Before the Play
We’ve been rehearsing My Fair Lady for three months, four days a week, memorizing our lines and songs, practicing blocking and dance moves. The troupe gathered on a weekend to help paint the set the stage manager had constructed. Our costumes have been fitted and hung on a rack in our respective dressing rooms.
Today, we will see if all this preparation turns into a successful production. Arriving at the theater, the excitement zings through the cavernous building, actors speaking loudly and laughing, a combination of exhilaration and fright.
The ninety-eight seats have sold for tonight’s opening performance and for the twenty-two other performances this month.
“A packed house every night,” our director crows. “Make me proud.”
Opening evening, my high school drama class and roles in plays, like Blythe Spirit, and musicals, Oklahoma, and Hello Dolly suddenly feel to me like they had happened centuries ago. “Would I remember my lines? Would anything come out when I opened my mouth to sing? What about the steps I’d be coming down in the dark between the rows of patrons? What if I tripped, fell, and dropped my basket of flowers?”
I scrutinize other players for signs of jitters. Most were veteran actors at that playhouse and others in nearby cities. I had been thrilled to be chosen considering my experience was in the distant past.
The young man, playing Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Eliza Doolittle’s love interest, is tucked in a back corner with the winsome woman who plays Eliza. They are passionately kissing before the curtain call. I understand he is engaged to a woman at the college he attends. Eliza’s husband, who is the main character, Henry Higgins, sits in his dressing room going over his voluminous lines unaware that his wife is lip-locking nearby. One of the three roles I’m playing is Freddy’s mother, Mrs. Eynsford Hill. Neither I nor my character approves.
The robust man playing Alfred Dolittle, Eliza’s philandering father, is chowing down on a Reuben sandwich, which will likely enhance his burgeoning belly. When I dance with him later in the show as a woman selling flowers, I must stretch my arms out to accommodate the distance his stomach puts between us.
Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s long-suffering mother, is advised not to smoke because the odor will cling to her gown. She sneaks out to the back stairs, puffs away, and reeks as predicted.
Mrs. Pearce, Henry Higgin’s housekeeper, ties on her apron and ties another one on with a long swig from a whisky flask. Her mob cap is a bit askew. I hope the starch in her apron keeps her upright.
Hugh Pickering, the supposed moral gentleman of the piece, is craning his neck to get a glimpse of the young chorus women dressing as the door swings open and closed.
I do not smoke, or drink, and I am quite sure my husband would have something to say about me smooching fellow actors, so I attack the dessert tray and devour three brownies. The fudgy sweetness melts on my tongue and the euphoria lasts about five seconds after I finish as I contemplate retribution when I step on my scale at home.
My costume even seems to immediately register what I’ve devoured as I wiggle into a gold lame dress designed for Gibson Girl figures. A burgundy velvet cape drapes in elegant folds on my shoulders. The upswept blond wig covers my pixie cut. The make-up artist has enhanced my pale eyelashes with layers of black mascara and my mouth is highlighted in stop sign red. I glance at myself in the full-length mirror. I certainly look the part of the haughty Mrs. Eynsford-Hill.
During the scene at the ball as one of the ladies wondering who this visiting princess is, I’ll be wearing a filmy creation in blue with a low neckline. The push-up bra offers my breasts on a plate. I have less fun as a brunette.
When I prance down those treacherous stairs as a flower seller singing, Wouldn’t It Be Loverly, with a distinct Cockney accent, I’ll have switched to a woolen skirt, and a white peasant blouse topped with a plaid vest. My straw hat with a daisy tucked in the band will be jammed down over wild red curls.
The orchestra is tuning up and I can hear the audience filing into their seats. Perspiration dampens my armpits despite my twenty-four-hour deodorant.
“Ten minutes,” our director sings out cheerily. But when I look at her face, two red spots stand out on her pale cheeks. For her sake, the entire cast, and mine, I pray none of my insecurities about my abilities come true.
I sit on a folding chair, my hands clasped together underneath my white elbow length gloves. The noisy chatter of the actors when they first arrived has ceased and an ominous silence surrounds us.
I stand, tiptoe toward a side curtain and peek out. I see my husband and our close friends clustered in middle row seats. My son, daughter-in-law, and grandson are on my left. I’d better stay in character standing directly in front of them when we sing The Ascot Gavotte. I will be dancing with Alfred Dolittle on the right side of the stage where my two daughters are at the moment reading their programs. Two of my girlfriends have seats on the aisle. Maybe I’ll toss them some flowers, they would love that.
The orchestra conductor taps on the podium and the players lift their instruments. The house lights dim and the overture, a medley of music from the play, begins. Abruptly, I step back as the old floorboards squeak under my feet. My heart speeds up as are director calls, “Places everyone.”
Hurriedly, I step to where my handsome pretend son in a top hat and tails waits for me. I venture a wobbly smile. He smiles back and I wipe a smudge of lipstick from his cheek. I take his arm and he pats mine.
“Break a leg,” he says. The stairs come to mind. “Gosh, I hope not,” I say, giggling. I muffle a brownie burp with a delicate hand. We hear our cue. I sober up quickly, even though I never touched Mrs. Pearce’s whisky.
The heavy curtains part. We step together onto the stage, my nose stuck in the air like a true aristocrat. My first line tumbles out of my mouth, the verses of the song line up in my mind, and I glide across the stage like I have been doing this for years.