I made it to the dress rehearsal an hour early. In record time, in fact: the traffic gods had been kind.
I killed some time at the Dunkin Donuts down the street from the playhouse. (Just as you’re usually less than eight feet from a spider, in Massachusetts you’re usually less than a mile from a Dunkin.) The counter ladies were talking about the virus, of course. There were no cases in the area so far. The whole United States had recorded just six official deaths. I gathered my hot black, no sugar and blueberry muffin, nodding in full agreement that it was crazy that the town, out of an abundance of caution, was thinking about shutting down school for two weeks!
I had the tables to myself for a few minutes. Then class finished at the dance center next door, generating a line of moms, the daughters with their toes turned out ballerina style. One of the girls coughed. “Don’t worry: it’s allergies, not Covid,” said her mom, with a nervous laugh. In an abundance of caution I headed back to the car.
The playhouse had a brick facade and fancy columns. It looked a lot like my local library. Still too early for rehearsal, I took a quick walk. There was a park across the street with playing fields and a pond, which I’d already explored, so I headed down a residential street with a little frisson of uneasiness. This was for personal reasons, not Covid.
Early in our relationship, my husband Dave had driven me around various North Shore neighborhoods, with commentary. Beverly: his elementary school, his high school. Gloucester: his family’s first house, the one with no heat upstairs. Salem, Marblehead. And this town, where his first wife Lily had grown up. After their four-year marriage collapsed she’d moved back.
Now was twenty-five years on from those tours. Lily and Dave hadn’t stayed in touch, but according to the family grapevine and Facebook, she had found someone new, had a couple of kids. I didn’t know whether she still lived in this town. There was a good chance that even if we met, we wouldn’t recognize one another. I knew Lily solely through album photos 30 years old: blond like me, beaming on her wedding day, watching TV, relaxing at an Independence Day barbecue.
I wondered if I’d passed her house, whether she’d be coming to the show. Maybe we’d bond unawares in a Dunkin line, commiserating about abundances of caution and shutdowns.
The only person I saw outside was a man with his dog. Back at the playhouse, with about 15 minutes to spare, there was the usual chaos. Hammers banging, people talking, a portable radio playing oldies, the smells of coffee, fresh paint, dust. I looked around for someone to tell me where to set up. The director, Brian, an energetic man with a beard, rushed over. “I’m so sorry, rehearsal’s cancelled for tonight. There was a text…”
I checked my phone and found a message about 25 minutes old.
“Stick around if you want, there’s going to be a board meeting in a few minutes and we’ll have more information for you.” Traffic back home would be terrible; I stuck around. The stage crew continued managing the million-and-one last-minute details, moving a Victorian-style sofa back a few inches. The male lead huffed in, asking if there was any way to reverse the board’s decision.
The Keyboard 2 player had also missed the text. He was unhappy to find that he would have to move all his gear, which we’d schlepped upstairs after the first rehearsal, back to his car. We were a tiny pit, just three players. Charlie, the music director and Keyboard 1, offered to help. On the sidewalk outside, he pulled both of us aside. “I’m sure we’re not going up next week,” he said. “I’ll let you know about new dates.”
“I hope I‘ll be able to play,” I said. I already had the next couple of months’ worth of shows booked, plus Sonny’s senior recital and graduation, and Easter, bunches of stuff. I left the book with Charlie just in case my schedule didn’t synch and then screwed my courage to the sticking point and asked about compensation for that afternoon’s drive. Charlie conferred with Brian conferred and agreed to pay half a service.
“Guess I’ll see you in a few weeks! I hope you don’t have to cancel the show,” I said.
“There is no way we’ll cancel,” Brian said. “I have a budget to meet.” He shook my hand. Out of an abundance of caution we were supposed to be bumping elbows, instead, but nobody in musicals land had adopted that precaution.
“You’re home early,” said Dave.
“Yeah, let me tell you about my evening…”
Over the next week or two I practiced the parts for upcoming shows, sourced toilet paper, and fretted. I started blogging pandemic diaries. The then-president intimated that by Easter things would be opening up, but the emails warbled a contradictory counterpoint. Sorry, they said, out of an abundance of caution the gig’s postponed! Then: we’re rescheduling to June! Then: Sorry, we’ve canceled.
Brian did manage to put on a skeleton production of the show. Just before Labor Day the company performed the musical outside, in that pretty little park. Charlie accompanied on keyboards in a one-man socially distanced pit. No word on how the budget turned out, but no checks were ever mailed in my direction. I never got another chance to run into Lily at Dunkin.
Sometimes it feels like it was yesterday when I packed my instruments into the car and headed for that gig, but most of the time it feels like a decade’s passed. A few venues are starting up shows again; out of an abundance of caution, the musical accompaniment involves backing tracks or musicians who can wear masks while playing. Wind players are too risky for the close quarters of a pit. In an abundance of caution, we remain on the sidelines, where we watch our embarrassment of riches dwindle ever further.
Being off the road gives me an abundance of time to check social media, which is packed right now with anniversary tales about the week when our industry folded in on itself. This is mine.