February 28, 2009
Becoming a Broadway Star for a Night,
With the Help of a Workshop
By LILY KOPPEL
Ivan Farkas, one of the participants in a workshop that gives ordinary people a taste of being a Broadway star, if only for a night.
A director would be hard pressed to assemble a more eclectic cast of New Yorkers than those warming up their voices around the grand piano at Nola Studios on West 54th Street near Broadway. A "Chorus Line" revival? Tryouts for "American Idol"? Not quite.
They have gathered together from the five boroughs and paid $485 for a workshop to become the stars they always dreamed of being and to discover the Ethel Merman within.
After four nighttime rehearsals, 15 stars were born. Well, that's a stretch, but nevertheless, some of them had never sung a note outside a shower curtain, and now they found themselves performing the other night at the Triad on West 72nd Street. They entered the stage and warmed to the spotlight, easing into their numbers with breezy patter.
It is easy to imagine the lyrical names of the cast spelled out in bright lights: Kara Blossom, Iris Lasson, Laura Slutsky. When they sang "Let's Do It" by Cole Porter, their opening ensemble number, one woman mimed a pagoda over her coiffed red hair to the line "Folks in Siam do it."
"It's time to get your act together," encourages Linda Amiel Burns, the director of the workshop, which, she says, teaches "everything you need to be a well-rounded, confident performer on the stage and in life." The workshop, which Ms. Burns calls the Singing Experience, culminates with a live performance at the Triad, and the most recent show was titled "Let's Fall in Love."
In the face of economic forecasts of doom and gloom, Ms. Burns, who is also the president of the New York Sheet Music Society, maintains that singing, with all the breathing and letting go of "baggage," "relieves depression." She calls her classes the "chutzpah" workshop.
It has overtones of "Waiting for Guffman," a 1996 film that parodies a small-town theater production. Each workshop participant chooses a song to sing at the end.
"The important thing is to pick a song that you have a personal connection to," said Ms. Burns, who began the workshop 32 years ago after a divorce left her with two children to support.
"You sing out anger, love, your problems," she said. "People often come when they are in crisis, when they have lost their jobs or are ready for a change." Looking around during a rehearsal, she reminded her students: "You picked the song because it means something about your life. You are really expressing who you are."
When show time arrived, the cast huddled together in a backstage dressing room the size of an ocean liner cabin. The heat was going full blast as they put finishing touches on their makeup and costumes. Friends and family showered the performers with flowers and sent messages backstage ("May I be your Stage-Door Johnny?").
Introduced to the audience as the Blonde Venus, Carol Shedlin, a retired book buyer for a Canadian bookstore chain who was born during the Depression, said she was fulfilling a lifelong dream of being a cabaret singer. She once wrote a poem about how she lived her "life in black in white and in a minor key" until she hit the hot spot of the spotlight. ("I was conceived, my mother said, while Gershwin played above their bed," she wrote.)
The cast members are especially supportive of one another. "I love to see a young talented person sing old songs - it's so refreshing," Ms. Shedlin told Shannon Kerner, 28, who is Ms. Burns's daughter-in-law and part of a Brooklyn band called Shanimal, and who was taking the workshop to expand her repertoire. Others in the group compared Ms. Kerner, who sang "I Can't Give You Anything but Love," to Janis Joplin.
Before each singer belts out a number, another cast member delivers what Ms. Burns calls the "fantasy intro," like, "this next performer just finished the Vegas circuit" or "she was a star of Folies Bergère."
Bill Dyszel, 54, who really did sing with the New York City Opera for 14 years (and now writes computer books for the Dummies series), warmed up the audience with a joke: "Knock Knock." "Who's there?" "Sam and Janet!" "Sam and Janet who?" "Sam and Janet evening, you will meet a stranger ..." as he launched into the song from "South Pacific."
Ivan Farkas, 66, a computer programmer, has taken Ms. Burns's workshop 117 times over the past 18 years. "I was a different person," he said of his life "before." "I called up Linda, and said: 'I want to be on the stage, but I have problems. I'm shy, I'm falling apart, I'm not a spring chicken anymore, and nobody pays attention to me.' "
He sang "Mr. Cellophane" from "Chicago" and unzipped his jacket to reveal a spangled tuxedo with sequins spelling out "Ivan Le Terrible" on the back. He spun around on rhinestone-studded four-inch platform shoes and hammed it up with a tongue-in-cheek "Razzle Dazzle," another song from the musical. The audience erupted in cheers.
Phil Georges, 45, who spends his days stocking the shelves at a Costco in Long Island City, Queens, did his best to channel his inner Elton John as he sang "Something About the Way You Look Tonight."
Wearing a pheasant as a hat, Kara Blossom, 27, confessed to the audience that she had forgotten her lines. As she read from lyrics written in pen on her hand, she stole the show with her rendition of "Sunny."
Peggy Eason, 62, is blind and learns lyrics from a tape. She works for the New York State Parole Division.
"I always wanted to be a star and to make it on the Great White Way," she said before performing a song a longtime friend had written for her, blasting out from behind dark shades. "Broadway, here I come!"
Linda can be reached at Linda@SingingExperience.com