Friday, February 03, 2017


Abandon all hope ye who enter here. You've been warned.

So my favorite place to sit -- which is a sadly rare option -- at a vocal rehearsal is right behind the piano, especially if it's being played by a spectacularly talented and indulgently loud pianist. The back of a piano is pretty much a mattress-sized speaker that can hit you with a wall of glorious sound when it's being played by a heavy-handed virtuoso and you're sitting eagerly a few feet away drinking it all in. And I've been hogging all the goosebumpy magic from my perch in that now not-so-secret prime real estate this week at Follies rehearsals.

And if you're in Follies and you're reading this and you ever -- EVER! -- take my spot I will give you the biggest paper cut you've ever had. Right on your page-turning finger. Plus I will personally bring to life your paralyzing nightmare that it's opening night and the curtain rises and the music starts and the spotlight hits you and everyone's watching and you realize you forgot to put on your costume and you never learned the words or the choreography to your big solo. Which you probably stole from me anyway. SO DON'T TEST ME.

Anyway, on to my next emotional happy place.

Everyone knows that "Circle of Life" shines high in the pantheon of lush, gorgeous, emotionally manipulative musical-theater power anthems. If you've ever seen the Broadway production of The Lion King you know damn well that before the song even hits its first chorus every last drop of unflinching delight in you has bubbled to the surface and you've all but clapped your hands in joyous childlike glee. And if you deny it, just remember I know how to inflict wicked paper cuts.


I've enjoyed the repeated privilege of singing "Circle of Life" surrounded by armies of shamelessly like-minded singers who are not above belting the loud parts a little too loud just because. And you know who you are. And I will never rat you out as long as you come sing next to me.

Anyway. Get back to your story, Jake. Come on. Focus.

So the first time I sang "Circle of Life" was in the Follies of 1999. Rehearsals started that January and the show opened the first weekend of March. I actually co-choreographed the show with one of my endlessly creative and talented friends, and she crafted "Circle of Life" with layers of stirring possibility and blossoming organic movement and triumphant fruition that finished in a thundering final drumbeat with me actually hoisting a beaming child to my shoulder. And it unfailingly filled the sumptuously rococo 2,000-seat Paramount Theater with all the unflinching delight and joyous childlike glee I accused you of having three paragraphs ago.

But every night the song -- that moment -- meant much more to me. Emotionally more. Deliriously more. Catching-an-uncontrollable-sob-in-my-throat more.

My dad's mom had had a massive stroke years before and had been living ever since trapped in whatever her post-stroke world embodied in a Denver nursing home with a breathtaking view that I like to think she was still able to enjoy. She died January 25, 1999, and all of us were able to make it to Denver to give her a peaceful farewell. And afterward I headed back to Iowa and back to Follies.

The morning we opened, my sister went to her eight-month doctor checkup in Detroit in preparation for the pending birth of my nephew. And she learned that she was dangerously low on amniotic fluid and she needed to deliver the baby then and there. My nephew was born very soon afterward on March 5, 1999. I called my sister late that afternoon before I headed to the theater and heard him breathe and gurgle and sigh for the first time as he lay on her chest.

And that night, as the opening chants of "Circle of Life" started building and the gorgeous harmonies in the orchestra and chorus started blooming and "From the day we arrive on this planet" started verbalizing the eternal, universal cycle of life and death and life, the realization gradually washed over me that my family had solemnly liberated one life and joyously welcomed another as I was creating this show and relishing in my enjoyment of this glorious song that celebrated the very process my family and I had just experienced.

And my resigned sorrow and transcendent joy together brought me to a place of emotional and spiritual and physical apotheosis that night on the stage surrounded by my talented friends as we beamed with shared pride all the way to the top balcony. And then I got to experience it again the next night. And every time I've sung the song thereafter.

We're singing "Circle of Life" in Follies again this year. And while I'm eagerly looking forward to experiencing that welcomely familiar flood of emotion again on stage surrounded by my talented and sometimes unrepentantly too loud friends as we share the joy of singing the song over a full orchestra to an audience of 2,000 friends, loved ones and strangers, for now I'm content relishing the simple joy of singing it from my happy place right behind the piano.

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