I was born singing. From as far back as I can remember I was aimed for a career on Broadway. Things obviously didn’t work out that way.
Over Winter break this year I went to NYC to pay homage to Lady Liberty and to go to a Broadway show. All those years, all those trips to New York, and I’d never even walked on Broadway. I decided it was long overdue. So I went to see Kinky Boots, which is about a northern England industrial town with a shoemaker going out of business but who has a brainwave and starts making great boots for drag queens. I saw the movie years ago and it was pretty plodding but I figured by now it would’ve been dusted off and turned sparkly.
On 25 December I was able to do honor to Lady Liberty and just soak in the vibes of New York, a city I adore. I did some wandering around and read a great book in the evening. The next day I went to a natural history museum until my hips were screaming in pain and I returned to my AirBnB. I started to get nervous. Why was I really here? I thought I was coming to just have some fun over break and have my creativity recharged but I realized most importantly, I was on a pilgrimage to see if I could’ve made it.
I sang in every possible outlet from age five. I started in community theatre at age 11. The directors put on shows that were better than Cardinal’s, but it was free theatre. When we did Brigadoon in Main Square we had 5,000 people come to each show. I sang there, I sang in church, and I sang in three or four different ensembles at school. I started singing professionally for weddings and other events at age 11. I was the youngest supporting actress in the school’s history when I was in ninth grade and the youngest lead in 10th grade. Do you get the picture I’m painting? I had shooting star written all over me. I was going to Broadway and nothing was going to stop me.
Everyone wanted a piece of me, of successful me. I can’t tell you the number of autographs I gave away, the number of times I heard my mom’s voice in my head “Be gracious” as I said thank you to some 100th fan. Everybody wanted to say, I knew her when.
I was an arrow from a bow. My parents briefly tried to convince me to minor in journalism in high school as a back-up but I wouldn’t hear of it. This train had only one stop, and it was on the Great White Way. I was born with an iron will and all my ambition went towards manifesting my dream.
Things start getting hazy for me around the start of senior year. My parents and I were arguing more. Something was wrong with me but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I was depressed a lot and writing reams of bad poetry. But then I decided that hey, this was my senior year, I was unlikely ever to see these people again, so I will just bury my feelings deep and stay present in the moment and drink every drop of enjoyment I could squeeze out of it.
It seemed to work at first but then I started having wild mood swings. My depression came screaming back but I swallowed it. I was anxious and insomniac but still the life of the party. Things got worse at home so I spent a lot of time in the school theatre and hanging out with theatre friends. Worse worse worse. I was having this bifurcated life where on the outside I was in love with life and my friends and all my activities but inside I just wanted to die. On Easter morning my first soulmate boyfriend broke up with me and as I dried dishes in our kitchen looking out the window, tears streamed down my face as I talked to my mom and sisters behind me, modulating my voice so they wouldn’t know anything was wrong.
School got whacked and I was getting death threats in the hallways. When I left my house for a weekend Speech & Debate competition I had friends on patrol guarding it. It wasn’t enough.
By then the hallucinations had come. My mental health was crashing into a total psychotic breakdown while I still managed to go to school and do my chores and hide, hide, hide this nightmare that I still didn’t understand. I faltered in my Broadway dreams but I’d been accepted into IU’s Music School so I figured everything would go back to normal once I got out of the death-dealing Calumet Region.
I lasted a year at college. I was just too mentally ill to continue. Plus I wanted to become financially independent to remove that source of tension between me and my folks. The government determined I was too poor for financial aid (yes, you read that right) so I was out of school for three years, absolutely dirt poor and completely mentally unstable. When I went back to school it was for graphic design because I figured that would bring in the money and I could sing in my free time. Boy was that naive.
So that’s a chronological view. Here I was, in New York, over 30 years later, wondering: Could I have made it?
The show was great, lots of fun, perfectly executed by perfect professionals. The music had been composed by Cyndi Lauper of ’80s fame and was really fun. The theatre was old and really beautiful and everything was just wonderful. I looked through my copy of Playbill to see the artists’ bios and see what other shows were on. Something pinged in the back of my head and I knew I would want to review this more closely back at the apartment.
I finally made my way back and settled down with chocolate and milk and Playbill. And as I read through it I felt a great wave of grief. I could’ve made it. I doubt if I would’ve been a star but I have no doubt I would’ve gotten small roles with the occasional supporting actress gig. I would’ve worked onstage but also learned offstage how to use a MIDI and compose my own music (which I had already started to do in the Music Scool). When I got too old for the roles, I could’ve devoted myself to smaller productions and writing music for friends who were writing shows. I could see it all spread before me. I could feel it in my gut. I could’ve made a life out of the performing arts and had a helluva good time doing it. And worked hard, which I always loved. Pushed myself.
What happened? Why hadn’t I done it? I would’ve needed acting and especially dance classes but I would’ve gotten those in school. Why did I give up this all-consuming dream???
Somewhere, somewhere in that three-year period of being poor and insane I let it go. I decided making money was the most important thing because I had gone to bed hungry enough for one lifetime, thankyouverymuch. But is that real? Did I set myself down and do a pros and cons list? Did I even think rationally at all? Did I just become hard and greedy and use that iron will to find a good job in Bloomington and agitate for higher wages, always higher wages?
I know I stopped singing. For about five years. Then the Goddess gave me my voice back so I could glorify Her when I was in England in ’92. I joined a chorus. I started writing songs again, this time for women’s voices. I helped start an informal singing group called Friday Sing because, oddly enough, we came together on Fridays to sing. Then of course there was 14 years of glorious Kaia and now Pandora’s Box.
But in my mind I hold that Playbill in my hand and look at aaaaaall the shows playing and there in the middle is My Fair Lady, which I played the lead in junior year. When I was in high school the one niggling fear I had about Broadway was that every show would be Fosse Fosse Fosse and overly sexualized. But of course some of these older shows get revived. Not that I would’ve played the lead in such a high-profile show in my 20s or 30s (I wasn’t that good), but it would’ve been a show I could’ve auditioned for with confidence and maybe been in the chorus.
Gods above and below, what has happened to me???? My life revolves around mental illness more than anything else. I’m so fragile. And I used to be unstoppable. And I don’t know why things changed — I don’t even know precisely when things changed. I just suddenly find myself in a life I didn’t sign up for with a past I can’t remember.
I lost my way a long time ago. My brain chemistry derailed my life. And I’ve gotten worse over the years overall, not better. Would I be more functional if I had achieved that childhood goal? I’ll never know. I just know now I carry this anguish inside, this grief, for a path I turned away from and I don’t know why.