Posted on July 26, 2007 at 10:30 pm
Sometimes on long flights, the person sitting next to me will notice that I’m editing music on my computer and ask what sort of music I write or something like that, and after I explain that I write musicals, that person will inevitably ask, “Oh, anything I’ve heard of?”, and I’ll smile and say that it’s pretty unlikely. But then what often happens is that some other person on the plane, usually in their late teens or early twenties, will nervously come over to my seat and ask me to sign an autograph. At which point, I have to explain to my neighbor that while I am anonymous to the vast majority of the planet Earth, I am in fact really famous to about four hundred people.
I’m not entirely comfortable with my celebrity, in part because it’s so unpredictable. If I were being followed all day by paparazzi, I would know that people were watching me and expecting me to be “on,” and while I doubt I would like it, I would know how to act. But instead, I get hit by fame sideways – a couple of weeks ago, I was out for lunch with my wife and daughter at a little diner near our house and I heard someone say my name and then, “Well, I’m not going to go bother him when he’s out with his family.” I was at that moment entertaining my daughter with a Cookie Monster puppet. I won’t say it ruined lunch for me, but it made me extremely self-conscious.
I am almost pathologically uncomfortable in social situations, which you wouldn’t know from watching me on stage, but if you saw me at a party reading the spines on the bookshelves or sitting on the hood of my car by myself, you’d recognize all the classic signs of a personality disorder. I’m not good in crowds, I’m not good with strangers, I am not easily assimilated. I don’t have very many friends (except on Facebook) and I don’t have a whole lot of interest in cultivating more of them. Obviously, this complicates my ambitions to be a public figure. In this as in virtually all of my daily interactions, I am a maddeningly contradictory and ambivalent soul.
You may be thinking, at this point, “Wow, it must be some kind of fiesta to be married to you.” You’d have to ask Georgia how she handles all of it, but she does occasionally attempt to broaden my social scope, much to my immense discomfort.
We all went on vacation last month to Wrightsville Beach, NC, where Georgia’s mom’s family was having a big reunion. We had lots of fun at the beach, my daughter got to spend time with her great-grandmother, and I got a great excuse to procrastinate any further writing for Honeymoon In Vegas. It was all going well enough until some of the folks returned from a game of Putt-Putt Golf with the information that they had seen a poster for a production of The Last Five Years that was opening in Wilmington (ten miles away) the very next night, and they had decided we all should go.
Georgia, God bless her, managed to talk the family out of buying twelve tickets for the opening night, even though they must have thought I was strangely ungrateful (“He doesn’t want to go see his own show?”). It was instead agreed that we would all stick to our original plan for that night, which was to go have a lovely family dinner in town. (I’m sorry to the company in Wilmington that I thus deprived you of twelve admissions. From what I understand, you were very well sold for the run of the show anyway.)
The next night, our wonderful dinner was over at about nine-fifteen, and Georgia asked me whether the show would still be going on; I replied that they would probably be in the middle of “Nobody Needs To Know.” Georgia took this as her cue to grab my hand and drag me five blocks to the theater. She wanted me to meet the actors after their opening night.
Surely some of my discomfort with my limited celebrity is my inability to formulate the correct response to people’s impressions of me. Often when people come to the autograph table after one of my concerts, they’ll confidently make eye contact and then instantly sputter and giggle and try vainly to collect themselves before apologizing and then wiping tears from their eyes. I never know what to do at these moments: here’s me with a Sharpie in my hand and here’s this person I don’t know having a nervous breakdown. When I entered the theater in Wilmington, as the audience was filing out, I was introduced to the musical director who, upon realizing who I was, began hyperventilating and then grabbed on to my arm with sufficient force that I still had a bruise there four days later.
l to r: Jacki Booth, director; Gray Hawks, “Jamie”; JRB; Heather Dahlberg, “Cathy”; Chiaki Ito, musical director. Thalian Hall, Wilmington NC, June 28, 2007.
The cast and the director came out, everyone was understandably shocked that I was there (and sorry/grateful that I hadn’t actually seen the performance), but they were all really sweet and very generous and so genuinely honored to meet me and to be able to tell me what a wonderful experience they were having working on my show. So I smiled and took pictures with them and signed autographs and we all traded stories, and then Georgia and I headed back out into Wilmington and they went off to their opening night party with a truly wild story.
What I couldn’t express, what is almost impossible for me ever to express in that situation or pretty much any other, was how profoundly, how deeply moved and grateful I am that people want to bring my work to life. The completely random coincidence that a show of mine should be premiering in the very town in which I’m vacationing with my family seems almost comical, like it should be happening to someone rather more famous and successful than I am.
I want to explain all that to the person next to me on the airplane. I tend to underplay my success because I assume that when people hear I write musicals, they immediately think I’m trivial, or that my work is trivial. And maybe it is. But I’m so proud and so amazed that right now, somewhere in the world, someone is singing one of my songs.
If you bump into me and I seem brusque or superior or aloof or “over it,” I don’t expect you to forgive me for it or cut me any slack – I’ve never been all that good at ingratiating myself to the larger world and I can’t imagine that I’m going to blossom now that I’m thirty-seven. But I’ll take this opportunity right here to thank you for loving what I create. And to you folks in Wilmington, thank you for taking such good care of my work. I think Georgia knew that’s what I wanted to tell you. Honestly, Chiaki: I treasure the bruises.