The first night of any rehearsal schedule at the Bull Moose Theater Guild in a production directed by that asshole Vern Slater is always a read-through. Always.
Gah, what an enormously boring waste of time! Unless you’re the lead in the show, of course, in which case it’s like knock knock knocking on heaven’s door, because it’s all about you. However, if you’re not one of the lucky one or two chosen few, it’s an evening spent listening to someone else talk while you turn the pages every so often. Boring!
The evening always starts nicely enough, with polite laughter and a round of introductions, but midway through the evening, the stench of boredom sets in. It’s a long, hard slog from that point, let me tell you. By the end of the evening, you feel like the proverbial roach stuck inside a roach motel.
At least, though, Bull Moose makes their read-throughs tasty. That is to say, the Board of Directors, in a crass attempt to buy loyalty and generate membership dues, provides the cast with an enormous orgy of desserts on that first night together. Of course, I approve of enormous orgies of any kind, and this one has it all: cookies, jelly rolls, top notch coffee from the Java Bucket...oh, it’s just to die for, capped off by my favorite—delicious, huge pieces of cheesecake, home made by Roz, who grew up in New York on the Jewish side of town. Seriously, for her cheesecake alone, if she wasn’t a bull dyke and I wasn’t a confirmed cocksucker, I would marry that bitch in a heartbeat.
In fact, given the mixed feelings I had about this particular production, Roz’s cheesecake was the only thing I was looking forward to. And that was the challenge Kevin was confronted with as he drove me to St. Bascilica’s, desperately trying to talk me into behaving.
"I just think you you should try to be civil,” he was saying, as we pulled out of Boston.
“Not on your life,” I was repeating, twenty minutes later. “It’s only been one puny week since the Scampo assault, and I’m still feeling sore about the thing!”
“They so did not assault you. Not exactly.” Kevin’s parry was rather weak. I could clearly see through his charade.
“They practically did. Assaulted my soul, at least. They told me I sang flat! You might as well insert a knife into my vocal chords!”
“The word choice was...well, inappropriate,” Kevin conceded. “But you know in your heart of hearts they were only saying it out of jealousy. Your fans appreciate how wonderful you were as Tevye, Dante. Take it from fan number one!” And with that, he placed his hand squarely on my upper thigh. He always did get randy whenever his thoughts turned to me playing Tevye. It has everything to do with his daddy infatuation.
Delicately, I moved his hand off my thigh and back onto the steering wheel. “Kevin, please...you know what a nervous passenger I am.”
“All I’m asking is for you to forget what happened last week. You’re bigger than that, Dante, and they’re really, really tiny, minuscule performers. Besides, I hear Vern’s thinking of directing Kiss Me, Kate next year. You know you’ve always wanted to play Fred. Think of the future! Think of spanking Danita’s ass as Kate!”
“Think of my vocal chords!” I hummed a little of ‘So In Love’ and quickly cleared my throat, not liking what I heard. “Well, okay. I promise to behave. At least, as future insurance! I’d love to get a crack at whipping that bitch into shape.”
“Pinky swear?” Kevin placed his little finger next to mine.
Two entwined pinkies and twenty minutes later, we were pulling into St. Basilica’s tiny parking lot. Ah, that was another thing I hated about that dank and dreary house of worship. Unlike most Catholic churches, which usually had huge parking lots to accommodate the typical Catholic family of eighteen, this place could barely accommodate the average attendance an Episcopalian church. And with the enormous cast Sweeney possessed—not to mention the Cub Scout meeting that was undoubtedly also being held—space was at a premium. I convinced Kevin to park in Father O’Malley’s reserved parking space, figuring that at this late hour in the evening, he was busy molesting altar boys or bashing gays, or some such nonsense.
We were five minutes late, I noted from the clock on the dashboard of Kevin’s inexpensive foreign import. Fine by me. There’s another rule of thumb for you, my theatrical newbies—whatever you do, never never never be on time for rehearsal. It shows far too much respect for the director, which no actor worth his salt should ever let happen. Besides, the first twenty minutes of any rehearsal is always filled with endless streams of bullshit. The director going off about what he hopes to accomplish, and all that nonsense.
Oh! That reminds me of another thing. Above all else, darlings, never show up to rehearsal EARLY. If you do, they’ll want you to help out with set-up, and who the fuck wants to assist with that? Pushing aside folding chairs and moving tables around. That’s work that’s meant for other folks, like Vern and Roz and all those other backstage creatures whose name I never can seem to recall, as hard as I try.
As we made our way in, with every sullen trudge, I started feeling worse and worse about saying yes to appearing in this accursed production. Oh God, and there was Vern Slater, slouching at the very front of the gloomy auditorium, on hand to personally great everyone. It was a nice touch, even if it did mean that his minions were busy doing the mundane work. That might be a reason to like Vern, even if at the moment, I was more inclined to rip out his lungs with a pair of pliers.
“Dante. What a pleasure!” His plump little cherubic face was all lit up in a false expression of pleasure. He gripped both of my hands and shook them vigorously (such an unsanitary habit...remind me to Purey as soon as possible. Noted!) Then, he turned stage right. “Kevin! How are you tonight?”
I surveyed the crowd, already bored. Same old same olds, which might be a concern for the score, knowing their bad habits as well as I did. But who was that tall thin man standing in the corner by the piano?
I pointed the man out to Vern. “Who’s that?”
“That’s our judge!” cried out Vern, and I instantly cringed in embarrassment. “Totally new to the area! What a find.”
“I’ll, um, take your word for it. My, it looks like you have an exceptionally large cast.”
“45 strong!” Vern’s brown bullshit eyes were shining and his nervous little mouth was only showing the tiniest of twitches. “I was hoping for over 50, but what can you do? Dante, I am...so glad you agreed to do the show.”
“You know playing the Beadle has always been a dream of mine,” I replied, my voice dripping with sarcasm.
“Ha ha, yes! Of course. Well, it is...it is a nice role.” Hmm, it was as if he were searching for the right words to say, to avoid getting me upset. Had he heard about my incident with Danita? Then again, it was hard to believe he wouldn’t have. Our group was so tight knot and gossipy, after all.
Well, good. Let him be a little twitchy about the whole thing! I liked it that way.
His hand on my arm. “Now, I want you to know, I consider you an enormously gigantic cog in this machine we call Sweeney Todd. So much so, I’ve seated you amongst the power performers. Just so everyone can see how much you mean to this production.” An artful pause. “And to me.”
“Why, Vern, that’s so touching, I...I hardly know what to say...” Vern beamed. I shook his hand and let the next person have his time with Herr (or more to the point, Herr-less) Director.
Kevin was practically giddy as we took Vern’s leave. “Hear that? A power performer!”
“Yeah, yeah,” I whispered back. “I’m the power performer, you’re the power bottom.”
“It just shows how much he thinks of you.”
“Oh, Kevin! He’s just sucking up because he doesn’t want me raining on his parade. Now listen, do me a favor and find out who that idiot seated me next to, okay?” Kevin nodded. Such a perfect accomplice he was. So complacent, so compliant. Such a power bottom. Of course, that left me alone with—
“Dante, my friend, how are you doing?” Oh, shit. There was Vern’s musically flatulent musical director, Vilhelm Henkum, his hair as blond and stringy and unkempt as ever. Did musical directors really have to look like that?
“Vilhem! What a...pleasure. How are you doing?”
“Busy, my friend, extremely busy.” Which was ALWAYS Vilhelm’s answer for just about anything. And, I suppose if a master in the art of bullshit is considered busywork, then Vilhelm had successfully hit his target, bullseye! “Dante, I can’t tell you how happy I am you agreed to play the Beadle. I really lobbied to get you the part.”
His news took me slightly aback. “You did?”
Vilhem nodded and looked around, as if he were sharing a state secret. “I did. I think you’re perfect for the role.”
“Ha, that’s funny.” Vilhem raised a Teutonic eyebrow. “And I’m sure, quite flattering. But I am confused, my dear Conductor.” I deliberately used his preferred nickname as a means of buttering him up, because there was something I dearly wanted to hear, even from a being as repellent as Vilhelm. “Whenever we’ve gone to the Accordian after hours, you’ve always said you saw me as the perfect Sweeney. Why now the change of heart? Why now Beadle?”
“Did I say that?” Vilhem placed a bejeweled hand upon his scruffy weed of a chin strap and started stroking away. “How curious. How queer! I can’t recall ever saying such a thing.”
“And yet, I remember it as if it were yesterday. You always, every time, said I would be perfect for—“
“How drunk was I?” Vilhelm chuckled, the dirtbag. Then he placed his arm around my shoulders, his patented move for when he was looking to provide a musical truth. “The truth is, I think it’s important for the actor who plays Sweeney to possess a certain maniacal...oh, how would you characterize this? Well, purity in his voice. Yes, yes, Sweeney must possess maniacal purity! And Dante, I’m afraid that you—“
“Dante!” A grabbing of my elbow jerked me out of the moment, just seconds before I was about to strangle the life out of Vilhelm. I turned away from this minister of musical monstrosities to face Kevin, back from his task.
He looked as serious as a Sarah McLachlan public announcement. “I’ve got news. You’re sitting next to—“
“Why don’t we take this elsewhere,” I said, looking over in Vilhelm’s direction. Then, when we were a safe distance away: “Who? Who?”
“Vern’s placed you next to...Danita.” Kevin played that sentence as if he were in an old time movie. If there had been a Wurlitzer organ anywhere in the vicinity, believe me, it would have been playing.
I waved the news away. “Not true. He’s placed YOU there, Kevin.” To which, Kevin squinted his eyes and gave me his confused look. “Switch the name tags, you idiot! Make it so YOU are sitting next to HER!”
“Oh!” Obediently, Kevin moved away to do exactly as I asked. Just in time, too, because as soon as he turned away, I noticed Roz standing there, looking at me strangely. That is, as strangely as a 50-ish punk lesbian with a spiky black hair can look.
“Why, hello!” I tried to sound as charming as possible. I can’t help it, the woman scares me.
She tugged at her nose piercing. “You’re up to something D’Agrande. I can feel it in my bones.”
Next scene: innocence! “I am up to no such thing, I can assure you, my dear.” But she clearly wasn’t buying a word of it. Hmmm, perhaps flattery was a more potent weapon. “By any chance did you...hehe...make those delightful cheesecakes you know I think are so...entrancing?”
A squinting of the eyes. “You know I did.”
Quick! Stage left! Escape! “I’ll just have to check out the dessert table, my dear. Or as I like to refer to it, the Island of Roz’s earthly delights.” Oh dear, perhaps that was laying it on a bit too thickly. “However did you learn to make such a delicious snack?”
Roz looked as if she were about to puke. “It’s a family recipe.”
“And a good one!”
A shrug. “So don’t tell me what you’re up to. Feel free to fill your fat face. Freak.”
Fat? Fat! Why, if I wasn’t so petrified of the woman I would have made her feel the wrath of D’Angrande! That, and she might refuse to serve me cheesecake. But certainly, for the abuse she had just heaped upon me, it was only fair I indulge in two helpful heapings of her delicious desserts.
That was just how the night was going, however. For you see, when I reached the dessert table, after having been forced to wade through a sea of old theater phonies, trade small talk, and blow kisses, I was mortified, cast into the depths of despair, brought to my knees in waves of overpowering sadness to discover that—
“Only one piece of cheesecake left? My word!”
Sallie Mae, Missi’s sweet white-haired, ninety year-old mother, who had a heart of gold and possessed more than a touch of gas, was standing behind the table, looking like something out of Arsenic and Old Lace. “It’s a big seller, Dante.”
I stared at the one pathetic sliver of strawberry cheesecake that remained and sighed. “I can see.”
“You can have mine, Dante. I’m not in the mood.”
Suddenly, I realized Missi was standing next to me. Limp wristed, she waved a Styrofoam plate under my nose. She did not look in the mood, either. Frankly, I’d never seen her look so blue. “My dear girl, whatever is the matter?”
Eyes that possessed the dramatic range of a when-alive Clara Bow looked around the room cautiously. “I’ll be right back, ma,” she called out to her chronically hard-of-hearing mother. Then, a stage whisper in my direction. “Into the corridor. Can’t talk here.”
Eagerly anticipating something juicy, I followed her out, only to bump into my man Kevin while making my way across a crowded room. “Mission accomplished!” he declared proudly.
“Not quite!” I hissed, shoving both plates of cheesecake his way. “Place both pieces at my seat and guard them! And for the love of God, if you know what’s good for you, you won’t lay so much as a finger on either one!”
“Oh!” Off Kevin went. Off we went, in the opposite direction. Before I knew it, Missi and I were in a private corner, my proud bearish frame shielding the girl from prying eyes, while Missi stood there bawling her eyes out.
“I just feel so...so sad, Dante!” I noticed with some distaste that her nose was running, in addition to everything else. Well, let it run, she had earned some mucus leakage. If only I had a tissue on hand...
“What is it? Why are you possessed of such melancholy, child?”
“Vern! This show!” Another fresh flow of teardrops. “You know how much I wanted to be Lovett, how many months I worked and rehearsed for the role. And...I’m not saying Vern has an obligation to cast me. He certainly doesn’t, after all.” A squaring of her jaw. She wasn’t buying a word of her own shuck and jive. “But after all I’ve done for him! After all the crummy plays I’ve slaved over as choreographer. Who else would help with a musical version of Moose Murders? And he practically promised me Lovett. In fact, he DID promise me Lovett. He said it was mine if I could get the board to ignore Vilhelm and vote to approve the show. So I was a good soldier, I used all my charm, called in all my chips. This is how he repays me? Not with Lovett, not even with Joanna’s crazy mother, but with a chorus part? How, Dante, HOW?”
Well. I hardly knew what to say. I looked around carefully, to see whether anyone was paying attention to the company’s rapidly decomposing house choreographer. “Missi, to be fair...you have had chorus parts before...”
That seemed to add fuel to the fire. Abruptly, the water works stopped. Her deep brown eyes burned like the fires from the depths of hell. “Yes! When I’ve been doing choreography. Even then, Vern always gave me a moment or two to showcase my talents. But...do you know who he asked to choreograph this time?”
I stood there, perplexed. “Is there any choreography in—“
“Danita, that’s who! Danita God-damned Mrs. Lovett is doing all the choreography. As if she doesn’t have enough to do!”
I placed my hand on my well-coiffed goatee, confused. “Has Danita ever done choreography before?”
“Never! And let me tell you, she’s miserable to choreograph, too. She has all these ideas, wants to change everything. Vern knows that, too. Let me tell you, there’s only one reason she wants to be choreographer for this show, Dante—it’s revenge!”
I gasped. “Revenge?”
“Revenge! Revenge because you and I were given the leads in last year’s show. She told me right after that happened—in private, of course, when no one else was listening—that she would get back at me for stealing Golde away. Then she spent the past year sucking up to Vern, who I personally know she considers to be an idiot, just so this moment would come to be. And it’s here, Dante, it’s here!” The crying began anew. “Her revenge is complete...and here I am, trapped in the chorus, like a pathetic scrubwoman or something.”
“There, there,” I said, wrapping Missi up in my big strong arms and letting her cry to her heart’s content (although a little worried about where that endless trail of snot would end up.) “Let it all out, my dear girl. Let the deep tears flow.” As her body shuddered and heaved, I patted her back consolingly, like a little baby.
Mid-pat, Roz’s unpleasant voice came bellowing out from the other room. “Order! Time to start! Order!” Then, closer to the auditorium entrance. “D’Agrande! That means you, too. Places!”
I continued to my patter, unwilling to leave a friend during her time of need. “I’ll be right there,” I called out, not caring whether Roz grew all pissers with me. “Take all the time you need.”
Missi broke from me, used her right fist to clean up the wasteland that had become her face. “I’ll be okay,” she whispered. “I just need a few minutes to put myself back together.”
“Why HELLO, you two!”
One guess who it was, my darlings. Danita and RJ, arriving even more fashionably late to rehearsal than I had been. Danita had totally made herself up to look the height of haute couture for her grand dame entrance. She was decked out in a stunning white satin gown, complete with a string of pearls around her neck. It was the complete antithesis of Lovett, and she was clearly loving every minute of it.
“Danita. RJ.” I said sternly.
Danita nodded agreeably, then glanced at Missi and feigned horror. “Oh, stars above! Is everything all right?” Before Missi could even get a chance to answer, Danita was tugging at RJ’s shirt sleeve. “Oh, they’re just about to begin! We’d better grab our cheesecake and take our seats, RJ.”
Aha! At last, one minor triumph in an otherwise entirely miserable evening. “Alas,” I said, coloring myself in shades of mock despair. “They have already run out of cheesecake.”
“Oh, no! Is that true, Dante?” Danita allowed a look of satisfaction to settle upon her painted face. “Good thing I called ahead and asked Roz to set aside two pieces, isn’t it? Let’s go, RJ. Let’s go! Ta, you two!”
Of all the...well, that did it. I gave Missy one last tender squeeze and let her run off to the bathroom to pull herself together.
As God is my witness, if Danita wanted war, then war she would get. Playing with the emotions of such a tender soul as Missi, just for a slice of revenge. Unconscionable! Undeserved! Well, if that bitch wanted a slice, that’s just what she was going to get.
Boldly, I walked into the rehearsal hall and moved over to my place with the other power performers. Kevin was there, of course, sitting in the spot he had stolen from me, faithfully guarding my cheesecake. “Here you go!”
“Out of my seat,” I said grimly. Quickly, Kevin rose and scurried to the empty seat, wearing his confused face again.
This would require perfect timing on my part. Ignoring Kevin’s aimless chatter, I kept an eagle eye on Danita and RJ as they moved over to the dessert table, exchanged pleasantries with Sallie Mae, as she nodded her withered old head and shuffled off to the kitchen to grab their precious pieces of pastry. I watched as their grubby paws gripped their Styrofoam plates, as Danita sashayed in her white silk gown toward Vern, giving him a great big hug, pretending to laugh at his lame and labored witticisms. He pointed to the seat next to me and she scrunched up her nose and headed over.
Vern was ready to start. Quickly, I moved one of my slices of cheesecake down to my lap and held it underneath the table. I watched as Danita’s thick hips made their way to the seat next to me, as her ample buttocks swiveled to place her cheeks down on the cold metal chair.
Skillfully, I moved my hands so that the cheesecake plate rested atop her chair. Then, just as swiftly, I turned away, pretending to be engrossed in a conversation with Kevin.
Vern cleared his throat to begin what was undoubtedly going to be a long, torturous and inarticulate speech. “Hi ho, all you bodies! I just want to thank you all for coming together tonight to—“
And then, she screamed. Her screamed filled the room better than most most of her solos. In unison, all eyes turned to Danita. Her eyes were as big as saucers. She jumped out of her chair, as if zapped with electricity. She grabbed at the sticky strawberry cheesecake that had affixed itself to her enormous white silk ass and started swatting away at it. “Ahhhhh! Ahhhhh! Ahhhhh!”
Just add pandemonium! The room erupted in movement and conversation. RJ rose from his chair, placed his arm around his wife, moved his hand down to help scrape away the cheesecake. Irritated, she slapped him in the face. Vern, his speech in ruins, came running over to lend assistance, as did Roz.
Danita was a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. “My beautiful dress! My beautiful white silk dress. Ruined!”
Kevin looked over at me, shocked. “Did you see what happened, Dante? Your cheesecake ended up on Danita’s chair somehow! How terrible.”
I feigned complete innocence. “Terrible, Kevin. Simply terrible! I don’t know how in the world it happened.”
Kevin bit at his fingers. “I hope that gown of hers survives.”
All eyes stayed with Danita as she made her way out of the rehearsal space, sobbing and clinging to RJ tightly.
All eyes, that is, except one pair. I noticed him as Danita was moving away from the table. Three seats down, the man playing the Judge. The tall man I had seen earlier, somewhat imposing in appearance, with black bushy eyebrows, dressed entirely in dark clothing.
He wasn’t paying attention to Danita’s histrionics at all. Instead, his gaze was affixed entirely on me. And, he had a strange smile on his face.
His smile made me feel uneasy. Did he suspect something? With all due haste, I turned away.