Actually, I cry a lot. Probably at least once a day, if I’m honest – thanks to social media, and my fondness for montages set to sweeping music. Sure, it’s a kind of emotional pornography most times, but everyone’s got a habit, right? When it comes to modern communication, I don’t troll – I tear up.
That’s just the way I’m wired.
And I’m not a gentle crier, either. Think floods. Heaving. Wracking. Ask any of my old co-workers who have handed me tissues after sending me a YouTube link – my tears are not dignified.
The thing is, social media has given us certain permission – it may even be an expectation – that it’s okay to experience ‘all the feels’ over our morning coffee. As we scroll through our various feeds we briefly tap into other lives, and we experience this other emotion. This allowed emotion – outside of us, and brief. We’re encouraged to feel all our feels for a full minute and a half, and then, emotionally catheterized, get back to it.
Because one’s own sorrow, one’s owned sorrow is generally not so welcome, is it? When I am faced with my own milk spills, I am not nearly so forthcoming with the tears. Permission is seldom granted to really cry in front of someone. The kind of cry I don’t have words for, because when it happens you’re so in it, so consumed by it that self-awareness completely dissolves, and you are left, after, with a vague sense of having been as naked as you will ever be.
That kind of cry is different. That kind of cry is reserved.
I’m thinking about the ways we cry today because I’ve noticed there is another way. A way of feeling emotion that is both other and your own. A desire for feeling something that is not so much sought as discovered, and it’s happening more and more to me here in New York City as this adventure goes on.
Each day, some neural connection well beyond my own mapping flares, and I find myself suddenly, inexplicably tasting salt on my lip.
It might happen as I run past the Eleanor Roosevelt statue on Riverside Drive, a squirrel darting round her skirts. It might be walking down Broadway on a grey day and Defying Gravity shuffles through my iPod, as if the street knows its own name. It might be batting blossoms off the page as I write in Central Park, or as I lay staring at the bright blue above me, watching birds and aeroplanes, and hearing the symphony that is New York at any hour – even a peaceful one.
Or it might be as it was today in the park, finishing Alan Cumming’s beautifully written memoir Not My Father’s Son. This book made my chest ache. As I walked home, I thought about resilience, about forgiveness and liberation. I thought about how callous humans can be, and equally, how tender. I thought about all of the private wars and peacetimes that make up our lives, and what a gift it is for a writer to let you sit with them for a while, even – or especially – in the dark.
And suddenly, walking along Columbus with the dog-eared paperback tucked under my arm, I started crying. It wasn’t the floods kind, or the heaving. And it wasn’t the devastating, dissolving kind, either. This was a different way of feeling. These tears were neither personal nor premeditated. They were instead about feeling so human, so full and so connected that my body couldn’t hold it all in.
It’s what I feel when I nod to Eleanor, or Broadway hums back at me, and when the sky is so blue that I don’t mind living upside down. It’s a way of feeling the weight of other lives that doesn’t exploit them, but seeks to know, to feel them. And it’s not about being here in New York – though certainly this city plays her part. I think it’s about seeking the full story, wherever you are. I think it’s about stepping away from sound bites and snapshots – about no longer feasting on the scraps of sentiment, but instead taking your time to see, taste, touch what you consume.
“We get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognise them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty.
Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source.
There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.”
To me, these are Miller’s wisest of his many wise words. I’m finally tapping into that source he speaks of, and the truth bubbles up out of me whenever I recognise it. Which is why, when I suddenly found myself crying on Columbus today, I felt not shame but overwhelming joy for being so naked on this busy street.
Today, as I left Whole Foods (yep, with my tofu and quinoa salads), I got a little teary. My kind of teary, that is …
The store on Columbus had a sign above their exit: “See you again soon, neighbor” or something similar. And it struck me that this is my neighbourhood. This is where I live. It might not be forever, and it might not even be for long – but for now, this is my home. For now, I am exactly where I am supposed to be – in a neighbourhood and a town where even grocery shopping at an over-regulated, over-priced supermarket feels like a grand adventure.
New York makes me happy in the smallest, and most significant ways.
A lot is made of following your dreams. But I think it’s more about following your instinct. Dreams suggest something tangible to reach for, something to achieve. Following your instinct, on the other hand, means listening to yourself. It means paying attention to who you are, and what makes you happy, no matter the scale of your “achievements”.
Are you happy? Are you where you want to be? Is this your neighbourhood, or is there some other place, some other person – somewhere – that you sense is home, even if it feels too far away right now?
I say follow your instinct. Find your home. Go home. It’s easier than you think really, because changing your life is just as hard as you’d imagine, too. Which kind of prepares you for the darker moments – and makes you so happy when the sun comes out. It gives you such clarity around what you’ve got to be grateful for.
I’m grateful. I’m happy. I love my new neighbourhood.
When the blues come, a cello plays under my skin. A mournful dirge that sinks me into melancholy, pulling me in and under my someone. And somethings.
I know all about sirens and their rocks, I know about the luring. It could be so easy to listen to that music on repeat, to follow where it leads. Deep and down into the caves of my subconscious, where all the words are hiding.
Where I smash against my fatal shore, and I am one memory from my sleeping.
I can cross oceans, I can follow the curve of the moon, and blink under building lights that shame the stars. But when the blues sing me through the night, I am back at my beginning again.
Last night I poured my vodka down the sink and fell asleep on the bathroom floor. I fall deepest when the sun comes up, and wake disoriented from my morning travels. Everything is the wrong way round here, or I am. So much corner turning, so much emerging from below, and it creates a kind of alert exhaustion, an expectation that something is about to happen today if I just get up and in it.
It all feels so possible, so utterly and entirely possible, this living on the brink.
“I did not belong there,” Joan Didion said of this city. And I recognise her words, because I know I do not belong here either. I do not know the rhythm and the rules. I am a step out of time, backwards dancing across these cracked pavements and sticky stairwells.
And like Joan Didion, I am in love. I am in love with this grimy, swollen, stinking city. With her teeming masses, and the bare-bone trees of winter, waiting.
If you’ve checked out my About Me page you’ll know I’m a Broadway Baby – I love musical theatre and regularly steal borrow from the genre. Whether it’s naming my lead character Maggie Valentine after West End legend Ruthie Henshall (no, really – it’s connected!), or using the lyrical genius of Sondheim to anchor a post, musical theatre has long been a source of inspiration to this writer.
When I first started this blog two years ago, I also began writing for the theatre website, BroadwayWorld. As a contributing editor I have been given a backstage pass into a world I have loved since I was a kid, and at the end of 2013 I closed out an amazing year of theatre by travelling to Shanghai for a peek behind the curtain of Do You Hear The People Sing?.
This concert celebration of the works of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg was headlined in Shanghai by two of my 15-year-old-self obsessions, international theatre stars Lea Salonga and Michael Ball. When producer Enda Markey offered me the chance to head backstage before and after the show, I knew it was an opportunity not to be missed; I decided to take a weekend round-trip to Shanghai to honour that 15-year-old me, and her passion.
Though the subject matter differs from my usual posts, I wanted to share my peek behind the curtain of Do You Hear The People Sing? with you here at body, remember. When I started this blog I took my first steps as a public writer, and now, two years on, I feel like I’m in a full, joyous run. It is all connected – really!
(If nothing else, I hope my little adventure inspires you to find ways to honour your teenage self in 2014) …
It’s a chilly, starless night in Shanghai, but behind the scenes of Do You Hear The People Sing? the creative team is neon-lit with energy. Australian performer Amanda Harrison has taken ill, and suddenly there are four voices to work with, instead of five. Parts have to be rearranged, and headliner Lea Salonga has taken on double-duty, picking up some of the numbers originally performed by Harrison. Backstage before tonight’s show, the atmosphere has a sense of chaotic vigour to it; everyone is meeting someone about something.Last minute plans. Next minute plans. Things they can’t tell me. And a few things they can tell me (but I can’t tell you just yet!).
As the cast arrives, there’s Marie Zamora, Cosette from the original Paris production of Les Miserables, all wrapped up against the Shanghai night, and Lea Salonga, hair still in rollers, heading for her dressing room. Salonga is impossibly pretty in the flesh; she looks just the same as that fresh-faced girl from the original Miss Saigon. Follow Salonga on her entertaining, fierce Twitter feed and you’ll know she’s a mature, grown-up woman now. But for a split-second when we shake hands, I see the teenage Lea, the young girl at the very beginning of all this. I manage a Nice to meet you, as I mentally pinch myself, and remind myself not to stare too long at a woman I’ve admired for more than half my life.
Next up it’s Michael Ball. We are introduced via my immediate confession that I used to keep a framed picture of him next to my bed. A little bit of worship is something he’s used to, this man. Ball has fans that travel the world to see him perform; some of these Ballettes – the moniker give to his most dedicated female fans – will be in the front row of the Shanghai Grand Theatre tonight. I ask him if it feels like a responsibility to have people follow him around the world like this, and he counters that it feels more like a privilege.
“These women have all travelled from various parts of the world to come together, to meet up so that they feel safe in a foreign place. They go off and have their trips together, then they’ve got this focal point of seeing the show. I think it’s just heavenly,” he tells me as we settle in his dressing room for a pre-show chat.
“I love talking to the girls, and finding out about them, and encouraging what they do,” he adds.
In a way Ball is passing on to these women all that his voice has given him. His talent has taken him around the world, and now he’s opening up that world to his fans, providing the impetus for them to visit cities like Shanghai – cities that would not generally make their vacation list.
“Some people think we’re crazy”one of the Ballettes half-joked to me earlier, but actually I think it’s brave in its way, how they follow their fancy like this. Ball, too, seems to genuinely appreciate their dedication.
I could talk to Michael Ball all night; it’s easy with someone so warm and effusive, and so ready with that trademark giggle. I reluctantly leave him to his voice warm-ups a half-hour before the concert, but not before I ask him what his 15-year-old self would have made of all this – of concerts in Shanghai, and people travelling the world to see him perform.
“He wouldn’t have believed it. Not for a minute,” Ball answers after pausing to consider the question. “And [he] would have really loved the idea of it being a possibility. My 15-year-old self, he was quite unhappy. So to know that he would have had this to look forward to would have been absolutely wonderful.”
If backstage was buzzing before the show, there is a different kind of energy after, a kind of post-show diffusion. When I talk with Australian performer David Harris, he is still trying to shake off the effects of going from the high-octane Master Of The House to the poignant control of Bring Him Homein the second act. As he signs autographs for kids from the wonderfully named Shanghai Honey Kids Children’s Choir, I tell Harris how moving it was to see the somewhat reserved Shanghainese audience so invested in these songs. Master Of The House had one particular audience-member in my row pogo-sticking out of his chair with joy, before Bring Him Homeleft that same man open-mouthed, leaning so far forward in his chair it was as if he was being pulled onto the stage. If audience reaction is anything to go by, our Australian talent very nearly stole the show tonight.
As Harris leaves, I am introduced to Alain Boublil, the lyricist and librettist who together with composer Claude-Michel Schönberg gave us the songs of Do You Hear The People Sing?. For the first time all night I am genuinely star-struck. Boublil is a Tony-winning, Oscar-nominated writer. He is also charming and thoughtful, and immediately puts me at ease; in conversation I discover that Boublil talks like a writer too, he speaks in lyrical sentences that trail off, he wrangles ideas with words, and constantly reaches for a better phrase to describe his work, and his love of it.
We discuss the meld of art and politics, and the global reach of Les Miserables, as Boublil tells me that requests come in from all over the world to use the song, Do You Hear The People Sing?for a particular social or political cause. It has become a cross-cultural anthem, this song of people rising. Though Boublil does not allow for any commercial use of the song (an affinity for the song does not guarantee an affinity for a cause after-all), he is genuinely moved by the impact Do You Hear The People Sing? continues to have around the globe, more than 25 years on.
Les Miserablesand Miss Saigon are still keeping Boublil busy, all these years after their creation. Both musical have major revivals set for 2014, as does the lesser-known Martin Guerre. Each show is a living, breathing entity that changes and grows with time. Parts of Miss Saigon will be fully revised for the new London production, and both Les Miserablesand Miss Saigon have had new songs added. Boublil tells me there is no compulsion to write a new musical right now; he’s as busy as he’s ever been, working with the ones he’s got.
And what musicals they are. Musicals that have played all around the world, musicals that break down cultural barriers though melody and message, even as they entertain. Here tonight, in this, my first non-English-speaking theatre audience experience, the truly international impact of the musicals of Boublil & Schönberg has been a beautiful thing to observe.
As the night ends, I say goodbye to producer Markey, who still has another show tomorrow, and the next stages of his Asia-Pacific tour to plan. I see it in him too, the 15-year-old kid who can’t believe his luck. Here on the other side of the world, doing what he loves, working with people at the top of their game, and all of it making him better too. Earlier in the evening I had asked Markey that same question I put to Michael Ball – just what would his 15-year-old self make of all of this? Markey didn’t answer at the time, he joked that he was afraid of being cheesy. But as we hug goodbye, I get it. Here in Shanghai we’ve both experienced that moment where you want to pinch yourself and say –Can you believe this is happening to me??!
Except now you know it isn’t luck, the way you think it might be when you are 15, and dreaming of it. It’s hard work, and courage, and sticking at it – that’s what gets you where you were always supposed to be. It’s being the best at what you do, and doing what you love, and having this turn out to be the same thing in the end.
So that when you do finally peek behind that curtain into a world your kid-self dreamed of, and ask Can you believe this is happening to me? – the answer that comes back from the grown-up you is an emphatic and truly deserved –Yes!
Post Script:It has also been announced that on January 29th and 30th, 2014 there will be a gala concert presentation of Do You Hear The People Sing? in Manila to aid victims of Typhoon Yolanda. This concert will feature Lea Salonga, Marie Zamora and David Harris from the Shanghai cast. For more details on this special event, and the corresponding Charity Auction offering you the chance to win opening night tickets to the 2014 revivals of Miss Saigon in London, and Les Miserables in New York and Melbourne, click here.