(Photoshoot for The Lost Colony with actor Brandon Smiley, in our roles as Eleanor Dare and John Borden during the summer of 1999. Photo by multiple Tony Award nominee/winner and production designer William Ivey Long.)
Singing is my favorite slash. Especially singing onstage for theatrical productions, in front of a live audience. (If you need an explanation of “slashing”, check out my bio). If you asked why I stopped performing regularly in musicals, “not a great dancer”, “prematurely joining the union” and “dilly dallying around ‘being married’” could top the short list.
From the age of six, singing in musicals has been a major aspect of my identity and my career. But landing a proper book show (one with a set story, like The King and I or Ragtime) hasn’t happened for a very, very long time.
In spite of prepping my entire childhood, and then working on production shows, choral groups, a cappella, and even a show with the Las Vegas Philharmonic as an adult—auditions for book musicals in Los Angeles continue to prove unfruitful, even for stupid roles like the stupid feather duster in stupid Beauty and the Beast. (I can recognize that it has nothing to do with talent, and everything to do with union status and not being introduced into the local community, but that’s another post for another day).
Even when I feel like I’m killing it as a slasher, I’m not doing the thing I would love the most: singing in a musical. My voice was developed before all other abilities, spreading seeds on other grounds and expanding my skill set to eventually include hosting and modeling. So what gives?
With a great agent sending me out frequently, I go out like clockwork and sing the pants off the audition material. I make it to callbacks almost 100% of the time, and afterwards I never hear another peep.
Meeting groups of other singers can be frustrating. They’re talking about this show this, and that show that, and this director, and that actress, and all the people I don’t know yet. And I wonder will I ever get through this elusive door? It seems to be jammed from the inside, by the feet of Broadway people looking for better weather out West. And reality TV stars with “names”, and non-unions who are inexpensive to cast. Crimminy geez!
This week I had the chance to see the symphonic drama I performed in at the beginning of my career. I missed my high school graduation to begin rehearsals for the annual summer production of The Lost Colony, my first professional job. I worked there for four summers during college, and got cast as the female lead before I was old enough to buy beer.
It was an indescribable coming of age experience that shaped my whole foundation as an actor. As we walked backstage during the pre-show tour with two young men dressed as a colonist and an Indian, the aromas of wood and paint threw me back in time.
I stood at the entrance of the theatre looking down over the entire view, and the cool waters of the sound swooshed behind the set in a perfect frame. I wondered what had happened to the girl with her whole career ahead of her.
There were actors from my cast that went on to Broadway, even winning Tony awards. I only lived in New York for one year, and then life swept me away to do other things. I kept on singing, but the context changed. I chose work in production shows on ships and in Las Vegas, to make a life with a husband that ended up leaving the marriage.
What had I given up by taking such a grand digression? What possibilities had I sacrificed by building my world around being with him?
We settled in for the show and found our seats. All the familiar dialogue and beloved characters were balm on my heart, and my spirit sang along to all of the songs I remembered so well.
Near the beginning of act two, a woman carrying a fishnet broke sweetly into a beautiful 15th century poem-song I had nearly forgotten, called “Adam Lay YBounden”. In the poem, the unknown author refers to the “blessed fault” of Adam taking the apple. For had he not taken it, Mary could never have been the Queen of Heaven:
“Nay had the apple taken been, the apple taken been,
Ne’r had a lady a been heavens’ queen.
So blessed be the time that apple taken was
Therefore we moun singen, Deo Gratias!”
Some theologians refer to the events of this text (Genesis 3) as a felix culpa, or “upwards fall”. Very simply paraphrased, it all works out in the end because we gained something valuable. It is one of the first stories Christian children are told, and I think it's a loving reminder that even as we fall, we are always “falling up”.
Her voice rang the song like a pretty bell. I thought how could I ever be legitimately upset that a musical hasn’t been in the cards for me lately? It’s not like the deal I’m getting isn’t good enough!
And how could I allow myself to dwell negatively on leaving New York, when my voice has taken me to five continents?
And would I give up a single moment of the years I was married, even though it ended in divorce? Those were some of the happiest days of my life.
Never. Those experiences were given to me lovingly, I believe.
As we left the theatre, I looked at a photo I snapped before the show, of the honorary Tony award won by The Lost Colony in 2013. It is supposed to be for everyone who has ever worked on the show throughout the years.
The award wasn’t inscribed “Elly Brown”. But I hardly need a statuette to feel like my life as “Elly Brown” is the best thing I’ve ever been given.
So I haven’t been cast in a musical in a while. On the other hand, I did get to share the stage in Las Vegas with Holly Madison, which was fun as hell. So was working on Argo. And hosting for Extra in Las Vegas. Meeting Nigel Barker wasn’t so bad, either. So, yeah, I think the Universe has been more than generous in making it a pretty sweet ride.
Besides, I can still get cast in a show, and even make it to Broadway eventually…. all I need is a “name”. I mean, come on, guys. I’m one reality TV show away from selling some serious tickets to Pippin. How about The Bachelorette?