This week’s Throwback Thursday takes us waaaaaay back to 1974. In preparation for the opening night of My Fair Lady, my high school’s musical production that year, I had been in rehearsals for months. The entire 4 night run had almost been sold out, with nearly 500 people an evening having already purchased their tickets. The student body and local community were extremely supportive of our top notch productions, so every effort was being made to make this show as professional and entertaining as past shows had been.
As Eliza Doolittle the female lead, I was required to sing a good portion of the show in a brash, belting alto at the bottom of my range, then with Eliza’s transformation from a cockney flower girl into a proper young lady, I would switch to my classically trained soprano voice at the top of my range.
I, my leading man, and the supporting characters rehearsed every day after school, then all day every Saturday with the entire cast. The week before we opened, the head of the music department felt I needed more work on the timing for some of Eliza’s songs, so I spent even more grueling hours polishing my vocals.
A few days prior to the opening night, my voice began to feel scratchy. “Don’t panic!” I told myself. “Just rest your voice and everything will be OK.” Impossible to rest your voice as you go through the final dress rehearsals, but I did my best not to over-sing and put on a smile, hoping no one would notice.
The adrenalin pumped like mad on opening day morning! Everyone was excited…everyone but me. I woke up that morning knowing that I was in trouble. My voice was as raspy as an 85 year old chain smoker’s! Tittering and whispers began in the hallways and the choir room as word got out that I had lost my voice. I called my voice teacher and asked her what I should do. She advised me to drink lots of hot water with lemon and honey. OK. I did that. She also told me to gargle with salt water. OK. I did that too. I drank the hot water and lemon tonic all day long, praying that somehow when I stepped out on that stage my voice would miraculously be restored.
When school let out that afternoon I went home and cried (which did not help the situation at all)! I was beside myself, wondering what would happen when I opened my my mouth to caterwaul that first, “AEowwwwwwwwww!” I took a nap, had a tiny bite to eat and headed back to the theater for makeup and hair. Everyone kept asking, “how is your voice?” I would simply nod my head, still hoping for the best. But despite my brave efforts I knew I was done for. There was no way my voice was going to make it through the demanding My Fair Lady score.
Back in the dressing room, my hair was styled into a messy bun and I was costumed in a pair of vintage lace-up boots purchased from a thrift store, an ankle length skirt and apron, a calico print blouse, a worn out wool jacket, and a straw hat festooned with milner flowers. Before I made my way backstage, my choir teacher drew me aside and handed me a little vial of liquid, saying that it might help my voice. I asked him, “what is it?” He answered, “Just a little brandy.” That stuff burned like acid as I swallowed it down! He wished me luck, told me not to tell anyone he had given it to me, and off I walked onto the darkened stage.
The orchestra finished the overture, the Covent Garden scene was underway, and I held my breath, waiting for my cue….”AEooooooooow!” I screeched out as Eliza. “Two bunches of violets trod in the mud.…”
Well, some sort of voice managed to bark out those first few lines, but it was a disaster! Throughout the remainder of the first act I screeched through my songs and dialogue until my voice diminished to barely a whisper, then went off to my dressing room in disgrace, trying to keep the tears from ruining my makeup. Then someone came in and told me there was to be a meeting during intermission. There was no understudy for Eliza, so I just assumed they were going to call off the rest of that night’s performance. I knew there was NO WAY I was going to step out on that stage with my Carol Channing voice and sing “I Could Have Danced All Night!”
I met with the directors who came up with a radical solution to save our opening night. As the intermission began, Brenda Sloan, a friend of mine with a trained soprano voice who knew all the material, was sent up to the light booth where she could watch me down below on the stage. When the curtain opened on the second act, there was no announcement made. I went on as Eliza as if nothing was amiss and croaked out my dialogue as best I could. From the light booth Brenda sang all my songs into a microphone, watching my mouth and matching as I lip-synced my way through the rest of my songs! Amazingly, it worked! Many in the audience were fooled and we received a standing ovation.
The next day my mom took me to the doctor. I was found to have no real damage, just a lot of inflammation that would require complete vocal rest for at least 2 weeks, or risk forming nodes on my vocal chords. I thought for sure the directors would replace me, but I got a call from my drama teacher who told me they had decided to cancel the next 3 performances, then reopen the show in two weeks when my voice would be in top form.
So that’s what we did! I wouldn’t say I was in top voice 2 weeks later, but I was at about 75 % when I took to the stage for the second opening night.
I hope you enjoy this clip from the second opening night of Sunset High School’s 1974 production of My Fair Lady!
As she enters the ballroom, Eliza is to gracefully ‘swan’ down the staircase in her beautiful ball gown. Well let me tell ya! On that first opening night having swallowed down that vial of brandy, I’m pretty sure I WOVE my way down that staircase. First liquor I had ever tasted in my life!
2) Our local news crew came to school and filmed a story about what happened with me losing my voice and the reopening.
3) About 10 years following my graduation, I went to see another production of My Fair Lady at my old school. Would you believe it? The same thing happened to that Eliza! It was opening night and her voice was nearly gone when I went back stage to meet her!