What if it's More Bitter than Sweet?
My kids performed in a production of The Sound of Music this summer. If you’re a fan of the movie or have seen or performed in this show live, you know how much fun they had. There’s something about this music that transports you to Austria or to maybe wherever you were when you first saw it.
I was thrilled for them when they were cast, not only because the competition was steep, but because this particular musical holds a special place in my heart. It was a dream come true to see Anna and Hudson play von Trapps and Nora in the children’s chorus. The Sound of Music was the first musical I was ever in. I was a freshman in the nun’s chorus and got to be an understudy for a few of the leads. Not by accident, it was also the first musical I ever directed, and the only musical I ever directed twice. To say it is special to me is an understatement. Their being cast also healed a longing for them because they were all cast in another production of The Sound of Music in March of 2020. They never even met the cast, so, there was a lot riding on this experience.
When the kids came out of their first rehearsal, they were gushing! “It’s like we’re already a family!” one of them said. And that’s the way it was all summer. They couldn’t wait to go to rehearsals and came out on cloud nine. They absolutely loved the cast and members of the production team. We had the opportunity to see them perform a few songs at various arts events around town and I was thrilled. It's sort of true that once you're a director, it's hard to enjoy theatre. Seems counterintuitive, but it so true. I don't consider myself to be an overly judgmental person, but put me in a theatre, and it's tough to not think of a hundred things I would have done differently. This is a show I've directed twice, so there would be things I actually already did differently. When I saw one of the the first run-throughs, I absolutely loved the direction of this production. Michael and Katey did so many new creative things with the show I'd never thought to do. They added a chorus to sing and dance during two songs (I Have Confidence and the Entr'acte -which is the overture that takes place at the beginning of act II). These songs tend to feel a little too long the way they're traditionally staged. They also gave every person in the chorus a chance to shine. They all had their own little stories to tell and, for those like me who saw the show multiple times, we noticed something new each time.
On opening night, hundreds of people brought chairs, blankets, and picnics to sit outside and enjoy a performance under the stars. It was a glorious performance and the audience loved every minute of it. There were whispers of people in the cast not feeling well, but we prayed it was simply the result of a tiring tech week schedule.
The next day, we blissfully went to the store to pick up snacks to enjoy during the show. We ran out in such a hurry, I realized I walked off without my phone. I was scanning items in the self-checkout when Anna got a text from her group chat of friends in the cast. “The show’s cancelled!” she said. It was like 2020 all over again. I asked her, “Are you sure they said cancelled?” She showed me the text, and I knew I must have some communication from the directors, but alas, my phone was at home. Our trip back to the house was the longest five minutes on record. I dashed inside and, sure enough, I had a message saying the show wouldn’t be performed that evening because of COVID in the cast. My heart sank. There was a silver lining though, it didn’t say, “cancelled” it said, “postponed”. I felt a sigh of relief.
We were notified a week or so later of the new show date. There would be three weeks between the first opening to the second opening with only a couple brush up rehearsals scheduled. They went through the motions of summer waiting to perform again. For all of us, it felt like that space between two sneezes.
There was a buzz in our house the day of the first brush up rehearsal. It felt like the first day of school (which is funny because it was a few days after the actual first day of school.) Outfits were laid out and bags that haden’t been looked at for weeks were repacked. For the next few days, my kids were walking on a cloud reunited with their friends and performing the songs and scenes they loved so much.
The grand re-opening was magical. Despite a cross town football rivalry being played that evening, around a thousand people came. Maria started singing from up on the hill by a huge tree, “The hills are alive” and families excitedly pointed and turned to see her sing. Having been a character on a Disney Cruise, she’s like a real Disney princess and you could see every little girl in the audience editing their answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
The performance was darn close to perfect and when the Captain began to sing, “Edelweiss” at the end, you could hear a pin drop. All the little sounds of people picnicking in the first act were gone and it was just his clear voice backed by the gorgeous local symphony. He asked us to sing along, and the crowd erupted in the anthem as if they’d been in rehearsals all along. After the show, the kids got pictures with friends and family who were there. Everyone was smiling and genuine in their praise. They knew they had seen something special that night and they wouldn't soon forget it.
The next day would be the final performance. The weather started out fine. About the time we were to head to the theatre, it looked ominous. I was being a cheerleader. “It’s going to be just fine.” I said. I’d been cherry-picking data from a few weather apps and showing them only the most favorable results. We dropped the kids off at the theatre and we tried to set up our chairs to claim a spot. I’d picked up some plastic painting drop cloths to cover the chairs in case it rained before the show started. We couldn’t keep them tucked around the chairs because the wind was suddenly kicking up. I was still optimistic.
We left the kids there to go get a pizza Ryan had ordered, and then suddenly, the heavens opened. It was the kind of rain where you can hardly see to drive and the roads immediately flooded. I took my first bite of the pizza and my phone rang. “They’re canceling the show.” Anna said, clearly trying not to cry. I didn’t know what to say to her. But I had people who were heading to the show, some driving quite a distance, I needed to get ahold of. I told her we’d be there soon and began sending out texts. I was racking my brains to remember who was planning on coming that night. I missed a few people who either made it to the theatre or got an email from ticketing while on the road.
The kids actually had a fun night despite it all. They laughed and played in a building they used to take cover until a break in the storm allowed us to strike the set. It was heartbreaking to take down a set that deserved one more night under the lights. The cast did too. We got everything packed up and put away and the von Trapps took the stage one more time to sing, “So Long, Farewell”. Between the rest of the cast, crew, and parents, there wasn’t a dry eye. We all went out to a restaurant to celebrate the end what was a wonderful summer together.
And although they went to bed with smiles, they woke up with a huge sense of loss. There was something about not really finishing the show that didn’t allow closure. Anna said, “This must be what a breakup feels like.”
I didn’t know how to help them. They were experiencing loss and it was really hard to watch. They weren’t exactly sure when the tears would come. Would it be in the hallway on Anna’s second week of high school? Would it be during football practice for Hudson? The answer is yes. Those were a few of the times when they cried.
We sat down with the kids to talk about it and we acknowledged it was a sad time. Ryan gave the following advice:
1. Know what’s true. (It may feel like breakup, but it’s not. Those people you got to know and love are still your friends. And although they live about a half an hour away, we can still see them.)
2. Keep talking to people. (The girls tend to isolate when they’re sad. He reminded them to keep interacting with us and with friends during this time.)
3. Use your energy for something good. (I suggested we make some cards for their new friends. Being creative is good for your spirit when you’re going through loss.)
I know this was a long post for three short bits of advice at the end. People often call the end of a good thing bittersweet. But what if it feels more bitter than sweet? If you're in a place like that, I hope you will use these bits of advice when you need to find a way to move on from something that was wonderful but now it's over. Know what’s true, keep talking to people, and use your energy for something good. Soon, the memories will warm your heart and make it sweet again.