When Your Mother is a Character in Your Musical // by Nancy Shayne
An autobiographical musical becomes even more personal.
It’s April 2008. My mother has just flown in from Michigan with a fresh hairdo and nice clothes and is in the audience waiting for the first preview of Marcy in the Galaxy to begin. It’s my semi-autobiographical musical and a lot of it is about my relationship with her. I don’t think she minds so much that it’s autobiographical—I know her concern is that OTHERS love it, so I finally receive the accolades she thinks I deserve.
The lights go down.
In the show, Marcy, a painter (played brilliantly by Donna Lynne Champlin) never receives “accolades.” None. Her mother’s dream has not happened for her nor has it happened for herself. She’s older now and scared—still dying for the recognition and resenting the mother she loves for being so naïve about the business and how one “makes it.” “Why don’t you just call a museum and see if you can walk your paintings over?” Peppy asks Marcy when she comes to visit (the name I gave my mother in the musical perfectly played by Teri Ralston). “It doesn’t work that way,” Marcy says—seething.
This show was a valentine to the women in New York City who arrived from out of town with monster dreams and ended up in a series of dead-end jobs feeling shame for constantly ending up at square one time and time again—and never quite knowing why. I wanted to musicalize their struggle as well as my own and by doing so—attempt to restore hope and dignity.
So my mother is in the first row watching this musical about a dark night of the soul—she’s watching Marcy have a nervous breakdown at a Greek diner where she has been sitting alone the entire night on the first day of the year—January 1st. And she’s watching Marcy realize in her despair how she has alienated the people she’s loved the most due to her own flaws, stubbornness, and insane need to fulfill her mother’s wishes; all culminating in her musical plea when she can go on no longer, chanting “Hang in there hang in there hang in there hang in there hang in there hang in there.”
My mother hung in there for the entire show. She sat on the stage after with Donna Lynne and Teri and had her picture taken—and she was beaming. “That’s my daughter! Can you believe the things she said about me? Isn’t she funny?” And she hung in way after the show by memorizing every song and lyric to Marcy in the Galaxy and repeating to everyone for years, “You should see the things Nancy says about me!”
My mother died a month ago.
For the last five years, her dementia was getting so bad that not only did she forget my songs—she forgot I was a composer and most of all—forgot her relentless need for wanting my success. Decade after decade. Day after day. Isn’t that what she cared about the most?
While she was in hospice, I held her hand for days. She was silent, her eyes were shut. I could only hear her breath. I sat close to her and hummed a song from Marcy in the Galaxy. It was a song Peppy sings to a waiter on a cruise when she’s talking about her “New York” daughter and wondering how nice it must have been for all the mothers who gave birth to artists like Michelangelo and Marc Chagall to witness their children become great shining stars. I hummed…
What about the mothers
of every single artist
who lived in this world
What were their mothers thinking
when they saw their kids
go through this life
Never to become a footnote
in any book of painting
Date of birth
Date of death
Who gets to shine?
How is it determined?
Is it hers or is it mine?
Is there something I’ve missed?
I stopped humming. I was tired. My mother squeezed my hand and said, “Please don’t stop. Please. Please go on.” I realized for the first time in my life that the “fame” I thought she wanted so badly for me—it wasn’t entirely true.
She loved my music.
That was it.
So I continued.
Until she passed.