The Lapsed Chanteuse // by Nancy Friedman
Former Drama Club star Nancy Friedman reunites with one of her first loves.
When I was around 30 years old, I was stopped on the street by a total stranger.
“Nancy Rabinowitz?” she asked.
“Yes.” I said.
“I thought I recognized you. I’m E’s mother, from high school? I saw you in all the plays. Are you a professional actress now?” she smiled.
I laughed, “Oh no! Not at all!”
Her smile faded. “I don’t see why that’s funny. My daughter really wanted to be a performer, and you!” She practically spit at me. “If you weren’t serious about it, you shouldn’t have taken all the parts in high school.”
I was speechless. It had been more than a decade since high school, nearly as long since I’d performed—was she crazy?
Well, yes, I decided. First of all, by my estimate, only one in 1,432,227 kids who star in their high school musical actually makes it as a professional actor. Most don’t even try. Second, her daughter, E? Not a contender. Sorry, but I remember her as a nice, smart, dedicated kid, but had I not taken leading roles in high school, nothing would have changed for her.
And boy, did I get leading roles! Not to brag (Oh, who am I kidding? I’m totally bragging: I peaked in high school. What else am I gonna brag about?), but between high school and my performing arts summer camp, I played Eliza in My Fair Lady, Sharon in Finian’s Rainbow, Patsy in Babes in Arms, Mary Poppins in, well, you know, Miss Jones and Hedy LaRue in two different productions of How To Succeed…, and Charity in Sweet Charity. (Years later, when I met Cy Coleman, I apologized profusely for that last one—I was dreadful.) In college, I was in the oh, so exclusive Varsity Show cast three out of four years, only missing the year I was abroad. After college, I moved to Paris where I performed in cabarets and restaurants and with a bar mitzvah band, singing in English, French, Hebrew, and Arabic. The photographic evidence of this time is a source of great amusement to my kids. I’ve posted it here. You’re welcome.
But a funny thing happened when singing was my job. It felt like a job. Plus, I couldn’t act, and my dancing was passable at best. I had gone through plenty of summer acting programs, including the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and Circle Repertory in New York, but I knew that my acting was something people excused once I opened my mouth to sing. As in, “Why would they cast her? She can’t act at all!” And then, once I sang, “Oh, I get it.” Hardly a recipe for stardom.
Perhaps the most important part of my decision not to pursue a career as a performer was that I realized I didn’t want it enough. I loved singing and performing, but I didn’t NEED it the way you need to NEED it to make that very difficult, ego crushing life into a career. There I was, living and working as a singer in Paris, and I wasn’t loving it. Oh, don’t get me wrong—I had a blast. I refer to those two years in Paris not as my time abroad, but my time as a broad. But the singing itself started to feel like a chore. So, like a bazillion other high school drama geeks, I packed up my greasepaint and moved on.
I moved back to New York. I got a job in television. I got married, I had kids. I still sang, and as long as I presented myself as a mom, people thought my voice was awesome. Had I told people I was an aspiring actress, I don’t think they would have been quite so impressed. But as a mom? I rocked. It’s all about context, baby.
I went to the theatre all the time—probably 20–30 times a year. And it wasn’t as expensive as you’d think. Tickets to off-Broadway shows, when you get a subscription, are often less than $50 each. I belong to theatre clubs, which sell day-of $5 (or even free) tickets to lesser-known venues. And even Broadway shows, if you go during previews, don’t need to break the bank. But with all the theatre-going, I missed the theatre. I missed the teamwork, working to make a show come together, growing close with the cast and crew. I missed the people. Theatre people are the best: creative and smart and crazy in (mostly) the best possible way. But I was too old to get into the theatre, right? Wrong.
I found a back door into the theatre world: I joined the board of Transport Group, an off-Broadway company whose work I had long admired. Oh, I know what you’re thinking. That’s not being in the theatre. That’s writing a check. Wrong again.
Joining the board of Transport Group, a well-respected theatre company in New York, has given me access to the creative process in a way I didn’t have as a theatre goer. I get to meet set designers and dialect coaches and dramaturges. (Hell, I got to find out what a dramaturge was.) I get to see a show go from commission, to workshop, to table-read, to full-fledged production. Tony winners know me by name. A few have even sung in my living room at Transport Group parties. Most of all, I get to help make it possible for our company to commission new work and mount beautiful shows—not just because I write checks, but because I apply my marketing and outreach experience, help fundraise, and source partnerships that add to the artistic experience for our creative team.
I’ve been with the company for almost eleven years now, the last five as Vice Chair. Every season is a new opportunity for me to meet artists, learn, and be a small part of the creative work our artists do. A few years ago, our season included Renascence, a new musical inspired by the life of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. In the book of the musical, Dick Scanlan, also the show’s co-director, wrote of Vincent’s “Aunt Caroline,” a woman, likely with an intimate interest in Vincent, who was her supporter and patron. Aunt Caroline’s vaguely creepy support enabled the young poet to become the literary rock-star she was at the time. “I’m Aunt Caroline minus the creepy sexual overtones!” I wrote to Jack Cummings III, our Artistic Director, after seeing and loving the show. “I’m so proud to have been even a small part of bringing this musical to life.”
Covid hasn’t been easy for the theatre community. Unlike industries that were hit hard but continued, live theatre simply stopped all together. Nothing. With it went the 10,000 jobs and nearly $2 billion in revenue it provides in NYC alone. Our Transport Group board sprang into action. We crunched numbers, and applied for loans, and fought like hell to pay our staff and keep our company solvent. By “we” I mean our incredible Executive Director, Denise Dickens, and those board members who have finance skills. I would have helped with my math skills, but those peaked with Schoolhouse Rock’s “3 is a Magic Number.” But I say “we” because it’s our company. All of ours.
At our (virtual) board meetings, we are figuring out how to celebrate our 20th Anniversary without a stage or a live audience, working to keep our artists employed and our company going for 20 more years.
I may not have ended up on stage, or even backstage, but I found a way to make theatre a vital part of my life. Not bad for a high school drama geek.
Nancy Friedman as Hedy LaRue in her 1982 high school production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
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