably can't pay much, but they will be doing me a favour by allowing me to try out performing in a musical without the pressure of a West End audience,” I said.
“In other words don't tell them 'they can't be serious' when they make their offer?”
“Exactly. Please just tell them you'll get back to them and then ring me,” I said.
Stephen, Marion and Basil called me over. “I'm sure you realise that our funds are limited, but we'd really love you to play Guinevere,” said Basil.
“I'm aware of your financial situation,” I replied. “But as I'm a professional, it's necessary for you to make an offer through my agent. Here is his card. The final decision on whether I accept or not is up to me. In the meantime, would you have a copy of the book and score please?”
I was effectively telling them that they could count on my acceptance without actually saying so, and I think they got the message.
“Yes, Elspeth has offered her book which already has Guinevere's lines highlighted. Here are the scores of the songs too.”
Wth that I bade them 'au revoir' and left the theatre.
I had driven halfway back to Stratford when my phone rang. I pulled over into a handy layby and answered it. It was Richard, my agent.
“Hi Harriet, you were right about the offer from Warwick, but I was very polite and said I'd get back to them.”
The offer was tiny compared to what I was now earning, but I told him that they were giving me the chance to see how much I enjoyed performing in a musical, so that was a bonus and I wished to accept the offer.
“I'm happy for you to take a twenty percent commission on this one,” I said and Richard laughed.
“No, that's fine. You know that I'm trying to make you a millionairess, don't you? It's not going to happen if you insist on signing contracts like this.”
Now it was my turn to laugh. “You know that some top lawyers do 'pro bono' work don't you? Well this is a similar thing.”
He sighed audibly and theatrically. “Alright, but just allow me to do one thing. Let me insist that they keep the terms of the contract confidential. If anyone hears about it, they'll think your career has hit the skids and you are prepared to work for peanuts.”
I saw the sense in what he was saying and agreed.
“Now I'd better get back to Stratford, since I've still got a few performances as 'Juliet' to go. Please tell them I'll ring them and check on rehearsal times starting next week.”
It was the last week of the season of 'Romeo and Juliet'. I knew it was probably the last time I would play the part in Britain as I was getting too old, but I had a season in America to look forward to.
One day I was having a coffee with Dame Emily in the café and she asked what I was doing next. I told her about agreeing to play in a musical, wondering how she would react.
“Well that's marvelous my dear. It's good to spread your wings a bit.”
“You actually inspired me to try something different, Dame Emily. I suspect that Shakespeare is your first love like he is mine, but you have tackled a variety of rôles with such great success.”
“But never a musical,” she laughed. “I would give Florence Foster Jenkins a run for her money.” Here she referred to the famous American socialite whose enthusiasm for public performances was not matched by her singing ability.
“I have been taking singing lessons, and Madame Mussorgsky assures me that I will not make a fool of myself, so this seemed a good opportunity to see how I enjoy playing in a musical.”
“It's a good idea,” Dame Emily responded. She looked hard at me. “Is something bothering you my dear?”
“I'm just a bit concerned about being away from Reggie too much,” I hesitated. “May I ask how you coped?” I was a bit worried about referring to her late husband.
Dame Emily smiled. “It's alright Harriet, I've been a widow for some time now. It all depends on trust.”
“Reggie and I do trust each other, but it must be a bit hard on a man being married to a woman who, as part of her job description, has to kiss other men on a regular basis.”
“I don't think you have anything to worry about my dear; Reggie knows it's only play-acting.”
It was the final performance of the season on Saturday evening. The theatre was completely sold out, and at the conclusion the audience gave us so many curtain calls that I lost count. As was their custom, the management put on a reception with drinks and finger food, after the audience finally left. Duncan Morgan gave a speech in which he made particular mention of my performance and said he was sad that I had outgrown the part, only in age, not in talent. He also mentioned that Stratford's loss was America's gain, since I would soon be travelling across the Atlantic to take part in one of America's famous Shakespearean festivals.
Then Dame Emily made a speech in which she said that she had thoroughly enjoyed playing the part of Juliet's nurse and that she and other actors of her generation were so pleased to see the baton passed to the next one. She added that one of the advantages of Shakespeare was that actors could play different rôles from quite a young age until they were old performers like herself. This prompted cries of “No, no!”, “You've got many years of performing to go”, etc.
Richard had his turn, saying how much he had enjoyed playing 'Romeo' again with such a distinguished cast and that it might be the last time for him since he was getting older too.
It seemed only right that I should make a little speech myself, saying how much we of the younger generation gained from being onstage with actors of Dame Emily's calibre, and this prompted her to say that she had forgotten to mention that I was working in the new Youth Theatre project along with her and Madge in order to encourage the next generation of actors.
There was much cheering and applause, perhaps encouraged by the liquid refreshment. It was a wonderful conclusion to a very successful season.
I had already checked with Stephen Wright when rehearsals would be held. Since the rest of the cast were non-professionals and most had full-time jobs, the rehearsals in the week were held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons and evenings. I was pleased about this as I was anxious to spend some time with Reggie in York.
The next morning was Sunday, and I packed my usual small suitcase and drove in 'Bluebird' to York. As soon as I was in Reggie's arms I knew that all my fears were groundless. We were as much in love as ever. If there was a positive side to being separated, it was that when we came together again, it was like another honeymoon. I arrived in York about lunchtime but it was late afternoon before we finally got out of bed and shared a shower.
Reggie wanted to know all about the musical, so I explained how it had come about that I was acting with an amateur group.
“They are very lucky to have you,” said Reggie. “If they're smart, they'll learn a lot from having a professional act with them.”
“I expect to learn from them too. After all, they've staged a lot of musicals, and it will be my first one.”
“I suppose you know the part already?” said Reggie.
“Well I've had a few days to study it, so yes, I know it. Madame Mussorgsky recorded the piano accompaniment for my songs – I”ve got five altogether, so I can play them and practise before the rehearsals start. I'll have to go back to Warwick on Tuesday.”
“That means we have two nights together, so we'll make the most of them,” said Reggie with a twinkle in his eye. “Have you met any of the cast yet?”
“Not yet, but I've seen them perform 'The King and I” on a video and they did it very well. The young chap who played the King will be 'Lancelot' in this production. He seems very competent.”
The following day, we drove to Bridchester as it had been a while since I'd seen my sister, David and the children. We had been invited to lunch and had a wonderful day.
“I was surprised when I heard you were going to be in a musical,” said Emma.
“Well that shows that I've been getting a bit 'type-cast'. I don't think a break from Shakespeare will do me any harm. Taking part in an amateur production will be a great introduction and I'll get an idea of how good I am at singing.”
“I think it's a very smart move,” said David. “It's a bit like a golf 'pro-am'. The cast are going to learn from you too, so it's a 'win-win' situation.”
“That's exactly how I see it,” I said.
While I tried not to play favourites with the children, inevitably my eyes were drawn to my stepdaughter Stella. She was growing rapidly and was the prettiest little girl you could imagine. The issue of what to do about her was still unresolved. She was very comfortable as part of Emma and David's family and Reggie and I certainly couldn't take her away from such a stable environment.
I quite enjoyed my 'dual personality'. While in Stratford I was 'Miss Harriet Stow', increasingly well-known actress, but in York I was 'Mrs Reginald Staunton', housewife.
Before I returned to Stratford, I devoted Monday and part of Tuesday while Reggie was at the university, to cooking and freezing a number of meals for him while I was away. I really enjoyed cooking, and we had bought quite a large freezer in order to accommodate my culinary efforts, which he assured me he really enjoyed. Some people might say it was a strange sort of marriage, but it worked for us.
About lunchtime Tuesday, I packed my suitcase and loaded up 'Bluebird' ready to drive to Warwick for my first rehearsal of 'Camelot'. I was confident that I knew the script and I had practised the songs many times, now all that remained was to bring it together with the rest of the cast. As I drove south I couldn't help feeling like the 'new girl at school'. Eveyone there knew each other and no-one knew me unless they had seen me perform. I hoped that we would all soon get on good terms with each other.
To be continued.
Many thanks once again to Louise Ann and Julia Phillips for spotting my 'typos', thus allowing me to correct them before publishing.
Author's note. Anyone interesting in hearing Kenneth McKellar's recording of 'Wee Hughie' can find it on Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnsoPvt5TAU If you're like me, you'll keep the tissues handy.
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