“Guess who came to see our show tonight?” I take a dramatic pause. “Lin-Manuel Miranda!”
“The Lin-Manuel Miranda?” Ms. G asks.
“He’s standing in the lobby after the show, right? So I walk up and say “Hamilton” is my favorite musical, and I know I sound starstruck, but he’s so nice—”
“Is his tush as cute in person as it is on TV?”
“I didn’t look.”
“What’s wrong with you? You know how I feel about . . . Lillian Muschinski, you had one job—”
“Sorry I let you down,” I laugh.
“What did you do to earn this glamorous Broadway lifestyle?” she asks.
“Being a swing isn’t glamorous.”
“Um, you take a curtain call eight times a week—”
“—For performing tiny roles in an old musical nobody cares about—”
“Of course they care; “Anything Goes” is a classic . . . you’re positive you didn’t notice his tush?”
“Positive,” I assure Ms. G.
“I’m still waiting for you to come home and talk to my classes. A working New York actress—”
This conversation’s about to veer into dangerous territory. “Hey . . . I should head for the theatre; the F train’s been running late. Talk again soon?”
“Absolutely. I want a Lin-Manuel update!”
“If he shows up again, I’m on it.”
“Don’t be a stranger!”
The phone call ends . . . and so does my Broadway fantasy.
Okay, confession time: I did not meet Lin-Manuel Miranda last night. I’m not a swing in Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes.” My last paid acting gig was eight months ago in a mouthwash commercial, and my part got edited out before it aired. I’ve been lying to my high school theatre teacher for six months because I don’t want her to know I’m a complete failure of an actor who can only get to Broadway by buying a ticket.
A week after college graduation, I hopped a Greyhound to NYC. My plan was to stay for two years and see if I could “make it” as an actor. Well, my two years was up three months ago, and now I’m hanging on month to month hoping that something will finally break.
Still, there was one true bit in my conversation with Ms. G: it really is time to go to the theatre. One of my jobs is bartending at an Off-Broadway venue.
Yeah, I said Off-Broadway. Even serving drinks, I can’t make it to the Great White Way.
* * *
I’ve loved performing ever since my first preschool ballet recital. When you do something that’s as natural as breathing and so joyful it’s like your birthday party, then take a bow while the applause washes over you . . . it’s the best feeling in the world.
Whenever somebody asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d proclaim, “I want to be on Broadway!” Even at age four, I’d watched enough old movies to know that’s where stars are born.
Then I discovered there was a “Broadway Street” right in my hometown! I begged Daddy to drive me there, and couldn’t understand why there were no theatres in sight. He explained that the famous Broadway was in New York, a thousand miles away.
My jaw dropped: “A thousand miles? How do you get there?”
“With a pretty face and a lot of luck,” Dad chortled.
By the time high school rolled around, I’d learned some disturbing truths about theatre: only about two percent of actors make a living from their craft, and most performers wash out in the first year. I still dreamed about an acting career, and (amazingly) my parents supported me, but those statistics triggered some serious soul-searching. Maybe Dad has the right idea, I thought. He wanted to be a musician and wound up teaching high school band.
That’s when Ms. G came into my life. Before she was our high school drama teacher, she spent three years in L.A., even landing guest-star roles on network TV! Not only was she a successful actor, she was every theatre kid’s cool aunt who we could talk to about anything.
In the first week of school, I barged into her room after the last bell to get advice. “My name’s Lillian Muschinski, and I’m in your Theatre III class,” I blurted. “I’ve dreamed about Broadway since I was little, but I know most actors don’t make enough to raise a family . . . are you married? Like, with kids? And did you ever hafta be a waitress?”
“I don’t just do acting for fun. I believe art makes us more human; that’s why it’s a noble calling. Like when somebody empathizes with my character, so they walk in another person’s shoes, and that makes our lives better because we care about each other more?”
“Do you believe in God? I’m a Christian, and I can’t figure out if God’s calling me to theatre. It’s not like being a missionary or something, but do you think God gives us gifts for a reason? Like, maybe he made me to be an actor? My pastor says—”
Ms. G held up a hand to pause my breathless monologue. “Lillian . . . it sounds like you want to know if an acting career is a sure thing.”
“Of course not. But what if—”
“You’re a Christian?”
I bobbed my head.
“I grew up Catholic, but I’m not exactly . . . if God was calling me to make art, I think he’d make a way. Don’t you?”
“I guess, but—”
“We can talk about your other questions,” Ms. G promised, “but I have one for you. If you believe God made you to be an actor . . . well, how big is your faith?”
I stared at her, mouth agape. I’d never connected faith with acting before—not like that. And it sounded like Ms. G wasn’t even a Christian.
“Think about it,” Ms. G said. “I have a meeting today, but we’ll talk soon.” Then she smiled, picked up her laptop, and walked me to the door.
I did think about it—hard. I talked more with Ms. G, this time with actual pauses between my questions. She got cast in productions when she lived in L.A., but it was tough—she’d also office-temped, nannied, and yes, waited tables. She moved back to Iowa to be close to her mom, whose health wasn’t great. But she might return to California in a few years.
I prayed for wisdom all through my junior year. I talked about my career dilemma with my parents and pastor and pretty much anybody who would let me dump my angst on them. Finally, I made a decision: I was going to step out in faith to be a professional actress, just like Ms. G, because God provides when we trust him!
Unfortunately, I’ve been living on nothing but faith ever since.
* * *
My friend Carmen spots me as I walk into the theatre for my bartending shift. “Did you hear?” she says. “The show’s closing next month, and nothing new is coming in because they’re remodeling the theatre.”
My jaw literally drops. “So we have till the end of April . . .?”
“And then we’re out of work,” Carmen confirms. “Fabulous, right?”
I’m not proud that the next word out of my mouth has four letters in it. But this is really bad news.
The Saturday matinee passes in a blur of making foo-foo drinks for old ladies while my mind races: Can I find another bartending gig? Can I request extra hours at my other job at the drugstore? If I skip a student loan payment and eat more peanut butter, can I make rent?
Then comes the thought that brings tears to my eyes, which I try to blink away while I mix a blueberry mojito: Maybe it’s time to pack up and head for home.
But I can still hear Ms. G’s voice in my head asking, “How big is your faith?” And I wish I could figure out when Big Faith turns into Really Stupid.
By the end of my shift, I reach a decision: I’m going to audition my little heart out until the bartending gig ends. But at the end of next month, if I haven’t landed any roles . . . well, maybe God’s trying to tell me something.
Over the next few weeks, I try out for a TV show and four plays at tiny theatres, plus a bunch of commercials. I even go out for a Broadway show, but I know I won’t get that. In spite of my crazy schedule, I still make time to pray every morning. “God, I’m acting in faith,” I say, with increasing urgency as the days go by. “Please let it work.”
Then one Thursday evening with four weeks to go until my job ends, the phone rings. I’m sprinting down the subway stairs because I’m late to tend bar, but for some reason, I pick up anyway.
“Is this Lillian Muschinski?”
“Ms. Muschinski, I’m calling from Jerry Wolfe’s office. Are you available Tuesday afternoon?”
I hear the train screech and rumble into the station, but it doesn’t matter now. “Did you say Jerry Wolfe?” He’s a big-deal casting director, and the only time I’ve ever auditioned for him . . .
“Right, this is a callback for the role of Hodel,” the voice continues. “In the ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ revival?”
“What time did . . . Tuesday, right? Yes . . . I mean, Tuesday afternoon . . . yes. Yes, absolutely!”
Somehow, I manage to pay just enough attention to the rest of the call to put the appointment time in my phone. Then I float down the subway stairs, not caring if I’m late for bartending or not.
Forget my fantasy of being a swing in “Anything Goes”; I just got a callback in real life for a leading role . . . on Broadway.
* * *
I waltz into work 20 minutes late and hop behind the bar. Carmen is already pouring wine for an early guest.
“Regan isn’t happy,” Carmen mutters. “She was just looking for you.”
Regan is our manager, and she’s never happy. I can’t hold it in any longer: “I got a callback for Hodel in ‘Fiddler.’ At the Majestic,” I tell my friend.
Carmen gapes at me.
“I know they’ll be seeing a bunch of actors,” I say, trying to calm down. “And I’ll hafta call off my shift at the drugstore—”
“—But it’s still absolutely, unbelievably fantastic!” Carmen finishes for me.
I nod with a goofy grin. Then I jump up and down, squealing.
I spend every spare minute from Thursday till Monday memorizing a scene that the casting director sent and practicing Hodel’s big song, “Far From the Home I Love.” Then on Tuesday morning, I wake up at 6:00 with my mind racing. My guts twist into a knot until I head for the callback waaay before my 3 p.m. appointment.
When I get called into the audition room on jelly legs, I force a smile for Jerry Wolfe (who’s more interested in a sandwich than my tryout) and four other glum faces behind the table. I introduce myself . . . nod to the accompanist . . . launch into my song . . . and give a perfect audition.
No, I mean it. I am Hodel, even squeezing out real tears in the scene. I’m not pitchy on a single note of my song, and by the time I’m halfway done, the nerves are gone because . . . well, because I know.
I can count the perfect auditions I’ve done in my life on two fingers, and this is one of them. So I’m not surprised later when the phone rings to invite me to a final audition with only two other actors on Monday.
I now have a 33 percent chance of performing on Broadway.
“God, I praise you for this amazing opportunity,” I gush in Wednesday morning’s prayers. I breeze through the day, positive that I’ll be a working actor soon.
But while I’m bartending that night, my landlord texts to say I have to pay my overdue rent on FRIDAY or get out. That’ll drain the emergency fund I’ve had since I moved to New York.
“Lord, please don’t let me down now,” I pray over and over on the train home.
Friday morning, I check my email to I discover the student loan people are out for blood and I have a shutoff notice from my utilities company. “You wanted to know how big my faith is, God? Well . . . I’m trying to believe the lights will stay on,” I mutter.
I pray more on my Sunday walk to church. (I haven’t gone in a while, but figured this might be a good time.) “Only two weeks till the bartending gig ends, Lord. Please, please, please do something.”
On Monday, I guess it’s a small blessing that my insides are clenched so tight I can barely eat, so I don’t devour much of my grocery budget. I review my song for the millionth time, then head to the callback.
The actor who’s already been cast as Perchik, Hodel’s love interest, introduces himself when I arrive. I give him a goofy smile: My potential costar is gorgeous. I should have no trouble getting into character.
During the audition, Perchik and I perform a scene together before I do my song. Just like a job interview, Jerry Wolfe and the other faces behind the table ask me questions they could’ve answered by looking at my resume. It’s kind of anticlimactic after all the nerves.
Then almost before I know what’s happening, Jerry Wolfe is saying “We’ll be in touch by the end of the week” . . . and I’m back on the street.
I rehash how things went as I walk to the subway. It wasn’t a perfect audition this time. I stumbled over a weird Russian name in the scene . . . and was I flat on the high D?
But it was good.
Well, pretty good. Right?
God’s got this. I have Big Faith, and it was a solid audition. That’s good enough, right?
Unless it isn’t.
Yes, I’m obsessing. It’s an occupational hazard.
* * *
The rest of the week passes in a blur. I’m still not eating, and my phone doesn’t ring except for debt collectors.
By Friday, I’m an even bigger wreck than before the callback. What did Jerry Wolfe mean when he said I’d hear “by the end of the week”? Maybe he meant Sunday?
I hang on until Monday afternoon before calling the casting director’s office. While I dial, I pace my apartment like a caged bear.
“Hi, I had an audition last week—”
“I’m sorry, we don’t accept calls from actors,” says a bored receptionist. “If Mr. Wolfe is interested—”
“But he said I’d hear about Hodel by the end of the—I mean, last week—”
“Lillian Muschinski, M-U-S—”
The wait lasts an eternity. Finally, the bored lady picks up again: “Were you holding about Hodel?” she asks.
“Yes, ma’am. Lillian Muschinski, my callback—”
“Sorry, Renee was supposed to get back to you girls. The role went to someone else.”
Maybe it’s because I haven’t been eating, but I actually feel weak. “Someone . . . else? Hodel? Did you—I mean, did Mr. Wolfe say . . . it’s definite?”
I know I sound ridiculous, but didn’t I have Big Faith?
“Best of luck in the future,” says Bored Lady. She hangs up.
I don’t realize I’m doing it until it’s already happened, but I actually throw my phone at the bathroom door.
I don’t cry because that would take energy. Instead, I collapse on my bed and stare at the mildew on the ceiling.
I lie there for hours before I finally fall asleep.
Copyright 2020 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.