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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Once Upon a Time

Celebrities are never quite as interesting as their deaths.

When Canadian singer-songwriter Stan Rogers died in an airplane fire in 1983, he was little known outside his native Canso, and perhaps Hailfax, where he gave his last full-scale concert. His brother, Garnet, wrote the song "Night Drive" about Stan's death, and their lives together.

"They lost sight of you,
As your legend's grown,
But this road and I,
We remember."

"They" lose sight of everybody famous, after the flame dies out. Don't they?

Don't we.

It's what we do best-- lionize and memorialize and tributize until we're as blue in the face as the waxen figures whom we celebrate.

Stan continued the seemingly obligatory tradition of musicians dying aboard airplanes. Lots of performers, though, dramatic and depressed and desultory as they sometimes tend to be find their end in lots of jarring ways. Some take their own lives, sometimes fueled by drugs or drink-- sometimes not. Some are violently felled by those who supposedly loved them, like the painfully talented Phil Hartman.

A celebrity died on Friday, but it wasn't in one of those newsworthy, exciting ways. Not only that, his death is certainly being overshadowed by the recent death of another celebrity-- Amy Winehouse-- who perished under traditionally dubious circumstances.

It's hard to imagine that the celebrity's death that I'm referring to, has played out in the penumbra of some markedly-talented, tortured young lady, but it is-- much in the way Farah Fawcett's death paled in comparison to the passing of Michael Jackson.

It's hard to imagine that a profound actor like Tom Aldredge, who commanded leading roles on Broadway's stages for over 40 years, could be upstaged by anyone, but that's our funny little world, in a funny little nutshell.

You might not immediately recognize his name, but, if you've ever been fortunate enough to see the PBS "Great Performances" recording of "Into the Woods," you'd know his face. And his gentle, sturdy, fatherly voice.

He stood tall, in his gray, flannel suit as The Narrator, effortlessly welcoming and alternately toying with the audience as he held our hands, sometimes too tightly, on our journey into the woods. He stood, stooped over and grizzled, with a funny voice, as he struggled to connect with his estranged son, The Baker, offering him only barbs and riddles in Act I, and a sweet, tender, and contrite duet in Act II.

It's a fine, kind performance by a veteran of the stage who seemed to understand that the integrity of the show and the humanity of the role was intended to come before him, that his body and his voice were simply conduits intended to communicate a playwright and lyricist's intention, message, and heart.

In 1997, my high school announced that it was producing "Into the Woods" as its spring show. For years, I had enjoyed and respected Aldredge's performance, and I set my sights on the part of the Narrator and the Mysterious Man. I was only seventeen, but, for three years prior, I had returned to my old middle school to assistant-direct the musicals there and, in so doing, I had served as a mentor to the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. As they grew older and became freshman and sophomores with me, my role as mentor changed to friend, and I was privileged enough to call three of those children my friends.

One of them would be Little Red in this show, one of them would be The Baker, and the third, the only one who is still my friend to this day, was cast in the funniest role of all in that production: my dresser. Responsible for the dozen or so quick changes, getting me out of my Narrator suit and into my Mysterious Man clothes, running outside of the theatre (we didn't have a backstage passageway) in the rain on some nights to do quick changes in mid-run, it was a true adventure.

The director had originally wanted to cast me as The Witch (yes, the Bernadette Peters part) and it wouldn't have been the first time I'd have put on a dress to honor Thespis, (or the last) but he was convinced that The Narrator and the Mysterious Man would be a better fit.

To this day, I can't listen to a recording of the song "No More," that special duet between father and son, without my throat getting thick and tears welling up in my eyes.

"Trouble is, son, the farther you run,
The more you'll feel undefined.
For what you have left undone, and more,
What you've left behind."

Thank you, Tom, for sharing your gift with the world, once upon a time.

1 comment:

  1. This was lovely ... Tom Aldredge was a tremendous talent.

    And I feel like a fool for writing a post about Amy Winehouse today ...


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