I’m Too Good For This - Joshua Britton
“Half of the orchestra thinks they can conduct better than the conductor.
The other half actually can.”
“Dru, right?” Billy says to me. “You guys sound pretty good back there.”
“Thanks, man, you too. You’ve got a hell of a voice. I’m a little jealous.”
That seems about it. Billy has always been friendly. And there’s no reason to brown-nose with me, so it must be genuine. Plus, it’s true. He does have a hell of a voice. I do sound great back there. I can’t help thinking of Jack, though. Jack says Billy wants to kick his ass.
The Hungarian walks by. We watch with admiration. I developed a crush on the Hungarian last weekend. When she’s on stage, it’s like no one else is there. Once she’s out of sight, Billy walks away.
I’m surprised Billy knows my name. I only know his character’s name. I don’t know the Hungarian’s name either. I don’t think she’s actually Hungarian, but even that I’m not sure of. One of the reed players thinks she’s butchering the language. It sounds fine to me, though. All I really know is that she’s gorgeous and a great dancer.
There are seven more shows for me to learn her name before I can ask her out. I could look up her bio in the program, but that’s cheating. The next best bet would be to overhear someone calling her by name, but I’m hoping she will just tell me, outright, in hopes of learning mine.
Jack is always the last to arrive. I wish he would get here earlier, so I would have someone to hang with.
“I was just talking to your nemesis,” I say to Jack.
“Yeah?” Jack laughs. “What’d you talk about?”
“He’s gonna pound you in the bathroom at intermission,” I say. “He’s been working on his left hook. I’d pee out back in the bushes, if I were you.”
Jack laughs again. He finishes putting his horn together and starts to warm up. I’m done warming up. I’m too warm. If I warm up any more I won’t make it through the show.
I walk through the green room where some of the girls are putting on makeup. Not the Hungarian, though. I bet she doesn’t need makeup. Amos is on the couch, reading, and some of the cops and prison guards are there, too, watching the girls, talking with them. I would like to hang out with the actors, but I never have, so I continue through the green room and into the lobby.
There is a good crowd. The company draws well. Two of the four shows last weekend sold out. Tonight might be a sellout, too. The wine bar is doing a brisk business. With twenty minutes before the downbeat, already a lot of people are lining up to file through the doors and into the auditorium. This is our sixth show. I search for someone I know. I haven’t seen anyone yet, and I don’t see anyone now. I head for my seat.
In front of the curtain the opening lines are spoken, accompanied by the first laughs from the audience. Then there is a trumpet solo while the curtain opens. Here we are, the band; the first real stars of the show. The maestro yells “5 6 7 8!” and we are in. The overture depicts early jazz, so for my part I’m thinking Kid Orie-tailgating-Dixieland-style. It’s a lot of fun.
The maestro can’t conduct worth a dime. His two-pattern doesn’t resemble anything taught in a basic conducting class. But as long as nobody looks at him we roll with ease.
Jack is my only friend in the production. Billy and I seem to get along, but I don’t think I can be friends with both him and Jack. The trumpet players like me all right, but they play terribly and it’s hard to like someone you don’t respect. The old guy has serious chops but his intonation and rhythm are all over the place. Plus he’s one of those guys that tells a thousand trumpet stories, incessantly, no matter how uninterested you act. The other guy just can’t play. And he laughs about it.
I sit in the back with Jack. The trumpets are in front of us. Everyone else sits too close to the maestro. There’s the chain-smoking bass clarinetist; the flutist with one-year-old triplets; the five-foot-two bearded saxophonist; the high school drummer; and the ninety-year-old violinist. Up front, I suspect the maestro talks bad about me.
The neat thing about playing this show is that the band is on stage, as if we’re part of the set, or even part of the cast. And the neat thing about being on stage, opposed to down in an actual pit, is being able to see pretty much everything that goes on. And the really neat thing about being on stage and being able to see pretty much everything that goes on is how skimpy the costumes are.
We see that right off with Velma’s opening number as a bunch of the cast backs her up while Roxie shoots her lover. But the skimpy outfits are best displayed in the “Cell Block Tango,” while six inmates talk about why they are in jail, who they killed, and why they did it. They’re not wearing much – tight, high-rising leotards, a couple of two-pieces, and lots of cleavage. Everyone admits guilt, except the Hungarian. She’s going on and on, in Hungarian, while dancing around the stage, before she says “not guilty.” I think she was a ballet dancer before she was framed for murder. She’s so sweet; she couldn’t possibly have done it. After that, sometimes I miss my next entrance.
“Mind if I do the solo?” Jack whispers to me. “My girlfriend’s here tonight.”
It’s a comedic little two-second plunger solo to serve as quick scene change music that never comes off that well and confuses the audience. It’s my most exposed solo, but not a musically fulfilling one.
“Sure,” I say.
I haven’t met Jack’s girlfriend yet. I guess they’ve been together a while. I don’t think he’s ever told me her name.
The Hungarian has a small part in this scene. Since I’ve given away my solo, I take the opportunity to sit back and watch. “Not guilty” is her only line, but it’s darn good.
The solo comes amidst a lot of dialogue. I have it timed perfectly but the maestro insists on giving a big cue anyway. His cues are wrong most of the time, so I try not to look at him. This time, though, I make an effort to get his attention and motion towards Jack, as a courtesy, so he’ll know Jack is playing the solo, and not me. He cues without looking, though, and I don’t get his attention.
Jack starts the solo on the wrong note. No one would ever notice, least of all the maestro, but Jack tries to fix it by lip-slurring up to the correct note. He flubs that, too. Now the maestro looks up and sees that I’ve given my part to Jack. He glares at me, and only me. Jack is embarrassed and glances over, sheepishly. We’re not doing that again.
Billy enters the show with “All I Care About Is Love.” All the prison girls fawn over him. His voice really is fantastic, like a southern depression-era Baptist minister, even though he’s supposed to be a womanizing celebrity criminal defense attorney in Chicago. Richard Gere plays Billy in the movie, which is funny because this Billy couldn’t be more different. He’s not at all good looking. He’s pasty pale. And he’s the most overweight member of the cast. He’s surprisingly light on his feet, though, and a good dancer. I guess he could kick Jack’s ass. Jack is tall but lanky, and really scrawny.
Overall, though, I’m impressed with the actors. They’re all volunteers here, but they mostly have acting degrees, and some of them have actual movie credits; Jack looked it up. Roxie has the most. You can tell because her delivery is way too natural for the stage, as if she’s used to a sound editor bringing her voice up during post-production. She owns her character. She’s totally in the zone. But with so many old people in the audience, she needs to articulate better.
Her big song, “Roxie,” is one of the trickier numbers. There is a lot of talking, a lot of vamping, and a lot of cues. We’re repeating a group of four measures over and over while Roxie delivers her speech. The maestro is supposed to give us a signal to move on, except he’s middle-aged and going deaf, and can’t understand what anyone’s saying. So he guesses, and he usually guesses wrong. Then the actors have to scramble to catch up. Poor Roxie. I have the cues written into my book, so I know that the maestro cues the ensemble early four times out of five.
I have a hot solo that he cues eight measures early, but I ignore the maestro, wait, and come in correctly. He has the gall to give me a dirty look, and I see the saxophonist shaking his head, which is disappointing because I thought he and I were cool. I remain confident the cast appreciates my competence, even if the band does not.
The maestro has never said anything to me about showing him up. In fact, a couple of times he’s gone on and on about my professionalism, thanking me for my patience with the production, asking me about my musical endeavors, and even giving me tips on potential gigs. Those talks leave me with warm fuzzy feelings for the maestro, even if none of his tips have panned out yet. But then he glares at me during the show a half dozen times and I want to rip his head off.
Confidence is an important quality for a conductor to have, but a conductor’s arrogance, particularly when he is so obviously wrong pretty much all the time, can be detrimental to the musician’s morale. He blows yet another cue, but since I’m not playing I don’t have a chance to show him up and get another dirty look. The woodwind players are lemmings, following the maestro blindly, like rats going down with the ship.
Maybe I should give in, take the cues, and come in wrong, too. Then maybe they will like me better. Last Saturday, between the matinee and the evening performance, I wasn’t invited to dinner with the rest of the orchestra.
I’m too good for this. They’re lucky to have me. Paid gigs have been few and far between, though, and I’m desperate for anything, even if, once you factor in all of the rehearsals, this pays less than Siberian child slave wages. However, parts of the orchestra, like the trumpets, don’t deserve even that. The maestro probably just asked the best people he knew, and he didn’t know very many people. A desperation e-mail got sent out and forwarded around. That’s how Jack and I got wind of it. And here we are.
Last weekend, Jack and I started singing along with the chorus during “My Own Best Friend.” The trumpet players think it’s funny, but so far no one else has noticed. Jack and I smirk at each other, and try to keep ourselves from laughing.
Roxie and Velma are singing about how they’re in danger of rotting in jail forever because this rich woman Kitty just blew away a bunch of people, and now she’s getting all the press, and Billy’s attention.
Kitty doesn’t get a microphone. She yells her lines, but she goes too fast and keeps turning away from the audience. The audience always looks a little lost there. They are never quite sure what just happened as the curtain closes on the first act.
One of the serious design flaws in the building is that the dressing rooms, the green room, and anything else that might be considered “backstage,” are in the front.
“Billy didn’t really say he’s going to kick my ass in the bathroom, did he?” Jack asks me as we weave through old people with walkers making their way up the ramp from the front row handicap seats to the restrooms and refreshments.
“No,” I say and laugh. We’re keeping our voices low. “He’s got big arms, but it’s all fat and no muscle. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Jack doesn’t actually look worried, but he walks out of the building anyway and makes a beeline to the back of the parking lot, where there are no lights and a lot of trees to pee behind. He drank a lot of water during the first act.
I see the maestro outside smoking with the bass clarinetist. They’re talking and laughing. The saxophonist doesn’t make eye contact when he walks by, but at least the flutist with the triplets back home smiles at me. Either she’s just being nice, or she thinks the maestro is full of crap, too.
I look around for someone to talk to. Then I see the Hungarian walking straight at me.
“Good first act,” I say.
She was heading for the green room, directly behind me, but she stops.
“You guys too,” she says, with no hint of an accent. She must be American after all. She smiles and continues on her way. Our first conversation. Boy do I feel good.
I go in the storage room to put my trombone in its case for a few minutes. One of the guys is getting changed for the first number in the second act. Roxie is pretending to be pregnant now, so this guy and two others run around the stage wearing nothing but oversized cloth diapers, with bonnets and gigantic foot-long safety pins.
“Where’s your partner in crime?” the big baby asks. He plays several small roles. In the first scene he is a cop with a strong Bronx accent, even though the play is set in Chicago. He is also the one in bed with the three chicks at the end of the first act that gets blown away by Kitty.
I can’t help laughing when I see him in that diaper, and he’s good-natured enough to laugh, too. It probably feels good getting the biggest laughs of the whole show.
“Jack’s out in the lobby,” I say. “I guess his girlfriend is here tonight. I should go out and meet her. See if she’s real.”
“That guy has a girlfriend?” the big baby says, laughing. He’s so ripped that it’s actually believable he’d be in bed with three girls.
“Jack’s girlfriend is here?”
That is Billy. I can recognize his voice anywhere, even when I didn’t know he’s behind me. I turn around to face him.
Jack stole Billy’s girlfriend, according to Jack, and that is why Billy wants to kick his ass. Until now, I didn’t really believe it. I had suspected he made her up.
“Yeah,” I say. “Hey man, good first act.”
“Shit,” Billy says. He is wide-eyed and slowly walks towards the dressing room, bumping into the side of the door on his way.
“That’s weird,” the big baby said.
“Dru!” Jack says, crashing into the room, having just missed Billy. “Guess who’s here? Leonard!”
Jack runs back out. I’m not sure what Jack is so excited about, but I like Leonard all right, so I take the cue to follow him.
“Hi, Dru,” Leonard says to me. “Good show. Good band up there.”
“Thanks, Leonard,” I say. “It’s good to see you.”
“They asked me to play, but I had that surgery, you know,” he said. “I didn’t think I would’ve been recovered in time, so I said no.”
Leonard is one of those really old guys who can barely play anymore but isn’t ready to admit it. He’s had a great career, with a lot of variety. I’ve played with him before. I always played lead because he doesn’t like taking first parts anymore. He knows his skills are deteriorating, but he still thinks he can get the job done. It’s sad. Still, somehow there are plenty of idiots around who keep hiring him for gigs that should be going to me.
“I’m glad you were able to come out for this,” I say, smiling. I don’t begrudge him for taking work from me. I begrudge the people that hire him instead of me. “Have you played at all since the surgery?”
“A little,” he says. “To see if I can. I might play Annie in July.”
They asked me to play Annie. I said I was going to be out of town. I won’t be, actually, but there’s no pay, the same maestro will be conducting, and Annie sucks.
“Are you playing with the symphony in the fall?” Leonard asks. I don’t know where Jack went. He plays with the symphony, too. It’s an awful volunteer group.
“I haven’t decided yet,” I say. “I think I might be done with them. How did the Schubert go?”
“It was long. I made it, though. I’m not cut out to play lead anymore, but Guy keeps asking me to play.”
“I love that piece, man,” I say. “I hope I get to play it someday.”
“I gave Guy your resume,” he said. “In case I can’t do it sometime.”
“Oh, great!” I say.
Whenever Leonard talks about the orchestra, he makes it sound like he’d rather not play with them. It’s an actual paid gig, so I’ve been waiting more than a year for him to refer me.
“I’d love to play, you know,” I reaffirm. “Thanks so much!”
The bells sound to signal that intermission is almost over. It’s a five-minute warning but people rush for the auditorium anyway. In actuality, the house policy is never to begin the second act until everyone is in their seats. Because of that, intermissions sometimes go on forever, and performances are never shorter than three hours, meaning I earn four dollars an hour for something I have a master’s degree to do.
“It’s going to take me a while to get to my seat,” Leonard says, “so I better get started. Good seeing you, Dru.”
I watch Leonard slowly hobble his way to the door, and then I look around for Jack. He is standing by the drinking fountain.
“Where’s your girl?” I ask.
“She went back in already,” he says.
“Of course she did,” I say, rolling my eyes, but not so Jack can see. “We should all go out after the show,” I say. “So I can meet her.”
“That would be fun.”
Jack and I are the last members of the band back on stage which gets another glare from the maestro. It doesn’t seem directed at Jack at all, and while that seems unfair, I can’t say I don’t deserve it. Besides, Leonard finally gave Guy my resume, so I’m in a good mood.
Leonard shakes when he talks, so you can imagine how bad he shakes when he tries playing trombone. It’s a pretty physical activity. I don’t understand why people keep hiring him. It’s even more baffling, though, that someone hired the maestro, particularly considering how open he is about having never conducted before, like it’s a point of pride; like, “Can you believe how well I’m doing considering I have absolutely zero conducting experience?” During an early rehearsal, he said, “If you see me jumping up and down, that means go faster.” Once I realized that he wasn’t making a joke, I knew we were in trouble.
Amos is Roxie’s dim-witted husband. He was cast well and is very believable as a moron. I relate to Amos. That’s depressing. “You can look right through me,” he sings. “Walk right by me, and never know I’m there.” I don’t think anyone in the cast knows my name. And if the rest of the orchestra knows my name, it’s probably just from the maestro’s badmouthing.
The show gets sad when the Hungarian dies. She gets led to the killing floor, crying her eyes out, screaming for Uncle Sam to save her, and insisting that she’s innocent. Then the noose is lowered from the ceiling and she puts her head through it. The band is supposed to play a little circus cue that lasts two seconds while the lights go out, but the maestro always screws it up, so it got cut. Then the lights come back on, and she’s dead. The trumpet plays that opening motif, solo. He screws it up, usually. I feel so bad for the Hungarian, every single time.
Except tonight there’s a problem. The noose comes undone and keeps falling. It lands on the floor and, although it’s still attached up top somewhere, about twenty feet of slack accumulates in a pile on the stage floor. The Hungarian is good, though. She doesn’t panic. She stays in character, beautifully, and goes ahead with the scene. She bends over to pick the noose up from the pile of rope and proceeds to put her head through it.
Then the lights go off and she exits. The lights stay off for a lot longer than they have any other night as they try to figure out what do with the rope. A smarter conductor would strike up some scene change music but the maestro just stands there flapping his ears. Eventually the lights come back on. Roxie is on stage dressed like a Woolworth’s lamp shade, and Billy is talking to her about the trial, while the rope is still in a pile on the stage. I don’t blatantly stare, but peripherally I see someone climbing up to the catwalk to pull the rope up, manually. There’s so much slack on the stage that it takes most of the scene before the noose is lifted up. Roxie and Billy carry on with the scene as if there isn’t a noose floating above their heads, and the audience is good enough not to laugh. Anyway, that all sets up “Razzle Dazzle.”
This is Billy’s big number. I’m not sure what his ex-girlfriend sees in Jack, or what she used to see in Billy, for that matter. Jack is a really smart guy, but he’s dangly and scrawny, and has an obtrusive nasally voice. Billy has a great voice, and he’s a good actor and even a good dancer. But he’s flabby. I’m looking forward to meeting this girl, if she does exist, so I can try to make more sense of it.
This song usually isn’t that interesting to me, but then Billy forgets his lines. That isn’t a big deal, really. Actors forget their lines often enough, though this is Billy’s first time. Unlike the Hungarian with the noose, however, he completely breaks character and turns away from the audience. I see him mouthing profanities, with his face going beet-red. Eventually the chorus takes over the song, and Billy gets back on track, though he’s still not quite as graceful as usual.
The big courtroom scene is next. Billy seems to have regrouped from whatever shook him during “Razzle Dazzle,” and hopefully the audience is beginning to forget about it. All the cues for the band would be a disaster with the maestro on the podium, so we all sit tacit and the pianist does it himself. Roxie’s dialogue is particularly inarticulate here. Her delivery is so natural it’s almost unbelievable. The audience looks confused.
Eventually Roxie is found innocent but there’s another murder and she realizes she’s not going to be famous after all. Then comes the triumphant moment of the show when we jump ahead in the future and both Roxie and Velma are out of jail and have teamed up and there’s this great writing for the brass. I don’t care if the maestro gives me a dirty look; I like to play it loud here. There’s no reason not to. There aren’t any singers to cover up for about twelve bars. And so what if I cover up the rest of the band? Jack and I sound better than them anyway.
The good times don’t last, though. The “Hot Honey Rag” is always a little rough. Jack and I play loud here, too, but this time with hopes of keeping the band together. A good rule is to stick with the drums, but the trumpets have the melody and they’re blasting bullshit that doesn’t even resemble the show. Meanwhile, the maestro is waving the baton likes he’s in his own world. Last weekend, one of the performances was so bad that Roxie and Velma had to stop dancing to figure out what was going on back here. It was embarrassing.
The bows are fun. The band cooks and Jack and I play loud some more. American audiences are eager to give standing ovations and this one is no exception. I’m off to the side and I have a decent view of the cast members’ profiles as they bow. Billy isn’t smiling when it’s his turn. He doesn’t even bow. He looks around, like he’s looking for someone in particular.
When the cast turns to acknowledge the band, the maestro faces the audience with his baton still flailing in some phantom mixed-meter, and he bows, accepting the applause for all of us.
The neat thing about Chicago is the band gets to be on the stage, as if we’re part of the set, or part of the cast. I take a step into the lobby, horn in hand, hoping someone will see me and say, “Hey, you’re that trombone player! You were fantastic!” It hasn’t happened yet, and it’s not happening now, either. Six more shows.
The theater director is swarmed and showered with praise and congratulations. Velma is swarmed, too. She’s a local girl and has had an entourage at every performance so far. Roxie is not a local girl, but tonight she has a group of family and friends who have made the trip to see her. They fawn over her, and she smiles like crazy.
Billy is out there, too. He accepts congratulations from people, but mostly looks over their shoulders, hoping to see someone else.
I thought I might see Leonard. That would be better than nothing. I give the crowd another minute to notice me before turning away for the storage room. Then I will find Jack and his girlfriend, and we’ll decide where we will go.
“How come you guys never come out with us?” one of the girls asks me as I’m putting my trombone in its case.
She catches me off guard. I can’t remember her name. I can’t even remember her character’s name. But I do remember she’s the one in the “Cell Block Tango” that fires the three warning shots into her husband’s head because he wouldn’t stop popping his bubble gum.
“I’ve never been invited,” I said.
“Everyone’s invited,” she said. “We go out after every show.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“You should come tonight.”
This is a new voice from behind me. I turn around and see the Hungarian.
“I’m sorry about the noose,” I say.
“That was kind of embarrassing, wasn’t it,” the Hungarian says.
She has a very nice voice, with no hint of an accent. She always sounds stressed out on stage, speaking her lines, but she’s calm now.
“But there’s nothing we can do about it,” she went on. “The show must go on. But thank you.”
“Are you really speaking Hungarian?” I ask.
“I am! All the words are written out. Doesn’t it sound believable?” She smiles at me, and I think she’s flirting.
“Really believable,” I say. “It bums me out every time you die.”
“So, are you coming out with us tonight?” she asks.
“I’d love to.”
She smiles again. Then I watch the Hungarian walk away and into the women’s dressing room to get out of those tights.
I finish putting my horn away and stand near the door. I don’t know where the cast goes. Maybe I can find the Hungarian again and ask her. Maybe I can give her a ride. I decide it’s not weird to ask her what her name is once we’re in the car and on our way to the restaurant. I decide she’ll think it’s cute that, up until now, I’ve only thought of her as the Hungarian.
The band leaves in a wave. I’m not sure if they’re all going home, or if they’re going to some band hang I’m not invited to. People smile at me as they leave, and say good night: the flutist with triplets, the high school drummer who wants to go to NYU, the two awful trumpeters, and the clarinetist.
“Sounded great tonight, Dru,” the maestro says to me, shaking my hand. “Thanks so much for all you bring to this group. I really appreciate it.”
“Any time, maestro,” I say.
I head out to the lobby to find Jack. He’s there, but I don’t see anyone that might be his girlfriend.
“Hey, man,” I say. “I think I’m actually going to go out with the cast tonight. I gotta leave you and your girl hanging. Sorry.”
“Oh, that’s fine,” Jack said. “Maybe I’ll go out with you guys. My girlfriend said she’s tired, and she went home already.”
“Oh, sure,” I said. She must not exist after all.
“Maybe tomorrow night, then?” I suggest.
“She’s working tomorrow night,” he says.
“Of course she is,” I say, rolling my eyes, but not so Jack could see. “Another time, then?”
“Definitely,” Jack says. “Some other time. Definitely.”
Joshua Britton is a graduate of Florida State University and Roberts Wesleyan College. His story, “Tadpoles,” was published in Vol. 17 of Steam Ticket. He has also been published in the Howecycle and the Journal of the International Trombone Association. Now living in Hampton, VA, Joshua is a freelance writer, teacher, and trombonist, and has performed in two semi-pro productions of Chicago: the Musical. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.